The Civil War Connections Blog

Ironclad Intellectuals

On the anniversary of the naming of the Virginia, it would seem appropriate to comment on the Hampton Roads area; the battle in the Chesapeake immortalized our humble home after all.  However, if you had been flipping through the New York Times on February 17, 1862, you would have happened upon the article “The Meaning of the Iron Gun Boats” which focused on a very different theater: the West. This Times author is going for the gold in terms of territorial and strategic gains, setting his sights upon the possible capture of the monstrous Mississippi; but he doesn’t stop there.  In language meant to spark a feeling of patriotic fervor, the following article deems the ironclad gunboats a demonstration of the intellectual superiority of the Northern citizenry.  In one broad and zealous swoop, this Times author impacts the development of the gun boats with an argument that punches below the Confederates’ belts.


The Meaning of the Iron Gun Boats

Published February 17, 1862

It is not becoming in us, as yet, to be too confident, but we think it may now be fairly said that the iron gunboats have settled the question where the Mississippi River shall belong. Whatever fortune betide the Virginia army, or the rebel States on the Atlantic, the Valley of the Mississippi has now passed over to the control of those to whom, in the natural course, it must belong — the ingenious and hardy population of the West and Northwest. The iron gunboats are merely an exponent of those qualities which have gained the victory — the ingenuity, mechanical skill, perseverance and calm courage of a Northern free people over the ardor and impulse, and want of thoroughness, of a Southern and slaveholding population…

For it must be remembered that in modern days the great difference between the armies of civilized nations is not so much in personal courage as in equipment and discipline. Accordingly, numbers, with artillery and under good drill, must prevail. There is scarcely such a thing in modern warfare as a small army beating, in a long campaign, a large army. “Notwithstanding,” says WELLINGTON, in that memorable order in the Peninsula campaign, that has been printed in gazettes and newspapers, “we have never seen small bodies, unsupported, successfully opposed to large; nor has the experience of any officer realized the stories which all have read of whole armies being driven by a handful of light infantry or dragoons.” War among civilized peoples, equal in number, is a contest of Science and Wealth. It is true, that in the beginning a people like ours, composed so largely of those engaged in agricultural and mechanical employments, and unaccustomed both to the implements and the passions of war, may receive severe checks from a population much lower in intelligence, but used to weapons, and in the habit of giving loose rein to resentment and passion. But this is a mere matter of loss in the opening of a war. Such a people as ours, hardy, ingenious and naturally bold, as they become accustomed to martial operations and dangers, make the best kind of soldiery. Their invention is incessantly at work; the genius which has won such successes in the arts of peace is now applied constantly to the formation of implements of destruction, or to the combinations of strategy. We are to have enormous floating batteries of iron, which no existing fortifications can resist; mortars throwing their tremendous projectiles, weighing, it is said, thirty tons, for six or eight miles; new weapons will be invented, and all the energy of our untiring and ingenious national improvement will be turned to the shortest and most terrible methods of destruction.

Officers and Generals also will inevitably appear who will show invention in strategy, and a victorious blow, winged by genius, will at once place a man in the highest position. The iron gunboats which are now deciding the fate of the Valley of the Mississippi, are merely an index of the power which must now henceforth bear down overwhelmingly from the North upon the South. If they had not been invented, something else would have been. The old, steady and patient courage which in all ages has given a Northern people victory over a Southern, is now winning our battles…


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