At dawn on 9 March 1862, the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia prepared for renewed combat in Hampton Roads, Virginia. The previous day the ship had seen her first combat action, utterly defeating two large Federal sailing frigates and demonstrating the superiority of armored steam-powered warships over their wooden sailing counterparts. Today, she expected to inflict a similar fate on the grounded steam frigate Minnesota and other enemy ships, probably freeing the lower Chesapeake Bay region of Union seapower and the land forces it supported. However, as they surveyed the opposite side of Hampton Roads, where Minnesota and other potential victims awaited their fate, the Confederates realized that things were not going to be so simple. There, looking small and low near the lofty frigate, was a vessel that could only be USS Monitor, the Union’s own ironclad, which had arrived the previous evening after a perilous voyage from New York. Though her crew was exhausted and their ship untested, Monitor was also preparing for action.
Undeterred, Virginia steamed out into Hampton Roads. Monitor positioned herself to protect the immobile Minnesota, and a general battle began. Both ships hammered away at each other with heavy cannon, and tried to run down and hopefully disable the other, but their iron-armored sides prevented vital damage. Virginia’s smokestack was shot away, further reducing her already modest mobility, and Monitor’s technological teething troubles hindered the effectiveness of her two 11-inch guns, the Navy’s most powerful weapons. Ammunition supply problems required her to temporarily pull away into shallower water where the deep-drafted Virginia could not follow, but she continued to cover Minnesota.
Shortly after noon Virginia gunners concentrated their fire on Monitor’s pilothouse, a small iron blockhouse near her bow. A shell hit there blinded Commanding Officer Lieutenant John L. Worden, forcing another withdrawal until he could be relieved at the conn. By the time Monitor was ready to return to the fight, Virginia had turned away toward Norfolk.
Though ending in stalemate, this first combat between armored equals, compared with the previous day’s terrible mismatch, symbolized the triumph of industrial age warfare, and set the stage for armored warship construction for decades to come.