Book Review: Monitor: The Story of the Legendary Civil War Ironclad and the Men Whose Invention Changed the Course of Naval History


by James Tertius de Kay

New York: Random House/Ballantine Books, 1997. Pp. 247. Illus, diagr, notes, biblio., index. $11.95 paperback. ISBN:0345426355

Although the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia/Merrimac on March 9, 1862, has taken on near cult proportions in the United States, published works have largely centered around Monitor and its brilliant design engineer, John Ericsson, as well as accounts of the battle which have heavily depended on the memoirs of acting paymaster William Frederick Keeler.

In this short popular history, James de Kay tells well a larger and more interesting story of that fateful encounter. Biographical material on Ericsson is provided. A significant fact is that the Navy Department had held Ericsson in contempt for years as Capt. Robert Stockton had deflected blame to the Swede for a gun explosion that took place on board the USS Princeton in 1844, killing eight, including the secretary of state, the secretary of war, and Col. David Gardiner, father of President John Tyler's fiancée. (Oddly, the light carrier USS Princeton was destroyed by an explosion off Leyte in 1944.) de Kay relates information on ironclads prior to 1860, noting that both Britain and France had constructed Warrior and Gloire, respectively. So at the very outset of the Civil War both Secretaries of the Navies, Union Gideon Welles and Confederate Stephen Mallory, started bureaucratic balls rolling to build ironclads, each recognizing the strategic importance of such an effort. De Kay describes the key roles businessmen Cornelius Bushnell of Hartford and John A. Griswold and John J. Winslow of New York played in getting the Navy to approve Ericsson's design. With the help of Welles, they were able to obtain President Lincoln's support for the project although Ericsson personally had to sway Ironclad Board member Capt. Charles H. Davis. Information on the New York and Maryland firms that built Monitor in Brooklyn against very tight schedules is given, as well as innovative design details. Suspense builds as both Union and Confederate officials are aware of the construction progress of their respective potential adversary through their spy networks and the New York press. The harrowing trip Monitor made to Hampton Roads is described. A full account of the battle is given.

De Kay's account of Monitor is a must for those who have not delved into some of the side events and issues. Only by knowing the full schedule of events can we appreciate the breathtaking timing with which Welles, Ericsson, and Lt. (later Adm.) John L. Worden, the captain, delivered the ship into the Roads on the very morning after Merrimac had begun its devastation. This gives us a better understanding of their leadership and abilities. The ingenuity Confederate leaders used to counter the U.S. naval establishment becomes clearer in this work.

Further, this reviewer can only encourage more historians to follow de Kay's lead and research the side events, issues, traditions, and people that revolved around this historic battle. For instance, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Mallory, formerly head of the United States Senate naval affairs committee, is an unappreciated innovative, visionary war figure. The Western Massachusetts/Connecticut/New York region was the epicenter of American inventiveness at the time, yet the socio-economic reasons for this have not been sufficiently explored. Prior to the Civil War, New York City led the nation in steamship and engine building. Since the late-1700s yards on the Connecticut River and coast had produced hundreds of privateers, U.S. warships, and merchant ships, including the first steamboat and submarine (the "Turtle" by David Bushnell--the exact relation is unknown; the Griswolds were also an important Connecticut shipping family). Cornelius Bushnell originally had submitted his own plans for an ironclad. The region's contribution to the armaments industry is well known, but should be woven into a larger technological picture.

Finally, we sh

Reviewer: C. Kay Larsen, NYMAS   

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