American Civil War: Battle of Hampton Roads

Battle of Hampton Roads. Image Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Hampton Roads was fought March 8-9, 1862, and was part of the American Civil War (1861-1865). One of the most famous naval battles of the conflict, the engagement is noteworthy as it marked the first time two armored, ironclad warships met in combat. Emerging from Norfolk on March 8, CSS Virginia inflicted heavy losses on the wooden warships of the Union squadron in Hampton Roads.

That night, the Union ironclad USS Monitor arrived on the scene. The next day, the two ships met in battle and after several hours of fighting were unable to inflict significant damage on each other. After Virginia withdrew, a stalemate ensued in the waters around Hampton Roads. The clash between the ironclads marked a turning point in naval history and signaled the demise of wooden navies.


Following the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1860, Confederate forces seized the Norfolk Navy Yard from the US Navy. Prior to evacuating, the Navy burned several ships in the yard including the relatively new steam frigate USS Merrimack. Commissioned in 1856, Merrimack only burned to the waterline and most of its machinery remained intact. With the Union blockade of the Confederacy tightening, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory began searching for ways in which his small force could challenge the enemy.


One avenue that Mallory elected to follow was the development of ironclad, armored warships. The first of these, the French La Gloire and British HMS Warrior, had appeared in the last year. Consulting John M. Brooke, John L. Porter, and William P. Williamson, Mallory began pushing the ironclad program forward but found that the South lacked the industrial capacity to build the needed steam engines in a timely manner. Upon learning this, Williamson suggested using the engines and remains of the former Merrimack. Porter soon submitted revised plans to Mallory that based the new ship around Merrimack's powerplant.

LIne drawing of CSS Virginia in dry dock.
CSS Virginia under construction. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Approved on July 11, 1861, work soon began at Norfolk on the casemate ironclad CSS Virginia. The interest in ironclad technology was also shared by the Union Navy which placed orders for three experimental ironclads in mid-1861. Key among these was inventor John Ericsson's USS Monitor which mounted two guns in a revolving turret. Launched January 30, 1862, Monitor was commissioned in late February with Lieutenant John L. Worden in command. Aware of Confederate ironclad efforts at Norfolk, the new ship departed New York Navy Yard on March 6.

Battle of Hampton Roads

  • Conflict: American Civil War (1861-1865)
  • Date: March 8-9, 1862
  • Armies and Commanders:
  • Union
  • Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough
  • Lieutenant John L. Worden
  • 1 ironclad, 2 screw frigates, 2 frigates, 1 sloop of war
  • Confederates
  • Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan
  • 1 ironclad, 3 gunboats, 2 tenders
  • Casualties:
  • Union: 261 killed and 108 wounded
  • Confederate: 7 killed and 17 wounded

CSS Virginia Strikes

At Norfolk, work on Virginia continued and the ship was commissioned on February 17, 1862, with Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan in command. Armed with ten heavy guns, Virginia also featured a heavy iron ram on its bow. This was incorporated due to the designer's belief that ironclads would be unable to harm each other with gunfire. A distinguished veteran of the US Navy, Buchanan was eager to test the ship and sailed on March 8 to attack Union warships in Hampton Roads despite the fact that workmen were still on board. The tenders CSS Raleigh and CSS Beaufort accompanied Buchanan.

Steaming down the Elizabeth River, Virginia found five warships of Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough's North Atlantic Blockading Squadron anchored in Hampton Roads near the protective guns of Fortress Monroe. Joined by three gunboats from the James River Squadron, Buchanan singled out the sloop of war USS Cumberland (24 guns) and charged forward. Though initially unsure what to make of the strange new ship, Union sailors aboard the frigate USS Congress (44) opened fire as Virginia passed. Returning fire, Buchanan's guns inflicted significant damage on Congress.

Death of Cumberland

Engaging Cumberland, Virginia pounded the wooden ship as the Union shells bounced off its armor. After crossing Cumberland's bow and raking it with fire, Buchanan rammed it in an effort to save gunpowder. Piercing the Union ship's side, part of Virginia's ram detached as it was withdrawn. Sinking, Cumberland's crew gallantly fought the ship until the end. Next, Virginia turned its attention to Congress which had grounded in an attempt to close with the Confederate ironclad. Joined by his gunboats, Buchanan engaged the frigate from a distance and compelled it to strike its colors after an hour of fighting.

USS Cumberland sinking as it is rammed by CSS Virginia.
CSS Virginia rams and sinks USS Cumberland, 1962. Library of Congress

The First Day Ends

Ordering his tenders forward to receive the ship's surrender, Buchanan was angered when Union troops ashore, not understanding the situation, opened fire. Returning fire from Virginia's deck with a carbine, he was wounded in the thigh by a Union bullet. In retaliation, Buchanan ordered Congress be shelled with incendiary hot shot.

Catching on fire, Congress burned throughout the rest of the day exploded that night. Pressing his attack, Buchanan attempted to move against the steam frigate USS Minnesota (50), but was unable to inflict any damage as the Union ship fled into shallow water and ran aground. Withdrawing due to darkness, Virginia had won a stunning victory, but had taken damage amounting to two guns disabled, its ram lost, several armored plates damaged, and its smoke stack riddled.

Engraving of the ironclad USS Monitor.
USS Monitor, 1862. US Naval History and Heritage Command

As temporary repairs were made during the night, command devolved to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones. In Hampton Roads, the situation of the Union fleet improved dramatically that night with the arrival of Monitor from New York. Taking a defensive position to protect Minnesota and the frigate USS St. Lawrence (44), the ironclad awaited Virginia's return.

Clash of the Ironclads

Returning to Hampton Roads in the morning, Jones anticipated an easy victory and initially ignored the strange-looking Monitor. Moving to engage, the two ships soon opened the first battle between ironclad warships. Pounding each other for over four hours, neither was able to inflict significant damage on the other.

Though Monitor's heavier guns were able to crack Virginia's armor, the Confederates scored a hit on their adversary's pilot house temporarily blinding Worden. Taking command, Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene drew the ship away, leading Jones to believe that he had won. Unable to reach Minnesota, and with his ship damaged, Jones began moving towards Norfolk. At this time, Monitor returned to the fight. Seeing Virginia retreating and with orders to protect Minnesota, Greene elected not to pursue.


The fighting at Hampton Roads cost the Union navy the loss of USS Cumberland and Congress, as well as 261 killed and 108 wounded. Confederate casualties were 7 killed and 17 wounded. Despite the heavier losses, Hampton Roads proved a strategic victory for the Union as the blockade remained intact. The battle itself signaled the demise of wooden warships and the rise of armored vessels built of iron and steel.

Over the next several weeks a standoff ensued as Virginia attempted to engage Monitor on several occasions but was refused as Monitor was under presidential orders to avoid battle unless absolutely required. This was due to President Abraham Lincoln's fear that the ship would be lost allowing Virginia to take control of the Chesapeake Bay. On May 11, after Union troops captured Norfolk, the Confederates burned Virginia to prevent its capture. Monitor was lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras on December 31, 1862.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Hampton Roads." ThoughtCo, Feb. 15, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 15). American Civil War: Battle of Hampton Roads. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Hampton Roads." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).