- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 25, 2006


By Paul Clancy

International Marine/McGraw Hill, $24.95, 266 pages, illus.


Contrary to Ecclesiastes, a “new thing under the sun” appears from time to time, and when that happens it makes history pirouette, or turn turtle. In “Ironclad,” Paul Clancy relates such a moment in 1862, then takes a 140-year leap forward in a vibrant, high-tech/high-grit sequel.

The title character is a naval ship of a revolutionary genre, two ships in fact, that on their near-maiden voyages baptized each other with fire. In the historical instant, these ships seemed to set a new course for the fate the Union or the Confederacy, then they changed course again and transformed naval warfare.

Early in the Civil War, Confederate engineers in Norfolk reclaimed the scuttled Yankee steam frigate USS Merrimack, renamed her CSS Virginia and clad her sloping topsides with four inches of armor plate. When she ventured into battle on March 8, 1862, she decimated the blockading Union fleet and came through unscathed herself.

As expected on one side of the conflict, and as feared on the other, Virginia’s armor proved immune to Yankee cannon while she wreaked her will with such ease that the annihilation of the Union Navy seemed possible. Had that occurred, there would have been no blockade of Southern ports, no loss of cotton sales in Europe to fuel Dixie’s economy, no isolation of the western states beyond the Mississippi. The War for Southern Independence might have been won.

Paul Clancy doesn’t dwell on this great what-if, because just as Merrimack was getting its new skin, a canny inventor in Brooklyn shrugged off a reputation clouded by memories of the Navy’s first steam-powered ship. (It worked as advertised, but during a demonstration cruise for VIPs a gun exploded, killing the secretaries of state and navy.)

John Ericsson’s new contrivance, dubbed a “cheese box on a shingle,” was an ungainly vessel with a deck mere inches above the waterline and a revolving turret housing two enormous cannon that threw 168-pound balls.

“The upper hull, with armored deck and sides, covered the lower [underwater]hull like the top of a hatbox,” Mr. Clancy writes. “It had all manner of clever machinery: a low-slung steam engine that drove a four-bladed propeller and smaller, separate donkey engines to revolve the turret. The engines pulled fresh air into the living quarters and created a draft for the furnaces. By one estimate, the strange-looking vessel housed 40 patentable inventions … [including] the world’s first underwater flushing toilets.”

The Monitor was small for a warship: 173 feet overall and 41 feet abeam, weighing nearly 1,000 tons — 120 tons in the iron turret alone.

Virginia, nee Merrimack, was nearly 100 feet longer and armed with ten big guns. “Secretary of War Edwin Stanton was beside himself,” Mr. Clancy writes, terrified at the prospect of her “ripping through the rest of the blockade and steaming into virtually any harbor in the North,” to lay waste to cities from Washington to Boston.

So Monitor was pressed into service before taking a shakedown cruise, even before trying her guns. About as seaworthy as a piggybank, she had to be towed down Chesapeake Bay to Hampton Roads where, on the morning of March 9, she waited for Virginia to sally out to finish off the blockading fleet. Virginia had the advantage of size, Monitor that of agility thanks to her revolving turret.

No matter; the ironclads spent four hours firing iron balls at each other’s iron armor, then withdrew in a stalemate without the loss of a single sailor’s life, and a point was proved. No more capital ships would be built of wood anywhere; naval warfare would be waged in iron ships henceforth.

In December, Monitor sailed for the Carolinas to attack Confederate ports, just as Stanton had feared her adversary would attack northern ones. Again, she was towed — this time around the Outer Banks and Cape Hatteras into the teeth of a gale on New Years Eve.

Taking on water that night, she foundered, her fires quenched, her deck swept by breaking seas. The tow ship rescued most of Monitor’s officers and crew, while 16 perished when she sank, turret down, in 240 feet of water.

The story’s sequel began in 1973 when Monitor was located by researchers using sonar and loran, inventions that John Ericsson would have loved. Submersibles soon visited the disintegrating wreck, but nearly 30 years passed before the recovery of the storied turret, an icon of mythic dimensions, as Mr. Clancy insists too often. A bit of a gringo, and sometimes over-the-top enthusiastic, still he spins a white-knuckle yarn, a feat in itself because we know in advance how it turns out.

His cast of characters is broad: civilian engineers and historians, forensic pathologists, museum curators, NOAA archaeologists, Navy divers who adopt the project as a training exercise in deepwater rescue and recover.

Technologies play major roles: digital imaging and saturation diving, which allows people to stay down for days. The hardware is splendid too, from the divers’ helmet-mounted TV cameras to a huge eight-legged “Spider” which is dropped by a 245-foot crane from an anchored barge to embrace the 20-foot-round turret and haul it up — even as hurricanes threatened in 2002.

The coordinated effort, spearheaded by the Navy and commanded by Capt. Bobbie Scholley, USN, is a feat of electronics, engineering, brains, heart and brawn.

“Ironclad” tells two stories in counterpoint through the simple device of alternating chapters that reveal Monitor as a living ship and that relate the Herculean efforts to raise her carcass — along with a wealth of artifacts and the remains of two sailors who went down with the ship.

It bears mention that both stories are enriched with illustrations; this book is made the more intriguing by the gratuitous good use of scattered maps, drawings, paintings, engravings and photographs.

One story, embellished with dispatches and letters to wives and family back home, tells of American ingenuity, discipline and valor during the Civil War, and then the tragedy of one ship drowning. The second story tells of modern hardware and know-how, of the strange bedfellows made by a Navy agenda, NOAA oversight and a historical mission.

It tells of a successful military/civilian/government consortium led by a distaff officer, of a hard-charging Navy unit still manned by brave seamen — and now by brave seawomen too, which might be another new thing under the sun.

Philip Kopper writes often about the arts, science and history.

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