European Ironclads

Contrary to popular belief, the Monitor and the Merrimack were not the first two ironclad warships.

The early March 1862 duel between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia – commonly called the Merrimack because she was constructed from the salvaged hull of a scuttled federal frigate by that name – represented the first battle anywhere between two ironclad warships. While neither ship could seriously damage the other, when the Virginia destroyed three wooden Union blockaders the previous day, it was obvious that wooden warships everywhere were obsolete.

Prior to America’s Civil War, Britain and France had the world’s two most powerful navies. Each was also in an arms race with the other, so both navies were destined to grow rapidly. Two years before the America’s Civil War, France launched the first deep-water ironclad, La Glorie. Britain quickly followed with the HMS Warrior and HMS Black Prince. In 1861 the British had already decided that their future fleet should be entirely composed of armored ships. When the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia squared off at Hampton Roads, the British had fifteen armored ships under construction and eleven were completed by the end of 1862. Unlike the Monitor or Virginia all were capable of trans-Atlantic voyages and were much faster than the American ironclads.

The HMS Warrior has been restored. The picture below provides an indication of her power and size. There can be no doubt that such a vessel could defeat a fleet of US wooden blockaders. Additionally, in combat with monitor class warships, Warrior’s larger size and faster speed would be formidable advantages.


Although, the Monitor’s success in neutralizing the Virginia prompted the US Navy into a crash ironclad construction program, the vessels were only intended for use in coastal waters and were slow. They couldn’t reliably cross an ocean or engage ships like Warrior or La Glorie on the high seas. When the war ended in 1865 the federal navy may have been the most advanced and powerful in the world. However, at the end of the 1861 – 62 winter only fifteen US ironclads had been put in service.

Most historians agree that Britain and France never came closer to intervening in the American Civil War than in the September or October of 1862 when their ironclad fleets were likely superior to those afloat in the US Navy. After lifting the Southern blockade, ships like Warrior and La Glorie could blockade Northern ports such as New York, Boston, Providence, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Given such a turning-of-tables in naval power alone, Northerners might have been tempted to conclude that it was better to let the Southern states depart peacefully than to continue the war.

What do you think?


If you enjoyed the commentary above, consider one of my books:

Lee’s Lost Dispatch and Other Civil War Controversies
Trading With the Enemy
Co. Aytch: Illustrated and Annotated


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