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Iron Ships Clash at Sea

The Virginia (background center) and the Merrimack (left) battled in the waters off Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The Virginia (background center) and the Merrimack (left) battled in the waters off Hampton Roads, Virginia.

From VOA Learning English, this is The Making of a Nation.

I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.

And I’m Christopher Cruise.

The American Civil War was fought not only on land, but at sea. In 1862, Confederate and Union forces fought a new kind of navy battle in waters off Hampton Roads, Virginia. It was the first battle between iron ships.

On the Confederate side was a ship called the Virginia. It was built from the remains of a captured Union warship called the Merrimack.

The Virginia was like no other warship ever seen in the world. It was 80 meters long. The part that showed above the water was built of wood 60 centimeters thick. That wood was covered with sheets of iron 10 centimeters thick.

Ten windows were cut into the sides of the Virginia. Behind each window was a cannon. In a battle, the windows opened, the cannons fired, and the windows closed again.

At the front of the ship was a sharp point of iron that could break through the sides of wooden ships.

The Virginia could not move fast. It took almost 30 minutes to turn around. Still, there seemed to be no way to stop this iron monster. It already had destroyed two Union warships. And it was coming back for more.

The Union ship chosen to fight the Virginia was the Monitor. It, too, was covered with iron. But it was much smaller than the Virginia. And it carried only two cannons.

These big guns, however, were on a part of the ship that could turn in a complete circle. They could be aimed in any direction.

The Monitor and the Virginia faced each other on the morning of March 9, 1862. They moved in close -- very close -- and began to fire.

CSS Virginia

CSS Virginia

A Confederate cannon ball hit the iron side of the Monitor and bounced away. Union sailors cheered. The cannons of the Virginia could do no damage! But the Union sailors soon discovered that their cannons could do no damage, either.

The men inside the two ships suffered from noise, heat and smoke. The roar of their own cannons was extremely loud. Even louder was the crash of enemy cannon balls and explosive shells on the iron walls.

Some of the men suffered burst eardrums. At least one man was struck unconscious from the force of a cannon ball against the iron. The men quickly learned to stay away from the walls.

John Lorimer Worden, US Admiral who commanded the Monitor in 1862

John Lorimer Worden, US Admiral who commanded the Monitor in 1862

Smoke from the cannons filled the ships. Then it floated out over the water. At times, the two ships could not see each other.

The Virginia and the Monitor fought for three hours. Neither ship recorded an important hit. Neither suffered serious damage.

Then the cannons of the Virginia fell silent. It had used all its gunpowder. It also had used much of its fuel. It was lighter now and was floating higher in the water. A well-aimed cannon ball could hit below its iron covering and sink it.

The Confederate captain decided to withdraw. The Union captain, too, was ready to end the battle. He decided not to follow.

Neither the Virginia nor the Monitor could claim victory at Hampton Roads. But the Monitor prevented the Virginia from destroying any more Union ships. And their battle marked the beginning of the end of the world's wooden navies.

I’m Christopher Cruise.

And I’m Kelly Jean Kelly. This is The Making of a Nation with VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

sheets - n. thin, flat pieces

monster - n. something unusually large

eardrums - n. thin, tightly stretched pieces of tissue in the ear that move back and forth when sound waves hit them

unconscious - adj. not awake, usually because of an injury

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