American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

MONITOR AND MERRIMACK. The indecisive, four-hour duel between the two armored vessels U.S.S. Monitor (built 1862) and U.S.S. Merrimack (built 1855) took place on 9 March 1862, in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and marked a turning point in naval affairs. The Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson designed and built the U.S.S. Monitor, a ship in which much was new and untried. Ridiculed as “a cheese box on a raft,” the moderate-draft Monitor presented a minimum and impregnable target with great offensive power. Completed only two weeks before the battle, she was commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden, USN.

Her opponent was originally built in 1855 as the screw frigate U.S.S. Merrimack. While in inactive status at the Norfolk Navy Yard in 1860, the U.S. Navy burned and sank her to prevent her capture. Desperate for ships, the Confederate navy raised her, and Lieutenant J. M. Brooke rebuilt her as an ironclad ram. Renamed C.S.S. Virginia, she was barely completed when she got under way on 8 March 1862, commanded by Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, Confederate States Navy. Sinking the wooden ships U.S.S. Cumberland and U.S.S. Congress and attacking the U.S.S. Minnesota, she withdrew after Buchanan was wounded and hospitalized, but, by then, she had clearly demonstrated the inability of wooden warships to defend themselves.

The next morning, 9 March, under the command of Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, CSN, the Virginia reappeared. Surprised to find that Monitor had arrived during the night to support the Union fleet, Virginia (ex-Merrimack) engaged Monitor. Though they exchanged gunfire at close range, the numerous hits produced only slight damage, further demonstrating the invulnerability of armored ships.

The dramatic action between the Monitor and the Merrimack has been recorded in more than 100 book-length historical accounts, poems, and contemporary ballads. Some of the more notable of these are Herman Melville’s* “A Utilitarian View of the Monitor’s Fight” (1866), Charles Clark’s “The Monitor and Merrimac [sic]” (c.1862), A. Van Dyke’s “The Great Naval Combat” (c.1862), Elizabeth Porter Beach’s “The Last Broadside” (c.1862), and an anonymous poem called “The Turtle” (rpt. in Burton Egbert Stevenson’s Poems of American History [1922]), which describes the related action of the Merrimack’s sinking of the Cumberland on 8 March. Popular sheet music, such as G. Weingarten, “Monitor Polka”; V. Tinans, “Ericsson Galop”; and D. Brainard Williamson, “Oh! Give Us a Navy of Iron,” was published immediately after the battle, during the Civil War (1861-1865).

For the curious, the final “k” in Merrimack is sometimes omitted, in error. The ship was originally named for a river of the same name in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Further confusion arose in 1898, when the U.S. Navy named another ship the Merrimac, using the variant spelling without the “k.” Purists on Civil War naval matters watch all spellings very closely.

John B. Hattendorf