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The Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862

Discovering Civil War History and the USS Monitor

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posted August 30, 2020
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On March 9, 1862, the USS Monitor and the Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia (originally the USS Merrimac), fought to a draw in the Battle of Hampton Roads. The historic clash of ironclads changed naval warfare and shipbuilding forever.

Sadly, on New Year’s Eve 1862, the Monitor sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, taking the lives of 16 crew members with it. In 1973, a team of scientists found the shipwreck, and in 1975 it became the United States’ first national marine sanctuary.

To explore this history, travelers begin their journey at the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia. As the primary visitor center for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, the museum sits in an urban oasis surrounded by the Noland Trail and 550 acres of natural park and lake.

Guests will find 90,000 square feet of exhibition galleries, including the award-winning USS Monitor Center. These galleries offer lessons about the Civil War, the battle, the crew, and how the Monitor saved the Union.

A state-of-the-art conservation lab houses 210 tons of artifacts from the ironclad that were recovered from the sanctuary, and visitors can watch conservators at work in the lab and see the turret, Dahlgren guns and carriages, and the steam engine. (Admission is $1.)

conservation lab
Conservation lab at Mariners' Museum and Park (Photo by Mariners' Museum and Park)

The next stop is Monitor-Merrimac Overlook Park in Newport News. This tucked-away gem includes a beach, fishing pier, and interpretive signs. It’s not difficult to visualize the battle that took place just offshore, where the Monitor and Virginia (Merrimac) fought for over four hours. The park is free and open seven days a week from sunrise to sunset.

Another interesting site in Hampton Roads is the Fort Monroe National Monument. During the Civil War, Fort Monroe was a defensive stronghold at the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, and it was there that the Monitor arrived on March 8, 1862. Early the next morning, iron met iron in the first battle between ironclads. With free admissions, visitors can walk the beaches, climb the fortress, visit the Case Mate Museum, and learn more about the battle.

History, naval, and military buffs who wish to learn more about the Monitor’s legacy can venture south to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. In Manteo on Roanoke Island, the North Carolina Aquarium holds the Ironclad Exhibit, which includes a one-third scale model of the Monitor shipwreck, lying in a 306,000-gallon tank that depicts the vast marine diversity off the coast.

Driving south down Highway 12 towards Hatteras Island takes visitors through the National Park Service’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore. At the Cape Hatteras Light Station, they can learn how the Monitor encountered a storm when it rounded the cape and also how it lost its final battle, sinking 230 feet below the surface.

The last stop is a short distance south: the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum. The attraction features fascinating maritime stories of the many ships—including the Monitor—that met their demise in the turbulent seas just off the coast. Admission is free.

Shannon Ricles is education and outreach coordinator for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. For more information, visit monitor.noaa.gov.

Top photo: The Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862
Photo by U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command