Ironclad Navies: The USS Monitor and CSS Virginia during the Civil War

March 9 marks the famous meeting of the Civil War ironclad ships the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Cartographic Branch holds numerous plans and maps relating to the Battle of Hampton Roads and to the Civil War ironclads and ships involved in the battle. This post highlights some of the records relating to this noted engagement.

Following the firing on Fort Sumter by Southern forces in April 1861, the United States Navy evacuated the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia. Retreating forces set fire to the USS Merrimac (Merrimack), which had been at Gosport for engine repairs and not seaworthy at the time of the evacuation. In May 1861, Confederate forces, now in control of the navy yard,  raised the partially burned frigate and began converting the ship into an armored vessel, or ironclad. They repaired the ship and reinforced it with 2-inch iron plating cast at Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond, Virginia. In February 1862, the ship was launched and re-christened the CSS Virginia.

The Cartographic Branch holds numerous ship plans relating to the original USS Merrimac and the later ironclad, the CSS Virginia. Reference reports for both ships, listing the available plans, are available in our research room and at the following link: Reference Report: USS Merrimac/ CSS Virginia. Below are two examples of plans relating to the CSS Virginia that are within the holdings of the Cartographic Branch. The first is a color drawing showing a profile view of the ironclad. The second blueprint drawing shows the gun desk arrangement for the Merrimac. 

Sketch of the CSS Virginia (outboard profile), RG 19, DASH 81-12-2B, NAID: 12007683


Gun Deck for the CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimac), RG 19, DASH 76-2-45

In response to the construction of a Confederate ironclad, the US Navy also began working on plans to build an ironclad of their own. The Navy put out a call for proposals for such a ship, and received numerous designs. Eventually, after lengthy consideration, plans moved forward to build a ship proposed by Swedish immigrant John Ericsson. Ericsson’s design was very different from past proposals, which attached iron plating to the exterior of a traditional warship, similar to the CSS Virginia. Ericsson’s design instead sat low in the water, almost fully submerged, leaving only 18 inches of deck above the water line. It also contained a novel revolving turret, which contained two cannons. Because the entire turret could be rotated independently of the ship, the two cannons could be rapidly aimed and fired at enemy ships or targets. This was a great advantage over other ships, which had to be steered so that their guns pointed in the correct direction of the target. The USS Monitor, as Ericsson’s ship was named, launched in late January 1862.

The Cartographic Branch holds numerous plans related to the USS Monitor and monitor class ironclad ships. A reference report for plans relating to the USS Monitor is available in the research room and at the following link: USS Monitor Reference Report. The following are a few examples of plans relating to the USS Monitor and Ericsson’s monitor class ironclads.

Side elevation and top view of “Ericsson Battery of two Guns of 12 inch Calibre.”  RG 19, DASH, 26-8-20. NAID 783889
“Top view and Longitudinal Section of Impenetrable (Impregnable) Floating Battery.” RG 19, DASH, 26-8-21.
“Screw Ram on the ‘Monitor’ system.” Plan by J. Ericsson. 1862. RG 19, DASH,  26-8-17. NAID: 17370268
“Sketch of Original Monitor.” 1917. RG 19, DASH, 26-8-18A. NAID: 17370270

The two ironclads met in battle on March 9, 1862. This marked the first engagement between two ironclads. On March 8, the CSS Virginia got her first test of power, steaming toward Union ships located in the Hampton Roads area. She engaged with two warships, the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress. The Virginia rammed the Cumberland with a metal ram, creating a large gash in the side of the hull and causing the ship to sink. The Congress ran aground, preventing a ram attack. However, the CSS Virginia shelled the USS Congress forcing the stranded and wrecked ship to surrender. Additionally, in the confusion, the nearby USS Minnesota also ran aground. The Virginia fell back to her wharf, planning to return the following day to finish off the Union fleet. The Virginia proved the success of iron versus wood, and the iron plating proved effective in protecting the ship from shot and shell.

That night, the Union Navy’s new ironclad, the USS Monitor, entered Hampton Roads and took up a position next to the stranded USS Minnesota. On the morning of March 9, the Virginia headed back to finish off the Minnesota, but instead encountered the Monitor. The two ironclads engaged in a close rang artillery fight, each having little effect on the other due to their armored designs. The Virginia tried unsuccessfully to ram the Monitor, but the Monitor, a lighter and quicker ship, managed to avoid the ram. Both ships eventually withdraw, leaving the engagement between steam powered ironclad ships a draw. The map below shows the site of the battle of Hampton Roads and depicts the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (labeled as the Merrimack), along with other ships in the area.

RG77_CWMF_G443_vol12_p10 -- zoomed
Close up of map showing the Hampton Roads area and depicting the March 9, 1862 battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly the Merrimack). RG 77, Civil Works Map File, G443, Vol. 12, p. 10.
Full Map showing the Hampton Roads area.  RG 77, Civil Works Map File, G443, Vol. 12, p. 10.

Both the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor suffer unfortunate fates during the next few months of the Civil War. In early May 1862, Union forces approached Norfolk, forcing the Confederates to abandonthe city and destroyed the navy yard. Without a home, the Virginia’s commander attempted to lighten the ship and travel up the James River to the safety of Richmond, but this plan proved unsuccessful. The Confederates instead were forced to scuttle the ship on May 11, 1862, blowing her up rather than allow the Union forces to capture the ship.

In late 1862, after supporting numerous military operations near Norfolk and Richmond, the USS Monitor received orders to move south to Beaufort, North Carolina. On December 30, 1862, off of the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the Monitor encountered a bad storm. In the rough seas, the Monitor, whose deck was only 18 inches above the waterline, began to take on water, flooding the engine room. Around midnight, her engines flooded completely and her pumps stopped working. All hopes for saving the struggling ship were gone and the ship was abandoned. Forty-seven men were rescued from the sinking USS Monitor. Sixteen were lost, swept overboard, unable to reach the rescue boats, or trapped inside the sinking vessel.

The wrecked Monitor remained lost until the 1970s. In 1973, a team from Duke University began searching for the location of the wreck. After a tentative identification, the team confirmed they had found the wreck 16 miles off of Cape Hatteras after a second visit to the site in the spring of 1974. Research on the wreck began and over the years, many artifacts were recovered from the USS Monitor. In 2002, the famous turret was raised from the sea floor. Today, the turret and artifacts related to the USS Monitor are housed at the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum, located in Newport News, Virginia near the site of the battle of Hampton Roads. The Cartographic Branch holds a collection of oversize materials relating to the discovery, stabilization, research, and recovery efforts of the wreck of the USS Monitor. These records include maps, diagrams, and drawings related to the wreck site, underwater archaeology and research missions, scientific data and research, artifact recovery, and other aspects of the research surrounding the wreck site. Additional records related to these activities can also be found in the Textual, Still Pictures, and Motion Pictures holdings of the National Archives.

Photomosaic of USS Monitor wreck. RG 370, Records Relating the Discovery of the Wreck of the USS Monitor, Folder 1.


Civil War Trust. “Overview: Hampton Roads.” Articles.

Civil War Trust. “USS Monitor: A Cheesebox Raft.” Articles – Feature.

The Mariners’ Museum & Park. The USS Monitor Center.

NOAA. National Ocean Service. USS Monitor: Preserving a Legacy.

One thought on “Ironclad Navies: The USS Monitor and CSS Virginia during the Civil War

  1. Thank you for your work
    I have been interested in the battle and the ships for many years and am now writing a book
    on the engine of the USS Monitor . I have visited your Archives but did not locate these artifacts.
    Maybe my next visit this fall.

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