Iron Dawn

Iron Dawn

The Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Civil War Sea Battle that Changed History

Richard Snow

Scribner, New York, 2016, 395 pages

Book Review published on: May 19, 2017

Historian, author, and consultant for the film Glory, former editor in chief of American Heritage magazine, and recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, Richard Snow offers an intriguing account of the evolution of the ironclad ships in the American Civil War. Although not the first use of ironclads in naval history, Snow meticulously details the origins of the first ironclads to battle one another, the Merrimack (aka Confederate States Ship Virginia) and the USS Monitor. The events of and leading up to 8–9 March 1862 in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia would prove to change the nature of warfare at sea. They were the catalyst to the demise of wooden ships of war and provided a glimpse of technological advances that would significantly affect the future of naval warfare.

On 8 March 1862, a beautiful spring day, Franklin Buchanan, captain of the Merrimack, eased the former U.S. Navy ship, now overlapped with iron plates, from its moorings in Norfolk. His target, the Union naval fleet in the harbor at Hampton Roads. At the end of the day, the Union Navy suffered its worst day ever—four hundred casualties and the loss of the USS Cumberland, the grounding of the USS Minnesota, and the USS Congress ablaze. It was to be the worst day for the U.S. Navy until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The cost to the Confederate armada was minimal in comparison—twenty-seven casualties.

The Union’s response was quick. John L. Worden and the untested USS Monitor, commissioned only eleven days earlier, arrived in the Hampton Roads area that evening. The next morning and through midday, the Monitor and Merrimack exchanged fire, bouncing projectiles off each other’s ironclad sides. For unknown reasons, the Merrimack withdrew, the Monitor moved to shallower water, and both sides claimed victory.

The strength of Snow’s work is his storytelling backed by extensive research. His writing is full of energy and enthusiasm, and impresses the reader as if he or she were actually there. In addition to masterfully recreating the battle, Snow reveals interesting facts that add intrigue to the story. For example, President Abraham Lincoln was personally involved in some of the details of the Monitor’s design, and the same Swedish designer who invented the marine screw (propeller) designed and built the Monitor. In a further example, the captain of the Merrimack was the commandant of the Washington Navy Yard (before he defected to the South), was wounded in action on 8 March and did not command the Merrimack on 9 March; he was also the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy.

Historians, students of the American Civil War, sailors and soldiers will find Iron Dawn interesting and an excellent read. Snow tells a wonderful story and provides the reader with a window into the quest for naval supremacy by both sides. In the end, it leaves the reader with a sense of wanting to learn more about that quest.

Book Review written by: David D. Haught, Fort Belvoir, Virginia