Originally created 07/18/04

First metal warships duke it out in 'Reign of Iron'



"Reign of Iron" is the story of the first naval battle between two iron ships - precisely, one iron ship, and one wooden ship covered with iron plates.

The story is especially important because the battle, fought during the Civil War, made wooden warships obsolete.

James L. Nelson tells this story with clarity and literary skill, and with such ease and order that the reader feels he is attending a dissertation on history given by a consummate lecturer.

The Confederate ship Virginia was the reincarnation of the USS Merrimack, an auxiliary steam frigate that the Union had burned to try to keep it from falling into Confederate hands.

It was rebuilt from the waterline up with a stout wooden slant-sided casemate covered with plates of rolled iron; gun ports were cut into its sides. It was fitted with an underwater ram, and its masts and sails were removed. The Virginia had a large, cranky engine that had already been deemed unreliable when the ship was in the Union navy.

The Monitor had a hull built entirely of iron plate, flat as a shingle and barely 3 feet above the waterline. Its deck was interrupted by only a small pilot house, and a huge cylindrical turret with two smoothbore cannon that could be fired in any direction.

The Virginia was built upon the salvaged Merrimack because the Confederacy lacked the industrial capacity to construct new ships. The Monitor was the brainchild of Swedish-born John Ericsson, an engineer of towering genius with an ego-fueled personality to match, whose many inventions included the screw propeller.

Nelson reconstructs with great detail the events leading to the showdown between the two unusual, untested ships. Focusing alternately on the Confederacy and the Union, Nelson cites official documents, contemporary newspaper reports, and personal letters and other writings of soldiers, sailors, bureaucrats and others involved in the events.

The battle between the ironclads occurred at Hampton Roads, Va., on March 8, 1862, and proved indecisive. Although the Virginia had earlier sunk a Union ship and disabled another, its confrontation with the Monitor left no clear-cut victor. Both ships suffered minor damage and few casualties.

However, the presence of the Monitor, along with other Union ships at Hampton Roads, prevented further worthwhile use of the Virginia and it was destroyed to keep it from being captured by the Union.

The Monitor, an engineering marvel in its day, had many flaws, most notable its being unseaworthy in any but the calmest waters. On Dec. 31, 1862, it sank.

"Reign of Iron" is a worthy addition to any naval or historical library.



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