19.12.16

THE CONFEDERACY'S MANHATTAN PROJECT.

Richard Snow first took an interest in Monitor and Virginia as a kid, partly because both were much easier to draw than your ship of the line.  (Try it: where do you run the spanker topping-lift?)  That, and a few other things, prompted him to write Iron Dawn:  The Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Civil War Sea Battle that Changed History, this afternoon's Book Review No. 26.

It's the back-stories and the intrigues that got him interested, and that fill out the book.  We know the outcome of the battle:  the blockade remained in place at Hampton Roads, which, in my view, renders all the southern talk of a "drawn engagement" moot.  Perhaps Virginia enthusiasts have to stand up in defense of their extremely expensive lost cause.

That is, at the same time that the rebel quartermasters were procuring all the iron they could lay hands on to build a machine capable of lifting the blockade, shelling the Capitol, and perhaps laying waste to shipping in New York Harbor, a little-known brigadier named Grant, with some simpler ironclad barges, was preparing to open the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers into the cotton South, and isolate an imposing fort at Columbus, Kentucky.  Perhaps I should post pictures of that fort ...

But the success of Monitor changed a lot of minds in Washington.  Skeptics couldn't hurry fast enough to appropriate money to build more monitors.  Other countries wanted some, and the last floating hull once served the Austro-Hungarian Navy.  Then came the people with ideas for building iron ships with greater freeboard, and fitting them with more turrets.  Read about the arms race that ensued in Robert K. Massie's Dreadnought, which I read through before this Fifty Book Challenge stuff started.  Missile gaps?  Nothing new.  Prior to that, there was a dreadnought gap?  For all I know, there's a Roman papyrus somewhere about a trireme gap.  Rent-seekers gotta rent-seek.

I commend, though, the post-battle chapter, "Hawthorne Visits the Future."  Yes, as in Nathaniel of "Gray Champion" and such light reading as The House of the Seven Gables and Scarlet Letter.  Hawthorne, Mr Snow suggests, "saw forward to twentieth-century naval warfare," including (now Hawthorne's words) "the armament of which is to act entirely beneath the surface of the water, so that, with no other external symptoms than a great bubbling and foaming, and gush of smoke, and belch of thunder out of the yeasty waves ..."   Torpedo, Los!  And Hawthorne might even have gotten this prediction more right than wrong.  "Human strife is to be transformed from the heart and personality of man into cunning contrivances of machinery, which by-and-will fight out our wars with only the clank and smash of iron, strewing the field with broken engines, but damaging no one's little finger except by accident."  Not true of the dreadnaughts, not true of the submarines, not true of the aviators, not true of the people on the receiving end of cruise missile and drone strikes.  But even a Hawthorne could not anticipate the damage to the psyches of the people whose little fingers help steer the drones ...

(Cross-posted to 50 Book Challenge.)

No comments: