Saturday, November 20, 2004


By James L. Nelson

William Morrow, $25.95, 368 pages


Technical innovation wins wars: Small things like the rifled barrel or the Gatling gun; big things like the tank or the ironclad ship. Recent reminder: The smart bomb. James L. Nelson builds his fascinating nonfiction account of the Civil War around just such a technical innovation, the simple idea of clothing ships with iron to deflect cannonballs.

An author of well-received novels of the square rigged era, Mr. Nelson knows how to tell a story — he spins it in bite-sized chunks that come fast and varied, shifting his camera like a master motion-picture director, capturing part after part of the action on the run.

This is how he avoids the heavy drumbeat of military history.

The story he wants to tell is exciting and interesting enough to merit full attention today. It is the story of an arms race which could have won the Civil War for the South — or greatly prolonged it. On the face of it, placing armor over the wood of warships hulls seems such a simple medieval concept that the wonder is it didn’t take place until the 1840s and even then, naval authorities paid it little attention.

The previous technology — thick oak bulwarks to protect cannon-firing ships “had advanced to the point where line-of-battle ships were reasonably well protected against round shot, even fired from a few yards away,” writes Mr. Nelson. But the men of wooden ships seemed also to have wooden heads, for as soon as explosive shells were developed, “wooden ships were helpless.”

It was the French, during a little remembered war against the Russians in 1855, who used armored floating gun platforms to batter in fortifications on the Dnieper river. Naval experts were not impressed immediately, for the floating batteries, little more than heavy barges, were not seaworthy or self propelled.

Finally, the British built an all-iron warship Warrior in 1858. But as war threatened over seccession, the United States and the Southern states in particular were in no condition to follow suit. There was only one plant in the South capable of creating thick steel plates, and they were far thinner than the four-and-one-half inches of protective shielding for Warrior’s guns.

Yet it was the South, with its long coast, its few industrial cities and its fear of blockade from a vastly larger Northern naval establishment, which most eagerly sought a secret weapon to make up for its lacks.

And Steven Mallory, the secretary of the nearly non-existent Confederate navy, saw the danger and opportunity and was first to push seagoing armor to the test of war.

The North ignored the possibilities of an unsinkable iron ship, relying on the superior size of its fleet, a policy which led to a bizarre result: it was the U.S. Department of the Army, not the Navy, which first made the decision to invest in ironclads, for use on Western rivers.

Even then, the North could have faced naval disaster except for one of those chance meetings which, as Mr. Nelson rightly says, “would in the end, change the course of world history.” For in its search for experts who could provide proof that ironclad ships could actually float, Northern authorities were advised to go to an expatriate Swede named John Ericsson, a genius who had already designed the screw propeller and a shot-proof ironclad ship — and had offered a model of it to Napoleon III, who did not want it.

The precursor of the famed Monitor sat gathering dust for six years. John Ericsson was a strong union supporter, and offered his services. Thus the South and the North entered the new era of naval warfare by utterly different paths — and with utterly different weapons.

The Southern dreadnought Virginia (formerly the sailing vessel Merrimack) was basically an ordinary ship, cut down and surmounted by a slanted wood and iron fort with familiar cannon ports. But as might be expected, the Ericsson

weapon was radical, like nothing before it. It looked more like a modern submarine than a traditional vessel, and employed Ericsson’s great innovation, a moveable round turret with curving sides and single gunport, the justly famed “cheesebox on a raft.”

Every schoolchild knows that the meeting of the two at Hampton Roads, March 9, 1862 was very important — but that’s about the extent of it. Mr. Nelson, appreciative of the chance to shine scholarship on one of America’s most famous scenes, takes us inside the two warring ironclads before and during that inconclusive battle.

The first remarkable point that the author makes is that both sides were utterly ignorant of how their ships would perform. The opposing sailors had no inkling whether their iron was shot proof — but battle soon proved that it was. As with every new invention, the problems with the radical Monitor were soon glaringly revealed.

Rust jammed the rotating mechanism; it became impossible to aim the Monitor’s gun accurately; the din inside the turret was almost unbearable; the vital pilothouse, a low deck structure which was the command and control center of the Monitor, was threatened by the ship’s own guns. The guns themselves were less powerful than Ericsson had recommended.

Then, curiously, the two combatants stopped, circled like dazed boxers, and began again to fire fruitlessly, their shots bouncing harmlessly off iron, leaving only dents. The most famous engagement of naval side of the Civil War ended with no clear victor.

But even a stalemate was a victory for the North, which was facing the prospect of losing its entire wooden fleet. And for the South, the battle proved only that a desperate effort must be made to destroy the new invention before it multiplied due to the North’s huge advantage in iron manufactures. Both sides quickly prepared plans to destroy the new naval weapons.

The Northern scheme was to ram the clumsy, slow Virginia after luring her into open waters. The South developed a plan to assault Monitor with small craft, jam her turret with wedges, and set fire to the ship with turpentine bombs. But the confrontation, the expected re-match of ironclad champions, never occurred.

The Monitor sank in a Cape Hatteras gale, ignominiously under tow. Her own commanders, bottled up on the James River by advancing Union forces destroyed Virginia. But the consequences were dire for the Confederacy, simply because the North, as a result of the battle of the ironclads, began to build similar ships in numbers. Hope of a Southern super-weapon, which could break the blockade and weaken the northern navy, faded.

Eventually, the stalemate between the two favored the Union. But as Mr. Nelson writes, the truly important event was the end of wooden warships. “Like so much of human history, they were swept away with staggering speed by the rise of the industrial revolution.” Industry and innovation would win the Civil War.

Duncan Spencer is a Washington writer.

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