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The Civil War’s iron age

MIT historian David Mindell revisits the human experience on board one of history’s most famous warships.
"The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads," a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston.
"The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads," a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston.

Almost exactly 150 years ago, two warships fought the battle of the future.

The duel was the Battle of Hampton Roads, just off the coast of Virginia, during the U.S. Civil War. The ships were the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia, representing the Union and the Confederacy, respectively; it was the first time that two iron-clad ships engaged in combat.

As such, the iron ship constituted a “high-tech super-weapon,” changing the nature of battle, as MIT historian David Mindell asserts in the preface of a new edition of his book on the subject, Iron Coffin: War, Technology, and Experience aboard the U.S.S. Monitor (Johns Hopkins Press).

The Monitor was supposed to settle battles through its technological superiority, with vaunted innovations such as its armor and a rotating gun turret. Yet the ship also placed punishing new physical demands on its crew. In this way, the Monitor was “a prototype of modern military technology, with all of its apparent benefits and limitations, fighting new kinds of wars on new kinds of battlefields and forging new kinds of heroes,” Mindell writes.

Mindell, the Frances and David Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing and professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, began researching the book soon after the Gulf War in 1991, a conflict featuring advances in missile technology. He concludes that even newer military technologies, such as pilotless drones, have only increased the significance of studying how military leaders expect technology to settle battles — and how new weaponry changes the role and ethos of the solider. 

“If you’re in this new world of machinery, what does it mean to be a warrior?” asks Mindell, in an interview with MIT News. “There has been a huge rise in remote and robotic warfare, such as fighting via remote vehicles that the press calls ‘drones.’ These issues are as much on people’s minds as they were 20 years ago or in 1862, so that’s a major way that the Monitor still speaks to people.”

The sun sets on the wooden vessel

The Battle of Hampton Roads occurred in March 1862, after the Union had set up a successful blockade of the Confederacy’s international shipping trade. On March 8, the Confederacy used the Virginia — the former U.S.S. Merrimack, now fitted with iron armor — to attack and destroy some wooden Union ships. The next day, the Union brought the Monitor to battle, and the two ships fought to a standoff. Soon the battle ended, with the blockade intact, and naval technology set on a new course. 

“The Monitor’s type itself didn’t spread widely around the world, but surely people who [knew about] this battle, between these two iron-plated vessels with balls bouncing off them, came to the conclusion that the day of the wooden vessel was over,” says Merritt Roe Smith, the Leverett Howell and William King Cutten Professor of the History of Technology at MIT. “Naval Officers began to say, ‘This is a game changer.’ And that surely is the prime significance of the battle.”

But along with the Monitor’s innovations came drawbacks, especially for its crew. The ship’s fully submerged hull did not fare well in rough seas; the Monitor sank while being towed at the end of 1862, killing 16 crewmen. Conditions inside the ship were wretchedly hot — up to about 150 degrees at times — and airless. Almost none of the crew could even see the enemy during battle.

Mindell’s book, first published in 2000, broke ground by emphasizing the difficult conditions on the Monitor, using letters and journals, such as those of the ship’s paymaster, William Fredrick Keeler. “The only fear I have is of getting eaten through by rust,” Keeler wrote. The ship’s captain, William Nicholson Jeffers, was just as critical, noting that the ship “produced a most fetid atmosphere, causing an alarming degree of exhaustion and prostration of the crew.”

As Mindell recounts, however, the ship’s designer, John Ericsson, dismissed these criticisms, believing that new technology alone could determine military success; for Ericsson, “uncanny machinery replaced terrible passion” as a means of fighting war, Mindell writes.

“People have always written about the Monitor,” Mindell says. “But one thing I have really tried to do in the book is to highlight the people who were in the ship.”

Raising the Monitor’s profile

Mindell has also observed a change in public awareness about this part of the Monitor’s history — helped by the discovery of the Monitor’s wreck off the coast of North Carolina in the 1970s, and its raising in the past 15 years. Many artifacts, including the turret, are now in the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., which, Mindell says, does a “great job” presenting the human experience on board the ironclad ship.

“When I first started work on the book, it was perceived as a fairly obscure, antiquarian topic,” Mindell says. “But since they raised the Monitor and built this museum, which also represents the new way of looking at it its history, many more people are interested in it.”

The discovery and retrieval of the Monitor both have MIT connections; engineer Harold “Doc” Edgerton of MIT helped oversee the photography of the wreck, while Mindell himself, an expert in underwater archaeology, participated in the retrieval of the Monitor in the 1990s. In March, Mindell and Smith both participated in a 150th anniversary conference on the Monitor held at the Mariners’ Museum, where historians, archaeologists, and military scholars discussed the current state of knowledge about the ship. Mindell is also joining a group of archaeologists, conservators, and historians to publish the full results of the Monitor excavations.

At the same time, Mindell suggests, the public may have always had a sense that the Monitor represents larger themes about technology and warfare, given the textbook images of the radical, angular iron ship, juxtaposed against its traditional wooden counterparts on the water.

“The Monitor has always had this tremendously compelling aspect to it, in that it’s so modern-looking, it’s out of place in the Civil War, in a sense,” Mindell says. “It’s more a harbinger of the future than anything, and so it remains a very compelling image for people.”

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