Movie Review: Ironclads

Made for television by Turner in 1991, the movie depicts events surrounding the clash of the Monitor and Virginia in Hampton Roads on 9 March 1862. Effects and miniatures are well done, but the movie suffers from several historical inaccuracies and an irrelevant subplot.


As the opening credits roll, a young sailor lays a powder train to blow the dry dock at Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk. He tells his comrades to run, then scuffs it out to prevent the explosion. He is put in irons and brought before a hearing to determine his sentence. A beautiful Southern woman named Betty, acting as a spy for the Union, intercedes on his behalf and arranges for him to be brought South, where he is received as a hero. He is shown a firing test in the development of the armor for the Merrimack. Lurking about is a swarthy young officer who is revealed to be with Confederate counterintelligence.

Meanwhile, the Union cabinet worries over countermeasures to the Southern ironclad, settling on John Ericsson's Monitor after a brief argument. Lincoln considers, then makes the final judgment with the quip, "All I have to say is what the girl said when she put her foot into the stocking. 'It strikes me there's something in it.'"

The Northern-traitor-turned-Southern-hero leaves in a small boat to carry a warning to the North about the strength of the Merrimack's armor plate. Betty begs him not to go, as she's fallen in love with the young executive officer of the ironclad, Catesby Jones (coincidentally, she is also in love with Joe Smith, Jr., commander of the Union frigate Congress). However, she is unable to convince the young man to reconsider, and he sets off across the Roads with his message.

The Merrimack prepares to leave Gosport. Betty warns Catesby that a message has been sent North about the armor plate, to which a furious Catesby retorts, "What can I do about it now?" Captain Buchanan announces to the crew that this is going to be a full-fledged combat mission, with the intention of driving off or destroying the entire blockading force in Hampton Roads. Simultaneously, lookouts aboard the Congress warn Smith that "that thing is a-comin' down at last." Buchanan and Smith give parallel speeches to their crews, both ending with "the (Union/Confederacy) expects every man to do his duty."

The Southern counterintelligence operative approaches Betty as the Merrimack clears the dock and arrests her; she had attempted to send a message North in the heel of her black maid's shoe, but it had been intercepted. She is placed in prison and condemned to hang as a spy.

The Merrimack exchanges fire with the Congress, then heads for the Cumberland, which she sinks with a few broadsides. She returns to the Congress, which can't bring more than a few guns to bear. After several broadsides (one of which kills Smith), Lieutenant Pendergast orders the colors to be struck. The Merrimack comes close in to the Congress but is fired upon by Union troops ashore, prompting Buchanan to climb up on deck in a rage and return fire with a rifle. He is quickly wounded and carried below, where he orders Catesby to take command and burn the Congress with hot shot. Jones does so, then attempts to head for the Minnesota, but is informed by the pilot that the tide is going out and that they risk being stranded in the Roads. Jones orders the ship to Sewell's Point for the night. In the darkness, lit by the burning Congress, Jones sees the silhouette of the Monitor glide by.

The cabinet in Washington is nervous, and Secretary of War Stanton is frantic, ordering barges of stone to be sunk in the Potomac to block the Merrimack's passage. Commodore Smith is handed a telegram announcing the fate of the Congress and concludes that his son is dead, since the colors had been struck and Joe would never do such a thing.

In the morning, the young man who scuffed out the powder train at Gosport is welcomed aboard the Monitor and, due to his services in bringing a message North, is commissioned as a midshipman by Worden, commanding the Union ironclad. The Merrimack is nearing the Minnesota, when the Monitor comes puffing around the other side of the helpless frigate. The ships duel for a time, ending finally when Worden is wounded by a shell exploding against the pilothouse, and both disengage.

The Union concludes that it has won, since the Monitor's mission was to protect the Minnesota, though Stanton grumbles that the Merrimack still controls the James River, hampering McClellan's attack up the Peninsula. An infuriated Ericsson bursts in to demand why only fifteen pounds of powder had been used in the Monitor's guns during the battle. Lincoln placates him, telling him that he had the thanks of the country, and more importantly-- his bill would be paid.

Betty is preparing herself for her hanging, but she is unexpectedly released by the counterintelligence agent, who says that Catesby Jones had written a letter establishing her innocence-- and anyway, he tells her, "I could never hang so beautiful a lady." Jones is much colder, telling her that since she was a spy they could have nothing more to do with each other, and that she should go North and stay there.

A narrator tells the fates of the Merrimack and Monitor, accompanied by brief visuals of the Merrimack burning and the Monitor sinking in a rough sea.

Historical Accuracy:

The movie succeeds in the broad outline but falters in many particulars. The entire subplot about the beautiful Southern spy Betty is fictitious, of course, and any event in which she plays a part is suspect; more on that to follow.

Both sides consistently refer to the Southern ironclad as the Merrimack. While this was certainly true for the North, the Southerners (particularly her crew) would have been much more likely to use the ship's recommissioned name, Virginia. It is possible that the screenwriter did this intentionally so as to not confuse the audience.

In reality, Ericsson had a much harder time convincing the Ironclad Board to accept the Monitor's design, and it took much more than Lincoln's crack about the girl and the stocking to initiate the ironclad's construction.

Buchanan's and Smith's speeches to their crews are so similar as to be a blunt instrument plotwise. The closing line of each is an echo of Nelson's famous signal at Trafalgar, which many naval officers did often quote, but there is no record of either Buchanan or Smith doing so, though Farragut was apt to echo the quote on more than one occasion. The thought of putting a Farragut line in Buchanan's mouth is faintly ironic, considering later events. In any case, the text of Buchanan's actual speech has survived (and is not much like the one in the movie); apparently, the screenwriter was unaware of it.

An indirect reference seems to state that the Cumberland and Congress are steam frigates. In reality of course, the Cumberland (a sloop) and the Congress were both sailing ships, which directly contributed to their destruction by inability to maneuver.

Despite good attention to some details (such as having Paymaster Keeler running messages in the Monitor) and some great special effects work, the battle scenes contain some glaring errors. The Merrimack is depicted as burning and sinking the Cumberland after a few broadsides, when in fact the Virginia rammed her before standing off and raking her. The ramming and the subsequent loss of the Virginia's iron beak was the actual cause of the bow leak referred to by Chief Engineer Ramsey several times during the movie; it is possible that the ramming sequence was edited out for time.

The Monitor is shown several times firing in the turret-forward position, which was not actually possible without demolishing her own pilothouse either by shooting it away or by concussion from the gunfire (monitor fire was known to start the deckplates in more than one instance). The Merrimack's chief engineer, Ramsey, mentions several times that the smokestack is perforated or gone, yet it looks intact in the visuals. Although the long shots of the Cumberland and Congress (visibly the same miniature) display a single row of gunports, in several close-ups it appears that two decks of guns are being run out.

The scene in Lincoln's cabinet at the conclusion of the first day's battle actually took place the following morning; the screenwriter apparently decided to advance it by a few hours so as not to confuse audience members unfamiliar with the battle. The entire cabinet scene at the end is fictitious, and Ericsson would never have been so easily placated just by telling him his bill would be paid (this was a weak attempt at a closing joke, obviously). The movie also missed an opportunity here to mention that more monitors would be built.

The Beautiful Spy Subplot:

The entire plotline about the spy intrudes so much and so often into the film that it often becomes difficult to tell if the story is about the ironclads or Betty. It is very reminiscent of a minor plotline in the book Caleb Pettingill, USN, coincidentally also beginning at the destruction of Gosport. The basic story is plausible enough and could have been worked into the movie much better, but it is mishandled. Too many of the major characters (including historical persons) are shown falling head over heels for Betty (and for little apparent reason). The sheer irrelevancy of the subplot is highlighted by the fact that Betty spends the entire battle in a Southern prison feeling sorry for herself, and this does not affect the main plot an iota. Her messages change nothing at all. She could have easily been removed from the movie and nothing would have changed, save the resulting lack of an attractive female character.


...several facets of the film are truly outstanding. The miniatures of the ironclads are spectacular and accurate (although the Monitor looks just a bit too big in relation to the Minnesota), and the sight of the Monitor's silhouette gliding in front of the burning Congress is almost hair-raising (and accurate; several Confederate officers reported seeing the Northern ironclad in just that fashion). The brief battle scenes aboard the doomed Cumberland are haunting. The interior views of both ironclads are detailed and highly interesting, and much attention was paid to the routine of loading and firing the guns. The rotation speed of the Monitor's turret is just about right, and she very correctly bears no smokestacks during the battle (though often portrayed with them in paintings). The title sequence depicting the evacuation of Gosport is exciting and essentially accurate, though the reason the drydock wasn't blown up has never been established in reality.

The use of music is good ("Lorena" can be heard several times under dialogue in several romantic moments), the uniforms are essentially accurate, and many of the actors were well-made up to resemble their historical antecedents (except for Catesby Jones, who looks nothing like his photographs, and Lincoln, who is always a difficult person to portray since his face is so familiar). There are many accurate historical references, with just a few anachronisms (such as Stanton talking about McClellan's failure in the Peninsula Campaign, which in fact was just getting underway at the time). The dialogue, naturally, is modern, but this is not an important issue.

In sum, the movie is a good attempt at a difficult subject. It fails in many areas where the later Gettysburg succeeds (notably, the screenwriters of the latter did not attempt to write a beautiful actress into the movie, proving that historical truth works just fine for drama). It does stand out as the only example of ironclads in film. If only a few of the errors had been corrected and the spy subplot trimmed or removed, it would have been considerably better.

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