The former editor-in-chief of American Heritage revisits an epochal battle in naval history.
To some, the Monitor appeared “a mere speck, a hat upon the water,” but she was “the most complicated machine that had ever been built,” a combination of steam and iron whose revolutionary design so confounded naval architects that many doubted she would even float. Instead, when she appeared at Virginia’s Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, the day after the Confederacy’s iron-plated Merrimack had already sunk two Union wooden ships, she preserved the Union blockade and immediately rendered every navy in the world obsolete. Popular historian Snow (I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford, 2013, etc.) builds toward these days of savage battle (thousands watched from shore), telling each ironclad’s story through the men who conceived, financed, sponsored, captained, and sailed it. Especially memorable are the author’s tightly focused profiles of the desperate Confederate Naval Secretary Stephen Mallory and his harried counterpart, Gideon Welles; indefatigable Connecticut entrepreneur and lobbyist Cornelius Bushnell, who championed the Monitor’s innovative designer, the brilliant, prickly John Ericsson; John Dahlgren, “the father of naval ordnance”; and the Merrimack’s squabbling co-creators, John Brooke and John Porter; Franklin Buchanan, the Merrimack’s aggressive, first-day captain, and the Monitor’s skipper, John Worden, who emerged from the four-hour battle sightless in one eye. Snow’s energetic account encompasses issues large and small, including discussions of arms and armament; the origin of the word “splinter”; the battle’s inconclusive end; a Southern joke of the day (“Iron-plated?” “Sir, our navy is barely contem-plated”); Lincoln’s special interest in the Union’s ironclad; the difference between shells and solid shot, the “mystery” of the Merrimack’s name; and the enthusiastic Monitor fever that swept the relieved, almost giddy North.
A few notable naval battles changed the course of wars, even history, but the clash at Hampton Roads transformed the nature of warfare itself and offered a glimpse of the “grim modernity” Snow vividly captures.