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Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization

Author(s):Roberts, William H.
Reviewer(s):Surdam, David

Published by EH.NET (September 2003)

William H. Roberts, Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002. xi + 285 pp. $49 (hardcover), ISBN: 0-8018-6830-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by David Surdam, Graduate School of Business, University of Chicago.

William Roberts, a recent Ph.D. in history from Ohio State University, has written a valuable book on ironclad warships. His book is an excellent addition to the growing literature concerning the Civil War and the American economy. He adroitly uses the major sources and creates a well-conceived and well-written book on the northern effort to build a fleet of ironclads.

Civil War-era observers believed that ironclad warships would be decisive … and why not? The ironclad C.S.S. Virginia wreaked havoc upon the strong Federal fleet in Hampton Roads in April 1862. Only the timely arrival of the Union Navy’s ironclad, the Monitor, averted a complete disaster. The United States Navy’s newest warship prevented the C.S.S. Virginia from destroying the remainder of the Federal fleet anchored in Hampton Roads. The Monitor proved impervious to the Virginia‘s broadsides and captured the imaginations of naval officials and the public. A subsequent action at Drewry’s Bluff confirmed the Monitor‘s superior defensive capability compared with that of the Galena, a more conventional vessel, albeit with iron plating. Confederate land batteries severely damaged the latter craft while hardly injuring the Monitor.

Although the Monitor was just one of three prototypical iron warships launched in mid-1862, its success at Hampton Roads beclouded Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ and other top-ranking naval officials’ thinking. Based on the limited experience of the Hampton Roads clash, Congress approved a massive program to build monitor ironclads. The Monitor, while seemingly invulnerable to land and sea firepower, possessed limited offensive capability, given its armament of two 11-inch guns. In addition, the ironclad had little freeboard, so it was susceptible to being swamped. Indeed, an entire class of twenty “light-draft” ironclads had to be renovated when, late in the construction cycle, it became apparent that they would not float. Given the relatively large expense of building an ironclad, the discovery that twenty such warships were basically useless without expensive alterations provoked a political brouhaha.

Almost a year after the Monitor‘s debut, a fleet of monitor-style ironclads and the New Ironsides, another style of ironclad warship, attacked Charleston harbor. The monitors’ slow rate of fire did not destroy the forts. While the monitors’ crews were largely unhurt by the fire from the forts, the vessels suffered enough damage that Captain (later Rear-Admiral) Francis DuPont ended the attack. DuPont remained skeptical of the monitor-style ironclads, leading to a clash with Welles. In the aftermath, navy officials and engineers naturally sought improvements for the monitors.

Roberts ably discusses the myriad economic factors involved in determining the style of ironclad to build and the actual construction process. Although he is a historian, his grasp of the economics involved is astute. On a macroeconomic level, the Lincoln administration hoped that parceling construction contracts between river towns and seaports would bolster regional economies. Federal policies led to rising prices throughout the Civil War; such increases in the price level bedeviled contractors, as they prepared bids. On a microeconomic level, the Navy Department was frustrated in arranging incentive-compatible contracts with builders; since building ironclads was a new venture, prospective builders and the government learned many painful lessons. Foremost among the lessons was whether to incorporate the newest innovations as quickly as possible, which often delayed completion of ironclads, or to retrofit completed ironclads with improvements. As Roberts occasionally notes, “better is the enemy of good enough.”

One of the strengths of the book is the author’s comparison of ironclad-building efforts with modern military-industrial efforts such as the Polaris Fleet Ballistic Missile program. The difficulties in deciding how many resources to pour into an evolving technology were similar, even though a century separated the weapons systems.

Aside from the intriguing economic, engineering, and military aspects, Roberts aptly describes the human elements involved in the ironclad program. The Monitor‘s designer, John Ericsson, was clearly an inventor of the first rank, but he sometimes proved difficult for naval officers to work with. However, Ericsson did not monopolize cantankerous behavior. Chief Engineer Alban Crocker Stimers, appointed general inspector of ironclads, is the putative villain of the book, but his is the villainy of ego unchecked. As with many of the other participants, Stimers was first a patriot, a staunch Union man. However, self-interest ran a very close second. He craved renown as an ironclad designer and was hesitant to subsume his ideas to Ericsson’s. Thus, Stimers often tried to alter Ericsson’s simple Monitor-style warship, with often deleterious effects. Of course, he was not alone in suggesting changes, but, given his position, he was better able to implement his suggestions. Ultimately, he helped literally sink the light-draft monitors because of all of his additions.

Roberts succeeds in demonstrating the difficulties facing Welles, Ericsson, Stimers, and others in determining how best to proceed with a largely untested technology. Almost inevitably, they made mistakes; however, the author capably and, I think, fairly, describes why these men made mistakes.

Finally, Roberts disputes the idea that the war necessarily accelerated technological growth. As he shows, the United States Navy regressed in terms of naval technology after the war; many of the builders stopped constructing warships. In addition, after the war, naval officials largely disdained the improved war-time methods of eliciting bidding for and payment of contracts. Thus, the United States Navy would have to re-learn many techniques in construction and procurement.

Economists, historians, and military thinkers should find this book of considerable value and enjoyment.

David Surdam is an adjunct associate professor at the Graduate School of Business of the University of Chicago. He has a forthcoming book on major league baseball in the postwar era.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century