Military History - American Civil War

"Reign of Iron" by James L. Nelson

James L. Nelson put his considerable writing skills of naval fiction into creating this outstanding historical work. Most history is dry reading, but this book reads like an excellent novel. Nelson covers the political turmoil and indecision at the outset of the Civil War and the failure of the incompetent commander of the Norfolk/Gosport naval facilities to destroy military stores and the Merrimack. The Confederates captured large numbers of cannon and tons of ordinance as well as the repairable Merrimack and a good dry-dock. When it was discovered that the Merrimack had been raised and the Confederates were converting it to an iron-clad, the Union panic began. It was hard to get the Monitor built because the old-school naval commanders did not like to innovate. Finally, the design of Swede John Ericsson was accepted, but to get the ship built, Ericsson mostly financed the construction with his own money.

In early March 1862 the Monitor was completed and sent to deal with the Merrimack (CSS Virginia), but she almost sank in rough seas and was barely saved. Meanwhile, a day before the Monitor arrived, the Merrimack had destroyed to Union frigates, the Cumberland and the Congress. It was a fierce battle but the wooden ships in the area could do nothing but run or be destroyed. The only thing keeping the Merrimack from escaping were large caliber cannon on forts in the area that could deliver plunging fire. On the 9th of March, the Monitor and Merrimack dueled for several hours with little damage to each other, few casualties, and no clear winner, but the Monitor and the forts were enough to keep the Merrimack bottled-up. The Confederates wanted to move the Merrimack to Richmond, but the waterways were too shallow, so they blew her up. The Monitor remained on station for several weeks before being sent to Charleston. On the trip, she again encountered heavy seas and sank. What a stupid waste.

What I found most interesting about this famous engagement was the weapons used by the ships. At times the ships were almost touching and a point-blank range, neither ship could deliver a crippling blow. Nelson reveals that the Merrimack was using explosive shells, which are very destructive when hitting wooden ships, but of no penetrating power when exploding against armor. The Monitor had large caliber cannon firing solid shot which should have been able to penetrate the sloping armor of the Merrimack. But the Monitor's cannon were restricted to using half powder charges. Using full charges would have enabled the Monitor's solid shot to penetrate the Merrimack's armor. One would think that after seeing the shots bouncing off the Monitor, someone would have had enough sense to increase the powder charges.

Reviewed by Kenneth S. Smith

Available from:
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.
10 East 53rd Street
New York, NY  10022

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