The Battle of Hampton Roads, which took place 150 years ago this week (March 8–9, 1862) in Virginia, was the first ever fight between two ironclad warships. The two combatants were the Union’s USS Monitor and the Confederate CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack).
On March 8, the ironclad CSS Virginia and five other Confederate ships sailed into Hampton Roads to try to break the Union blockade, which had stopped nearly all sea traffic to and from the important Confederate cities of Richmond and Norfolk. The ships were met by five Union warships as well as other support vessels.
During the fight that ensued, the protective iron plates on the Virginia kept it from sustaining any major damage and allowed it to make short work of the Union opposition, destroying two of the warships in less than 6 hours. The Virginia was going to attack a third ship, the grounded USS Minnesota, when darkness fell, forcing the Virginia to return to the Confederate stronghold at Sewell’s Point; the commander planned to return to destroy the Minnesota the next day.
But during the night, a Union ironclad warship, the USS Monitor, arrived at Hampton Roads and anchored itself by the Minnesota to protect it. When the Virginia returned the following day, it encountered the Monitor, and a 4-hour battle ensued. Neither ship could gain the advantage since both were ironclad and neither had the right kind of shot to pierce the other’s armor.
Finally, the Virginia fired a shell into the Monitor’s pilothouse, blinding the commander. Since no one else could see to steer the ship, the Monitor withdrew for a short time. The Virginia, thinking that their opponent was fleeing for good, also left. By the time the Monitor returned to the battle, it found that the Virginia had sailed, and the commander assumed that the other ship was quitting the fight. This confusion led both sides to claim victory at the time, but most historians now consider the battle a draw.