The Civil War began in 1861 between the Northern Union states and the newly formed Confederate states of the South. The South lacked manufacturing facilities and had to rely heavily on trade with Europe to outfit its fighting forces. The North created blockades to the South’s major ports to limit the flow of materials into the South.
The commander the Confederate Navy, Steven Mallory needed something to break the blockades. He realized that he did not have the ability to produce enough ships to effectively neutralize the Northern blockades. He opted to make a new type of ship that was recently being experimented with in Europe called the Ironclads. He decided to use a recently sunken northern ship called the Merrimack to develop his new ship. He had the ship’s hull raised and refitted the ship, renaming it the Virginia (but most history books still refer to it by the original name the Merrimack). The Merrimack was 273 feet long with a ram on the front of the ship. It was about 39 feet in width, 22 feet in height and weighed 4,200 tons. It had ten total guns, one on the front and back (7 inch Brooke Rifles) and four on each side (3 - 9 inch smoothbore Dalgrens and one 6 inch Brooke Rifle on each side). The armor was in two layers of 2 inch iron plate on the top, 1 inch layer on the deck and a single 1 inch layer below the waterline that was not complete. It could get up to 6 knots in speed with a crew of 300 men and 30 officers.
The Northern Union Navy received intelligence about the south’s attempt to build an ironclad ship. They put out a call to inventors and engineers for designs of an ironclad ship of their own. John Ericsson suggested a model of an ironclad which was accepted and put into production in New York. The ship would begin construction on October 21st, 1861 and would be named the Monitor. The Monitor was 172 feet in length, 41 feet in width, 10.5 feet in height and it weighed 987 tons. It had only two cannons (11 inch Dalgren smoothbores) that were in a revolving turret. It’s armor was eight layers of 1 inch iron plate on the turret, 1 inch of armor on the deck and five layers of 1 inch plate around the upper hull. The ship could reach 7-8 knots with a crew of 48 men and 10 officers.