January 2011, marked the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the United States Civil War. It has often been said that necessity is the mother of invention. This statement is especially true in times of war. The need to win propels man into creating new weapons and exploring new technology. The Civil War was the root of a number of inventions. In 1861, the Gatlin gun was introduced onto the battlefield.
The anesthetic chloroform was used extensively by the North. The war was a breeding ground for new technology: submarines, flame throwers, land mines, grenades, observation balloons, and repeating guns. All left their marks on history. However, technological advancement during the Civil War forever changed how man sails the seas.
The belief that iron can’t float was the general trend among people of the 1800’s. In a major altercation, the question was finally answered. On March 8, 1862, a clash of iron sparked a maritime revolution. The battle between the C.S.S. Virginia and the U.S.S. Monitor ended the use of wooden ships and launched the maritime age of iron.
The story of the first ironclads began at Hampton Roads where the Union forces had scuttled the U.S.S. Merrimac before retreating to the North. Southern forces resurrected the frigate and renamed it the C.S.S. Virginia. The Confederacy began working on the idea of cladding the resurrected ship in iron. Conducting tests to determine how thick the iron needed to be to withstand a direct hit from a cannon ball, the South added layer upon layer of iron to the Virginia. They covered exposed parts of the ship with a design that was much like a tent.
Northern spies learned of the iron cladding and of the tests. They delivered the news to the Union, who in turn, began to develop their own ironclad strategy.
John Ericsson, a Swedish immigrant, was the master of the design of the North’s unique ironclad. The world of inventing was not new to Ericsson. In 1826, while living in London, his genius blossomed as he developed and improved the transmission of power by compressed air.
He also engineered several new types of steam boilers and condensers for marine steam engines. These inventions enabled ships to travel greater distances. In a revolutionary move, Ericsson also placed warship engines below the waterline to protect them from shell fire. He also is credited with the steam fire engine and the design and construction of a steam locomotive. He created a device that separated salt from brine, superheated engines, flame or “caloric” engines. Nonetheless, it was his screw propeller which was recognized as his greatest contribution. That is, until he designed the U.S.S. Monitor, one of the world’s first ironclad ships.
The Monitor’s design was shocking to the top officials of the Union. They had never seen anything like it. By today’s standards, it resembled a submarine more than it did a battleship. Most of the Monitor was below the waterline. Except, for the pilothouse, a detachable smokestack, a few fittings, and the revolving nine foot cylinder-shaped gun turret which was referred to as a “cheese box on a raft”, about six inches of the vessel was actually above the waterline. The gun turret was eight inches of solid iron. The design meant that cannon fire was less likely to cause serious damage to Ericsson’s creation. The Monitor was the world’s first semi-submersible ship. Another design factor that startled the officials was the fact that the ironclad was equipped with only two 11”, 279 mm Dahlgreen smooth bore cannons. The sections below the water level were also unique. The draft of the ship was only ten feet and six inches which allowed the vessel to travel through shallower waters than any other vessel of the time.
As the sun rose on March 7, 1862, few realized that a plot was already unfolding that would change the maritime world forever. On that morning an array of Northern ships lay between Newport News and Fort Monroe at Point Comfort, Virginia. The Union ships were loaded with fire power. Collectively, the wooden warships had 291 guns. The C.S.S. Virginia carried the fire power of only ten guns.
The first test for the ironclad Virginia came from the U.S.S. Congress. With 50 guns, the Union frigate opened fire on the Virginia with a broadside attack. Smoke from the guns quickly filled the air. The crew of the Congress must have been shocked when the smoke cleared, and they saw the Virginia virtually unrattled. Nonetheless, they did not have long to ponder their thoughts as the Virginia returned fire. She blasted the Congress with a four-gun volley. Pieces of the wooden Congress flew through the air like matchsticks. With the Congress disabled, the Virginia wasted no time. She turned her attention to the Union sloop of war named the Cumberland. In this attack, the Virginia not only used her guns, she charged the ship with her mighty ram. The Cumberland, a once feared ship, was turned into a hearse as it sank carrying 100 crew members to their watery grave.
With the sinking of the Cumberland, the Virginia refocused her attention on the wounded Congress. The skipper of the Congress had tried to avoid total destruction of his ship by sailing her to a safer location where she could be repaired. In his desperate attempt, he made a crucial error. He ran her aground. Now she was a sitting duck, a perfect target for the returning Virginia and her fearless Captain Franklin Buchanan. Using his armament, the captain blasted away at the Congress until she surrendered.
Other Northern ships slipped through the waters of the Elizabeth, James, and the Nasemond rivers to the Congress’s aid. However, nature also played a role. As the U.S.S. Minnesota was making its way through the shallow channel of the James River, she, like the Congress, ran aground. A little farther up the river, the U.S.S. St. Lawrence met the same fate. Fearing he would also run aground, the captain of the U.S.S. Roanoke stopped, even further up the river. Located so close to the ocean, the James River was a tidewater river, one that has a tide where the water level is controlled by the rising and falling of the ocean tide. The three ships were trapped until morning when the tide would once again raise the water level, freeing their ships. The Minnesota lay helpless as the Virginia steamed her way. Once again, nature intervened. The dropping tide prevented the Virginia from getting close enough to the Minnesota to finish her off. Both crews knew the tide would return in the morning.
As the battle raged, the Monitor, which had taken only a hundred days to build, prepared for battle, despite the fact that no one of the Monitor had slept for two and a half days. To add to their problems, many of the crew were seasick. Traveling on the Monitor was a different experience from all other seafaring vessels of the time. By 9:00 p.m., the Monitor had reached Fort Monroe. All was still and quiet as the Monitor slipped past Hampton Roads even though the sky was brightly lit by the burning of the Congress six miles away.
Meanwhile, the grounded St. Lawrence had managed to break free. She joined the Roanoke up river, but the Minnesota remained helplessly trapped in shallow waters. The Monitor dropped anchor near the Minnesota around 1:00 a.m. in time to watch the death of the wooden giant. Paymaster William F. Keeler of the Monitor’s crew described the last moments of the Congress in a letter to his wife saying, “A volcano seemed to open instantaneously. Pieces of burning timbers, exploding shells, huge fragments of the wreck, grenades and rockets filled the air and fell sparkling and hissing in all directions.” The once great wooden warrior had ended in a spectacular explosion, though few realized the death of the Congress was a foreshadowing of the end of the reign of wooden ships.
As the sun rose on March 8, change loomed all around. The Virginia woke in a different situation than the day before. She had lost two of her guns in the battle with the Cumberland, and Catesby Jones, a lieutenant aboard the Virginia, had taken command following the injury of Captain Buchanan. As Lieutenant Jones prepared to finish off the Minnesota, he spied two big changes. A small, bizarre, round object which looked like a “tin can on a shingle”, floated near the Minnesota. Jones did not have long to ponder. The Monitor’s turret revolved and fired an 11” shot at the Virginia. Jones returned fire, and the first battle between opposing ironclads was underway.
Before the battle, gunners on the Monitor had never previously loaded nor fired the two guns. They had to learn as they went. The two iron maidens volleyed shots. The first shot hit the Monitor turret and made a depression several inches deep. Southerners found the Monitor to be a difficult target with so little of it above the water. The Virginia tried to ram the Monitor but was unsuccessful since the ram had been partially destroyed in the battle with the Cumberland. It was, however, successful in blasting away the pilothouse.
The Monitor, despite of the blinding of its Captain John Worden, protected the Minnesota. They fired shots at the Virginia causing some layers of the sheets of iron to slip from the ship. Using military precision, they targeted the wooden hull of the ship of the Virginia which lay unprotected just below the waterline.
Some claim the first maritime clash of iron ended in a stalemate. The Virginia gave up the assault and moved toward the Elizabeth River. Still, the South claimed victory in the destruction of the mighty Congress and Cumberland. March 8, 1862, had been the worst day the U.S. Navy had suffered and remained so until Pearl Harbor in 1941. With the Virginia in retreat and the saving of the Minnesota, the North also claimed victory. Both sides had proven that ships clad in iron could not only float, but they could survive a battle. However, historians doubt that few men actually involved in the battle understood the historic significance of their clash. That Sunday morning duel had foretold the end of the sea of wooden warships. A new Navy had been born.
After the battle, both the North and South built more ironclads. The North built a fleet called the Monitor Class. The Keokuk, the Kickapoo, the Carondelet, the Tennessee, and the Lexington also made their mark on history. Confederates built eight ironclads in 100 days. However, only the C.S.S. Vandorn survived. Iron had secured its place in the navy. However, the fates of the Virginia and the Monitor were short lived. The Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina on December 30, 1862 in a storm. She carried with her 16 of her crew. The Virginia, the once-scuttled Merrimack, was again scuttled to prevent it from falling into the hands of the enemy. Neither ship survived as long as even one year. Even so, they left ironclad legacy for the future.
The Virginia and the Monitor christened a new era. The great wooden ships forever faded from the military. Since the great clash of iron, the United States, as well as navies from other countries, have used iron as the primary material in military ship building. In fact, during the 20th century not one wooden military ship was built by the United States. A whole new class of iron maidens ruled the seas in the form of battleships, P.T. Boats, and even aircraft carriers.
In conclusion, the great question, “Can iron float?” was answered. The Virginia and the Monitor not only launched the world into an age of iron but also opened the door for a new question? If metal can float, can it also fly?