In early 1862, the Union and the Confederacy were locked in one of the most influential arms races of the Civil War. While their navies still relied on wooden ships, both sides had gambled on building revolutionary “ironclad” vessels that boasted steam engines, hulking cannons and armor plating protecting their hulls. In Brooklyn, Federal forces were prepping the iron vessel USS Monitor. At Gasport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, the rebels were finishing their own metal colossus, CSS Virginia.
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Ironclads changed naval warfare because they were made of iron instead of wood and were harder to damage.