As Civil War battles go, the Battle of Hampton Roads isn’t among the most memorable. Gettysburg, Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg usually take top billing. But author Richard Snow argues in Iron Dawn that Hampton Roads was among the most significant Civil War conflicts because it was the first sea battle between ironclad ships: the Merrimack and the Monitor. The battle lasted only three hours and ended in a draw. But because the two ironclads proved battleworthy, it signaled the dawn of the modern navy and the end to wooden shipbuilding. “Many naval battles . . . have bent the course of history in hours or even minutes,” Snow writes. “But none has fomented in a short day’s work a whole new kind of warfare, has in one noisy morning made an ancient tradition obsolete.”
By the time the two boats met on March 9, 1862, on Chesapeake Bay, Virginia, the Merrimack had already destroyed two wooden Union ships and had its sights set on a third. The Monitor arrived to hold the Merrimack in check. The two ironclads fired on each other for several hours, with little damage and few casualties, before they both retreated to safer waters.
The battle was evidence, Snow says, that many of the most important technologies of the Civil War came from the navy, not the army.
Iron Dawn is a worthy read not only for serious Civil War buffs, but also for those who appreciate how ingenuity forever changed the way the military does battle on the sea.