The Civil War marked a turning point in American naval technology. At the start of the war, the Confederate army was completely without ships, enabling Union naval forces to easily capture a succession of tactically important Southern strongholds along the coast. But the Confederates soon ordered the construction of a series of “ironclads”—a new breed of ships originally developed in Europe, covered with iron plating to protect them from enemy fire. Upon learning of the South’s innovations, the North quickly engaged engineers to design ironclads of its own.
In March 1862, the ironclad Confederate ship Virginia (which formerly belonged to the U.S. Navy and was known as the Merrimack) attacked large traditional Union warships off the coast of Virginia. The South’s ironclad easily destroyed the Cumberland, the most powerful of the Union’s old-style wooden-hulled ships, before sinking a second ship and driving a third aground. By nightfall, 250 Union sailors had been killed. But when the Virginia returned the next day to finish off the fleet, it found that Union backup had arrived in the form of a brand-new ironclad ship, the Monitor.
The battle between the Virginia and the Monitor ended in a draw after several hours, but as the first encounter between two ironclads, it garnered international attention and inspired navies around the world to abandon wooden-hulled construction. Nine months later, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow commemorated the fallen Cumberland—a once mighty, now obsolete ship.—Sage Stossel
At anchor in Hampton Roads we lay,
On board of the Cumberland sloop-of-war;
And at times from the fortress across the bay
The alarum of drums swept past,
Or a bugle-blast
From the camp on the shore.
Then far away to the South uprose
A little feather of snow-white smoke,
And we knew that the iron ship of our foes
Was steadily steering its course
To try the force
Of our ribs of oak.
Down upon us heavily runs,
Silent and sullen, the floating fort;
Then comes a puff of smoke from her guns,
And leaps the terrible death,
With fiery breath,
From each open port.