Duel Between the First Ironclads. By William C. Davis. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Co., 1975.  Pp. xii, 201.)

In Duel Between the First Ironclads, William C. Davis describes the important events and developments in the early naval encounters of the civil war.  His work focuses in particular on the first ironclads of the war, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia.  Davis addresses two main topics in his book, first outlining the planning and building of iron ships in the North and the South and then describing the battle at sea in March 1862 when the two great ships met.  Davis concludes that the development of ironclads and the battle at Hampton Roads, Virginia are important because they shaped the future of naval policy and ship design.

            The first several chapters of Davis’s book explain how members of the Union and the Confederacy advocated for the development of an ironclad fleet and how each side went about designing and building their first ship.  The notion of an ironclad ship was centuries old, Davis concedes, but new inventions in weaponry made iron more necessary in naval warfare.  He highlights the design challenges and, especially, the process of covering exposed parts of the ship with iron.  The South initiated the move towards iron ships.  Confederates raised the USS Merrimack—which had been sunk when the Federals abandoned the naval yards at Norfolk—and converted it to the ironclad CSS Virginia following the design of John Brooke.  Although certainly impressive looking, the Virginia would prove in battle to be slow and unwieldy.   Rumors of Confederate activities prompted the Union to pursue iron ships more resolutely.  The plan that John Ericsson drew up received some ridicule, but proved a successful design in the long run.  What made Ericsson’s plan so innovative was not that he developed new technology but that he fit all existing naval technology together in one ship.  As Davis notes, “the idea of an ironclad was not new, nor was the concept of a gun turret, or a low freeboard, or heavy, large-bore shell guns, light draft, high maneuverability, steam power, or ventilation systems…,” but those improvements had not all been included in one ship before (52). 

            After explaining how both ships were designed and built, Davis next turns to the battle on March 8-9, 1862, when the long-awaited clash between Monitor and Virginia finally happened, and provides an engaging narrative of the two-day battle.  On the first day, the Virginia pursued its mission of engaging and destroying Federal ships and dominated the waters by sinking the Union ships Cumberland and Congress and running aground the St. Lawrence and Minnesota.  On the morning of March 9, to the relief of Union seamen, the Monitor arrived on the scene.  At the end of the second day, the Monitor had successfully carried out its mission of protecting the Minnesota and preventing the Virginia from destroying any more Federal warships.  Tactically, however, Davis reaches a different conclusion about the outcome of the battle.  He explains that the Virginia ended the battle in much the same condition in which it started, while the Monitor suffered major damage.  “Clearly,” Davis observes, “in terms of damage done, the Virginia emerged slightly the victor” (136).  As far as the broad strategic picture in Virginia, Davis acknowledges that the outcome of the battle was a draw.

            Even though little had changed after the March battle in terms of the larger war effort, Davis maintains that the Hampton Roads battle had “far-reaching” effects, especially for Federal strategy (137).  Even though the Monitor had defects and brought together some unproven ideas, it became “the model for the warship of the future” (165).  The Virginia continued to be the model for the Confederacy for the duration of the war, and as a result the southern navy was plagued with low-speed ships that were difficult to maneuver.  During the subsequent months of the war, both ships were destroyed—and neither in a great battle.  The legacy of the two ironclads, however, was the transformation of naval warfare.  Ironclads were  unquestionably superior to wooden ships, and it was clear that only an iron ship could sink another iron ship.

Duel Between the First Ironclads is a concise yet detailed study of the early iron ships of the civil war.  Although the material covered in the book should be manageable for a wide audience, some background knowledge of naval history and ship design would be helpful for readers, especially in Davis’s detailed description of each ship.  Maps and images help provide some visual context for readers, however.  This book provides a nice introduction to the development of naval technology, though Davis does not offer much historical context in terms of how naval warfare fit into larger Union and Confederate land strategies.

Jensen Branscombe                                                                             Texas Christian University



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.  Cloth.)

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 Blockading Squadron.

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. 

Davis’s Duel 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