Civil War Ironclads
What were the ironclads?
Basically, an "ironclad" was a steam-propelled warship fitted with plates of iron armor. The idea of an armored warship was not new; the Vikings used to line the sides of their longships with their shields, several shipbuilders came up with the idea of a ship encased in lead, and, most famously, the Koreans built a "turtle" ship in the sixteenth century, armored with iron and propelled by oars. None of these really led to further warship designs, so they are only historical curiosities. The steam-propelled ironclads of the 1800s, on the other hand, led directly to the warships of today.
At about the same time, shipbuilders began to experiment with using iron instead of wood to build the hulls of ships. Having an iron hull didn't make a ship an ironclad, though. There were ironclads with wooden hulls, just as there were unarmored ships with iron hulls. As a comparison, consider the difference between a normal passenger car and a tank. They're both made of steel, but the steel body of the car isn't really armor, while the tank's steel is much thicker and is arranged in special ways to deflect shot.
There were several different types of ironclad, but the most common ones in the Civil War were casemate ironclads and monitors. A casemate was an armored box, sometimes with slanting sides, built to protect the guns and crew from enemy shot. Most Southern ironclads and many Union river ironclads were built with casemates. Most Southern ironclads also had strong, sharp bows to ram and sink enemy ships, so Southern ironclads were often simply called rams. A monitor was a low-freeboard steamship with a small number of heavy guns in a turret. Low-freeboard meant the deck of the ship was very close to the water, and a turret was an armored cylinder or box that rotated to aim the guns.
What did the ironclads do?
Warships are built for two main purposes: to fight other ships, and to attack forces on land. The first ironclads were built by the French to attack enemy forts during the Crimean War in the 1850s. Britain and France also began to build ironclads that were designed to fight other ships. Of course, the very first time that one ironclad fought another was when the Monitor and the Virginia (formerly known as Merrimack) fought in Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 9 March 1862. More has been written about this one battle than anything else the ironclads did, but it's important to remember that there were many more ironclads besides just those two, on both sides and in other countries.
Some major examples of the "other" ironclads were on the Mississippi River during the Civil War. These were very different from the monitors and rams along the coast. Sometimes, the river ironclads were just large riverboats with their passenger cabins and other peacetime furniture and equipment removed, armored and armed with heavy cannon. Others were built from scratch, but they still looked more like riverboats than regular ships.
The Confederacy used many of its ironclads to defend their harbors and rivers, since one ironclad could defeat a larger number of wooden warships, and most of the Union warships were wooden. Sometimes, this meant that a Southern ironclad could spend years in a single harbor, never seeing an enemy, but always around just in case it was needed.
On the other side, the Union used its ironclads to fight the Southern ironclads and to bombard Southern forts and land forces. This usually meant that the Northern ironclads moved around from place to place much more than the Southern ones, although this sometimes could be difficult; for instance, the Monitor sank in a storm while it was moving from Hampton Roads south to the coast of North Carolina.
Why are the ironclads important?
There are three main reasons. First, the ironclads were some of the first ships in history to be armored with metal and propelled by steam instead of by the wind. This development led directly to modern warships, so the ironclads were in some sense the great-grandparents of today's ships. And, to understand modern ships, one must first learn their history.
Second, the Civil War is an important part of American history. Even though most books are written about land battles such as Gettysburg, the naval war was an important part of the war, and the ironclads were a big part of the story of the naval war.
But most of all, the ironclads are simply very interesting. They looked very different from ships that came before and ships that came after. Their inventors were solving old problems in new ways, using new technology to design and build ships that were not possible before. And the courage and daring of the men who sailed on them and fought on them will always make them interesting too. There was nothing like them before, and there never will be again.
Recommended Basic Reading: So, you want to be a Civil War Navy expert? Read some of these books and you'll be well on your way. There are many more fine books listed in my bibliography, but I've sweated the list down to just a dozen (though there were about six more I wanted to include):
A list of the above books at Amazon.com
About this website
I became interested in the ironclads while I was in the fourth grade, when I read my first book about the Monitor and the Virginia. My interest continued to grow through high school and college, and has never let up. When I first had a chance to look around on the World Wide Web, I naturally looked for sites about ironclads. However, at the time, there just wasn't much available, so I decided to learn how to do a Web page about them myself. The first version of this page was posted to the Web in November 1996. Since then, it has continued to grow and change as I read and learn...