The First Ironclad Battle
In his foreword Christopher Kolakowski gives us an evaluation of the significance of the most important naval battle of the Civil War, the fighting in Hampton Roads on March 8 and 9, 1861, involving the CSS Virginia, an ironclad built on the hull of the former the steam frigate USS Merrimack, and the USS Monitor, a newly built ironclad warship of radical design, and how this action affected naval warfare and the evolution of ironclads through 1905 and the advent of the dreadnought battleships of the 20th century.
Author Hughes, an historian and former naval officer, used numerous primary sources in writing this book, which provide some firsthand very good accounts of the fighting between the two combatants, allowing readers an excellent glimpse of the events.
The completion of the Virginia was much anticipated, fearfully on the North, and hopefully on the South. Hughes observes that during the lead-up to the battle between the Monitor and the Virginia, President Lincoln was apprehensive of the outcome, while Secretary of War Stanton feared that the Rebel ram would destroy many Union ships and then travel up the Potomac and inflict harm on Washington, perhaps ending the war in a Confederate victory.
On March 6, 1862, with fears the Virginia was ready for service, the Monitor sailed from New York in anticipation of fighting a decisive action with the Rebel vessel that might decide the war. The Monitor was a significant evolution of technology, changed how sailors fought battles, and redefined what was considered honor and bravery.
On Saturday, March 8th, the Virginia sortied into Hampton Roads and destroyed two wooden sailing frigates by gun fire and ramming, while driving the steam frigate Minnesota, a sister of the Merrimack, aground, but then retired, having taken some damage and with darkness falling.
Soon after dark the Monitor, having had a stormy voyage from New York (Monitor type ships were poor sea boats), arrived at Hampton Roads and positioned itself to defend the Minnesota, aground near Newport News Point, while the Virginia stood in wait until morning.
On the morning of Sunday, March 9th, the Virginia sortied in the hopes of finishing off the Minnesota. Encountering the Monitor, the two began a ferocious fight, pounding each other repeatedly with shot, but neither dong much damage. Until well into the afternoon they maneuvered and fired, Monitor at times aided by the Minnesota, often within a ship’s length of each other, and actually touching each other five times, in attempts to ram. Although the Virginia took more damage, neither was able to seriously harm the other, and eventually they broke off the action. Hughes terms the outcome a tactical draw, but a strategic win for the Union; Monitor had prevented the Virginia from breaking the blockade and eliminated potential assaults on Northern ports, although Virginia’s continued presence did hamper support for Union General George McClellan’s subsequent Peninsular Campaign. Neither ship would survive the year, Virginia being scuttled within two months to prevent her capture as Union troops advanced, and Monitor went down in a storm off Cape Hatteras on December 31st
An “Afterword” by John Quarstein, takes a fascinating look at the strategy and the tactics of both the sides and their ships, and also at the disappointment of Abraham Lincoln over the outcome. In addition, the appendices include a recommended series of tours of the battle area, a discussion of Civil War era ironclads, an account of the USS Monitor Center, and an order of battle. The book has numerous illustrations and maps, plus a recommended reading list.
Hughes’s treatment is deeply researched, written extremely well, filled with fascinating details and interwoven with the words of so many participants into the story, so that readers can easily imagine they are in the middle of this crucial contest. A volume in Savas Beatie’s “Emerging Civil War “ series, Unlike Anything Ever Floated is a page turner , very readable, well-balanced, and difficult to put down and will appeal to armchair generals and admirals and other students of the Civil War.