We’ve all heard the saying, “Small, but mighty.” I thought of it the other day while looking at our diorama of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (Merrimack). We tend to think of the fight between the ironclads as just ending in a draw and that’s it. Sure, the Monitor didn’t get fried by the Virginia, but does that make her “mighty,” or just durable?
On the night of March 8, 1862, the Union flotilla in Hampton Roads was a-shambles. The USS Cumberland had been sunk. The USS Congress was burning and would explode. The USS Minnesota was stuck aground. Union sailors had lost 256 of their friends that day from the Cumberland and the Congress alone. As they sat in the dark, waiting for dawn, they could only assume that morning would bring the Virginia back to finish what she had started. The Minnesota would be the leviathan’s lunch.
But then they noticed something on the horizon, a tiny speck of light. It was the Monitor. No one knew it, but at that moment, the odds evened out. Instead of 256 to 10 as on the 8th, the next day’s hours of fighting between the ironclads would end with only a few wounded on each ship.
The Monitor did not inspire confidence. When her commander, Lt. Worden, assured the grounded Minnesota‘s captain of his assistance, Capt. Van Brunt had his doubts as he peered down at the pygmy of a ship. When the Virginia and the Minnesota fired at each other the next morning, they fired over the Monitor! Could the Monitor-with her two guns-stand against the “horrid creation of a nightmare”?
Well, she did. And not only did she survive the pounding of the Virginia‘s guns on March 9th, but she fulfilled her mission: to save the Minnesota. No matter how the Virginia came at the Minnesota, the tiny Monitor was always there, blocking her path, like a feisty terrier.
The Monitor was small, a cheesebox on a raft, but she proved herself mighty that day. In fact, Lt. Worden and his little ironclad proved their worth so well that the Union went on to build more of the curious-looking ironclads, confident now that the size of the vessel didn’t matter.