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Civil War Ironclads: The Dawn of Naval Armor By Robert MacBride

Posted By : madmaxau | Date : 22 May 2008 01:13:00 | Comments : 0 |
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Civil War Ironclads: The Dawn of Naval Armor By Robert MacBride
Chilton Books | 1962 | 185 Pages | HTML & Pics in RAR | 1,8Mb

The battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (nee Merrimack), at Hampton Roads was neither the beginning nor the end of the story of the ironclad warships in the Civil War. Both the Union and the Confederate navies not only had other ironclad ships in commission at the time of the battle, they already had used them in combat. The months following saw the appearance of squadrons of monitors and casemate ironclads of the general design of the Virginia. It is with the sequels to the Battle of Hampton Roads that this book is primarily concerned.

Although more than a century has elapsed since its beginnings, the conditions which gave rise to the ironclad warship were the same which later were to bring about the development of the dreadnought, the aircraft carrier, and the nuclear submarine: the responses of a burgeoning industrial technology to the demands of particular strategic requirements.

The ironclads, in fact, were among the very first products of the modern age of technology, along with the railroad and the telegraph, and they were unquestionably the first of the melancholy procession of modern tools of war. As such, they were a whole era ahead of any weapons in use ashore, save the revolver. The armies of the Civil War really differed relatively little from the armies of Marlborough, or even Cromwell, but even the crudest of the navies' armored vessels would have seemed familiar to a seaman of today.

The first contribution to the development of armored warships was most certainly the marine steam engine, which had been in use since about 1815 and, by the beginning of the Civil War, had reached a relatively high state of development, although it was used at that time only as a primary means of propulsion for riverboats and tugs. While essential to the creation of ironclads, the steam engine in no way dictated or forced their adoption; nor, for that matter, did the second necessary factor: the availability of large amounts of relatively cheap wrought iron ( brought about by the rise of the railroads).

The decisive factor in their birth was the development of the heavy naval gun, and especially of the heavy shell gun.

The War of 1812 had demonstrated, to the United States Navy at least, that a few heavy, long-range guns were more effective than many smaller lighter guns. While the great frigates such as the Constitution generally carried more guns than their opponents, it was remarked that it was usually their heavy chase guns which were decisive. Similar experiences during the same period led French and British naval architects to the same conclusions, and in the 182-'s and '30's the trend in warship design began to turn toward smaller, faster vessels mounting only a few heavy powerful guns.

The pivot gun, which could be rotated to fire in any direction, began to come into general use. This arrangement, which had been used for several centuries on Mediterranean galleys, as well as on minor combatant ships in the Swedish Navy in the 18th century and in both the British and the American navies at the beginning of the 19th, was generally adopted for the armament of the new steam-powered sloops and frigates.

The interest in more effective naval guns led simultaneously to the development of the large calibre rifle and the shell gun. Like the pivot gun, the principle of both was fairly well known. Explosive shells had been used in mortars for many years, and the muzzle-loading rifle, as students of the American Revolution well know, was already in use as a small calibre weapon. Improved methods of producing and forming wrought iron now made large calibre rifles feasible.

The shell gun, for which the French General Paixhans must be credited, spelled doom for the wooden ship. Hitherto, the sides of even the heaviest ships had to contend only with solid shot, which simply attempted to punch a hole through the wood. Now the physical properties of wood are such that it is well suited to withstand this kind of shock, coming as it does across the grain, and since wood is naturally buoyant it is always possible, in theory at least, to make the sides thick enough to absorb the impact of virtually any size solid shot. The effect of an explosive shell, however, is something else again. The shell strikes the wooden wall, burrows part way into the wood, and then, almost entirely confined, explodes under almost ideal conditions. And, since its force is exerted in all directions, it splinters the wood (and most likely sets it afire). The difference can be compared to that between chopping a log and splitting it.

Once these she'll guns became operational, it did not take much imagination to see that iron armor was now a necessity. This was well proved in the Battle of Sinope in 1853, in which the Russian fleet, using Paixhans' shell guns, virtually annihilated the Turkish fleet. After experimenting with iron-plated floating batteries in the Crimean War, both the British and French began to build ironclads, beginning with the French Gloire in 1859 and the British Warrior in 1860. Both of these ships, and the others of their respective classes which soon followed them, were, nevertheless, conventional propeller-driven steam frigates. Only their sides were armored, their armament and sailing rig remaining quite conventional.

The Americans' response ( and we must here include John Ericsson, the Swedish-born inventor of the Monitor) was at once a complete break with a 500-year tradition in warship construction, and at the same time very much in keeping with their own tradition, and particularly their own naval tradition. Since this tradition is very much alive today, and is quite possibly the chief reason for the continued existence of the United States, it is worth while at this point to examine it.

Beginning with the construction of the magnificent frigates of the Constitution class in 1795, and continuing with the ill-conceived gun-boat program of 1803, the Americans always have tended to consider their warships as tools of strategy and national policy and nothing more. The frigates were a success; the gunboats were a failure. Both were discarded without hesitation when their strategic usefulness was, rightly or wrongly, considered to be at an end. This tendency has continued and has become a tradition, often to the chagrin of buffs who, in every age, have bemoaned the passing of the reigning queens.

Thus, we find that, once the quarrel with the British was ended, the Americans let their sinewy force of frigates gradually molder away ( although during this time they built the Mississippi, a fine paddle-wheel steamer with 10 pivot guns, and shell guns at that, as well as the first steam-driven ship of war in the world, the USS Demologos).

We shall see how, in both the North and the South, the response to the strategic imperatives of the Civil War was also very much in this tradition. Immediately following the war, when the question of the Alabama Claims once more presented the prospect of war with England, the response was again very much to the point: a class of wooden cruisers, which were lightly armed and very fast commerce raiders. This threat passed swiftly, and then the cruisers rotted along with the monitors.

The Spanish-American War ( which conceivably could have been a German-American or even a Japanese-American War) found the U.S. Navy equipped with an at least adequate force of seagoing battleships and cruisers, which in turn gave way to the largest and finest destroyer force in the world (and the convoy system and the North Sea mining operation) by the end of the First World War. The Second World War required aircraft carriers and landing craft, and in the same tradition they were built and used. Of the nuclear submarines and how they came to be built and on station exactly when they were needed, little need be said.

While the tradition does go back to the time of Nelson, Villeneuve, and Preble, nevertheless its first really great flowering was during the Civil War. Prior to that time, shipbuilding and ship design in a basically agricultural community were rather narrow and specialized fields, and the country as a whole was involved neither in building the Navy nor in manning it. The Civil War, however, drew upon the energies of the entire community (as has every war since). Some of the most fascinating stories of the conflict involve the efforts, successful or otherwise, simply to build these awesome monsters, sometimes in places where the most sophisticated industrial plant consisted of a blacksmith shop and a steam-powered sawmill.

Indeed, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that, although the naval operations were quite possibly the decisive factor in the Civil War, the ironclads as a whole were not—at least not in a narrow tactical sense. The real infighting was done largely by jimcrack shallow-draft gunboats, lightly armored if armored at all; and the blockade and commerce raiding of the North and the South, respectively, Was done by conventional wooden steamships. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the ironclads were developed and built in both parts of the country, were weapons (for their time) as exotic as intercontinental rockets, and, for better or worse, the century of destruction began with them.

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