The Civil War Connections Blog

Ironclad Legends

In early March of 1862, the ironclad ships of both the Confederacy and the Union finally encountered one another and engaged in a naval battle that would forever change naval technology. Even at the time, back in 1862, many people understood that this one encounter was a monumental event. Amazingly enough, one of the perks of being an intern for The Mariners’ Museum means I can look at archives from the New York Times, to see what they had to say about the battle.

 

Civil War newspaper maps from the New York times, 1861. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Civil War newspaper maps from the New York times, 1861. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

 

For those who might not be familiar with the background of the Battle of Hampton Roads, the CSS Merrimac had initially been the USS Virginia, but had been burned when the US Navy was forced to flee the Norfolk Ship Yard. The US Navy had set fire to the ships they left behind, rather than allow them to fall into the hands of the Confederates. However, the Confederates were able to salvage the hull of the Virginia, and had turned it into the ironclad ship, the Merrimac. Meanwhile, the Union had commissioned the USS Monitor, an ironclad ship designed by John Ericsson.

On March 12, 1862, the New York Times printed an article with some correspondence from Fort Monroe, located in Hampton Virginia. It provided details from the battle of March 8th and 9th, which began with the arrival of the Confederate ship, the Merrimac. During the burning of Norfolk Ship Yard, the US Navy had been able to save the USS Cumberland, and from the description of the article, the Cumberland was the first ship targeted by the Merrimac. Following sinking the Cumberland, the Merrimac then attacked and burned the USS Congress. The battle was not progressing well for the Union on March 8th, but March 9th brought new hope with the arrival of the Monitor.  This article credits the “little Monitor” with the win, but interestingly, it also acknowledges both the reputation and the power of the Merrimac. The Monitor had not yet been tested in battle, while the Merrimac had proved its ability already. Upon the Monitor’s arrival, the Merrimac attempted to ram it, yet just bounced right off the side, before firing on one another. According to this article, the firing proved to be mostly ineffective, yet prompted the Merrimac to eventually leave the scene.[1]

A few days later, on March 16, 1862, there was another article discussing the ironclad battle printed in the Times. This one, titled “The Romance of War,” portrayed the battle in a very different light. This article states almost immediately, “It [the battle] will be one of those events that our children and our children’s children will read of over and over again, with undying interest.” [2] This article, which describes less of the details and more of the artistry of the battle, compares the Merrimac to a “mysterious, monstrous object,” and the Monitor to an “iron mailed knight.”[3] The article goes on to state, “on that eventful Sunday, the whole naval architecture and harbor defenses of the world were summarily changed…No wooden-sided war-vessel with henceforth be built.”[4] This wordplay, takes the battle from an event that was matter-of-factually reported on, and elevates it to a higher level, which inspires readers with a sense of awe regarding the ironclads. This battle is unlike anything that either the Union or the Confederacy had ever seen before, and describing in a way that is reminiscent of the romantic tales of knights, villains and honor, helps solidify it as an event that will forever change the world. The article appeals to readers by playing on their knowledge of a legendary story, and in doing so helps establish the ironclads as legendary as well.

 

Front page of New York Times, Monday, Apr. 10, 1865, with news of Lee's surrender. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Front page of New York Times, Monday, Apr. 10, 1865, with news of Lee’s surrender. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

 


[1] “News from Fortress Monroe,” New York Times, (1857 – current file); March 15th, 1862; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times, (1851 – 2004), pg 5.

[2] “The Romance of War,” New York Times, (1857 – current file); March 16, 1862; ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1857-2004), pg 4.

[3] “The Romance of War,” New York Times, pg 4.

[4] “The Romance of War,” New York Times, pg 4.