President Lincoln viewed the March 8, 1862, sinking of the Congress and Cumberland as the greatest Union calamity since Bull Run. Secretary of War Edwin W. Stanton feared that the Virginia “would soon come up the Potomac and disperse Congress, destroy the Capitol and public buildings…” Stanton believed that “McClellan’s mistaken purpose to advance by the Peninsula must be abandoned.”
As the burning Congress set an eerie glow across the harbor the evening of March 8, the USS Monitor arrived in Hampton Roads. It had almost sunk enroute from New York. The Monitor was a completely new concept of naval design created by Swedish inventor John Ericsson. Its revolving turret housed two 11–inch Dahlgrens and the ironclad’s decks were virtually awash with the sea.
On the morning of March 9, 1862, Lieutenant Jones was surprised to see this “cheesebox on a raft” approach the Virginia. For the next two hours the Monitor and Virginia dueled, but neither ship was able to inflict serious damage on the other. The Monitor briefly broke off the engagement to resupply ammunition and the Virginia tried to move against the Minnesota, but ran aground. The Virginia somehow was able to free herself. The fight continued until a shell struck the Monitor’s pilothouse, blinding her commander, Lieutenant John Lorimer Worden, causing the Monitor to temporarily break off action. Believing that the Union ironclad had had enough and suffering from several leaks, Jones ordered the Virginia back to Norfolk with the receding tide.
Both sides claimed victory. The Monitor was successful in stopping the Confederate ironclad from destroying the Federal fleet. The Virginia, however, blocked the James River and closed this approach to Richmond to Union use. The two ironclads never fought each other again.