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Scrutinizing Naval Warfare during the Civil War: The Ironclad

In April 1861, after Fort Sumter, Union navy personnel hurriedly attempted to destroy its most important facility in Norfolk, Virginia, to prevent it from falling into the hands of the newly seceded state of Virginia. The group botched the job badly, and Confederate troops recovered vast amounts of ammunition, cannons, stores, repair facilities, and machinery. Also recovered was the scuttled (sunk) steam-powered warship, the Merrimack. The Confederate naval department knew very well that breaking the blockade was their prime mission. Necessity being the mother of invention in this case, an engineer proposed that the Confederacy build a fleet of armored ships. These ships, protected from cannon fire, would patrol the Southern coastline and chase off Union ships, making the blockade ineffective.

The idea of building a few armored ships, called ironclads, was radical to say the least. But because the South had no navy and wasn't about to build anything to match the Union fleet, the idea was quickly accepted. The design was for a ship that had a pointed bow for ramming, a shallow draft (it floated in shallow water), and a wood casemate (resembling a blockhouse) with sharply slanting sides covered with iron on top of a deck that just barely cleared the waterline. Several heavy cannons would be mounted in the casemate.

Before long, the engineers decided that the Merrimack, now recovered from the muck of the harbor, would serve as an ideal base for an ironclad. When construction began in May, it became obvious that the ship's engine was less than satisfactory. In fact, the engine was scheduled to be completely replaced before the ship had been scuttled. The time spent in the water didn't help much. A new engine was impossible; the Confederacy had no means to build one. So they made do with what they had. Even finding enough iron to use as armor was difficult. Work on the ship went on around the clock. By mid-February 1862, she was given a new crew and recommissioned the CSS Virginia. She had ten cannons, housed in a 24-inch oak casemate with 4 inches of armor plate.

Washington panics!

In the North, the news of the Confederate monster ship was out. Fears arose quickly along the East Coast. Mayors of major cities imagined horrible scenes of destruction as the Confederate monster churned into harbors laying waste to Union shipping. Washington, too, felt naked and undefended. It was just a short trip up the Potomac from Norfolk. The monster ship could park near Georgetown and shell the Capitol and the White House! Given such fears, it is not surprising to discover that the normal peacetime bureaucratic hurdles involved in approving money for military procurement magically disappeared. A board was appointed to review design plans for an ironclad ship and approve immediate construction.

John Ericsson, a Swedish-born engineer, had an ironclad ship design already in hand. It was a radical new design, incorporating several design innovations, and was given the go ahead. Actually Ericsson was none too popular with the U.S. Navy. Years earlier, Ericsson had been awarded a contract to design a new naval cannon. During its initial test in 1844, the gun exploded, killing the Secretary of State and several others who had come out to watch the test. Only a crisis such as the one the Union faced in 1861 could have brought Ericsson back into the government's good graces. The stakes were indeed very high, and his design was quite radical. The ship was essentially an armored raft with most of its hull underwater and pointed at both ends. Its deck floating less than a foot above the waterline, the ship had a small armored box at one end just big enough for the pilot's head and shoulders so he could see to steer the ship. At the other end was a low smokestack. In the center was a flat rotating cylinder containing two large naval cannons. The ship was completed in record time in New York and commissioned the USS Monitor.

The Virginia goes hunting

On March 8, 1862, the Virginia set out on her first cruise. There was no time for a shakedown — the Virginia was going into battle against the Union fleet at Hampton Roads. The crew, in fact, had no time to become acquainted with the ship. Up until the very last hour, workers were still onboard. Once underway, the ship's critical weakness soon became apparent. The engine could only produce about 5 knots, and she steered very awkwardly; it took 30 to 40 minutes just to turn.

When the Union fleet realized the Virginia was coming to them, there was a great panic. One sailor described her as a "half-submerged crocodile." Ships scattered, three running aground trying to escape. The USS Cumberland was not so lucky. It was a powerful ship for its time — but its time had passed. In less than an hour, the Virginia had rammed and sunk the Cumberland after blasting huge holes in its hull with its heavy guns. The cannons of the Cumberland had no effect at all on the Virginia. The USS Congress was next. The ship's crew fought valiantly but was no match for the ironclad. The Virginia's gunfire was so effective that the Congress struck its colors and surrendered. It was soon a blazing hulk. With darkness falling, the Virginia began what appeared to be a leisurely trip back to Norfolk. She had proven herself. The next day would bring the destruction of the Union navy at Hampton Roads.

Just as the Virginia retired, the Monitor arrived after a treacherous, problem-plagued voyage. It was her initial trial as well. She anchored near the USS Minnesota, the most likely target for the Confederate ironclad the next day. There was nothing more for her crew to do but make what repairs they could and await dawn.

The Monitor versus the Virginia

The next morning, the Virginia appeared again, heading straight for the Minnesota. The Virginia's captain ignored what at first appeared to be a floating piece of iron junk. But as the Monitor slipped close by, rotated its turret and fired a near point-blank shot, it became obvious that the Virginia had a fight on its hands. The Monitor was far more maneuverable than the Virginia, and the two circled each other, blasting away, neither causing any noticeable damage to the other. Because the guns didn't seem to work, each attempted unsuccessfully to ram and disable the other ship. As the battle went on, both ships experienced a host of mechanical problems, but the Virginia had the most trouble, leaking badly and displaying a noticeable crack in her armor. The Virginia did get a shot off at the pilothouse, severely wounding the pilot and causing the Monitor to drift away uncontrolled. Thinking she had won a decisive victory, the Virginia made her way slowly toward home. By the time the Monitor's officers regained control, the Virginia had steamed away. After more than four hours of fighting, both ships were glad to be done for the day, each believing it had won.

March 9, 1862, was a historic day in the history of naval warfare. Wooden ships such as the Congress, the Minnesota, and the Cumberland were obsolete. The industrial age had created a new ship that would serve as a model for warships throughout the 20th century. From this point on, warships all over the world would be designed incorporating armor and a rotating turret. The steel navy was born.

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