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How Did Ironclads Affect The Civil War?

How Did Ironclads Affect The Civil War?

US Civil War


In 1861, Ironclads became created and deployed to the naval battlefields to destroy wooden ships.

Ironclads had a significant impact on the Civil War.

Before the Civil War, most naval vessels were made of wood and powered by wind or steam. Ironclads were a new type of warship armored with iron and designed to become impervious to enemy fire.

The first ironclad to see action in the Civil War was the CSS Virginia, formerly known as the USS Merrimack, which had been scuttled by Union forces at the outbreak of the war and later salvaged by the Confederacy. The Virginia was outfitted with iron plating on its casemate, making it nearly invulnerable to the Union’s wooden warships. The Virginia engaged several Union vessels, sinking two of them, before being forced to retreat due to a mechanical issue.

In response to the threat of the Virginia, the Union quickly constructed its own ironclad, the USS Monitor. The Monitor was smaller than the Virginia but had a rotating turret that allowed its guns to fire in any direction, giving it a significant advantage in battle.

The two ironclads clashed in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862.

The Union ironclad USS Monitor, commanded by Lieutenant John Worden, was sent to protect the Union blockade of Norfolk, Virginia. The Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, commanded by Captain Franklin Buchanan, was tasked with breaking through the blockade and attacking the Union ships in Hampton Roads.

On March 8, 1862, the Virginia attacked the Union wooden warships and sank two of them. However, when the Virginia engaged the Monitor on the following day, the battle was inconclusive. The two ironclads circled each other, exchanging fire with their heavy guns, but neither was able to inflict significant damage on the other.

Confederacy’s Largest Ironclad

The Monitor’s innovative design, which included a rotating turret that housed two powerful guns, gave it an advantage over the Virginia, which had to turn its entire ship to aim its guns.

Despite the inconclusive outcome of the battle, it was a turning point in naval history. The ironclads showed that wooden ships became no match for these new warships. Furthermore, that naval battles would occur in a new format from then on. An event comparable to the Battle of Taranto‘s turning battleship warfare into an obsolete era.

The success of the Union’s Monitor led to the rapid construction of other ironclads.

Which played a key role in the Union’s blockade of Confederate ports and in the capture of several Confederate strongholds along major rivers.

The Attack of the Federal Iron-Clads on Fort Sumter. And the Rebel Batteries Commanding the Entrance to Charleston Harbor. On the 7th of April, 1863. Union efforts to retake Charleston Harbor began on April 7, 1863. When Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont, commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, led the ironclad frigate New Ironsides, the tower ironclad Keokuk, and the monitors Weehawken, Passaic, Montauk, Patapsco, Nantucket, Catskill, and Nahant in an attack on the harbor’s defenses. (The 1863 Battle of Fort Sumter was the largest deployment of monitors in action up to that time.) Moreover, the attack was unsuccessful! The Union’s best ship, USS New Ironsides never effectively engaged. And the ironclads fired only 154 rounds. While receiving 2,209 from the Confederate defenders.
New Ironsides as she appeared on blockade duty

Furthermore, ironclads played a significant role in the Union’s blockade of Confederate ports, as they were able to resist the gunfire of Confederate coastal batteries. They also saw action on major rivers like the Mississippi, where the Union’s ironclads played a crucial role in capturing Confederate strongholds and securing control of the river.

Ironclads Fight Fort Donelson

Ironclads battle at Hampton Roads, Virginia
Ironclads battle at Hampton Roads, Virginia. Library of Congress

The introduction of ironclads revolutionized naval warfare and led to the eventual obsolescence of wooden warships. The Civil War marked the first time that ironclads were used in battle, and their impact was felt not only during the war but also in the decades that followed as naval technology continued to evolve.

The engineering and construction of these ships required several new innovations in shipbuilding and armor technology.

The first step in building an ironclad was to construct a wooden hull, which would serve as the basis for the ship.

City-class ironclads under construction for the United States Navy at St. Louis, Missouri.

This hull then became covered in iron plates. Which workers bolted to the sides of the ship. The iron plates typically had a thickness of about 1 inch, with a design to protect the ship from any enemy fire.

One of the key innovations in the construction of ironclads was the use of angled armor. The sides of the ship sloped inward, which made it more difficult for enemy shells to penetrate the ship’s armor. This design also allowed the iron plates to be thinner, which made the ship lighter and faster.

Battle Of Ironclads : Monitor & The Merrimack

The engines and boilers of ironclads were typically located below the waterline, which made them less vulnerable to enemy fire. The engines were usually steam-powered, allowing the ship to move quickly and maneuver easily.

Ink wash drawing of CSS Palmetto State

The most famous of the Civil War ironclads, the USS Monitor, had a unique design that included a rotating turret that housed two powerful guns. Thus allowing the ship to fire in any direction without having to turn the entire ship. Of course the press at the time had their fun at the expense of the Monitor’s design. Describing it as “Ericsson’s folly”, “cheesebox on a raft” and the “Yankee cheesebox”.

First Battle of Charleston Harbor. “Panoramic View of Charleston Harbor. — Advance of Ironclads to the Attack, April 7th, 1863” Line engraving published in “The Soldier in our Civil War”, Volume II, page 172

In conclusion, the construction of ironclads was a major engineering challenge, and required significant resources and expertise. Moreover, the Union Navy quickly realized the importance of ironclads and began a rapid program of construction to build more of these powerful warships. Lastly, the success of ironclads in the Civil War paved the way for the development of even more advanced warships in the years that followed.

Ink wash drawing of CSS Richmond
CSS Selma
rebel iron clads in Charleston Harbor

US Civil War

How Did Ironclads Affect The Civil War?