The great southern bugaboo, otherwise known as the C.S.S. Virginia, plowed onward, one sailor recalled, like "the horrid creature of a nightmare." When the enemy ship came within a few hundred yards, Smith unleashed a broadside from more than 20 cannon that would have devastated almost any other vessel afloat—only to watch the shot and shells bounce off the Virginia as if they were marbles. Smith looked on in horror as the iron beast ran four large cannon out its gunports and fired, instantly turning his trim ship into a slaughterhouse. The nightmare that was the Battle of Hampton Roads had begun.
Anyone who muddled through eighth grade history class will likely remember the Battle of Hampton Roads as the battle of the Monitor and Merrimack, the first clash between ironclad warships. But that famous engagement took place on the second day of the battle. On the first, the South won a furious arms race to get an ironclad to Hampton Roads, proving in deadly fashion the superiority of iron over oak.
Originally a wooden Union frigate, the Merrimack (often misspelled Merrimac) was burned and scuttled near Norfolk at the outbreak of the Civil War to keep it from falling into Confederate hands. Southern shipwrights raised and recycled the vessel's hull and machinery into a formidable engine of war, the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. To counter the threat to its wooden fleet, the Union commissioned its own ironclad, the U.S.S. Monitor. Outfitted with the world's first rotating gun turret, the Monitor was a technological marvel—despite looking, as one skeptic put it, like a "tin can on a shingle."
The two vastly different ships were riding a wave of technological change sweeping through the world's naval powers, ushering in steam engines, large rifled cannon, and ships armored in iron plate. But the battle was more than a test of technology. Control of the Roads was critical to Lincoln's blockade of southern ports and Union plans to attack the Confederate capital at Richmond. The duel was witnessed by tens of thousands of troops on ships and on shore, including military observers from Europe. In addition to breaking the blockade, Southern leaders hoped a victory would sway France and England to weigh in on the side of the Confederacy.
Pacing the deck of the Virginia, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan knew how high the stakes were and how great the risks. A volatile Marylander who had "gone South," "Old Buck" had spent nearly 50 years in the Navy's world of wooden ships and iron men, including a stint as the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy. Yet on the morning of March 8, he boldly steered an experimental vessel on her maiden voyage straight into the maw of some of the best ships in the U.S. Navy. That morning he asked chief engineer Ashton Ramsay how well his engines were braced. "I am going to ram the Cumberland," he informed Ramsay. "I'm told she has the new rifled guns, the only ones in their whole fleet we have cause to fear."