On a peaceful Saturday in early March 1862, the oddest ship anyone had ever seen lumbered into the great watery junction north of Norfolk, Virginia, known as Hampton Roads. Roughly 280 feet long from the iron ram at its prow to the thudding propeller at its stern, the black leviathan carried neither masts nor sails common to ships of the day, only a large smokestack, some pennants, and the starred banner of the Confederacy. It looked, according to one Union sailor, "like the roof of a very big barn."
As the vessel steamed west to where the James River empties into the Roads, two powerful Union warships blockading the river cleared their decks for action. With their tall masts, clouds of sail, and gun decks bristling with cannon, wooden men-of-war like the U.S.S. Congress and U.S.S. Cumberland had ruled the seas for centuries. Lt. Joseph Smith, the young captain of the Congress, confidently steeled his men for the coming fight: "My hearties, you see before you the great southern bugaboo, got up to fright us out of our wits. Stand to your guns, and let me assure you that one good broadside from our gallant frigate and she is ours!"