When the North abandoned the navy yard at Norfolk, Virginia, early in the American Civil War, it scuttled several wooden ships including the frigate Merrimack. Raised by the Confederates, the hulk was rebuilt as an ironclad ram with sloping sides capable of deflecting enemy shells harmlessly into the sea.
Renamed the Virginia, she steamed into Hampton Roads where she sank the blockading U.S. fleet’s Cumberland and ran Congress aground. 150 years ago on this day, 9 March 1862, however, she encountered the Union Monitor, a completely new design of ironclad.
The invention of Swedish engineer John Ericsson, Monitor’s extremely low profile meant that she had no more than 18 inches of armoured deck visible above the water line. On top sat a revolving turret housing two large guns.
The ships fought for several hours, mostly at close range. Neither landed a decisive blow, their armour-plating proving effective. Although the outcome was inconclusive, the battle was nevertheless extremely significant as history’s first-ever encounter between two ironclad warships.
Issued in 2010, this Perth Mint silver commemorative is a superb memento of the battle that made wooden warships virtually obsolete.