Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."


Battle of the Ironclads

In early March 1862, the fledgling navy of the Confederate States of America attempted to break the U.S. Navy's blockade in the Hampton Roads of Virginia, at the confluence of the James, York, Elizabeth and Nansemond Rivers. The Commonwealth of Virginia had seceded from the Union less than a year prior (on April 17, 1861), though parts of the Commonwealth remained in Union control (e.g., the western counties -- soon to become the state of West Virginia -- and Fortress Monroe, at the tip of the Virginia Peninsula).

The U.S. Navy retained command of the seas, and imposed a naval blockade on the CSA to restrict their trade -- and their ability to generate revenues to sustain their secession. While northern states were the most populous (shown by Lincoln's victory in the 1860 presidential election -- despite winning zero electors from Southern states or from New Jersey) and most heavily industrialized (with 80% of total U.S. manufacturing capacity and 67% of U.S. rail lines), nearly 50% of America's GDP in the mid-19th century came from cotton. In fact, southern output of cotton was more than 80% of the entire world's production.

When the Commonwealth of Virginia seceded, the U.S. Navy vacated the oldest shipyard in the nation (Gosport Shipyard in Portsmouth, VA, on the Elizabeth River) and scuttled the steam frigate "USS MERRIMACK" in place. The Confederacy raised her and rebuilt her as an ironclad ram, rechristening her as "CSS VIRGINIA".

On the morning of March 8th, 1862, the VIRGINIA steamed into the Hampton Roads with the intention of breaking the Union blockade. Ramming USS CUMBERLAND below the waterline and then forcing the surrender of USS CONGRESS, VIRGINIA returned to port after darkness for repairs. The next morning, she returned to finish off the Union fleet -- but encountered a new arrival to the scene: USS MONITOR, the first true "ironclad" commissioned by the U.S. Navy.

Though the ensuing battle ended in a standoff, the event proved decisive for the Union -- which preserved the blockade's stranglehold on CSA trade.

Our home in Virginia was just a few miles south of the waters where the Battle of the Hampton Roads took place. As proof that to the victor goes the spoils, even south of the Mason-Dixon Line, U.S. Interstate 664 (the western edge of the Hampton Roads' "beltway") crosses the battle site via the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (changing VIRGINIA back to its original U.S. Navy name -- albeit without the "k").

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At 11/3/08 17:47 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This particular battle has always intrigued me because it is one of the few instances in history where you can point to a particular event and say 'Here is where the world changed'. When the Monitor and the Virginia (for all of its faults) met it became very clear that unless the ship you were sitting on was an armored ship (and that was all other ships except for a few others over in Europe not nearly as advanced as the Monitor) you might as well paint a bull's-eye on your hull because you are now nothing more than a target.

At 12/3/08 07:56 , Blogger deichmans said...

ARH, Very true! Without the rapid innovation of USS MONITOR, and this particular encounter, it may have been decades before the "Black Swan" of ironclads became realized -- and later serendipities (e.g., Jackie Fisher's successful transformation of the Royal Navy in the early 20th c.) would have been missed.

At 13/3/08 09:41 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another point about the introduction of ironclads that has interested me (especially given my interest in the next step in strategic thought) is the affect that ironclads had on naval tactics and strategy. Specifically ram vs. gun. The Battle of Lissa sent many Europeans off on ramming speed and inspired a debate that raged until the advent of the reliable breech loading gun and the armor-piercing shell. I've always seen this as a great example of the maxim that doctrine should drive technology and not the other way around.

At 13/3/08 11:07 , Blogger deichmans said...

ARH, I'm not so sure "doctrine" is a proper driver for technical innovation. For instance, if we waited for the Washington Bureau of Naval Armaments to perfect naval gunfire, we'd probably still have "Ramming Speed" as the top speed of our ships. In case you haven't read this, here is a great case study on military innovation -- namely Percy Scott's innovations to improve the accuracy of naval gunfire.

At 13/3/08 13:27 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Indeed, doctrine should be 'a' if not 'the' prime driver of technological improvement

Your link is a case in point. The British Navy always prided itself on its gunnery to the point that it was, in effect, an element of Royal Navy doctrine. The drive to improve that gunnery by making it ever more accurate and effective is a great example of doctrine driving technology.
A similar point can be made about tank gunnery. The ability of a tank to shoot on the move and hit where it aims is a huge advantage and force multiplier in a doctrine of manuever against an opponent (even if that opponent also uses a manuever doctrine) who must stop to attain the same degree of accuracy. Doctrine drove that technology.

Ok then, just to be the devil's advocate, say you did give up on naval gunnery altogether and choose instead to make ramming the centerpiece of your doctrine. If this is the case, your doctrine should be driving your technology, just in different directions. The main problem with ironclad rams was that it was almost impossible to hit the target with any sort of speed (and therefore force) unless the target was virtually or actually dead in the water already. In that situation your doctrine should drive your technology toward ships that have greater accelleration and manueverability to maximize the ability to maintain effective velocity, or toward force multipliers such as torpedos (which is what actually happened starting with exploding rams and ending with internally powered weapons). You would ultimately end up with a navy based around submarines and torpedo boats.

My point is this (and calling it a 'Black Swan' is right on the mark) ironclad ships created a divergence in doctrine but neither of those doctrines were in themselves inherently bad or wrong. Down one doctrinal road (ram) ultimately lay the torpedo boat, and the submarine (The CSS Manassas, the earliest confederate ironclad had a ram and only one gun and actually looks like a submarine with a smokestack), and down the other doctrinal road (gun) lay the battleship, but both are the product of doctrine driving technology.

At 14/3/08 11:46 , Anonymous Anonymous said...


You know, I think maybe we are working from two somewhat different definitions of doctrine.

When I talk about doctrine, I don't mean it in the sense of something that is concrete and unchanging. If that were the case doctrine would be a horrible driver of technology. Doctrine, to me, is my mindset when I approach a problem or situation. A manueverist doctrine means that I look for the critical vulnerability of my opponent. I attack the enemy weakness with my strength, and in a sense my strength defines their weakness. To that end, my doctrine drives my technology or searches for existing or potential technologies to enhance my strengths and protect my weaknesses as defined by the strengths of my opponent.

At 14/3/08 11:56 , Blogger deichmans said...


I think we're pretty close in our perspectives. I don't think of doctrine as static -- far from it. But I do think of doctrine as *lagging* -- to me, it is the embodiment of collectively-understood "best practices".

In a previous lifetime, when I was at U.S. Joint Forces Command J9, we tried to create new warfighting doctrine a priori -- and failed miserably.

Good technology (e.g., internal combustion engines) coupled with innovative organizational design (such as Guderian's "Panzer Corps" concept) and brilliant execution (as seen in Operation SICKLE STROKE in 1940) can have an immense impact on doctrine.

Whether it was a conscious decision to employ a maneuverist doctrine by the Wehrmacht that drove the innovations behind Blitzkrieg, or the innovations drove the doctrine, is perhaps a "chicken vs. egg" question.... :-)

At 14/3/08 15:01 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In a previous lifetime, when I was at U.S. Joint Forces Command J9, we tried to create new warfighting doctrine a priori -- and failed miserably."

Though it is going a bit far afield from the original topic (although it could go go back to the doctrinal struggle of ram vs. gun) I'm intrigued because of our mutual interest in creating the doctrine of 5GW. What was the doctrine you worked on intended to accomplish and why was it considered a failure? Was there a specific technological component?

At 14/3/08 16:49 , Blogger deichmans said...

ARH, I'll give you three:

1) Operational Net Assessment: The idea that we could develop such a deep understanding of the adversary's system that we could not only identify key nodes, but also anticipate subsequent reactions and "effects".

2) Effects Based Operations: Targeteering in search of continued relevance. See item 1) above.

3) Rapid Decisive Operations: The umbrella concept that called for "Shock-and-Awe" delivery of firepower to demoralize and defeat a foe. Too bad not enough of us were thinking "SSTRO" (like DEPSECDEF England was -- albeit too late).


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