Harry Harrison's Stars & Stripes Forever
A Naval Review
* * * SOME SPOILERS * * *
I am frustrated with Harry Harrison.
Harrison has written many of my favorite science fiction books. I have been at Jason dinAlt’s side as he survived Deathworld; I have tried to catch the Stainless Steel Rat; and I have fought dinosaurs West of Eden. But now Harrison has ventured into the Civil War, and much less successfully.
In an interview, Harrison draws a sharp distinction between science fiction and alternate history (AH), which he defines as a distinct genre. He is not alone; alternate history stories have always been popular, right back to de Camp’s Lest Darkness Fall. But Harrison says quite plainly (on the second to last page of the paperback copy of Stars & Stripes), “An AH writer cannot take liberties with fact; at least not up to the point where the story begins—the twist that changes history.” This is simply too good a challenge for even an amateur historian to pass up. Quite simply, Harrison did not do his homework when it came to the naval side of Stars & Stripes Forever.
This is serious. Forget the whole specter of Sherman becoming the darling hero of the South; forget the coalition of Lincoln and Jeff Davis; they’re spectacular, sure, but a large part of the action happens on the water, and here is where some spectacular faults show through. Any story in which the British Empire attacks North America is bound to have a strong naval flavor; Britannia did rule the waves in the mid-19th century, after all. This makes significant errors of naval fact indefensible, and Harrison commits them in droves.
The central thesis of the book—that the United States could have defeated a British attack in the 1860s—I’m not going to argue with, for I feel the point is valid. However, it seemed awfully easy in S&S, far easier than it would have been in reality, and Harrison depends on some very fortuitous plotting. Furthermore, with the combined Union and Confederate forces pitching the British out and seizing Canada in the first book... what’s he planning for the sequel? An invasion of Britain?
But more to the point, Harrison plays fast and loose with the navies of the time, and this is most serious, for a substantial part of the plot depends upon naval action.
First, and perhaps least serious, Buchanan was wounded shortly after the Congress attempted to surrender at Hampton Roads, and Catesby Jones took command thereafter. (I will say this: Harrison does a pretty good job of recounting the tales of the Monitor and Virginia; he has clearly done some reading about them, at least.)
Harrison confuses the Louisiana with the Mississippi. The Louisiana actually was completed in time to oppose Farragut’s passage of the forts below New Orleans, although not very effectively, since she was immobile. The vessel that was set afire and left to drift on the river past the city was the Mississippi.
The British attack on Biloxi, Mississippi is particularly rife with factual errors. He clearly states that the entire British naval force other than the ironclad Warrior is driven by sail alone. This was simply not true; by 1860, the British had over fifty steam ships-of-the-line and more than fifty steam frigates and corvettes (sloops); the last remnants of the sailing navy were rapidly being taken out of service. Far from being the hidebound, old fashioned navy of Napoleonic days, the Royal Navy was one of the most energetic and professional navies in the world, modernizing at a breakneck pace.
The British navy sets out to attack Deer Island, the Union blockade naval base off of Biloxi, but make a navigational error and attacks Biloxi itself instead. Their navigation was farther off than they knew—the Union base was on Ship Island, not Deer Island. Furthermore, how did the Warrior get there at all? She drew 26 feet of water, yet there was less than 19 feet of water near Biloxi and Deer Island. According to the report of the Blockade Strategy Board (ORN I:16, pp. 618-630), the deepest passes through the islands are 21 feet deep. Near Mississippi City, only a few miles west of Biloxi, the blockaders New London and DeSoto were unable to pursue two Confederate steamers due to shallow water, and yet the deeper of these two ships only drew 16’2”, and the USS Montgomery reported that the water near Horn Island, just east of Biloxi, was too shallow for maneuvering, and the Montgomery drew only 15’6”. Clearly, the Warrior would have run hard aground long before getting anywhere close to Deer Island.
Harrison, clearly innocent of any knowledge of the Royal Navy, simply invents ship names for the British fleet. The warships at Biloxi include the Royal Oak, Java, and Southampton; Royal Oak was not yet launched in April 1862, and I can find no record of any frigate named Java or Southampton at that time.
The combat between the Warrior and the Monitor is highly suspicious; the brave little Union ironclad defeats the big bad Brit with ease and grace. Harrison is correct, though, when he cites the weakness of the Warrior’s stern, for that was a known design fault. He is also correct in stating that the Monitor’s guns could have penetrated the Warrior’s armor, for the 11” Dahlgren could in fact penetrate four and a half inches of armor plate over 20 inches of solid oak, which was heavier armor than what the Warrior carried. But the Warrior would have been a much tougher customer in reality. For one thing, the penetration cited was achieved in a firing test under controlled conditions; a sea battle is a notoriously uncontrolled situation, and both attacker and target are in motion. (Of course, the Warrior would have been entirely immobile, hard aground in waters ten feet too shallow for her, but I’ll let that pass for the moment.) More importantly, however, British gunnery would most certainly have been more of a factor; monitors were highly shot-resistant but were by no means invulnerable, as Du Pont found out at Charleston. I’m not saying that the Monitor could not possibly have defeated the Warrior, but it certainly wouldn’t have been that easy.
And by the way—notice that the Monitor is in action off the Mississippi coast. The seas off of Cape Hatteras must have been pretty calm.
In the meantime, a British squadron sails up the Potomac to shell Washington, including three ships of the line, the Royal Oak, Prince Consort, and Repulse. (Wait a second. Wasn’t the Royal Oak just at Biloxi?) This presents two major problems. First of all, all three ships were still under construction at that point, and all three were actually ironclads. Secondly, all three had a draft of 24 feet. If the CSS Virginia had no chance of passing Kettle Bottom Shoals and Mattawoman Muds below Washington with her 23-foot draft, how did the British ships manage it?
Lincoln and Davis could not have met on the River Queen. That ship was not chartered by the Army until December 1864.
And here we come to the ironclad Avenger, and into the realm of actual science fiction, for the Union simply was not capable of constructing such a ship at that time. (Neither was Britain, for that matter.) The ship is described as a twin-turret monitor mounting four 400-pounder Parrott rifles firing incendiary shells and capable of a speed of 15 knots. Nearly every feature about this is wrong. Ericsson was a dedicated foe of the multiple-turret idea, maintaining that for the weight of a second turret, one could build a single much better protected turret with larger guns (and, from a strict engineering standpoint, he was entirely correct, though this ignored actual operational factors such as what one does if the turret machinery breaks down); the building of the USS Puritan foundered on exactly that question, one turret or two. Ericsson was successful in making his most advanced monitor, the USS Dictator, a single-turret design. All multiple-turret monitors were designed and built by other people; Ericsson would have none of it.
There was no such thing as a 400-pounder Parrott rifle. Oh, it was possible, certainly; it would have had a caliber of about 13 inches and a weight of around 30,000 to 35,000 pounds, which was less than the 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbore. The largest Parrott rifles actually constructed were 200-pounders (called 300-pounders by the Army, but it was the same gun). It is utterly unclear where Harrison got the idea for incendiary shells “filled with an inflammable substance which, when the shell is exploded, burns for thirty minutes without the possibility of being quenched;” this sounds like white phosphorus. I have never run across the idea until I read Stars & Stripes Forever, and would be very interested to know where he came up with that one.
The Avenger travels at 15 knots, which puts her in some pretty rarified company; no American-built warship could match it. The Dictator had been designed for 15 knots, but the best she ever made was nine. The Wampanoag and her sisters could do better than 15 knots, but the first of these did not enter service until 1866 and were unarmored, and some blockade runners could make better than 17 knots, but were of much lighter construction.
In the climactic Battle of the Potomac, the British fleet attempts to “cross the T,” just like Nelson did at Trafalgar. Wait a second... Nelson did not “cross the T” at Trafalgar; in fact, just the opposite, allowing his own T to be crossed while his ships moved to break the enemy battle line. And again, we have ships named Speedfast, Chatelain, and Courageous, which Harrison simply made up; I can find no British ship of those names in the Navy List of the time.
In an afterword, Harrison defends some of his points, claiming that it could have been a true story. He notes, “One week after the battle between the Virginia and the Monitor the North began construction of twelve more Monitor class vessels. They were to be armed with incendiary shells...” What he is referring to, of course, are the Passaic-class monitors, which were nothing like the Avenger (and here again we have the mysterious incendiary shell idea). (Incidentally, in the illustrations, the Avenger looks strikingly similar to a conjectural ironclad design much favored by the artists at Harper’s Weekly, a nice touch.)
Harrison says that an Alternate History author cannot take liberties with fact, but it seems quite clear that he has done just that.
Return to Ironclads and Blockade Runners