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The Naval Revolution

The Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1138, p. 327.

April 5, 1862


Is it indeed true that the naval supremacy of England has passed away like a mere unsubstantial exhalation under. the light of that memorable Saturday, March 8, 1862? An American journalist tells us this; but we may pardon the exulting boast when we remember the provocation. It was but a few weeks ago that English journalists of the highest character and position were complacently announcing that we should, in the event of war, at once sweep the seas of all American shipping. That prediction was a very wild and foolish one; let us inquire whether this new prediction is not equally groundless. And, first, suppose we review briefly the incidents of the late combat, which is perhaps unexampled in history for the exciting interest of its details and for the inherent value of its lessons.

It was, then, on Saturday, the 8th of March last, that the persons who were on the outlook from the Federal fortress Monroe towards the Confederate Navy-yard and Arsenal of Norfolk saw coming towards an intermediate point of land called Norfolk News [sic] the long-expected Confederate fleet. It consisted of two small iron-clad steamers, some gun-boats, and a strange-looking monster, with something like a sloping house-roof on its top, which the observers knew at once must be the famous Merrimac. This had been a magnificent first-class frigate of between 3000 and 4000 tons, armed with forty pieces of the most powerful artillery, and forming one of those new and most formidable ships which the Americans were so justly proud of. At the breaking out of the war the Merrimac was partly burnt and then sunk by the Federals, when they were obliged to leave Norfolk to the Confederates; who soon raised the coveted prize, and found her in all essential respects uninjured. Remembering, then, the many experiments that had been made in Europe to show the value of iron armour for ships, and painfully conscious of their weakness at sea, they appear to have thought there was one grand opportunity open to them, and to have made use of it with characteristic vigour and skill. They built up over her deck, and down upon
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The Civil War in America—Naval Engagement in Hampton Roads: The Confederate Iron-Plated Steamer Merrimac (or Virginia) Running into the Federal Sloop Cumberland.—From a Sketch by T. Nast.—See Supplement, page 344.

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her sides, to below the water-line, a complete bomb and ball proof covering, formed of sloping plates of railroad iron, three inches thick, and meeting at the top like the roof of a house, where was the only opening for ventilation. But on testing this structure with columbiads they found the iron armour was only too easily penetrable. Again they docked the Merrimac, and again they heaped on more of the iron clothing, until, it was said (probably by the Confederates themselves, and for obvious reasons), that she was so heavy that they could not launch her, and that she was in danger of breaking her back. These and many similar rumours died away at last, when the Merrimac was seen on the eventful Saturday coming forth to do the work she had been so long preparing for, armed with two 100-pounder Armstrong guns (surely some member will ask in the House of Commons how these were obtained?) and eight 11-inch guns. But she had still more terrible weapons in the shape of two great sharp-pointed beaks at her bow, seven feet apart and level with the water-line, the uses of which were only too soon to become apparent to the doomed vessels of the watching Federal fleet. This consisted of two old sailing-frigates, the Cumberland, twenty guns, and the Congress, forty guns, at Newport News; and of three other frigates, the Roanoke, the Minnesota, and the St. Lawrence, at some little distance in the Hampton Roads. With quiet determination the Congress and Cumberland prepared for the fight; but they had scarcely begun to let loose their heavy broadsides against the Merrimac before they had one awful fact made clear to them—that their shot produced no effect whatever on the enemy, but glanced off from him, to use the expression of an actor in the scene, like hail from a tin roof. On the other hand, the shells from the Merrimac began to pour on both vessels with murderous effect. There was little time allowed to consider what it were best to do under such circumstances. The iron monster—wishing, perhaps, to test her bodily strength on the smaller of the two vessels first, and serenely regardless of the broadsides of the heavier—passed the Congress as if forgetting her very existence, and ran, under a full head of steam, at the Cumberland. Awful indeed was the shock. The double beak went ploughing into the very entrails of the wooden ship, then withdrawing and going to the other side she again ran at her, and left her in a few minutes sinking—she and her crew of five hundred men, who fought their guns to the last possible minute, and left the beloved flag flying aloft even after the hull had disappeared below the waves. Such heroism needs no comment but that silent one which it will receive from all true English hearts. Presently the Congress, whose guns were already disabled, and whose decks were covered with the dead and the dying, saw the terrible phenomenon advancing to strike her in the same way; and of course the captain did what it was his bounden duty to do—surrender. The officers were taken out as prisoners by a Confederate gun-boat, but the latter was eventually driven off by a fire from the Federal land forts, and at night the vessel was blown up by some of her own people.

All this while the Roanoke, the St. Lawrence, and the Minnesota had been trying to advance to help their fellows. But the first, having a broken shaft, could only move by the aid of a tug, and so got aground. The second seems also to have grounded immediately. The Minnesota drew nearer, but only to experience the same check. And thus immovable, deprived of all power to use her special advantages of speed and fitness for manœuvres, the Minnesota was now exposed to the fire not only of the monstrous Merrimac but of several small gun-boats. But still she kept them off; and still the Merrimac seemed willing to be kept off; we now know why, she was afraid of grounding. And so night approached. Then the Confederate fleet withdrew, flushed with a conquest that must ring through the world, and assured that they would make an easy prey of the Minnesota on the morrow. And then? Why, then its Captain may have dreamed that he alone would be able to accomplish that which England and France, in American belief, wished but had not ventured to attempt—the raising of the whole blockade, by the successive destruction of the Federal ships wherever he could find them. That the dream might have proved only too true a foreshadowing of reality, all New York, and Boston, and Washington testified, as the first news reached those cities of the calamity and impending danger. But there was to be a visitor to these blood-stained waters the same evening that would altogether change the fortunes of that to-morrow, and send yet a new, and to Confederate Vision unlooked-for, experience among the later news to the Northern cities and to Europe. Some months previously a Swedish engineer, already highly esteemed for his various inventions, had, though with some difficulty, persuaded the Federal Government to allow him to build a small floating and seagoing battery, and had made himself, or his friends, pecuniarily responsible for its success. It was begun in October, launched by New Year's-Day, and completely finished in ten days after. And we beg our readers to note the time as well as the cost involved—sixty thousand pounds. That was all, and that sum was not secured till success was certain. Thus do they do some things in America. The inventor called it the Monitor, in order, as he says, to admonish the South of the fate of their rebellion, England of its fading naval supremacy, and the English Government of the folly of spending millions in fixed fortifications for defence. Probably the very attention we shall pay to the last of Captain Ericsson's lessons will enable us to take care that his second lesson shall fall pointlessly.

It was this vessel which, by one of those wonderful coincidences which the American nation may well believe Providential, came unexpectedly to Fort Monroe on the evening of the day that had witnessed the Federal defeat. We know, indeed, from the diary of one who was on board, that the crew of the Monitor heard the cannonading as they approached. We may imagine what must have been the emotions of hope and fear experienced by General Wool at Monroe, and by the crew of the apparently doomed Minnesota, who waited the whole night in hourly expectation of the return of the iron-clad monster, as they gazed upon this new David that proposed to do battle with their dreadful Goliath. She had but two guns to cope with the Merrimac's twelve, and was scarcely a third of her size. Nevertheless, she immediately took up a position in front of the towering Minnesota, and there waited in grim silence. Early on Sunday morning (and we are told the day opened in extreme beauty) the Merrimac appeared, and began to fire as she approached on the Minnesota. But what is this queer-looking little craft that she sees coming out before her right in her path, not unlike a gigantic round black hat, with a very elongated brim, tapering almost to a point before and behind, floating on the water? The Merrimac is not left long in doubt. There is a double flash, a terrible boom, and she feels herself struck with solid double shot that make the whole frame of the monster quiver: no wonder, when we know that each shot sent by that small stranger weighed one hundred and seventy pounds, or, together, three hundred and forty! The Merrimac knows well enough now that she has her work to do, and she tries to do it. But the lesson she has taught to others is now commended to her own lips. The little Monitor laughs at her Armstrongs and her 11-in. guns, and begins coolly to pace round her, studying as she goes how to plant her every blow in the most promisingly-vulnerable place. All the other vessels suspend operations to gaze on this novel and ever-to-be remembered conflict. Now and then one of those on the Federal side receives a damaging shot from the Merrimac, as though the Goliath, in her rage that she cannot hurt the agile enemy before her, finds solace in an occasional blow at something that may be harmed. But, if the Merrimac cannot hurt the Monitor by her shot, she may board and possibly take her. The boarders get on to those flat, wave-washed decks, and find nothing to attack, nowhere to go. The floor of apparently continuous iron is impenetrable. If they could get onto the top of that cupola, nine feet high, of smooth iron, they might find an entrance perhaps, but the prospect is not inviting. While they hesitate they see the cupola revolve: another moment a gun will open on them with grape. They decline further parley, and disappear. But cannot the Merrimac run the vixen down? She tries; but her prow glides over, and is cut by the sharp edge of the unmanageable little craft; and the guns of the latter take advantage of that very moment, and the close proximity, to pour in their staggering shots. What then can the Merrimac do? A man looks forth, perhaps to obtain some information for the captain, and is instantly cut in two by the Monitor's guns, which are as accurately pointed as they are awful in their strength. At last the Merrimac receives a hint as to what she must do—retreat; for those tremendous shots are penetrating at last; she is, in fact, so much hurt that she limps at the stern, and has to call her consorts to her aid to take her out of the way—back under the protection of her own forts. And so ended the first fight between iron ships of war, of which history will have to take note.

And how is this wonderful little vessel framed which has thus proved herself so perfect in all points—cheapness of cost, rapidity of construction, impregnability for defence, and unrivalled power for attack? And on this last matter we must note that Captain Ericsson says she could have certainly destroyed the Merrimac if she had kept her guns quite level, and if she had been permitted to fire wrought-iron shot which were on board, but had been forbidden by Captain Dahlgren, who was afraid to put his truly magnificent ordinance to too great a trial. The Monitor, then, is simply a flat-bottomed wooden vessel, wide in the middle and narrowing towards the ends, forming a kind of elongated oval, over which has been laid a thick flat iron cover, with sides dipping into the water. In battle these sides show only a surface of 12in. to 20in. high. On the centre of the vessel rises a vast circular pillar or cupola, measuring 64ft. round, and built of eight several thicknesses of inch-iron, fastened by screws inside, so that the plates, if loosened, are readily tightened again; and the joinings so arranged that no two can anywhere be struck at once by the same shot. This cupola contains the two Dahlgren guns, and moves round with them, at the pleasure of the director, by steam power. The only other things visible on deck during engagement are the covered top of the chimney, which has been previously sent down below, telescope fashion, and the small pilot-box at the stern, which, though of enormous strength was injured by the Merrimac, and was the only part of the monitor she did injure. Between the pilot-box and the cupola the communications are so admirably arranged that the exact effects of every shot are reported instantly to the head men at the guns. All the crew, with the exception of these men, sixteen in number, are kept below during battle. We need only add that the Monitor's speed is not great; it is said only about six knots an hour; that her extreme draught of water is only 10ft.; and that she promises to be a good seagoing boat when certain defects, merely of minor details, are remedied.

And now what is the first effect of this news upon English interests? Why, just this, as the Times admirably puts it:—Whereas we had available for immediate purposes 149 first-class war ships, we have now two, these two being the Warrior and her sister Ironside. There is not now a ship in the English Navy apart from these two, that it would not be madness to trust to an engagement with that little Monitor. We are not sure, indeed, that the case is not worse than the Times believes. Is the Warrior itself a match for the Monitor? It is useless now to talk of speed or magnificence. We don't want our war ships to run away successfully, or to be looked at admiringly, but to fight. How would the Monitor deal with the Warrior? The guns of the first send shot of 170lb.; the guns of the second, shots of 100lb.; the very shot that the Merrimac fired so uselessly. Again, the Monitor is practically invulnerable to existing artillery: is the Warrior the same? Why, both her extremities are of wood, and would be blazing in ten minutes, and every man in those parts be destroyed.

But the question—and it is one of such solemn import as even England, through all her momentous history, has rarely had to decide upon—now is, what shall we do? We must act, and act instantly. There is no time now for any more scientific "experiments," or for red tape to be indulged with its usual hesitations and mental difficulties. We are actually without a war fleet. We shall be outstripped to a certainty by America, and possibly by France, if we do not move at once. Already America is preparing to finish her Stevens battery, which promises to be to the Monitor what that was to the Merrimac, only with all the material proportions reversed, so that it will be probably equivalent to many Monitors, with a speed of twenty miles an hour instead of seven. A gigantic ram is also to be constructed; and, lastly above two millions and a half of money are to be expended on a fleet of ordinary iron ships.

What, then, ought we to do? If while endeavouring to answer that question we could hope to obtain the ear of any man in authority we would say to him with deep earnestness this:—Cease the erection of all seaboard fortifications for the present, at least, and spend the money allotted for them in cutting down our most powerful battle-ships, covering their lowered hulls with iron, building cupolas upon them, and arming these cupolas with guns that, however few in number, will carry shot at least as heavy as the Dahlgren of 170lb. Treat Captain Coles as our cousins are treating Captain Ericsson—that is, put the right man into the right place, and give him hearty support when there. Then, for the future, offer attention and a reward to other men of inventive genius, who can improve upon the best existing models; for we may depend upon it that we are now entering upon a race in which success will no longer be achieved by wealth or material resources, under merely ordinary conditions of skilful development, but that skill, science, and individual energy will need only moderate means to obtain the greatest triumphs. But what Englishman can doubt that in such a struggle we shall at least hold our own? What Englishman will doubt but that if wisely and promptly used, our existing naval wealth may in a very short time be again fully realised under altered conditions, and so that whatever there may have been of soundness and justice in the idea of English supremacy on the seas shall be again ours? But let it not be said by history, as it has already been suggested in Parliament—it is harder to work a conversion in our Government than among our ships.

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