New Era Dawns in Naval Warfare

Article excerpt


When the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor slugged it out at Hampton Roads, Va., on March 9, 1862, it was the first battle in history between ironclad ships, ending in a draw. Contrary to a still-widespread belief, however, they were not the first ironclad ships in history. The French, followed closely by their British rivals, had been building armored vessels first.

The French government of Emperor Napoleon III began experimenting with the idea in 1854 during the Crimean War, a conflict fought mostly along the shores of the Black Sea, with France, Britain and Turkey on one side and Russia on the other.

The French government built four ironclad artillery platforms, each protected by 5 inches of armor. The platforms were not true seagoing ships. They had to be towed into place before opening fire. The platforms first went into service in late 1855, not against Russian ships but against Russia's Kinbourn forts, and silenced them after a brief bombardment.

Ironically, one of the American officials sent to observe the war was Capt. George B. McClellan, who in 1861 would become the general in command of the Union's Army of the Potomac. McClellan wrote a 360-page book of his observations, but if he ever saw the platforms, he never mentioned them.

Encouraged by this success, the French government built the first true ironclad ship, the Gloire, in 1858. The Gloire also was protected by 5 inches of iron. The ship's armament consisted of 35 rifled cannons and a steel battering ram.

Almost immediately, the British responded with an ironclad ship of their own, the Warrior. Not surprisingly, the Warrior was a better-armed ship, with 48 guns. Its armor was also 5 inches thick. The Warrior may still be seen today, on display at Portsmouth, England.

In one respect, both the Gloire and the Warrior still clung to the past. …