Friday, March 09, 2012

Sesquicentennial, Part XX: The Tides Of Change


It's a fairly common misconception that wars are times of rapid technological change. You'll often hear someone say that the submarine came out of World War I, or that jet engines and atomic energy came out of World War II, but that's not entirely true. Submarines and aircraft had been around for years prior to World War I. Jet engines had been invented immediately prior to World War II, and they had a fairly good idea of what atomic power could do, even if they didn't know exactly how to go about doing it.

There is one thing wartime does do, though: it greatly reduces institutional inertia. An active enemy tends to focus your attention closely. New ideas that had once butted up against an obstinately conservative Quartermasters' Corps would now fall on far more sympathetic ears. A case in point: ironclad warships.

Three technological trends were converging: steam power, high-power naval guns firing explosive shells, and iron armor. The first ship that combined all three was a French ship, La Gloire, launched in 1859. The new high-power guns proved to be a huge problem for purely wooden-hulled ships. This had been proven at the Battle of Sinope where a numerically-inferior Russian force annihilated a Turkish squadron, using their superior gunnery. Explosive shells could turn even the stoutest ship into kindling in fairly short order. The obvious answer would be to bolt iron armor onto the ship's exterior ... the problem being, sails couldn't move such a heavy ship very easily. Enter our third element, steam power. With the invention of the screw propeller in the 1840s, steam power became a practical method for warship propulsion. Coal-fired boilers could easily provide the raw power to shove hundreds of tons of iron plating through the waves.

But, as I mentioned, these were slow coming to the Western shores of the Atlantic. The U.S. Navy had adopted steam power, but was slow to combine all of the elements together. The secession of Virginia, and with it the loss of the Norfolk Naval Yards, began to force a re-evaluation of affairs.

Upon the secession of Virginia, orders were issued to destroy all useful items at the Naval Yards lest they fall into secessionist hands. Unfortunately, the orders were bungled, and the USS Merrimac partially sank into shallow water before she had burned completely. The Merrimac was salvageable, and could be put back into service. It was decided to rebuild her as an ironclad warship, the CSS Virginia. It would be an expensive undertaking. But the combination of steam propulsion, high-power guns, and sloped armor would make the Virginia more than a match for her blockaders.

Word of this conversion reached Washington in early summer of 1861, and was not received happily. The Union could not afford to fall behind in this kind of arms race. But, as I have said before, the Union was far more able to keep pace in this kind of competition than the Confederacy ever was. The Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, issued an order for a review of ironclad designs, and three were accepted. One of these was a ship designed by Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson, the USS Monitor, laid down on October 25, 1851, and completed 118 days later.

This would not be a day too soon.

On the 8th of March, CSS Virginia sallied forth to break the Union blockade. Ordinarily, it's foolish to think that a single ship can break a blockade ... but this was not an ordinary situation. The guns of the Union blockade squadron had almost no effect. The Virginia rammed and sunk the USS Chesapeake, and had forced the USS Congress to beach itself prior to hammering it into surrender with her own guns. The Virginia was not entirely unhurt, sustaining significant damage to her smokestack, and having several armor plates loosened. But her appearance had thrown the entire Union blockade into disarray. The first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads was over, and it looked like another Confederate victory was in the making.

During the night, the USS Monitor arrived from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and the odds were evened out.

On paper, the Virginia had more guns than the Monitor, but that doesn't tell the whole story. While Virginia's guns were laid out in a standard fixed arrangement, the Monitor's guns were mounted in a turret. That meant that while Virginia would have to maneuver carefully to bring her guns to bear, the Monitor could fire upon anything she could see. This day's battle, the very first of ironclad-on-ironclad, would show which was better: more guns, or more easily aimable guns.

And the answer was a resounding "Beats Me."

Neither ship could get a conclusive advantage on the other. While either ship could reduce a wooden ship to kindling, neither one could score a telling hit upon the other. They pounded one another unmercifully for hours, to little avail. Hit after hit glanced off of stout iron plating, doing no real damage to the ship underneath. Virginia scored a brief advantage when a lucky turret shot temporarily blinded Monitor's captain, forcing Monitor to briefly withdraw. The day had already worn on towards late afternoon, so Virginia took this as an opportunity to withdraw, herself. She returned to her base, for badly-needed repairs.

On the one hand, the results of the Battle of Hampton Roads were inconclusive. The Union suffered far heavier losses and casualties, owing to Virginia's rampage on that first day. But on the other hand, the blockade wasn't broken. Within a month, two more Union ironclads would join the blockade, and within a month after that advancing Union troops would occupy Norfolk itself. But the conclusiveness or lack thereof was beside the point. Ironclad had fired upon ironclad, and naval warfare would never again be the same. Sailors had seen the future, and it was full of metal.

The days when "the ships were wood and the men were iron" were over.

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