Duel Between the First Ironclads. By William C. Davis. Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1975.
William C. Davis has explored the designing, building, battle, and eventual end of the first ironclads for both the Union and Confederacy, in Duel Between the First Ironclads. He examines not only the battle that took place between the Monitor and the Virginia, but he also looks at what led to the design of the ironclads. He chronicles the life of both vessels beginning with the designs of each and the eventual burning of the Virginia and the sinking of the Monitor.
The idea of an ironclad ship came about before the Civil War. The protection of a ship’s decks or sides with metal armor in some form or another went back centuries. Then in 1824 a French artillerist introduced a shell gun that fired a hollow shell filled with powder that could explode after impact. With this, cannon balls could not longer simply bounce off the sides of ships or harmlessly bury themselves in the timbers. Though it took thirty years before the world saw the dramatic display of the new gun’s power, the day of the timber ship was finished and all that could protect a ship from iron was iron.
When Virginia made the decision to join the Confederate States of America, the Union felt forced to abandon the naval shops at Norfolk. Troops there were ordered to burn it and the ships that were not in working order. With this they set the powerful Merrimac ablaze. The Confederates soon found that the Federals had done a sloppy job, leaving behind cannons, valuable stores, ships’ ports, equipment, and machinery. In the river, resting on its bottom, the Merrimac lay with her machinery and hull having been saved by fire when it sank. By mid summer in 1861, plans to turn the Merrimac into an ironclad reached completion.
Gideon Welles, the United States Secretary of the Navy failed to grasp the necessity of an ironclad early on. Still, rumors of Confederate plans made their way to Washington. In August 1861 Congress approved a bill that provided money for the experimentation and development of three prototype ironclads. Thus, designs began for what they would eventually call the Monitor.
The Confederacy finished its transformation of the Merrimac into an ironclad in February 1862 and commissioned the ship the CSS Virginia. On March 8, 1862, the Virginia set out for Hampton Roads where the U. S. ships Cumberland, Congress, Minnesota, and Roanoke defended the area. The Rebels surprised the Federal fleet and the Virginia first set the USS Cumberland in its sights. The Confederate ironclad rammed the Cumberland and it eventually sank, as the ship first began to sink it trapped the ironclad’s ram and began to pull it down. When the crew of the Virginia finally freed the vessel the ram broke loose as they backed the ironclad out. With this, the ironclad turned its attention to the Congress. As the Minnesota and the Roanoke tried to come to the aid of the Congress they both ran aground. The Congress also ran aground but still under the reach of the ironclad’s guns the vessel surrendered.
The next day the Confederate ironclad returned with the hope of destroying the remaining vessels, but to their surprise the United States new ironclad, the Monitor, had made its way to Hampton Roads as well. The two battled for several hours, each inflicting little damage on the other. In terms of immediate mission, the battle proved a victory for the Monitor who succeeded in protecting the Minnesota. From a tactical vantage point the, the Virginia claimed victory, leaving the fight in “almost exactly the same condition as when she entered it.” (136) This would be the last battle for both ironclads. The crew of the Virginia would be forced to burn the ironclad on May 11, 1862 after the abandoning of Norfolk and Sewell’s Point. Then on December 31, 1862 the Monitor sank off the coast of North Carolina. Neither ship lived to see a first anniversary and neither went down in glorious battle.
Davis has written a concise account of the first ironclads for both the Union and the Confederacy. Rather than focusing on the battle between the two he begins when the idea of an ironclad came about for both sides. Though the book only looks at these two ironclads it shows the impact that they had on the war for both the North and the South.
Leah D. Parker
Duel Between the
First Ironclads. By William C. Davis. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and
Co., 1975. Pp. 201.
On 9 March 1862, the USS Monitor
engaged the CSS Virginia in an epic
battle at Hampton Roads, a small stretch of sea where the Elizabeth, James, and
Nansemond rivers meet before opening into Chesapeake Bay.
In a little over five hours, these two ironclads changed the face of
naval warfare. Never again would
wooden ships be safe in the waters of the world, for the events surrounding the
battle between the Monitor and Virginia
“displayed conclusively that wooden ships, no matter how powerful their
armament, were no match for ironclads” and illustrated decisively that “only
an iron ship could stop another iron ship” (p. 165). In 1975, William C. Davis, a professor of history at Virginia
Polytechnic Institute and State University, published Duel Between the First Ironclads.
The book examines the decisions to employ ironclads during the American
Civil War, analyzes the men who designed and served on the first ships, and
depicts the epic battle that altered the course of history.
Early in the book, Davis demonstrates that the idea of
ironclad warships was nothing new by the time of the Civil War.
Dating the first ship to be sheathed in metal to the third century B.C.,
Davis sketches the development and evolution of iron warships through the
Crimean War. Davis attributes rapid
advances in ironclad technology in Europe to French artillerist General Henri J.
Paixhans’s 1824 introduction of exploding shells, which inflicted massive
damage on wooden vessels. Despite
these developments, Davis maintains that the United States was slow in building
its own fleet of ironclads.
Davis then moves on to relate the construction of the first
American ironclads. Short on
supplies but blessed with creative thinkers, the Confederacy was the first to
initiate an ironclad program. Confederate
Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory believed in the power of iron
vessels and understood that the Confederacy could not hope to match the Union
ship for ship. Instead, he affirmed
that “‘inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability’” and
set about to construct a fleet of ironclads (p. 8).
Employing the designs of Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke and the recently
captured Norfolk and Gosport Naval Yards, the Confederacy used the hull of the
scuttled USS Merrimack to outfit its
first ironclad. Rechristened the
CSS Virginia, the slow yet
intimidating juggernaut headed towards Hampton Roads in March 1862 on a mission
to destroy the Union ships based at the headquarters of the North Atlantic
Meanwhile, Union spies alerted the Lincoln administration
to the construction of the Confederate warship, and Union Secretary of the Navy
Gideon Welles inaugurated his own ironclad program. In September 1861, the Union authorized three ironclad
prototypes. The most inventive
design belonged to John Ericsson, a native of Sweden who moved to the United
States in 1839. His model called
for maneuverability, power, and precision.
Most famous for its revolving turret, Ericsson’s USS Monitor
did not exhibit anything revolutionary. All
of the concepts Ericsson employed had been around for some time, but “[w]hat
Ericsson had done . . . and what entitled him to immortal fame, was for the
first time to incorporate all these features into one, superbly conceived
vessel” (p. 52). The Monitor
was the Union’s answer to the Virginia,
and it could not have come at a more opportune time.
For the rest of the book, Davis relates the events of 8-9
March 1862. On 8 March, the Virginia
steamed into Hampton Roads and played hell on the ships of the North Atlantic
Blockading Squadron. Creating an
atmosphere of fear and chaos, the Virginia
sunk the USS Cumberland and destroyed
the USS Congress, the station’s
flagship. The other Union ships
protecting the position—the USS Roanoke,
the USS Minnesota, and the USS St.
Lawrence—ran aground during the action.
When night fell, the Virginia
anchored under the protection of Confederate batteries and waited to finish the
job the next day. By 9 March,
however, the Monitor had arrived, and
for five hours it screened the Virginia
from doing anymore serious damage to the Union fleet.
Between the First Ironclads is an exciting narrative of the most well-known
naval battle of the American Civil War. Providing
adequate background to acquaint his readers with the history of ironclad
warships, Davis launches into a riveting account of the battle that allayed
fears of a Confederate monster churning up the Potomac River to attack
Washington, D.C., and permitted Union General George Brinton McClellan to carry
out his Peninsula Campaign without concern for the Virginia’s whereabouts.
Although neither vessel decisively won the engagement, the battle served
to illustrate the future of naval warfare.
According to Davis, “[f]rom now until the end of time, no matter what
their armament, warships will be of steel” (p. 167).
Jason Mann Frawley
Texas Christian University