Early Ironclads: Europe and America I

Laid down at Castellamare in 1877 and launched in 1880, Italia took Brin’s revolutionary design of Duilio (1876) to an extreme.

While France and Britain laid down successors to the Gloire and Warrior, following their own different patterns, other European nations joined in. Two of the first were the rival powers of Austria and newly-united Italy. Indeed Italy ordered two small ironclads from France before the first Italian Parliament sat in March 1861, and that year she also ordered two larger vessels of the size and style of the Gloire-type from a New York shipyard. Similarly Austria started with two small ironclad corvettes, and in 1861 began three larger ‘Gloire’ ironclads. Russia ordered a 3,300-ton ironclad, with a projecting ram bow, from the Warrior’s builders in 1861, and another the following year, meanwhile converting two timber frigates; Ottoman Turkey ordered three 6,400-ton ironclads also from England, and Spain started building against the US Navy with a home-grown 6,200-tonner, at the same time ordering a rather larger vessel from France; other minor naval powers followed suit.

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, two strange deviant types were being hammered together in the more urgent conditions of the American Civil War. The secessionist southern states, inferior to the northern states in ships, shipbuilding and engineering capacity, had started the competition. The secretary of their small navy claimed: ‘Inequality of numbers may be compensated by invulnerability . . . a new and formidable type must be created.’1 The screw frigate Merrimack had fallen into their hands at the occupation of Norfolk, Virginia, with lower hull timbers sound and engines capable of repair, so they cut her down to the waterline and built upon the lower body an armoured battery or casemate. This occupied some two-thirds of the hull length, and was built of 20-inch pine sloping inwards from the waterline at about 45 degrees; 4-inches of oak was laid over this and then two layers of railway irons rolled down to plates 8-inches wide by 2-inches thick. This casemate was pierced all round with 14 ports for 10 guns, four of which were 6-inch or 7-inch calibre rifles, six 9-inch smooth-bores; a single funnel projected through the top. There were no masts or sails.

This craft, which had a cast-iron ram attached to her bow, was only an extemporized floating battery which would have been overwhelmed by even moderate seas; nevertheless reports of her construction caused a little concern in the North, turning by degrees into a great scare which allowed a Swedish engineer inventor named John Ericsson to gain approval in September 1861 for a novel ironclad, the outlines of which had been maturing in his mind for some 20 years, despite repeated rebuffs. His idea was an ‘impregnable fort’ in the shape of a revolving armoured turret ‘in the plain cylindrical form in order that attack from all quarters of the compass may be resisted with equal certainty’ . . . mounted upon a wide armoured deck whose sides would be carried below the waterline and overhang a narrow raft hull, containing the machinery, by such a margin that any shot would have to ‘pass through 20 feet of water’ to strike the hull, while the propeller and rudder on the centreline would be ‘absolutely protected’—this last feature Ericsson considered ‘perhaps the most important’.2

As built the ‘impregnable fort’ of this craft, named Monitor, was a drum 20 feet in diameter by 9 feet high, formed of eight layers of 1-inch plating, inside which were mounted two 11-inch smooth bore guns each firing 166lb balls at a very slow rate, something like one aimed round every seven minutes. The 1-inch thick iron deck on which this turret turned floated some 2-feet above waterlevel with armoured sides extending down to 3-feet below the water. This was the weakest part of the design; as the volunteer crew found when they sailed her out of the sheltered waters of New York, open seas swept over the deck and leaked through between it and the turret and down the openings for two collapsible funnels and two ventilators abaft the turret, besides juddering up under the armoured overhang as if to tear it from the hull. She was not in any sense a sea-going ironclad; in this and in her laminated armour, inferior to the thinner but homogenous plates of the European ironclads, she resembled the Merrimack. Neither could have lived with the Gloire or the Warrior. They enter the story, not because they were an advance or a lesson, only because they were the first ironclads in action against ships.

By freak chance the two vessels were completed within days of one another, and when on the morning of Saturday, 8 March 1862, the Merrimack, renamed Virginia, steamed unsteadily out from Norfolk to give battle to a Federal blockading force in Hampton Roads, the Monitor, two days out from New York, was struggling down the East coast just 10 hours away. These 10 hours were important though; they gave the Virginia time to prove in action de Lôme’s forecast about a lion amongst a flock of sheep, also Paixhans’ suggestion that the simple management of steam batteries would cancel enemy advantages in seamanship. For while the Federal force was composed of three fine frigates and a sloop manned by American sailors renowned for skill and panache, the Virginia’s crew was made up largely of Confederate soldiers with only a few days’ training aboard.

So the battery steamed slowly across bright water to where the timber sloop Cumberland and the veteran frigate Congress lay at anchor in a shoal channel near Newport News. Both thought so little of the danger that they remained at anchor and simply waited at their guns while ‘the thing’ they had been hearing so much about, swung its ugly battery towards them. When the Cumberland judged it within range, she fired her broadside of 9-inch smooth bores; soon the Congress joined in with a few 8-inch and her main battery of 32-pounders, and shore guns added to the flying round shot, but any balls which hit simply bounced off the sloping iron, neither making any impression nor diverting the battery’s progress towards the Cumberland which she eventually rammed below the fore channels. The sloop listed as water rushed in, and half an hour later she was gone, the first victim of ramming since the days of the galley. The Congress, meanwhile, realizing how irresistible was this opponent, set topsails and jib, slipped cable and making towards Newport News ran aground; the Virginia followed, took up a raking position off her stern and, silencing her, forced her to strike and set her on fire.

That evening the Monitor—directed by the supreme dramatist—arrived in the Roads; the Virginia’s crew made her out by the glow of the burning frigate. News of impending conflict between the two armoured craft spread quickly along both shores, and the next morning, which again dawned bright, spectators were out in crowds to watch the joust. The Virginia did not disappoint them. She steamed out at 8 o’clock, making for one of the grounded wooden frigates expecting the Monitor to interpose, as she did, and there developed a ponderous, close duel which proved mightily indecisive. Neither had the weapons to pierce the other’s armour as the Virginia was firing shell or grape, the Monitor cast iron balls which shattered on impact. Besides this her turret, which was turned away from the enemy during the seven minutes’ loading interval to prevent any accident to the gun port stoppers, developed the faults of all prototypes; the turning engine was hard to start and still harder to stop and the crew took to firing on the swing as the target appeared briefly through the ports. The Virginia directed volleys of musketry towards the swinging ports with as little effect as her shells against the armour, then decided to make for her original prey, the grounded frigate Minnesota. The Monitor followed and a ramming duel developed. This too was indecisive as the Monitor failed in her clumsy passes while the Virginia, which succeeded once, had lost her ram in the affair of the previous day and so made no impression. As the vessels came together the Monitor fired one of her great pieces with the muzzle almost touching the Virginia’s casemate, but although a section was crushed in, it was not pierced. The southern commander, for his part, called away the boarders, but before they could scramble over the vessels had drifted apart. So it continued until the vessels finally parted after some four hours with some casualties and a little damage to both sides, but no lives lost. The result was a draw, although the Monitor could claim to have prevented further damage to the Federal timber ships.

The Virginia was repaired, given more armour below her vulnerable waterline, and sallied out again in April, capturing some merchant vessels; the Monitor failed to meet her, so this time the southern vessel could claim to have achieved her purpose. Then, before she could put into operation a plan to capture the Monitor by boarding and driving in wedges between her turret and deck, Federal troops forced the Confederates to evacuate Norfolk, and she was burned by her crew to keep her from enemy hands. As for the Monitor she foundered later on a voyage around the coast.

However both these famous prototypes were followed by descendants which took part in the naval struggle along the rivers and bays of the southern states, and provided material for later naval thinkers to ponder as they searched for lessons which might help to clarify the new naval warfare. For instance a Southern floating battery named the Albemarle, laid down in a cornfield up the Roanoke river and armoured on the style of the Virginia with iron worked into shape over an open forge, made another successful ramming attack under fire in 1864. And this same vessel was later the victim of a daring torpedo boat attack. The boat, commanded by a young lieutenant named Cushing, had to drive at and over a barrier of logs which surrounded the ironclad, so that the torpedo, a case of gunpowder held out on a spar over the bow, could be brought into contact with the target and then fired with a pull on a line attached to its detonator. Cushing accomplished this extraordinary feat in the dark and under fire with so much presence of mind that he was able to sink the Albemarle and afterwards escape by swimming down the river.

A contemporary lithograph of Manhattan at sea

Later there was the famous episode at Mobile Bay when Admiral Faragut, crying ‘Damn the torpedoes! Go ahead!’ steamed the Northern fleet under his command close under the guns of the Confederate Fort Mogan and through a double line of mines (then known as torpedoes) into the Bay, miraculously losing only one vessel and her crew as he did so. This unfortunate vessel was the Tecumseh, an enlarged ‘monitor’. There were three other monitors with Farragut and one of these, the Manhattan, which carried two huge 15-inch smooth-bores in her 10-inch armoured turret, was responsible for putting paid to the most powerful Southern descendant of the Virginia, the Tennessee which came out to do battle with Farragut’s entire fleet.

These and other events of the Civil War were analysed in works on naval warfare, naval gunnery and tactics for many years following, as there was little other modern action proof to go on. But really the armaments revolution was moving too fast for the ‘lessons’ to be of value, and the Southern ships and weapons were too extemporized to be considered as much more than the desperate essays of an agricultural community: the most effective of the ‘torpedoes’ which Farragut charged over were made of lager kegs waterproofed with pitch; the armour of the floating batteries, while ingenious, was too sectional; the guns were not designed for armour-piercing. The ironclad actions were fought in sheltered waters, and there were few conclusions to be drawn for open sea. Perhaps most instructive was the cruise of the Southern commerce raider, Alabama, which destroyed a number of northern merchant vessels and evaded capture for almost two years before USS Kearsage finally sank her. This lesson was not lost on the French, nor on the British whose merchant marine was particularly exposed to such a form of warfare.

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