Ironclads is a 1991 made-for-television movie produced by Ted Turner's TNT company about the events behind the creation of the CSS Virginia from the remains of the USS Merrimack and the battle between the Virginia and the USS Monitor in the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8, 1862-March 9, 1862. Noel Taylor received an Emmy Award nomination for his costume designs for the production.
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As the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (Gosport Shipyard) fell to Confederate forces, and the Union forces withdrew, Leslie Harmon (Reed Diamond) extinguished a powder trail to destroy a dry dock. Although of military necessity, the act would have caused significant collateral damage to neighboring civilians.
Harmon is awaiting a court martial when he is brought to Commodore Joseph Smith (E.G. Marshall) and his son Lt. Joseph B. Smith, Jr. (Kevin O'Rourke). As the Union Navy is concerned as to reports of a Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia, being built from the remains of the burned USS Merrimack, father and son Smith offer Harmon a pardon if he will conduct espionage on the project: indeed, Gosport regards Harmon a hero for his actions. He will be assisted by a socialite from a wealthy family, Betty Stuart (Virginia Madsen), who detests slavery. After a moment of apprehension, Harmon accepts.
Harmon gets to attend a test where the iron that makes up the hull is fired on. During the test the armor proves to be unable to withstand the cannon rounds. With the help of a slave, Cletus (Carl Jackson), he learns that the test firing is deliberate disinformation, manufactured for suspected Union sympathizers. He discovers plates in the barn from a previous secret test have almost no damage. Betty is able to provide more information on the Virginia from her social networks in the Confederate navy. Betty, in league with Cletus' wife Opal (Beatrice Bush), sends information north regularly.
However, after Betty urges Harmon to return North with the information, she falls in love with Catesby Jones (Alex Hyde-White) whom she later learns is to serve on the Virginia. Her love for Catesby compromises her love for the Union, and she tries to stop Harmon at the beach, threatening to alert the pickets on the beach. Harmon notes that he is responsible for having saved the dry dock and must stop the Virginia, and notes that having him shot would merely put him in the same spot he was in the brig. He rows off for Union-occupied Fort Monroe across Hampton Roads: Betty does not compromise him after all.
Betty and Opal have words over her anguish: Opal would rather see Cletus dead than be a slave, Opal disagrees that one man's life is more important than the war, and responds to Betty's concession of misunderstanding that Betty would understand if she was black. Betty confesses her role to Catesby before the Virginia sails off to break the Union blockade at Hampton Roads. Betty is promptly arrested by Lt. Guilford (Philip Casnoff) on suspicion of espionage.
The Virginia first approaches the USS Congress as Lt. Smith rallies his men on board to "do their duty"; Captain Franklin Buchanan (Leon B. Stevens) of the Virginia rallies his men, similarly. Congress fires a full broadside into Virginia to no effect. Buchanan wants to take the U.S.S. Cumberland first because it is a more dangerous warship with rifled cannon, sinks it, and returns to the Congress. Lt. Austin Pendergrast (Tom Width) has become a praying man. He becomes acting captain when Smith is killed rallying his men during the firefight. Prendergrast orders the ship surrendered, however, Brigadier General Joseph K. Mansfield's shore batteries prevent the Virginia from boarding the Congress, and wound Captain Buchanan when he goes on deck and returns fire with a carbine. Buchanan orders Catesby to set the Congress ablaze, which he does.
Opal joins Betty a short time later and they discover that the evidence found on Opal was not sufficient proof of Betty's guilt, and also that Catesby Jones did not report Betty to authorities. However, Opal reminds Betty of the predicament she is in, and shows her a gallows being built outside the window. Betty watches Lt. Guilford honor the courage of a Union spy, Spencer Brown (Christopher Northup), who is immediately hanged. That night, Guilford asks Betty not to die for a lost cause, as Lt. Smith had done, according to survivors from the Congress. Father Smith only needed to know that the Congress surrendered: his son would not have surrendered. Betty asks if she has to die for a lost cause, would he honor her, too? No, he says.
The USS Monitor sails in between the burning Congress and the Virginia to protect the USS Minnesota, which has run aground and is defenseless until high tide returns the next day. Only the low tide has prevented Virginia from finishing off the Minnesota. Captain Van Brunt (Joel Abel) offered instructions and Leslie Harmon to Captain John Worden (Andy Park) of the Monitor. Worden makes Harmon, familiar with Hampton Roads and the CSS Virginia, midshipman on the spot.
The morning of battle, Catesby Jones introduces his crew to the Monitor between them and the Minnesota. Worden does his best to engage Virginia as far from the Minnesota as he can. Virginia's first shot demonstrates that Monitor's armor will hold. Virginia "steers worse than Noah's Ark", Lt. Simms (J. Michael Hunter) informs Catesby that Virginia is leaking at the bow, Harmon tells Worden it would take Virginia 30 minutes to turn, and later adds that Virginia would be grounded in shallow water. It is. Engineer Ramsey (Michael Costello) is ordered to tie the safety valve closed, and the desperate attempt gets them free. Monitor's two gun revolving turret shake metal loose from Virginia but that is all. Finally, Virginia tries to ram Monitor but misses. Worden tries the same, trying to knock out Virginia's rudder, but is temporarily blinded by a shell blast through the eye holes. Monitor has also missed. Monitor temporarily withdraws until Worden tells Lt. Samuel Green (George Kelly) to protect the Minnesota. But Virginia can no longer get near the Minnesota for a good shot, nor attempt a long shot with any accuracy. Risking splitting open the bow and short of steam pressure for the pumps, Catesby withdraws as Monitor returns to the Minnesota.
Both sides claimed victory, but the Monitor denied Confederate access to the ocean. John Ericsson (Fritz Weaver) has an argument with Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles (Conrad McLaren) over the use of insufficient powder in Monitor's guns to sink the Virginia: Welles responds it was a calculated decision to save the lives of the crew. President Lincoln (James Getty) settles the row by saying Ericsson has made naval history and, moreover, offers to pay Ericsson's bill.
Lt. Guilford, glad not to hang a "pretty girl", releases Betty and Opal. Catesby had reported that Betty had communicated misinformation to the Union that made the Monitor fire the guns with reduced powder. She meets Catesby, and Catesby respects Betty's conscience, but notes that a relationship is impossible because she had to risk the life of Catesby and his men. He advises her to go North, and says goodbye.
A voiceover indicates that the Virginia was scuttled later that year after Union troops took Norfolk, and that the Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras later that year as well.