The First Ironclad Warship

When we imagine old means of aquatic transportation, our thoughts immediately flit to the old wooden sailing ship. But, surprising as it might sound, these ships were the primary tool of sailing over 150 years ago. Only after the 1860’s did ironclad warships appear. So, how did we get from point A to point B?

Ironclad warships first began major utilization during the American Civil War. Confederate shipbuilders constructed the CSS Manassas as the first ironclad bred in the war. Their most famous accomplishment, however, was the CSS Virginia, more famously known to both the Union and contemporary audiences as the Merrimack. The Virginia was very impressive, especially for the engineering of the age, but was still lacking in technology. Its engines were poor, and maneuverability was slow and difficult.

The Union saw the danger of this technological advancement, and sought the assistance of engineer John Ericsson. He drafted a brilliant and unique design that he presented to the Union Navy Department. The USS Monitor, as it was named, had the resemblance of a long metal raft. Most of its machinery and bulk was beneath the waterline, leaving only about two feet visible above the waves, making it a small target. The only feature on the deck was a revolving turret, also surrounded by iron plating.

USS Monitor blueprint image, ironclad warship from the civil war

The blueprints for the USS Monitor.

Many looked upon Ericsson’s efforts with much incredulity. The Monitor looked likely to overturn in heavy waters, drawing much doubt about whether it would even float. The design was crudely labeled “Ericsson’s folly” by senior naval officers. Ericsson, however, was unmoved by this skepticism, agreeing to pay back the costs of building the vessel if it failed.

CSS Merrimack

CSS Virginia, AKA Merrimack.

The Monitor was ultimately put to the test when it encountered the CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862. After the Virginia had sank two honorable ships (with wooden hulls) the day before, it seemed as though it was a turning point for the Confederates. The arrival of the Monitor soon put an end to their celebration. The Virginia slugged forward, but the Monitor danced around its opponent. The ironclads dueled for about two hours, neither able to pierce the other’s iron hide. The day ended in a draw, but stands today in history as the first true demonstration of the effectiveness and potential of ironclad ships. Though no more ironclads were used in the Civil War again, the famous “Monitor vs. Merrimack” battle ushered in a new age of naval warfare.

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