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Battlefield: Hampton Roads

On 9 March 1862, two strange armoured ships battled it out in an American harbour. It was an encounter that would forever change the face of naval warfare. Julian Humphrys explains…

Clash of the Ironclads

DEAD HEAT The first-ever ironclad-ship battle – which took place in Virginia in 1862 – was an epic struggle, with a seemingly endless volley of gunfire

Shortly after noon on 9 March 1862, the crews of the Union blockading squadron in Hampton Roads, Virginia, saw a strange vessel making its way towards them. Unlike other ships of the day, it had no masts, no sails - just a large funnel - while its sloping iron walls led one Union sailor to say it looked “like the roof of a very big barn.”

The American Civil War had been going for almost a year, and the CSS (Confederate States Ship) Virginia had come out to fight.

The Virginia’s crew hadn’t been expecting to do battle that day. The ship hadn’t been tested and workmen hadn’t finished fitting shutters on its gun ports, but Franklin Buchanan, its veteran captain, was eager for action, even though his brother Thomas was on one of the two ships he was about to attack. After passing Sewell’s Point on the south side of Hampton Roads, the iron leviathan turned and headed westwards towards its first target, the USS (United States Ship) Cumberland.

BATTLE CONTEXT

Who

US Union 4 warships, Confederates 1 warship

When

8-9 March 1862

Where

Hampton Roads, Virginia

Why

Confederate attempt to break Union naval blockade

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The September 2015 issue of History Revealed