"I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity."
-Confederate Secretary of The Navy
It was a quite morning when crewmembers of the Minnesota, Roanoke, St. Lawrence, Congress and the Cumberland were all going about their chores. It was then that the peace was interrupted. A thick, black cloud of smoke rose on the horizon as a new revolution of navy ships chugged over the hill. Slow moving and 4000 tons, the Virginia had only been a rumor before that day. Originally the Northern steam powered Frigate Merrimack, who had been seized at Northfolk Navy Yard, the immense ship was renamed the Virginia and covered with armor. In a day, which had only witnessed wooden merchant ships armed with guns, she was pretty impressive. This ship was hoped to prove as the attack dog of the Confederate Navy. In many ways she resembled an alligator, submerged 23 feet under water. Her slanted sides rose 7 feet above the water line. She was covered with a two-inch thick armor plating, which helped bulwark her from bullets and other assaults. She was not only built for defense though, for her decks also harbored 10 huge guns. 4 feet of iron ram was attached to the vessel's prow for piercing the wooden hulls of its enemies.
Lieut. Catesby Jones describes the Merrimack's transition to the Virginia-
"The ship was raised, and what had previously been her berth deck became her main gun deck. She was 275 feet long as she then floated, and over the central portion of the hull a house or shield about 160 feet long was built. This shield was of oak and pinewood, two feet thick. The sides and ends inclined, according to Lieut. Catesby Jones, 36 degrees; and the roof, which was fiat and perhaps 20 feet wide, was covered with iron gratings, leaving four hatchways. Upon this wooden shield were laid two courses of iron plates, each two inches thick; the first course horizontal, and the second perpendicular, making four inches of iron armor on two feet of wood backing. The iron was put on while the vessel was in dock; and it was supposed that she would float with her ends barely submerged. So great was her buoyancy, however, that it required some 800 tons of pig iron (according to Boatswain Hasker in his account of her) to bring her down to her proper depth. I know myself that a quantity of iron was put on, though I cannot say how much. Now as this iron was put on, the whole structure sunk; and when she was ready for battle, her ends, which extended some fifty feet forward and abaft the shield, were submerged to the depth of several inches and could not be seen .... The appearance of the Merrimac was that of the roof of a house. Saw off the top of a house at the eaves (supposing it to be an ordinary gable-end, shelving-side roof), pass a plane parallel to the first through the roof some feet beneath the ridge, incline the gable ends, put it in the water, and you have the Merrimac as she appeared. When she was not in action, her people stood on the top of this roof, which was, in fact, her spar deck. "
The Virginia may have been the first ironclad vessel, but she was definitely not the last. A day after her appearance at Hampton Roads, the USS Monitor lurked forward from the shadows of innovation. The first Northern ironclad ship, the Monitor looked like nothing anyone had ever seen before. At only 175 feet in length, her USS Monitor was much smaller than the Virginia, but just as powerful. Only two feet of the Monitor's hull was above water. The boat was covered in five-inch thick iron. She resembled in many ways, a long, floating rafter with a revolving turret at the top. Inside the turret were two, powerful, eleven-inch rifled guns. Sailors often referred to her as a "tin can on a shingle." These were just two of the ironclad ships though, for after their arrival ironclads most definitely did become a necessity. In fact, the North ended up producing about 60 ironclads overall, the South on the other hand, a little more strained financially, only built around 20. Most of them were designed for river and bay combat rather than open sea. Many never saw action. As for the ones that did, go to Naval battles and find out more!
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