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The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia

edited by Harold Holzer and Tim Mulligan, Fordham University Press, 2006, 222 pages, $45.

For three years, the Mariners’ Museum in Hampton Roads, Va., has sponsored an anniversary Battle of Hampton Roads Weekend symposium. This conference has brought together leading Civil War naval scholars at the soon to open USS Monitor Center to discuss the Civil War at sea. The Battle of Hampton Roads offers many of the excellent essays that have resulted. Although there are several quality books (many written by the presenters) on the famous duel between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, this compendium brings the experts together in a concise, enjoyable format, although without footnotes, and provides some unique insights into this technological naval revolution.

William C. Davis, author of over 40 Civil War books, including Duel Between the First Ironclads, provides a quick overview of how CSS Virginia forever changed naval warfare on March 8, 1862, by sinking the wooden ships Congress and Cumberland. This was the worst defeat for the U.S. Navy prior to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Davis then describes the duel between Monitor and Virginia the next day.

Craig Symonds, a former U.S. Naval Academy history professor, recounts the arms race that led to the pivotal battle at Hampton Roads between the Confederates at the Gosport Naval Yard and the Federals at the Continental Works in Brooklyn. His essay describes the creativity and skill of Monitor inventor John Ericsson and Confederate naval architects John Luke Porter, John Mercer Brooke and William Williamson in quickly producing the best ironclads possible with available resources.

The next two chapters remind us that, although these were altogether new types of war machines, devoid of the glamour of the sailing ships, they still relied on the bravery and capability of the sailors who manned them. David Mindell, author of War Technology and Experience Aboard the USS Monitor, describes how Monitor’s ergonomics left something to be desired, since much of the crew served in what was called an “iron coffin” below the water, working in what some described as the deep dark pits of hell, with sulfurous coal smoke, 140-degree temperatures and almost complete darkness. John V. Quarstein, author of CSS Virginia, provides an essay on the impetuosity of the Confederates who changed the balance of power in Hampton Roads with their improvised ironclad.

Two authors offer retrospectives on the battle and its legend. Mabry Tyson, the great-grandson of Virginia’s second commander, Roger Catesby Jones, makes his intent clear with his title: “Believe Only Half of What You Read About the Battle of Hampton Roads.” Participants and reporters wrote what they wanted people to believe and not necessarily what happened. Lincoln expert and senior vice president at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York Harold Holzer reviews the art generated by the battle of Hampton Roads in “Victory Without Glory.” Pictures of brave men and their ships were replaced by images of a mechanical David vs. Goliath naval battle. Northerners, who published art throughout the war, favored pictures of their comparatively diminutive, pure-white-smoke driven Monitor “defeating” the hulking black-smoke-belching Virginia.

A lecture and a debate emphasize the importance of the Virginia and Monitor duel in strategic terms. Howard Fuller’s presentation describes Monitor’s role in dissuading the English, whose wooden-walled ships had ruled the waves, from aiding the Confederacy. John Quarstein and Joseph Gutierrez debate which ship won the naval battle at Hampton Roads.

Although the Battle of Hampton Roads was fought over 140 years ago, the final chapter by Monitor Center curator Jeff Johnston describes the current struggle to recover and restore the ship at the Mariners’ Museum. This section includes more than two dozen black and white pictures of recovered artifacts. Although much of the material in this book can be found in other places, Johnston’s section provides unique insights into Monitor technology and the battle, and forms a fitting conclusion for this excellent and thought-provoking edition.

Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.