Questions and Answers


1. How many ironclads were there?

The Union laid down fifty-two coastal ironclads (of which all but four were monitors), and commissioned twenty of these before 1 May 1865; on the Western rivers, twenty-four ironclads were begun and twenty-two were commissioned. On the Southern side, some fifty-nine ironclads were begun, and twenty-four were completed.

2. How many ironclads were sunk in action?

Very few. The normal fate for a Southern ironclad was to be destroyed to prevent her capture. On the coast, the USS Keokuk, a bizarre little non-monitor design, was sunk as a result of gunfire from the attack on Fort Sumter in April 1863; the only other ironclad to be sunk by gunfire was the USS Cincinnati, a riverine gunboat, by fire from Vicksburg, but she was raised and put back into action shortly afterward. A much more deadly threat was the naval mine ("torpedo" in the terms of the time); the USS Cairo, a sister of the Cincinnati, became the first warship in the world to be sunk by a mine on 12 December 1862. The Union monitors Patapsco, Tecumseh, Osage, and Milwaukee were all sunk by mines, as well as the Baron de Kalb (ex-St. Louis), and the Confederate Albemarle was sunk by a spar torpedo mounted on a steam launch.

Ramming was also quite effective, especially in the constricted Western rivers; Southern rams claimed the Indianola, Mound City, and the often-unfortunate Cincinnati, though the latter two were raised and put back into action. So, of a total of sixty-six ironclads on both sides combined, eleven were sunk in action (as noted, the Cincinnati was sunk twice).

3. What is a "monitor?"

A monitor in the Civil War sense was an armored, steam-propelled vessel of very low freeboard (about a foot from the waterline to the deck in most cases), mounting a few heavy guns in one or more revolving armored turrets. Of course, they took their name from the original USS Monitor, which was named so by designer John Ericsson because it would serve as a "monitor," or reminder, of American naval power and ingenuity. Some misinformed reporters and other persons tended to refer to all Union ironclads as "monitors," but this was not always the case. On the flip side, not all Southern ironclads were fitted as rams, but their general outward similarity to the Virginia caused all of them to be referred to as "rams."

4. What is it really? The Merrimack, the Merrimac, or the Virginia?

It's the Virginia. The USS Merrimack was a wooden steam frigate launched by the United States at Boston on 14 June 1855. She was named for the river that had originally scoured out Boston Harbor before being diverted in its course by glacial activity. A quick check of the map will reveal that the correct spelling is "Merrimack," with a K. The steam frigate Merrimack was scuttled and burned at Gosport Navy Yard (modern-day Portsmouth) near Norfolk, Virginia on 12 April 1861. Her hulk was raised by the Confederates on 30 May 1861, and she was placed in the drydock left intact (for reasons that are not entirely clear) by retreating Union forces.

Initially, it was not quite certain what was to be done with the vessel, but it seemed a shame to break up the mostly-intact hull and machinery, which even though it was faulty, represented a major asset for the industry-poor Confederacy. In July 1861, work began onher conversion into an ironclad to the design of John M. Brooke and John L. Porter. The conversion was essentially completed on 13 February 1862, and she was commissioned the CSS Virginia on 17 February 1862. This date is important; from then on, the most correct name to call the ironclad vessel is the Virginia. Northerners, not knowing of the new name, continued to call her the "Merrimack," as did many Southern naval officers who remembered the fine old wooden frigate.

5. Were Union riverine ironclads copies of Southern ironclads?

No. James B.Eads submitted his first plans for a riverine gunboat mere days after Fort Sumter was fired on. On 16 May 1861, Commander John Rodgers and Naval Constructor Samuel M. Pook were ordered to Cincinnati, Ohio and Cairo, Illinois, to oversee thecreation of a riverine fleet. In late June 1861, Pook greatly revised an earlier design by Chief Naval Constructor John Lenthall, and this became the plan for the "City" class ironclad gunboats, which went under contract for construction on 7 August 1861, with Eads as low bidder on the contract; the first of these was launched in October 1861, four months before the Virginia's completion. Meanwhile, the rough sketches and models for a possible Southern ironclad (not yet connected with the hulk of the Merrimack) had been presented to Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory on 23 June 1861. It is impossible that Pook knew about the details of these plans.

At any rate, the resemblance is a superficial one, deriving entirely from the sloping casemate. The Union riverine ironclads were designed to fill a completely different role than the Virginia, intended for bows-on fighting rather than broadside. It is also notable that the Virginia's front and rear ends of her casemate were rounded rather than being square across; the first Southern ironclad with a square-cut casemate to even come close to reaching operational status was the Louisiana in April 1862, by which time the "City" class ironclads had fought at Forts Henry and Donelson, outflanked Island No.10, and were bombarding Fort Pillow just above Memphis.

So where did the similarities in the design of the casemate come from? Aside from the obvious ballistic advantage of deflecting a shot up at an angle, it is most likely that both Pook and the Brooke-Porter team were aware of the French floating batteries that had bombarded Kinburn on the Black Sea during the Crimean War in 1854-- which had casemates.

6. "The Duel Between the First Ironclads"

Despite being the title of a great book by William C. Davis on the Monitor-Virginia fight, it's inaccurate. It was instead, the "first duel between ironclads," for earlier ironclads had fought forts and wooden vessels, but never each other. The Virginia was not even the first Southern ironclad; that honor goes to the odd little turtlebacked Manassas, which went into action on 12 October 1861 below New Orleans, more than four months before the Virginia was completed. The French floating batteries at Kinburn were the first ironclad vessels to see action, though these were not really outfitted as ships; the title of "the first ironclad" is generally given to the French armored frigate La Gloire of 1859.

7. The Monitor or Virginia: Which won?

This has been debated since the time that the guns fell silent on the afternoon of 9 March 1862. Many theories have been advanced, mostly drawing artificial distinctions between "tactical" and "strategic" victories, or arguments over which ship left the battle area first. Itquite simply was a draw in all senses; neither vessel could gain an advantage over the other, and each held the other's operations in check in the months to follow. The existence of the Virginia did cause McClellan to look to the York River rather than the James River for his advance on Richmond, but there is not much evidence that he would have moved any faster in his advance than he did if the Virginia had never existed. Drawn battles are always frustrating for both sides, and there may be some emotional satisfaction in selecting certain conditions in order to declare a particular ship "the winner," but there really was no winner in this one.

8. Was the Monitor a superior design, since it eventually evolved into the battleship?

This is only true in the broadest sense, in that battleships mounted turrets and were armored. Monitors as a distinct type were constructed right up until the end of the nineteenth century, alongside the new battleships. The actual modern battleship grew from the "armored cruiser" (sometimes "protected cruiser"), which derived from the armored frigate, such as the La Gloire and her ilk. Many navies experimented with turrets for their big armored warships, but after some striking failures, most abandoned the turret as a gun platform for some years. When the turret reappeared, it was structurally quite different from the turret on the Monitor.

9. Were Southern ironclads failures because of poor construction?

If the "poor-construction" myth were true, then the Union would never have mounted such efforts to capture the Southern ships whenever they could. Two ironclads in particular, the Atlanta and the Tennessee, served actively in the Union Navy for quite some time after their capture. The Eastport was captured before her completion, and the materials collected for her were used to complete her as a Union riverine ironclad. The Columbia might have been used by the Union if captured earlier, but she only fell into Union hands when the Confederates evacuated Charleston in 1865, when the war was clearly in its final stages. Even Cushing's raid that destroyed the Albemarle had as one objective the capture, if possible, of the Southern ironclad. Many Southern ironclads were destroyed to prevent their capture by the Union for good reason; the Union happily took into service as many rebel ironclads as fell into their hands. The image of "poor construction" derives largely from the poor engines of many Southern ironclads, and their generally rough finish inside; most were actually quite well-built structurally.

10. Would the Laird Rams have raised the blockade, had they been commissioned as Confederate warships?

The Laird rams (Scorpion and Wyvern in British service; originally intended names were North Carolina and Mississippi) would certainly have presented a major problem for the Union had they ever actively flown the Confederate flag. But it is most likely wishful thinking that these two ships could have raised the blockade. If they operated abroad, they could have only functioned as "ironclad Alabamas," and their high coal consumption would have made them much less effective than the wooden Confederate cruisers. If they operated along the Southern coast, sooner or later they would have had to run into port for fuel, ammunition, and supplies, and Union monitors could have bottled them up quite effectively. The relatively high sides of these vessels were armored with from three to four and a half inches of iron, which was insufficient to ward off 15" gunfire, and by the earliest time these ships could have been ready (winter of 63-64), the Union already had ten monitors mounting at least one 15" gun each in service, along with the triple-turreted Roanoke, with ten more monitors rapidly nearing completion, all bearing 15" guns. The Laird ships had drafts of greater than 16 feet-- more than the Union New Ironsides-- and would have found Southern harbors to be very constrictive battlefields indeed.

11. Was the Union Navy the strongest in the world at the end of the war, due to its high numbers of ironclads?

Possibly true on paper, but again, this is wishful thinking. The vast majority of those ironclads could never hope to survive an ocean crossing. At best, the Union Navy was a powerul coast-defense and blockading force, and the United States Navy was never in a position to directly challenge a European navy until the 1890s (this is why the naval victories over Spain in 1898 were so striking to European observers). European navies operating along the American coast in the 1860s and 1870s would have been at a distinct disadvantage, but the American Navy could not hope to command the sea lanes; it is notable that the USA began to build fast (17 knots +) commerce raiders a la the Alabama in the late 1860s. By the early 1870s, the US had scrapped the majority of the old Union ironclads, relying instead upon wooden vessels for naval service through the 1880s.

12. With all these other ironclads, how come all we ever hear about is the Monitor and the Virginia ("Merrimack")?

A few possible reasons. First of all, that particular battle was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, despite its ambiguous result, since it was a highly dramatic affair, and the first time that ironclads had fought one another. Second, there were a number of officers onboth sides that day that went on to serve on or command later ironclads. Third, this battle was widely publicized by many written works after the war, notably Battles and Leaders.

But the bottom line must be that the combined Union and Confederate personnel strength amounted to less than 100,000 at the highest, and this seemed insignificant in comparison to the millions of individuals involved in the land actions; naval operations are widely regarded as being on the periphery of the war, which is rather startling in view of the hundreds of naval battles and combined operations that took place. There was no decisive, dramatic naval battle in the sense of a Salamis, Trafalgar, or Midway, so perhaps the study of the naval history of the war has suffered as a result.

13. A popular one! How many hits did the Monitor and Virginia inflict on each other in the battle of 9 March 1862?

The Virginia struck the Monitor twenty-two or twenty-three times; the Northern ship struck her adversary approximately twenty times. The mobility of the Monitor's guns was partially compensated for by the Virginia's larger number of guns-- they were actually fairly evenly matched, overall.

14. Who commanded the Monitor and the Virginia when they fought?

The commander of the Monitor was Lieutenant John L. Worden, who had also been the first official prisoner of war some time earlier. He went on to recover from his injuries during the battle, though he never regained his sight in one eye, and later commanded the monitor Montauk. The Virginia's commander, Captain Franklin Buchanan, had been wounded the previous day, so the Virginia was skippered by her executive officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones.

15. Where can I find plans or builders' drawings of the ironclads?

I understand that the National Archives maintains plans of many Civil War era ironclads, though I've never used that source myself. I consistently recommend Donald L. Canney's The Old Steam Navy Volume 2: The Ironclads, 1842-1885 from the Naval Institute Press, which contains many fine drawings and photos, along with a wealth of historical and semitechnical detail. Unfortunately, there simply aren't corresponding plans or drawings of Southern ironclads as far as I know (Canney's book only covers Union ironclads)... hopefully, the Naval Institute will release a companion volume dealing with the Confederate vessels.

16. What colors were the ironclads?

This varied widely. Southern ironclads had no overall consistent color scheme. The Charleston ironclads (Palmetto State, Chicora, Charleston, Columbia) were painted a pale blue, whereas the Savannah ironclads (Georgia, Atlanta, Savannah, and probably Milledgeville) were painted black. The James River Squadron ironclads seem to have been a sort of butternut or brown. All of these color schemes were quite likely the result of using whatever paint was available, rather than being planned. The unpainted Arkansas was a deep rusty red, due to its armor having been immersed in the Yazoo River for some time before mounting. (This was actually an asset, as it nearly matched the ruddy color of the Mississppi's banks, giving her some accidental camouflage.)

Union vessels frequently bore painted markings of various colors to identify individual ships of a given class. The "City" class ironclads bore painted rings on their chimneys, and the Passaic class monitors had their stacks and turrets painted different colors; in both cases, this was necessary, as the ships were identical and some method of distinguishing among them was needed. Though much different in appearance from any other ironclad, the Essex had her own rather flamboyant markings: a large S painted on one stack and an X on the other.

Contemporary accounts often mention Union ironclads as black in color. This is somewhat puzzling, as a look at photos seems to show them as being somewhat lighter in color than simple black. My own conjecture is that they were painted in a variety of shades of deep grey, and that the "black" in contemporary reports might have been an exaggeration. The standard "battleship grey" of the U.S. Navy was not introduced until years later.

17. Which ship was better? The Monitor or the Virginia?

This question is asked often; the best response is that it's largely a matter of point of view. The two vessels were intended for different purposes and were designed and constructed under very different conditions. Since their engagement ended in a draw (even the most vehement fans of either ship must admit that even as a victory, it was rather incomplete), the question remains unanswered, and IMHO, moot.

However, if the question is expanded to include all the ironclads on both sides, the Union quite clearly weighs in with the advantage. Later monitors were better-designed and stronger and showed to advantage in most situations (bombardment of shore positions being an important exception), while later Southern ironclads tended to be smaller and weaker. But quite aside from the qualities of the individual vessels is the important factor of tactical and strategic doctrine. The Union ironclads were gradually woven into the overall fabric of Northern naval strategy, working alongside conventional warships and units ashore, whereas the Southern ironclads were frequently forced to operate alone or handicapped by other considerations, often due to their being virtually ignored by the Confederate high command. (The brilliant Confederate success at Plymouth NC, where the Albemarle's coordination with General Hoke's forces resulted in a significant victory, shows what might have happened had Confederate doctrine kept pace with the Union's.) In the final analysis, the way in which the ships were used was more important than any consideration of individual merit.

Got a question to add? Write to Mark F. Jenkins.

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