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Wood to Iron: The Evolution of Warships

April 30, 2019

During the mid-1700’s, iron knees (angle brackets) came into use in the construction of wooden ships. Adding strength to the vessel, they were mainly employed for attaching major components such as the frames and deck beams. However, early wrought iron was quite brittle, making it ineffective for hull construction. Under cannon-fire, the material was deemed less safe than wooden hulls.
Despite the development of better iron, some continued to feel that wooden ships had great advantage over iron-clad vessels. After being mortally wounded it was argued, their greater buoyancy allowed more time for crewmen to safely abandon ship. But there was a problem with many of the larger wood vessels. They could develop hogging, a drop of 15 or more inches between the hull’s bow and stern, with the center arching upwards. In addition, the keel sometimes twisted, leaving one end of the ship leaning to the starboard and the other end to port. In large merchant ships, some evidence of hogging was said to occur as soon as a new ship was transporting its second cargo.
England and France were ahead of our Nation in the development and production of iron naval ships. Our first ironclad, the USS Michigan, was placed in service in 1844. Built in Erie, Pennsylvania, the 167-feet long vessel was equipped with steam engine - powered sidewheels. Additionally, it had three masts and sails that increased its travel range and served as a back-up. It was then assigned to the Western Great Lakes to combat timber pirates, a period sometimes called the Timber Rebellion. In May of 1853, the pirate ship Buffalo intentionally rammed the USS Michigan, causing damage to both vessels. Though the Michigan had to return to port for repairs, its iron hull saved it from extensive damage. During its entire assignment on the Great Lakes, it reportedly never fired a shot. Nor did it throughout the Civil War. On patrol in that region, the ship was far removed from any action.
By the early 1800s, the great improvements in naval ordnance changed the balance between offence and defense. The use of large caliber rifled guns increased accuracy and French- developed canons that fired explosive shells were especially devastating against wooden ships. But it was not until the experience of Crimean War (1853-1856) that the need for iron-armed vessels became more widely accepted.
In preparation for battle, English and French naval engineers together designed and built five wrought iron armed, flat-bottom, floating batteries. Their wood hulls were protected by 4-inch thick iron that ran from topside to 27 inches below the waterline. For further protection, the vessels’ sides were constructed at a 45-degree angle. Towed across the Black Sea, the ironclads then moved under their own power, closer to the Russian fortress. They then commenced bombardment. Though they only played a small part in the assault, the advantage of  ironclad vessels was immediately recognized.
Launched from a Boston Navy Yard on June 15,1855, the 3,300-ton USS Merrimack, armed with forty guns, made her way to Annapolis. Shortly after arrival, she was inspected by President Pierce and the Secretary of the Navy. Built at a cost of $685,000, she was a proud addition to the Federal Navy.
Following a world cruise, the USS Merrimack returned to Norfolk Navy Yard on February 16, 1860. Barely a year later, the War Between the States had begun. At the time, it was not yet clear if Virginia would secede to the South. However, by the beginning of April of 1861, the Navy Department was convinced that the state of Virginia would go with the Confederates. Everything had to be done to protect the warship from being taken by the Confederates. It was thus decided to scuttle the ship and dynamite the drydock along with all of its large quantity of stored weapons. In their rush to evacuate, the Federals were able to sink the Merrimack and burn it to the waterline, but did not succeed in blowing up the dock and its supply of arms. The Southerners soon raised the sunken vessel and towed it to a drydock. A short time later, their engineers began converting the 260-foot ship into an ironclad, renaming her CSS Virginia. With her inclined sides incased in iron, her bow and stern were rounded. A six-foot+ ram stood out from its bow and she was armed with six smoothbore 9-inch Dahlgren guns salvaged from the Merrimack and four-muzzle loading Brooke rifles. The Confederate ship headed for Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862.
    Designed by John Ericsson, the ironclad USS Monitor was armed with two twelve-inch cannons, installed in an innovative rotating turret that could turn 360 degrees. A great deal of its construction was carried out at the Greenpoint, Long Island shipyard, while many of its iron components were manufactured at a number of steel yards along the Hudson River. Launched at the beginning of March 1862, the ship’s construction had been accomplished within agreed time of no more than100 days.
On March 7, 1862 the USS Monitor (A Yankee Cheese Box on a Raft) set out from New York Harbor, under tow. Accompanied by the screw-steamer Currituck, the ships were ill-prepared for an unexpected northeaster. As the seas broke over the ironside, “our berth deck hatch leaked in spite all we could do, and the water came down under the tower like a waterfall.” At one point, water entered the pilot house with such force that it “knocked the helmsman completely around the wheel.” The ships finally made it to smoother water but on the following day, they encountered yet another storm. By 3:00 pm on that day, the seas had subsided. Under its own power, as the Monitor then approached the Cape Henry Light at the southern entrance to Chesapeake Bay. From there, canon fire could be heard in the distance.
On March 8, the CSS Virginia (Merrimack ) headed out of Norfolk accompanied by two gunboats. Approaching Newport News, she sighted the well-armed Federal sloop Cumberland and the frigate Congress, both of which were maintaining a blockade. Passing the Congress, the Confederate ironside exchanged broadsides with the ship and then proceeded to ram the Cumberland on its starboard side. The attack however, was at a great cost to the ironclad. Her wedge-shaped ram was torn away from her bow. For a time, an exchange of cannon fire continued between the adversaries, but eventually the Cumberland slipped below the surface.
During the battle, the Congress had set sail, but quickly ran aground. Joined by three other Confederate vessels, the Virginia fired shell after shell, reducing the frigate’s deck to shambles. Hot shot and incendiary shells then finished off the ship. Of the total 434 crew men, only 120 survived.
Anchored near Fort Monroe, the USS Minnesota, a sister ship to the Merrimack, attempted to join the battle, but she ran aground about a mile from the action. Seeing her stranded, the Virginia attempted to attack the Union ship, but due to her deep draft of 23 feet, she could only approach to about a mile from her opponent. The two accompanying rebel ships were however able to fire on the Minnesota, causing a great deal of damage. As the day ended, the Confederate then withdrew with a great victory on their hands. The action had confirmed the superiority of iron warships over even heavily armed wooden vessels. Even before the conflict, it had been said that “a single ironclad in the midst of a hostile wooden fleet, would resemble a lion amid a flock of sheep.” But a clash between ironclads was yet to begin.
USS Monitor had been ordered to make her way to the Potomac, in order to protect Washington. But following the destruction of the Federal blockade ships, she was redirected to Hampton Roads. Arriving the evening of March 8th, the ironclad immediately went to the assistance of the Minnesota. On the following morning, at 8:00 am, the Virginia returned to continue its attack on the stranded ship. It was met by the Monitor and over the next four hours, the two exchanged volleys. During the clash, the Monitor managed to fire some forty 168-pounder, solid cast-iron shot. Very few came close to their target and those that did, caused relatively little damage. Most of the Virginia’s fire also missed their target. The Confederates then rammed the Federal vessel with little effect to her enemy. However, when a shot that struck the Monitor’s turret, the shrapnel temporarily blinded the ship’s commander. Shortly after, the battle ended. The Virginia returned to Norfolk with the self-inflicted leak in her bow and the Monitor withdrew to shallower water. Though some on both sides of the conflict claimed victory, the battle was more of a stalemate.
At Norfolk, the Virginia underwent some repairs and she was re-equipped with a 120-pounder that projected armor-piercing shells. But despite returning to the scene of  the original ironclad conflict, the Monitor avoided action. Later, in May, Union troops invaded and retook Norfolk. To avoid its capture, the Confederates blew up and scuttled their ironclad.
In late December of 1862, the Monitor left Fort Monroe, heading to Beaufort, North Carolina. Under tow by the side-wheel steamer Rhode Island, the pair ran into huge storm waves, some 7 miles off Cape Hatteras. The seas crashed down on the low riding ironclad, shaking her from stem to stern. From Rhode Island’s bridge, it seemed at times, that the ironclad had already gone down. Water poured down below her decks and despite the crew’s last-minute effort to hand bail their vessel, it became obvious that the ironclad was doomed. Using a trumpet, the Monitor’s captain called for the Rhode Island’s life rafts. Rescue was mounted but 16 of the ironclad crew were lost to the sea. From the steamer’s deck, her remaining crewmen watched as the historic ironclad’s red signal lamp was extinguished by the seas.
In 1973, a Duke University Research vessel discovered what they believed to be the remains of the USS Monitor.  During the following year, the remains of the ironclad were confirmed. It lies in 240 feet of water, about 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, at Latitude:   35° 0' 7.02" N , Longitude:   -75° 24' 2322.79W." The wreck was designated as the Monitor National Sanctuary on January 30, 1975. Artifacts recovered from the wreck are on display at the Mariners Museum, Newport News, VA.

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