25.7.05

DUELING HISTORIES. Book Reviews 20 and 21 are James DeKay's Monitor and James Nelson's Reign of Iron, both covering the Battle of Hampton Roads and the subsequent fates of the ships and the leading men who fought them. The Superintendent is a bit of a Civil War junkie. For most readers, one of the two books will suffice, and Monitor, although a bit smaller and a bit more expensive, is the better buy. It offers more information about the effects of the fog of war on people's judgement, including the panic of the superintendent of the Gosport Navy Yard who had Merrimack patched up and ready to steam and then fired her along with the shiphouses, while an assistant failed to demolish the drydock, and the repeated errors in judgement by old-salts who knew that oakum, and only oakum, would keep the sea from opening up a seam. (A heavy harder metal object on a softer metal surface is less likely to work open.) You'd think Monitor's handlers would have learned from that error on the tow from New York to Chesapeake Bay. (Reign describes Monitor's sinking off Cape Hatteras, but the harrowing tow from New York gets short shrift.)

Monitor also reveals that designer John Ericsson originally conceived of his "sub-aquatic battery" as capable of firing steam-propelled "hydrostatic javelins." Flood Tube 1.

Reign offers less by way of the human follies and leaves out some important parts of the story, although -- for serious Civil War buffs -- it reveals that the drydock where Merrimack became Virginia still serves the U.S. Navy, and it puts to rest an old yarn about Monitor's cat.

Which ironclad won the battle? Monitor correctly, in the Superintendent's view, gives it to Monitor. Virginia's purpose was to destroy the Hampton Roads blockading squadron and permit foreign commerce to land goods and load cotton at the Virginia ports. Hampton Roads remained blockaded. Two years after the battle of the ironclads, General Grant was able to cross the James River and close land and sea access to Richmond.

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