When we picture Naval vessels in a historical context we often see them in some very fixed recognisable form : the Roman Galley, the Viking Longship, the Tudor warship, the 18th century 3 decker, the WWI battleship and so on. However we rarely think about them in their interim phases, the time when they were in evolutionary transition – such as when sail started to give way to steam.

The Sail-Steam interface produced a myriad of some rather ‘ugly’ ducklings, none more so than the 2 ships that slugged it out when the world saw the first battle of ironclad ships. It was during thw American Civil war on Sunday 9th March 1862 that the first battle of 2 new steam powered armour plated ships took place.

The Battle of The Ironclads

The Union ship Monitor looked rather like a hatbox on top of a raft, while the Confederate Merrimac was shaped like a bar of Toblerone chocolate with a smokestack in the middle.

At first glance the ships seemed very different. The Merrimac, at over 100 yards long, was twice the length of the Monitor, and her crew of 300 was more than five times as large. Furthermore, she was armed with ten guns to her rival’s two. The Monitor, on the other hand, sported the first naval gun turret in history, so her guns could be aimed in any direction without turning the ship.

Prior to the meeting of these metal monsters, the Merrimac had destroyed several wooden ships while remaining impervious to cannon fire.

The Battle of Hampton Roads started about 8 in the morning. Both ships fired unceasingly at each other, at so close a range that the vessels actually touched 5 times during the engagement. The

naval warfare would never be the same. The wooden warship was relegated to history.

Merrimac even tried to batter the Monitor with its cast-iron ram. After several hours of fighting the Confederate ship withdrew unharmed. Neither ship had been able to inflict significant damage on the other.

The two ironclads never fought again. The Confederate sailors scuttled the Merrimac when the South pulled out of Norfolk, Virginia, while the Monitor was lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras on the last day of the year. But naval warfare would never be the same. The wooden warship was relegated to history.