Naval history in Suffolk’s back yard

Published 10:09 pm Monday, March 7, 2011

The newly refitted and ironclad CSS Virginia faced off against with another ironclad, the USS Monitor, during the Battle of Hampton Roads. The battle was one of the most important in history and took place 149 years ago tomorrow.

One of the most famous and important naval battles in history took place 149 years ago tomorrow within sight of spectators along the shore of what was then Nansemond County.

On March 8, 1862, the newly refitted and ironclad CSS Virginia — which had in a previous incarnation served the Union as the USS Merrimac before being scuttled as Federal troops abandoned Gosport Navy Yard — steamed into the James River from the Elizabeth and engaged a blockading federal fleet. The result of the attack proved that the days of wooden fighting ships were forever gone.

After ramming and sinking the 24-gun sloop of war USS Cumberland, the Confederate ship turned its attention to the 44-gun frigate USS Congress, which finally caught fire under the barage, exploding that night. Seeking to finish the job of breaking the blockade, the Virginia returned to battle the next day, but this time found itself facing off with another ironclad, the USS Monitor.

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After four hours of battle, neither side had been able to strike a decisive blow, and the ships withdrew. The battle was considered a draw, but it was a strategic victory for the Union, as Confederates had been unable to break the blockade. In the process, the entire face of naval warfare had changed.