Early March 1862 was an exiting and crucial time for America. Nearly everywhere, signs that the Confederate rebellion would be short-lived were becoming clearer.
In the wilds of northwestern Arkansas, Earl Van Dorn’s Army of the West crawled back towards Little Rock having been struck the day before by a reorganized force under Samuel Curtis that broke his fragile command into pieces. The Missouri State Guard held together, but the Arkansas troops and the Indians melted into nothing. From the 16,000 that he started with, Van Dorn had perhaps 6,000 left under his command. Missouri had been threatened by Van Dorn since late summer 1861, but now he would be lucky to hold onto northern Arkansas.
Curtis wasn’t a military genius, he was just another Federal officer doing his job with the resources at hand. Van Dorn wasn’t a dummy, but he was doing the same as Curtis. Trouble was Van Dorn’s resources were a great deal thinner. The Confederacy would be able to mount no further threats to Missouri. In two weeks, Van Dorn would be ordered to sent what men he could get together to Albert S. Johnson, who was mounting an invasion of Tennessee, that would start with an attack on the Federal encampment at Pittsburg Landing.
It was the same just west of the Hampton Roads, half a continent away. On 8 March 1862 the casement ironclad ram Virginia attacked the US Navy blockade at the mouth of the James River, destroying USS Congress (one of the first warships the US Navy built) and USS Cumberland (a Raritan class post-1812 build) and grounding USS Minnesota (a fairly new 3,300 ton screw frigate) and USS Roanoke (a Merrimack-class screw frigate, the same as the hull of Virginia). On the outside of it Virginia and her unarmored consorts (armed tow steamer Raleigh, gunboat Beaufort, armed steamers Patrick Henry and Jamestown and armed tug Teaser) had won a decisive victory.
But like all the Confederacy’s victories, she lacked the capacity to follow up on them, or hold onto their glittering promise. While victorious, Virginia’s smokestack had been riddled, her boats entirely shot away, many of her iron plates rattled off their foundations, and her hardwood and pine frame cracked amidships Just as the sun went down, USS Monitor , the first turreted steam warship and under the command of John L Worden, reached Hampton Roads and took station near Minnesota to protect the steamer from further attacks. Virginia and the James River Squadron had returned to Norfolk for coal and ammunition so missed the little craft’s entrance. Monitor had just completed a harrowing passage from New York, having been launched just days before. Worden and his crew, therefore, were the US Navy’ ironclad experts
Buchanan had been wounded during the battle and so relinquished command to Catesby ap Roger Jones. who was the captain of Virginia. Next morning, 9 March, Virginia set out to finish off Minnesota but ran into Monitor, described as a “cheese-box on a raft.” Commencing at about noon, Virginia and Monitor hammered away at each other for four hours at ranges of 100 yards an less (in an age where typical sea fights were conducted at about 200-400 yards) while Federal tugs tried to get Minnesota unstuck from the bar. Though both vessels were hurt, neither was damaged so much as to have to withdraw. Virginia had her entire structure shifted by one particularly vicious hit, and the damage from the day before had not been put entirely to rights. Monitor lost her pilot house. After some four hours, Monitor withdrew to the shallows to replenish her shot lockers, and Virginia took the opportunity to declare victory and return to dock, having expended so much ammunition and coal that she was exposing her hull below her armored skirt.
The battle was over and Minnesota saved, but that was hardly the end. Within a year the James River squadron would all be sunk or captured; Monitor would sink in a storm. But fear of Virginia would shift George McClellan’s logistical plans for his upcoming Peninsula campaign from the James River to the Fox, a smaller stream on the eastern side of the Peninsula, requiring an overland march to Richmond rather than a Navy-covered stroll up the James. The resulting Yorktown siege and the Seven Days’ Battles would save Richmond, but at the cost of another three years of war.
But ultimately, Virginia’s “victory” was hollow. While European observers were unimpressed by the duel, the Royal Navy was impressed by the 98 day construction time for Monitor, and were well aware that the Union could build three such ships at a time if desired, with proven Dahlgren guns that neither the Confederates nor Great Britain could match. The Confederacy, in contrast, used nearly all her manufacturing capacity to build Virginia on a burned hulk, and were thus unable to build a single finished ironclad for the defense of New Orleans, already under threat. The Confederacy could win many battles, but it was clear from 1862 onward that she could not win the war.