The Last of the Wooden Navy
The CSS Virginia, the first American ironclad ship, engages a suddenly obsolete wooden ship of the United States Navy at the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862. The Virginia was built from the hull of the steam frigate USS Merrimack, plated with iron manufactured at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, and rushed into duty against the U.S. blockading squadron at Newport News. With the rest of the James River Squadron, the Virginia seemed unbeatable until the next day, when the U.S. Navy unveiled its own ironclad—the USS Monitor. The two ships dueled to a draw.
This chromolithograph entitled the Last of the Wooden Navy was published by A. B. Graham of Washington, D.C., and based on the 1907 painting by George B. Matthews. Matthews, in turn, based his rendering of the Virginia on a pencil sketch completed two days before the battle by one of its midshipmen, Hardin Littlepage. When the war began, Virginia native Littlepage was a student at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, but resigned to join the Confederate Navy.
Despite being an ironclad, the Virginia still retained a basic design feature of traditional naval ships: its guns were aligned in a row along the ship's exterior, no different from the wooden Union ships shown here. In contrast, the ironclad Monitor mounted its guns on a turret, allowing it to fire accurately independently of the ship's position or direction of travel, and it floated even lower in the water than the Virginia, making it an extremely difficult target.