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Osprey Campaign 103 : Hampton Roads 1862 : First Clash of the Ironclads

For over three centuries before 1862, naval battles were fought between fleets of relatively matched wooden sailing ships. The introduction of steam propulsion in the early 19th century did little to change this, and at the start of the American Civil War both sides relied on fleets of wooden steam warships. As the North had the advantage of superior shipbuilding and armament facilities, the South was bound to lose any naval contest for supremacy. In order to break the northern blockade of the southern ports which threatened to strangle the Confederacy, it would have to adopt a revolutionary approach to naval combat. During the winter of 1861-62, Confederate engineers adapted an old wooden steam frigate, the former USS Merrimac, turning her into a steam-powered ironclad warship, capable of withstanding the fire of any warship afloat. Overnight the CSS Virginia had rendered the old wooden fleets of the world obsolete. While similar developments were taking place concurrently in Europe, it was in Hampton Roads, Virginia that the first clash between two ironclads would take place. The Federal response to this Confederate initiative was to build their own ironclad based around a twin-gun revolving turret. The USS Monitor was completed in record time and sent south from New York to counteract the threat of the Confederate Virginia.

On 9 March 1862 the world's first battle between two ironclad warships took place in the confined waters of Hampton Roads, Virginia. The previous day the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, impervious to her enemy's guns, had sunk two Union warships. When she re-emerged from Norfolk to complete the destruction of the Union blockading squadron the USS Monitor steamed out to meet her. The result was one of the strangest naval battles of all time - a well-matched clash between two technically different and revolutionary warships. The four-hour duel that ensued was a stalemate, but crucially the Virginia had failed to break the Northern blockade of the Southern ports. It was a tactical Confederate victory but a success strategically for the Union. Hampton Roads has been seen as one of the most important naval battles in history, ushering in a new age of naval warfare and warship design. In a single battle these two vessels rendered wooden warships obsolete and transformed the face of naval warfare forever. With the South unable to break the blockade which was slowly starving the Confederacy, the battle proved a decisive turning point of the war, marking as it did the end of southern hopes of re-establishing links with the outside world. Text by Angus Konstam with illustrations by Adam Hook.

    Contents
  • Introduction
  • Chronology
  • Opposing Commanders
  • Opposing Forces
  • Background to the Campaign
  • The Battle of Hampton Roads
  • The Aftermath
  • The Battlefield Today
  • Further Reading
  • Index

 

Osprey Campaign


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