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The Art of Ironclads

By Harold Holzer
9/3/2018 • Civil War Times Magazine

Pieces from the USS Monitor Center’s collection illustrate that the famous Monitor-Virginia duel heralded a sea change in naval art as well as technology.

Catching his first glimpse of the widely acclaimed Union warship USS Monitor in the spring of 1862, the great New England writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was anything but impressed. The ironclad was “very queer,” he sniffed, “the strangest-looking craft I ever saw.” Closer inspection did nothing to change the author’s mind. Monitor “could not be called a vessel at all,” he elaborated with undisguised distaste. “It was a machine.” Always partial to the handsome over the functional—he preferred dashing Franklin Pierce to homely Abraham Lincoln, for example—Hawthorne now wondered derisively, “How can an admiral condescend to go to sea in an iron pot?”

Whether he knew it or not, the great writer had not only sensed a sea change in the history of naval warfare; he was also onto something of importance in terms of art history. For Hawthorne immediately understood that with Monitor’s emergence at the March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads—fighting against an even uglier vessel, the Confederate ironclad Virginia (known as USS Merrimack before it was captured and retrofitted)—the age of romance on the high seas had abruptly come to an end. With it vanished a tradition of highly romanticized marine art as well: glorious visions of imposing wooden vessels, sails billowing, colorfully engaged in manly combat on the high seas.

“All the pomp and splendor of naval warfare are gone by,” Hawthorne now realized with equal doses of nostalgia and contempt. Not only were romantic-looking vessels destined for the junk heap of history; so too, he predicted, was the once-idealized romantic naval hero. “Henceforth,” Hawthorne sourly anticipated, “there must come up a race of engineer-men and smoke-blackened cannoneers, who will hammer away at their enemies under the direction of a single pair of eyes; and even heroism—so deadly a grip is Science laying on our noble possibilities— will become a quality of very minor importance, when its possessor cannot break through the iron crust of his own armament and give the world a glimpse of it.”

Hawthorne’s accurate foreboding notwithstanding, artists did struggle, beginning that same year—1862—to “give the world a glimpse” of what the “deadly grip” of science had produced: the revolutionary warship that had so thoroughly changed the course of marine warfare on that fateful day in the waters near Fortress Monroe, Va. Printmakers in the United States and abroad breathlessly rushed out hastily drawn, often inaccurate renderings of the historic Monitor-Virginia clash, feeding an insatiable audience that clamored for newsworthy depictions of the duel. In time, marine painters ventured retrospective oil paintings of the engagement to decorate Union League clubs, veterans’ halls and eventually museums, trying to fit the unromantic spectacle of two iron ships firing futilely at each other at close range into the conventions of marine painting that went back generations (huge billows of smoke usually helped).

Fortunately for students of both the American Civil War and American art, the newly opened USS Monitor Center at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., will display not only relics recovered in recent years from the long-submerged ironclad, which capsized in December 1862 off Cape Hatteras and has been dramatically recovered in recent years, but also a pantheon of art in all media. These pictures—part of the largest and most comprehensive collection of Monitor-Virginia art in the world—attest not only to the deep interest the engagement held for contemporary engravers, lithographers and painters, but also the fascination it exerted for generations on audiences, the decline of romantic tradition notwithstanding. What makes this pictorial archive even more extraordinary is not just how difficult it was to collect it under one magnificent new roof, but how difficult it was to create in the first place.

Civil War naval artists did not have it easy, even before the sunset of the era of wooden ships. For one thing, compared to the artist-correspondents who were routinely dispatched to land battlefields by Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and other period publications, there weren’t many such specialists to begin with. And on the rare occasions when they were in the right place at the right time, they experienced tremendous difficulty creating their art, much less getting back to dry land where they might show it to patrons, sell it and distribute it to the public.

In 1862, for example, just a few weeks before Monitor and Virginia met at Hampton Roads, Union Admiral Samuel F. DuPont, commander of the Atlantic blockading squadron aboard his flagship, USS Wabash, logged a description of a young man who had recently enlisted for two year’s service. This was no ordinary volunteer, but the “son of Russell Smith, the artist,” DuPont wrote. The admiral was clearly impressed that his new sailor “sketches and takes ships beautifully—he has a collection of all our steamers that will be very curious one day.”

DuPont was right about his shipboard sketcher. Xanthus Russell Smith went on to prove he was both talented and prolific. Ultimately he became one of the mid-19th century’s best-patronized and best-known marine artists. His works grace most of the great institutional collections that house Civil War art. But it is no surprise that Admiral DuPont noticed Smith in the first place. Sailor-artists were not a common sight.

We know that Xanthus Smith served on board the ship between 1862-64. But we do not know how, when, or even if he sent any of his on-the-spot drawings and sketches on to publishers, agents or galleries during wartime. Most likely he didn’t. Landbased battlefield artists like Winslow Homer, by comparison, would use the U.S. mails, jump aboard trains or journey back to printmaking centers like Philadelphia or New York, and could quickly transport their firsthand action sketches to the picture weeklies. They could also direct their work to print publishers like New York’s prolific lithography firm of Currier & Ives, which promptly engraved or lithographed them and distributed them widely while the events they portrayed were still fresh.

Not so for marine artists. Like Smith, they were stuck aboard ships, along rivers or at sea, out of communication with their constituencies and potential patrons on land. They might fill sketchbooks, but in most cases it took years before land-based Americans got to see the results of their experiences. Smith’s superb works, including several showing Admiral DuPont’s picturesque flagship, never made it to wide public view in a timely manner. He only began painting in earnest after the war had ended. Marine artists not only lacked time, they lacked a stable environment in which to work (ships rocked, after all, a condition hardly conducive to painting). As long as the war raged, they had little opportunity to sketch or paint, and no way to display their works or see to their adaptation into popular prints. Smith’s greatest pictures were painted after the war ended.

Actually, Smith was one of the few artists who served at sea at all. As Admiral David Dixon Porter recalled: “Naval ships did not travel with…sketchers. There was no room for these on board ship, and if perchance some stray…should get on board, the discomfort of a man of war, the exacting discipline, and the freer life in camp sent him back to shore, where in most cases he only remembered his association with the Navy as a trip without any satisfaction, and with no desire to do justice to the work of the naval service.” Even the ambitious Smith admitted that he “was able to keep busy with my sketchbook and pencils” only when time permitted. He had a sailor’s duty to perform as well. His primary obligation was to the U.S. Navy, not to the illustrated newsweeklies that employed the likes of land-based artists like Homer or Alfred R. Waud.

But in the end such specialists faced a challenge more daunting than isolation in their efforts to portray Civil War naval battles. They were compelled to confront what Hawthorne had so insightfully pointed out in 1862: the radically altered technology of naval warfare, and the resulting decline of the picturesque on the high seas. Amid this profound revolution, marine traditions suddenly seemed passé. For the first time, artists were compelled to observe, record and in some cases celebrate ugly machines.

So it is both extraordinary and ironic that Civil War naval artists reserved their greatest creative outburst—and their most potent show of Union morale building—for the engagement that doomed the era of romance in naval warfare together with its art: the Battle of Hampton Roads. This most un-picturesque encounter of all provided the greatest inspiration to artists, who instantly recognized its importance. In part through their pictorial evocations, many of them produced despite the obstacles that so often inhibited timely publication of naval prints, the duel between Monitor and Virginia became the most widely depicted naval event of the Civil War.

Hawthorne was not totally correct: Admiral David Farragut would later prove at Mobile Bay that personal heroism was possible even in the machine age. Farragut’s brave exposure to enemy fire— emanating from a Confederate iron ship, as it transpired—from on board his graceful wooden flagship USS Hartford inspired one of the greatest of all Civil War paintings. But it also proved the last gasp of a vanishing tradition—an exception to the artistic trend that was so powerfully launched at Hampton Roads. Monitor’s fight against Virginia did not advance the romantic aesthetic in art. It created a modern aesthetic in its place, one that celebrated the modern machine, not handsome ships or brave sailors.

In artistic terms, Monitor was little more than a homely “cheese-box,” as Hawthorne and others observed, and it symbolized Northern industrialism, not gallantry. Virginia, clumsily refitted atop the hulk of an old wooden ship, looked as threatening as it first proved to the Union’s wooden fleet before Monitor steamed to the rescue the following day. That the two vessels nonetheless changed naval war forever on March 9, 1862, was clear in several paintings depicting Virginia ramming the helpless wooden ship USS Cumberland at Hampton Roads on March 8. For his version of the scene, painter W.B. Matthews chose a title that neatly summed up the artistic transfiguration: Last of the Wooden.

Printmakers, more quickly than painters, saw the news value of the Hampton Roads engagement, and even without the benefit of dependable firsthand eyewitness sketches or descriptions of the duel, rushed works off their presses to satisfy understandable public hunger for such visualizations. But since Northern print publishers sold their works almost exclusively to pro-Union audiences, one of the first such prints, Currier & Ives’ newsworthy lithograph of Virginia’s rampage against the Union fleet on March 8, likely attracted few appreciative customers.

Fortunately for both the artists and the Union, Monitor steamed to the rescue the next morning, and the war’s first all-technology battle began. Printmakers, Currier & Ives included, followed suit and emphasized the one-on-one encounter as well.

In most of the pictures—and The Mariners’ Museum owns one of the great representative collections of these works on canvas and paper—the symbolism was remarkably consistent: holy white smoke was usually shown billowing from Monitor, with evil-looking black smoke spewing from Virginia. Perhaps the vessels’ respective effluvia really did vary that day (Monitor used cleaner-burning anthracite, but not pure enough to inspire such purity). If so, it provided fortuitous high-tech symbolism for pro-Union artists and their patriotic audiences.

Currier & Ives reached the masses with Great Fight Between the Monitor and the Merrimac, allegedly from a sketch made on the scene by one F. Newman of Norfolk, about whose credentials—or existence—nothing has been learned since. Nor did the New York publisher rely entirely on his so-called account. Perhaps there was too much Merrimac and not enough Monitor in this early interpretation, for the resourceful firm quickly added to its list a revised interpretation of the event titled Terrific Combat Between Monitor 2 Guns and Merrimac 11 Guns. This lithograph (which came in several formats, with slightly modified details) was the work of Fanny Palmer, one of Currier & Ives’ best artists, and probably also the best female marine artist of the 19th century. Her effort rejected simplistic white-smoke/black-smoke symbolism and suggested instead, through both image and words, that this had been a David and Goliath contest. As its long caption declared: “The little ‘Monitor’ whipped the ‘Merrimac’ and the whole ‘School’ of rebel steamers.”

In truth, Virginia was not “whipped” at all but merely driven off by the receding tide; and at the height of their duel, the Union fleet actually outnumbered the “school” of Confederate steamers by 219 to 15. But a patriotic myth was born through such early graphics—all of them from the Union perspective. The enemy vessel was never called Virginia, for example; Northern image-makers continued referring to her, almost tauntingly, by the name of the once-sunken hull on which she had been built.

There could be no response from the South. By 1862, the Confederate printmaking industry, such as it was, already teetered on extinction. Chronic shortages of paper, ink and civilian artists had crippled picture production in cities like Richmond and Savannah, where such publishing had once flourished. The few Southern artists who had somehow avoided military service were assigned to government work, designing official maps, stamps and currency. Thus the production of display prints that could be hung in loyal Southern homes vanished altogether, especially after two of the other print publishing centers of the Old South, Baltimore and New Orleans, either stayed loyal to the North or fell into Union hands. The Confederacy managed only one quasinaval print during its entire four-year-long existence—a crude 1863 depiction of the Union bombardment of Vicksburg. Its artists produced not a single image to herald the arrival of its navy’s greatest innovation: the first ironclad.

The same could not be said for the Confederate Navy. The Confederacy began the war with no shipyards and few professional sailors. Despite these handicaps, for a time it seriously challenged the Union for dominance of the rivers and seas, and even preceded it in ironclad technology. But despite Virginia’s deadly early assaults at Hampton Roads, no Confederate artist ever recorded its triumphs. The Confederacy’s meager manufacturing capability and limited manpower would be directed at the materiel of war, not “mere” decoration, however crucial to sustaining patriotic morale.

Virginia’s duel with Monitor proved newsworthy enough to arouse audiences and inspire printmakers not only in the Union but also Europe. Later it remained a staple for lithographers who went on to publish retrospective series of Civil War images a generation after the guns had ceased. Both Kurz & Allison of Chicago and Louis Prang & Co. of Boston, for example, issued best-selling chromos of the encounter for their memorable packages of naval and land battle scenes issued in the 1880s.

For his watercolor model for the 1886 Prang chromo The First Fight Between Ironclads, artist J.O. Davidson claimed to have based his work on interviews with the Union ironclad’s surviving crew members, as well as recollections by its inventor, John Ericsson, and one of Virginia’s builders, John Luke Porter. Davidson also acknowledged a debt to marine artist Francis A. Silva, who had observed and supposedly sketched the battle from the shoreline at nearby Newport News (now the home of The Monitor Center). And although Kurz & Allison’s interpretation gave the event a curious land-based perspective, with casualties inexplicably shown limping onto shore, most printmakers preferred offering close-up portrayals of the action—even though such scenes could have been recorded from life only if the artist had ventured into the channel to view the fray from a rowboat.

Such details mattered little. In the end, no naval battle of the Civil War inspired as much artistic commemoration. The only wartime event to rival it was the Battle of Gettysburg, which enjoyed the advantage of attracting many more reporters and photographers to the scene of the action.

Interest in ironclad technology may be responsible for inspiring much of this Monitor-Virginia were picture buyers with the naval work. So fascinated heroes who had lived inside the vessel like canned fish that even scenes of Monitor’s lower deck proliferated. So did pictures of the interior of its revolutionary gun turret, one of them by Endicott & Co. of New York, the most prolific naval printmakers of the Civil War.

Even the ironclad’s launching pad, the Continental (Shipbuilding) Works in distant Greenpoint, Brooklyn, inspired a handsome and elaborate Endicott lithograph, a bustling bird’s-eye view from above the East River. It is a scene not only of creation, but also of celebration— showing other vessels in the harbor paying tribute to the ironclad’s portentous entry into the waters.

The iron ships and their high-tech heroes would appear in a variety of artistic media. Rival commanders John Worden and Catesby Jones inspired scrimshaw portrayals on whales’ teeth, and depictions of the ironclads themselves decorated silver and enamel spoons, and even playing cards— one deck in the Monitor Center’s collection shows the Union ironclad, the other the Confederate. Monitor was celebrated on sheet music covers too, and even in a giant cyclorama that was viewed in a darkened theater-in-the-round but has subsequently been lost and presumed destroyed except for one surviving panel.

Eventually the fine arts also focused on the Battle of Hampton Roads. Painters like Xanthus Smith, William Torgerson and Alexander Stewart produced canvases of the Monitor-Virginia clash, in Smith’s case to decorate a Philadelphia Union League headquarters founded to celebrate Abraham Lincoln, emancipation and the restoration of federal authority. There could be no doubt, even before the artist was commissioned to produce his painting, that Monitor had contributed to each.

Only later did marine painter J.O. Davidson admit artistically, in a little-known scene of United States monitors foundering in a gale, that early ironclads were in fact flimsy-looking and less than seaworthy. Davidson’s picture proved a haunting reminder of how the original Monitor had capsized in a storm on New Year’s Eve 1862. Its plunge to the deep off Cape Hatteras, only nine months after the battle that made it famous, was an artistic anticlimax, as was the earlier destruction of the “monster” Virginia at the hands of her own crew, to avoid capture by the Union. But ironclads—the new technology of the new navies—lived on in public memory, thanks in large part to artists like Davidson and publishers like Prang.

Over the years, William and Francis Endicott, for three decades the most prolific publisher of marine, naval and whaling prints in the business, eventually issued prints of 38 different Union Monitor-class ironclads, for sale at only $1.50 apiece, and eight United States ironclads depicted in storms for $2 each. Endicott adroitly marketed the prints directly to the families of their crews and veterans of sea duty. They got “a sample copy” in the mail, along with a letter suggesting that since “your vessel occupies quite a prominent place in it…the officers and crew would like to have some copies.”

The offer continued: “If you will make out a list of all those who want them and send the money to us with the addresses to which the copies are to be sent we will allow you an extra copy for every five names you obtain.” The sales technique apparently worked. Endicott prints long remained favorites for the sailors, their relatives and their survivors.

But ships alone did not tell the full story. In Endicott’s influential 1862 print Conflict Between Iron Clad The First Naval Vessels, the “race of engineermen” emerged as the new heroes, just as Hawthorne had predicted. None of the little portraits surrounding the main scene of the battle portrayed Monitor’s captain, John Worden, who had the bad luck to be disabled during the action. Instead, crowning the image were pictures of the “caloric engine” that powered newer Union ironclads, and inventor Ericsson, who became far more famous than the man who commanded the vessel at Hampton Roads. On March 9, 1862, technology surpassed heroism as the inspiration for naval art.

Hawthorne was not the only literary lion who took note of this transfiguration. Another great novelist, Herman Melville, realized it too. In one of the entries from his volume of Civil War poems BattlePieces and Aspects of the War, he took what he called “a utilitarian view of the Monitor’s Fight”—presaging with uncanny accuracy what a generation of artists would make of the duel. “Passion” had been replaced by “pivot and screw,” he wrote, “banners” by “plain mechanic power” and “warriors” by mere “operatives.” As Melville put it:

Hail to victory without the gaud
Of glory; zeal that needs no fans
Of banners; plain mechanic power
Plied cogently in War now placed—
Where war belongs—
Among the trades and artisans,

Yet this was battle, and intense—
Beyond the strife of fleets heroic,
Deadlier, closer, calm ’mid storm;
No passion; all went on by crank,
Pivot, and screw,
and calculations of caloric…
War shall yet be, and to the end;
But war-paint shows the streaks of weather;
War shall yet be, but warriors
Are now but operatives; War’s made
Less grand than Peace,
And a singe runs through lace and feather.

Naval warfare, as Melville sensed, changed forever at Hampton Roads, and with it naval art: “Hail to Victory without the gaud of glory,” he proclaimed. Glory still existed, but it was reflected in “mechanic power,” not “gaud” and “banners.”

Visually evoking these sentiments in an 1891 lithograph of the Monitor-Virginia duel, yet another printmaker offered a sense of forshadowing in its caption: “This fight settled the fate of the ‘wooden walls’ of the world and taught all nations, that the warship of the future must be…[a] Machine of Steel.” As such pictures remind us, art helped teach all nations the same lesson.

 

Originally published in the April 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.  

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