Thursday, October 20, 2011

Before the Monitor – Development of Naval Technology

We have seen over the past few months how both the Confederate and Union armies began constructing iron plated vessels to either break or preserve the blockade. These construction efforts resulted in the first ironclad against ironclad battle in world history between the Monitor and the Merrimac in March, 1862. Some have mistakenly identified these ships as the first ironclads, but if we look at the naval history of the previous decades, we find this is was not the case. For example, the Young People's History of the United States from 1916 contained this:
Until our Civil War, all ships, even ships of war, were made of wood. Now, they are made of steel. A single sea-fight changed the great ships of the world from wood to steel,— the fight between the Monitor and the Merrimac.
In this post I will go over some of the naval technological development so that we can understand the true significance of ironclads in the Civil War.
Floating Battery from Charleston Harbor
The idea of covering ships with iron was not new. It had been around in various forms for centuries, but there were several restraints on their actual construction. Steam propulsion was really necessary to create a useable ironclad or floating batteries. Wind and sails just did not have the power to move an iron covered ship. Some of the first forerunners of the ironclads were called floating batteries. Floating batteries were ships with heavy armaments intended to defend a stationary position. But some floating batteries were constructed which were capable of movement. During the Crimean War France and Great Britain built iron plated floating batteries which were capable of slow movement. These were used against Russian fortifications, and was one of the reasons they eventually sued for peace.
La Glorie, first oceangoing ironclad

With the success of their floating batteries, in the late 1850s France began developing iron plated ships which were intended for faster movement. In 1859 La Glorie was launched, which has been called the first true ironclad. It was covered by 4.5 inches of iron, and was capable of moving at the rate of 13 knots. She was armed with 36 rifled guns. It was recognized in Europe that these were the ships of the future. Britain and France began to construct large numbers of these new ironclads, recognizing that wooden ships would be useless against them. In 1860 Britain launched the Warrior, a faster and more powerful ironclad.
British Ironclad Warrior today
By the time the Civil War started in 1861, all the nations of Europe recognized the way naval technology was going. Although it had not yet occurred, they could easily guess what would happen when these powerful new vessels met their current wooden fleets. By 1862 Britain and France had 16 ironclads completed or under construction, and Austria, Italy, Russia and Spain were building them as well. As the Civil War began, the Confederacy began to construct ironclads in hope that they would be able to use them to break the blockade of the North. The Federals followed suit and began building ironclads of their own.
CSS Manassas
We have already discussed the Battle of Head of Passes, the first time a true ironclad entered combat. But this battle did not show the full potential of ironclads, since the wooden ships did not put up a good showing. That showdown would not occur until March 9th and 10th, 1862, when the Merrimac struck the Union fleet, and then encountered the Monitor off Hampton Roads, Virginia.

So although ironclads had not proved everything they were capable of until the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac, all the navies of Europe had already guessed it and had many ironclads under construction.


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