During the Civil War, some 172 feet of seagoing iron, with a deck a mere foot-and-a-half above the water line, made the world’s navies instantly obsolete. That’s maritime history, retold here. The human story, too, is told by one of the ship’s crewmen.
The Monitor, the Union’s “cheesebox on a raft,” was the brainchild of the brilliant, feisty John Ericsson. It changed naval warfare forever, and it changed the lives of its sailors. Civil War historian Marvel’s (Burnside, 1991) text is composed largely of letters from the Monitor’s fireman George Geer to his wife in New York. They date from the time Geer boarded the newly commissioned warship in January 1862 through its foundering in rough seas the last day of the same year. Within weeks of her launching, the Monitor engaged in its historic duel with the Confederate Merrimack (rechristened the Virginia), which withdrew. Each ship’s guns were unable to penetrate the other’s armor. Marvel’s exposition is clear and succinct, as are Geer’s letters, in beautiful penmanship and atrocious spelling. Though his depictions of events occasionally tend to be wrong (elevating routine siege fire to major battles and exaggerating casualties), his narrative of the heat and fumes, the crew’s bad food, and the scourge of Confederate sharpshooters on shore is remarkably interesting, with a mordant wit often evident. His occasional dispirit, his money worries, his efforts to gain a promotion, and his regular husbandly assurances of his well-being (especially after his survival of the sinking of his ship) attest to the conflict’s human concerns. We learn nothing of Geer’s postwar life, and Mrs. Geer’s letters did not survive (although it is interesting to note that the mails went through with more dispatch then than they seem to today). A final chapter deals with continuing efforts to recover the wreck of the historic ship.
A unique history, unusually accessible because it is taken largely from the pen of a long-dead sailor. No prior knowledge of maritime practice or Civil War arcana necessary. (100 b&w and color illustrations)