That the ironclad came to early and spectacular prominence in the shape of the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor in Hampton Roads on 8 and 9 March 1862 is common knowledge in naval history. Less well known is that this multifaceted expression of technology—and the revolutionary alteration wrought by it on littoral, riverine, and eventually oceanic operations—in most respects originated far from America’s shores and, as it turned out, was destined to be refined by foreign powers on distant waters. As with everything else in naval history, the reasons for this rest on an admixture of strategic requirement, tactical necessity, financial expediency, technical capability, and the wider political and diplomatic conjuncture.
A new era began with the first operational use of the ironclad in the Crimean War of 1853–56, then continued through the Civil War and up to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95, by which time a reinvigorated U.S. Navy was ready to reenter the naval game as a significant power in the Spanish-American War of 1898. By then, too, the age of the ironclad was drawing to a close in the context of the great naval race of the turn of the 20th century, which ushered in another naval revolution—one embodied by HMS Dreadnought.
The Nature of the Beast
What, then, is an ironclad? For readers accustomed to the taxonomical certainties of Jane’s Fighting Ships, Flottes de combat, Weyer’s Warships of the World, and hull numbers, defining the ironclad presents something of a challenge. The term was coined, predictably enough, in 1862, but both then and since it has been applied to many types and descriptions of vessel—floating battery, mortar vessel, monitor, frigate, and cruiser, as well as the multifarious designs that form the lineage of the battleship as it reached the 20th century. Rather than being applied to a specific type, the term ironclad can be characterized by the irreducible presence of three features: steam propulsion by screw propeller, a metal-sheathed hull, and a main armament firing exploding shells.
The distinction of being the first propeller-driven warship falls by launch date to the British nine-gun sloop HMS Rattler (Sheerness, April 1843), but by commissioning date to another sloop, the USS Princeton (Philadelphia, September 1843). The first operational iron-hulled and steam-powered warship was the British East India Company’s Nemesis, launched at Birkenhead, England, in 1839 and intended for service with the Bengal Marine. Finally, the shell gun was the brainchild of Colonel Henri-Joseph Paixhans of the French Army, invented by him in 1823 and mounted afloat six years later. The first operational use of shells at sea came 30 years later in November 1853, when a squadron of Russian ships-of-the-line destroyed a Turkish fleet at Sinop in the Black Sea during the Crimean War.
The ironclad is therefore a confluence of technologies, each of which traces its immediate origin to the early decades of the 19th century. Out of this evolving aggregation came the extraordinary range of vessels by which naval policy, strategy, and tactics were defined and perceived over the rest of the century.
Technology into Practice
The first operational employment of a vessel answering this description comes in the Black Sea during the Crimean War, on 17 October 1855, when the French floating batteries Dévastation, Lave, and Tonnant silenced the Russian shore works at Kinburn, whose shells simply glanced off this trio of slope-sided tormentors. Two months earlier, squadrons of British and French mortar vessels (not ironclads these) had successfully shelled the island fortress of Sweaborg in the Baltic Sea, prompting the Russian fleet to withdraw to its main base at Kronshtadt. In exploding Nelson’s dictum that warships cannot successfully engage (much less reduce) modern fortifications, these two incidents enormously extended the potential of naval operations and altered the definition of a warship itself.
But littoral operations against a static enemy were one thing, taking on a seagoing fleet quite another, and in November 1859 the great French naval architect Stanislas Dupuy de Lôme stole a march on the British with the launch of the world’s first large-scale ironclad, the broadside ship La Gloire. Of traditional wooden construction but plated overall with 4.5 inches of armor, La Gloire offered a degree of protection comparable to that of the Dévastation et al. while being capable of 14 knots under steam.
News that such a vessel was under construction soon crossed the English Channel, and the Royal Navy lost no time in responding. Drawing on its unmatched industrial capacity, Britain’s answer was the iron-hulled broadside ship HMS Warrior, launched at Blackwall on the Thames in December 1860, to be followed shortly by a sister, the Black Prince. Delivering more than twice La Gloire’s weight of fire, exceeding her displacement by 70 percent, and measuring 420 feet to her 256, the Warrior announced the arrival of a new type of vessel, one of the handful of warships in history that at a stroke have rendered every other practically obsolete, and the last of whose lineal descendents, the battleship USS Missouri (BB-63), was not retired from service until 1992. And like the Missouri and her three sisters, the Warrior has by some miracle survived for posterity; they are the alpha and omega of battleship design.
Ship to Ship
Much as the Warrior marked the beginning of a new era in warship construction, not a year had passed from the time of her commissioning in August 1861 before the Battle of Hampton Roads prompted a complete reassessment of naval operations themselves. On the afternoon of 8 March 1862, the Confederate casemate ironclad Virginia steamed out of the Elizabeth River and into Hampton Roads with the aim of lifting the Union blockade of Norfolk and Portsmouth, accommodating construction and repair facilities vital to the secessionist cause. Within hours, the Virginia had disabled the frigate USS Cumberland by gunfire and then sunk her by ramming, driven the frigate Congress aground before setting her afire, forced the steam frigate Minnesota into the shallows, and concluded the action by damaging yet another frigate, the St. Lawrence, by gunfire. Projectiles made little impression on the Virginia, whereas the impact of this spectacle on the thousands lining the shore as she wreaked havoc on the anchorage with impunity is to be imagined.
Reemerging from Norfolk to resume her depredations the following morning, the Virginia was not to have it all her own way, however, because the Union had prepared a riposte in the form of the central battery ironclad Monitor, armed with two XI-inch Dahlgren guns and herself the progenitor of a new type of warship. So it was that two vessels, one with the unseamanlike appearance of a floating roof complete with smokestack and another likened to a cheese box set atop a raft, engaged each other inconclusively—and often at point-blank range—for hours before the action petered out and the antagonists withdrew, the Union blockade unlifted. But no one with the slightest grasp of naval warfare could be in any doubt that a new age had dawned.
Another single-ship action of note involving ironclads during the Civil War was the prolonged joust on 15 July 1862 between the ram CSS Arkansas and the gunboat USS Carondelet 300 miles up the Mississippi, after the latter and 11 other Union vessels under Rear Admiral David Farragut had successfully run the gauntlet of the Confederate batteries at Vicksburg and Warrenton. Although the Carondelet had her steering disabled and was run aground with 35 casualties, she eventually was repaired, while the Arkansas caught Farragut napping and made good her escape, a strategic defeat for the Union. The robustness of ironclads with their enclosed armament and propulsion was again demonstrated at Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864, when the casemate ram CSS Tennessee struck her colors only after hours of battering at close range from no less than four Union monitors and other vessels.
War and Peace
Developments forged on the anvil of war by no means exhaust the stimulus for technological and technical progress in naval affairs. The possibilities revealed during the Civil War were quickly taken up by smaller European states concerned with combinations of deterrence, coastal defense, and colonial operations. Four of these were Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Spain.
Not the least of these possibilities was a keen awareness that technology had for the time being leveled the playing field among maritime powers and opened new avenues for coastal defense in particular. In this, Sweden had a flying start, because the USS Monitor was the brainchild of John Ericsson, a native of the province of Värmland in the west of the country. Within three months of Hampton Roads, discussions between Ericsson and the Swedish government resulted in a decision by the latter to acquire a small squadron of monitors. Matters were assisted by the fact that Ericsson patriotically donated the main armament for the first vessel (a shell gun designed by another key figure of Swedish heritage, John Dahlgren), which was duly named for him. The monitor concept proved ideal for the Swedish Navy; not only were these vessels small and cost-effective on a limited defense budget, but they also fitted well with a strategy that posited a system of mines and shallow-draft vessels among the skerries, islands, and archipelagoes of the Swedish coast not easily navigated by larger ships.
Although Europe presented no obvious challenge to Swedish integrity in mid-19th-century Europe, the same was not true for Denmark, which found itself embroiled in the long-standing dispute over the allegiance of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein to the Danish Crown or to the German Confederation. Military victories ashore secured Denmark’s continued hold over the duchies in the First Schleswig War of 1848–51, during which the Royal Danish Navy successfully blockaded ports in the Baltic and the Heligoland Bight. The issue remained far from settled, however, and when the Schleswig-Holstein question again raised its head, Denmark took the step of ordering the turret ship Rolf Krake from the Glasgow firm of Robert Napier & Sons in 1862.
Designed by the pioneering naval architect Captain Cowper Coles, displacing 1,350 tons, and armed with two of Coles’ novel turrets (each mounting a pair of 68-pounder smoothbore guns) on the centerline, the Rolf Krake holds the distinction of being the first turret ironclad in Europe. Although the Rolf Krake could not alter the outcome of the Second Schleswig War of 1864, during which the duchies were lost, the responsibility for maintaining her provided Danish engineers with an invaluable primer in iron warship construction and the manufacture of steam engines. In 1866, the keel was laid of the turret ship Lindormen, the first of seven coastal defense vessels designed and built by the naval dockyard in Copenhagen over the next 30 years as part of the defensive scheme that governed Danish naval planning until World War II.
One further example, that of the Netherlands, will suffice to illustrate the impact of the ironclad on naval procurement in what was essentially a peacetime context. Although the days when the Koninklijke Marine had the resources to build, man, and maintain a navy to challenge those of Britain, France, or Germany had long since passed, the situation was quite different in the Dutch East Indies. The Netherlands was the one colonial power whose overseas fleet not only outnumbered but eventually dwarfed that retained in home waters. Indeed, the arrival on station of the turret ships Prins Hendrik der Nederlanden (1866) and Koning der Nederlanden (1874), and possession of a major naval base at Surabaya on the northeast coast of Java, afforded the Dutch the largest fleet in Southeast Asia at the time. The Royal Netherlands Navy did retain an assortment of ironclads for coastal defense in home waters, and happily two early units of this fleet survive as museums: the turret rams Schorpioen and Buffel (both 1868) built to similar designs at Toulon and Glasgow, respectively, and now preserved at Den Helder and Rotterdam.
The Great Fleets
In fact, by the time Cowper Coles’ innovative but fatally flawed turret ship HMS Captain appeared in April 1870 (months before she succumbed to defects in stability in a gale off Cape Finisterre), practically every naval power in Europe had essayed the new developments in the ironclad genre, whether in the form of broadside, battery, or turret ships, monitors or rams. In the intervening period, the Battle of Lissa, fought between the Austrian and Italian navies in the Adriatic on 20 July 1866, had provided the ironclad age with its first fleet action, though the climactic moment in that engagement—the ramming of the Re d’Italia (1863) by the Erzherzog Ferdinand Max (1865), both broadside ironclads—reaffirmed a lasting conviction among naval tacticians of the import of the ram in close action, a belief at variance with the steady improvements in ordnance, ammunition, gunnery ranges, and armor over the coming decades.
The next operational use of the ironclad by one of the major fleets did not come until the bombardment of Alexandria, Egypt, on 11 July 1882. A prolonged shelling by the British Mediterranean Fleet succeeded in clearing the fortifications of their defenders and creating impressive piles of rubble, but not in materially reducing the ability of the guns to be brought back into action without the attentions of a landing party. Leading the fleet that day was the greatest fully rigged ironclad of the age, the central battery ship HMS Alexandra (1875), displacing 9,490 tons and mounting two 11-inch and ten 10-inch muzzle-loaded rifled guns. Not present on that occasion, however, were any of the mastless turret ships of which Sir Edward Reed’s revolutionary Devastation of 1868 was the first unit. The design initially attracted criticism, but the Devastation pointed the way to the capital ship of the future: superstructure amidships with a pair of stacks, two twin 12-inch turrets positioned fore and aft on the centerline unhampered by the sails and rigging, and a single heavy military mast fitted for signaling purposes. Although the Devastation’s freeboard was little better than the Monitor’s, unlike the latter she was capable of seagoing operations without any threat to her stability. In this stream of development, the commissioning in 1886 of the British battleship Colossus, with 12-inch breech-loaded and power-operated guns, steel construction, and steel armor (in place of iron), represents a major milestone.
Among the first navies to embrace the idea of the ironclad was that of Spain, which in 1862 ordered the 7,500-ton broadside ship Numancia from the French yard of La Seyne at Toulon. The acquisition came in the context of one of Spain’s periodic attempts to reassert its influence over its former colonies in South America, in this case the April 1864 seizure of the guano-rich Chincha Islands off Peru, an action that brought about the Spanish–South American War (1864–66). It was to strengthen Spain’s hand in the Pacific that the newly completed Numancia sailed from the Mediterranean port of Cartagena in January 1865, passing through the Strait of Magellan three months later. The Spanish war effort was characterized by uncertain aims, diplomatic failure, and a lack of basing and coaling facilities, plus an unexpected degree of resistance and solidarity between Peru and Chile. Commanding the Spanish squadron became sufficiently trying as to cause Vice Admiral José Manuel Pareja to commit suicide in his flagship, the screw frigate Villa de Madrid, in November 1865.
Frustrated in his own strategies, Pareja’s successor, Commodore Casto Méndez Núñez, hoisted his pennant in the Numancia and proceeded with the rest of his squadron to bombard the undefended Chilean port of Valparaíso on 31 March 1866, destroying part of the city and much of the country’s merchant fleet. This desperate measure was followed by a similar action against the Peruvian port of El Callao on 2 May. On this occasion, however, the batteries defending the port commanded most of Méndez Núñez’s attention. The Numancia took 52 hits, and the commodore himself was among the wounded. The Numancia returned to Spain via the Philippines, Batavia, and the Cape of Good Hope, becoming the first ironclad to circumnavigate the world.
One vessel that did not arrive in time to see action was yet another Cowper Coles design, the small Peruvian turret ship Huáscar (1865), built by Laird’s of Glasgow with two 10-inch Armstrong guns in a single Coles turret. The Huáscar first saw action in May 1877, when she was taken over by rebels during political unrest in Peru. This would have remained a domestic matter except that harassment of shipping off El Callao brought her to the attention of the local British naval command, which sent two unarmored units, the frigate Shah and the corvette Amethyst, to capture her. There followed the inconclusive Pacocha Incident off the Peruvian coast on 29 May. Much gunfire was exchanged, and the Huáscar was hit 60 times without effect, while her own main armament, fortunately for the British, was undermanned. The action ended with the ironclad using her speed to escape her pursuers under cover of darkness. She surrendered to the Peruvian government two days later.
Within two years, the Huáscar was in action again, this time in the context of the major border dispute known as the War of the Pacific (1879–83). Under her longtime commander, Captain Miguel Grau, the Huáscar carried out a series of highly disruptive raids on Chilean ports and shipping, culminating on 21 May 1879 with the lifting of the Chilean blockade of Iquique. The Huáscar sank the unarmored corvette Esmeralda by repeatedly ramming her. Grau continued to evade the much larger Chilean fleet for another five months, during which he captured the troop transport Rímac. He finally was brought to book off Cape Angamos on 8 October by a Chilean squadron led by the central battery ships Almirante Cochrane and Blanco Encalada. Grau, by now promoted to rear admiral, did not survive the action, which resulted in the capture and subsequent incorporation of the Huáscar into the Chilean fleet.
Sailing under the Chilean ensign, the Huáscar next saw action against the Peruvian monitor Manco Cápac (the ex-USS Oneota) while bombarding the city of Arica on 27 February 1880. The engagement ended indecisively, albeit with the loss of the Huáscar’s commanding officer. A vessel sacred to two countries, the Huáscar has been preserved as a memorial at Talcahuano, Chile.
The Ironclad in the Far East
In late August 1884, two years after the British attack on Alexandria, a French squadron under Admiral Amédée Courbet conducted a similarly one-sided action against the Fujian Fleet, followed immediately by a bombardment of the nearby Fuzhou Navy Yard during the Sino-French War (1883–85). Led by the armored corvettes Triomphante and La Galissonnière, the shelling of Fuzhou destroyed the entire Fujian Fleet but once again inflicted less damage than expected on the navy yard. With the exception of two British-built Rendel gunboats, the Fujian Fleet—one of the four Chinese regional fleets—had no modern vessels to contest these emanations of Western technology, but in the case of the Peiyang (Northern Ocean) Fleet, at least that situation was being addressed under Li Hung-chang, imperial minister of foreign affairs and trade and governor general of Zhili province. He began a major warship procurement program following the Japanese annexation of the Ryukyu Islands in 1879.
Among the results of this policy was the procuring in Germany of two turret ships displacing in excess of 7,000 tons and mounting four 12-inch breach-loaded guns, the Ting Yuen and Chen Yuen, the greatest warships in Asia of their time. The war with Japan long feared by Li Hung-chang eventually broke out in 1894 and resulted in the destruction of the Peiyang Fleet, which ceased to exist altogether. The decisive engagement was that of the Yalu River on 17 September 1894, in which the Japanese fleet under Admiral Ito¯ Sukeyuki exposed the deficiencies in leadership, organization, training, and matériel of its Peiyang counterpart.
Falling back on Weihai to lick its wounds, the Peiyang Fleet was finished off the following February in a succession of seaborne and land-based attacks by torpedo boats, landing parties, and artillery that either destroyed or captured every vessel, the Chen Yuen being towed back to Japan as the ultimate prize. In a wider context, the Battle of the Yalu River served to highlight the importance of a high rate of accurate fire and the high flammability resulting from telling hits, observations seized on by sailors, tacticians, and designers long starved of battle data. A new age of naval gunnery, armor, design, and construction was at hand.
The age of the ironclad is long past, but the world is girt—albeit very sparsely—with the preserved survivors of a truly revolutionary epoch in naval construction. In China, meanwhile, a life-size replica has been recently completed of its first capital ship, the 1881 turret ship Ting Yuen (Eternal Peace). This gesture—harking back as it does to an earlier age of naval power at the very moment China embarks on an ambitious naval expansion program for the 21st century—is by no means coincidental.
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