The Battle of Hampton Roads occurred March 8-9, 1862 during the American Civil War, and though the result was inconclusive, the battle featured a major marvel in engineering that allows it to be remembered so well.
After Virginia seceded from the United States to join the Confederacy, the Union under Abraham Lincoln ordered a southern blockade. The USS Merrimack was among the ships that the South had captured, and the South turned it into the ironclad vessel CSS Virginia. The use of armor on ironclads was a source of controversy, and the US Navy was hesitant to use this new technology. However, once the Union learned of the CSS Virginia, they constructed their own ironclad, the USS Monitor.
The CSS Virginia was large and unwieldy, but it engaged a Union fleet near Norfolk Harbor. The Union fire did little damage to the Virginia, and the fleet was mostly destroyed. Both sides halted for a day. On March 9th, the Virginia underwent minor repairs, and the Monitor arrived. Both ironclads engaged each other, however neither one could gain the advantage. The Virginia was not prepared to fight another armored vessel, therefore its guns were supplied with only shell and not armor-piercing rounds. The Monitor, meanwhile, had limited powder, and could not penetrate the other ironclad’s armor. The Monitor was forced to withdraw to change command, and the Virginia assumed that it had retreated. The Virginia therefore withdrew itself to undergo extensive repairs, but the crew believed they had won the battle. However, the Monitor came back, only to find the Virginia withdrawing. Assuming they had won the battle and with orders to only protect the harbor, the Monitor did not pursue.
As could be expected, both sides claimed victory. It was an inconclusive battle, yet it was also one of the most important of the war. The Battle of Hampton Roads was the first step for America to use armor-clad warships instead of wooden ships, and this idea would influence warfare itself for many years to come.