History's first battle between ironclad ships took place on March 9, 1862, between what were picturesquely described as a "cheese box on a raft" and a "floating barn roof." Indecisive as a battle, the engagement of the Monitor and the Virginia (ex-Merrimack) revolutionized naval construction, signalling the end of wooden warships.
When the Federals abandoned Norfolk Navy Yard a year earlier, they burned and scuttled the USS Merrimack, there for repairs. The Confederates raised and transformed her into an ironclad ram, with an armament of six 9=inch Dahlgren smoothbores and four 6- and 7=inch rifled guns.
On March 8, Commodore Franklin Buchanan, with a crew of 250, sailed her into the midst of the Union fleet in Hampton Roads and in three hours sank the wooden, powerfully gunned Congress and Cumberland. Three frigates coming to their aid ran haplessly aground. One was the Minnesota. Next day, returning to finish off the hapless Minnesota, the Virginia found the Monitor between her and her prey.
The Monitor was the brain child of master engineer John Ericsson. A complete novelty in naval construction, her ironclad hull, showing but a few inches above water, was surrounded only by a small pilothouse and a 9-foot-high revolving turret, plated with eight inches of iron and carrying two 11-inch guns.
For nearly four hours the two ironclad monsters battered each other. The Monitor could outmaneuver her slower opponent, but neither vessel could inflict crippling damage, although the Virginia's smoke stack was shot away, flooding her with smoke below deck. Finally a lucky shot from the Virginia blinded Commander Worden in the Monitor's pilothouse and the Monitor withdrew. After a short wait the Virginia returned to Norfolk.
The battle was never resumed. Indecisive though it was, it relieved the North of the fear that her wooden fleet would be destroyed and her coastal town attacked. It was the only fight for both vessels. The Virginia was destroyed by the Confederates when they were obliged to evacuate Norfolk in May; the Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras on the last day of 1862.