March 9, 1862, was surely the most dramatic day of the American Civil War, and perhaps the most important as well. It was dramatic because it combined, in a unique degree, coincidence, chance, heroism, and beauty; it was important because, after one momentary glimpse of triumph it dropped the curtain on Confederate victory, and then lifted it to reveal not so much victory as a new chapter in the history of warfare.
It was a little after noon of March 8 that the newly rebuilt ironclad, the Merrmac, proudly but briefly re¬ named the Virginia, rteamed down the Elizabeth River into the James, and upstream to Hampton Roads toward the fleet of frigates that were the pride of the Union navy, the Cumberland, the the Congress,, and others. At about two o’clock the Merrimac turned her Dahlgren guns on the hapless Cumberland and then stabbed her to death with her iron ram and sent her to the bottom. Next she turned on the Congress, and within an hour that proud frigate was aflame from stem to stern. It was the first contest between iron and wood, and it changed the history of naval warfare.