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Ironclads at War: The Monitor vs. The Merrimac

by Dan Abnett, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, England, 2007, 48 pages, $9.95.

Deadly Inferno: Battle of the Wilderness, by Dan Abnett

Osprey Publishing, Oxford, England, 2007, 48 pages, $9.95.

Osprey, the British publisher of numerous profusely illustrated reference books for the historian and hobbyist, enters the realm of comic books with a series of “graphic histories,” six of which thus far deal with the American Civil War. The first, Ironclads at War: The Monitor vs. The Merrimac, seems to be aimed primarily at interesting a new generation of younger readers in the subject, a commendable goal toward which its format deserves to succeed. A short prologue sets the scene with what is perhaps an oversimplified cause of the conflict and the origins of the two armored antagonists. Then the comic book, written by Dan Abnett and illustrated by Ron Wagner, takes over, focusing on the Battle of Hampton Roads, in which the Confederate casemate ram Virginia, built on the partially burned hull of the uncompleted U.S. Navy steam frigate Merrimac, destroyed the wooden Union warships Congress and Cumberland on March 8, 1862, only to meet its match the next day when it was confronted by the turreted USS Monitor, in history’s first contest between two ironclad warships. To the book’s credit, the Rebel ram is correctly labeled Virginia, while being referred to by most Union crewmen—as it was at the time—as Merrimac. Also commendable is the use of white speech balloons for dialogue written by the author and blue ones to indicate actual historically documented quotations.

The story reverts to standard text form to present the aftermath of the battle and the ultimate fates of the vessels, neither of which survived to see 1863. Two nits one might pick concern the omission of Monitor’s participation in the First Battle of Drewry’s Bluff on May 15, 1862, where its inability to elevate its guns rendered it all but useless against the Rebel defenses on the bluff, and the reference in the last paragraph to Monitor’s being sunk en route to joining the blockade of the port of Wilmington, Del., when the Wilmington in question was, in fact, in North Carolina. Such quibbles aside, Ironclads at War does a good job at informing young readers what their older siblings already know: Historical fact needn’t be fictionalized to provide drama and action.

A more recent installment by the same author, Deadly Inferno: Battle of the Wilderness, is less impressive. The confrontation between Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee on May 5-6, 1864, was a hellish fight in a heavily forested environment that Lee had hoped would cancel out the Union Army of the Potomac’s numerical advantage. What occurred was a series of savage slugfests, lent added horror when the woods and wooden breastworks caught fire. In the end Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia beat in both flanks of the Army of the Potomac but was left too bloodied and exhausted to do more. Moreover, although Lee won the tactical victory, Grant did deny him the “strategic” victory the author cites him as winning by not retreating as previous Union commanders had done. Grant instead sidestepped Lee’s army and continued his advance on Richmond.

Squeezing the Wilderness, with its multiple dramas, into a 48-page comic book is an ambitious project, and Abnett’s effort here falls a bit short. Among other things, he starts with the Confederate Second Corps being commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell—whose depiction by artist Wayne Vansant seems curiously unworthy of Ewell’s nickname of “Baldy”—but no mention is made of Ewell’s nervous breakdown, which led to Maj. Gen. John Gordon suddenly appearing in acting command of the corps. Oversimplifications aside, the biggest disappointment is in Vansant’s renditions of the generals: Grant and Lee don’t match the antagonists familiar to most Civil War buffs, while Ewell, Gordon, George Meade, J.E.B. Stuart, A.P. Hill, James Longstreet and even Lee’s horse Traveller range from barely recognizable to outright unrecognizable. Overall, Ironclads at War scores a fairly solid hit, but Deadly Inferno is a miss.

Originally published in the January 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here