[F]or hours the conflict lasted. Sometimes so near were the vessels they appeared in contact, and again three miles apart; but all the while vomiting forth seeming destruction with frightful rapidity, looking, as a gentleman near me observed, like very ‘hell cats.’” So noted Roland Greene Mitchell, one of the spectators crowding the beach outside Fortress Monroe, Virginia, on March 9, 1862, to watch the first-ever combat between ironclad vessels. The previous day, CSS Virginia, an ironclad ram constructed from the salvaged remains of the sunken frigate USS Merrimack, had engaged the Union’s wooden ships blockading the southern coast, destroying two.
On the 9th, Virginia met a more formidable opponent, USS Monitor, the U.S. Navy’s first commissioned ironclad warship, which had arrived overnight from its Brooklyn base. The hours-long fight between the ironclads, while inconclusive (neither ship inflicted serious damage on the other), was nevertheless significant—one that, as Mitchell observed, “has no precedent in history, and from which dates a new era in naval warfare.” As evidenced by the following paintings, some of them created within months of the engagement (and some more accurate than others), Mitchell was hardly alone in thinking the encounter noteworthy.