Book Review: Iron Dawn by Richard Snow.

Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Amberley 2016
Language: English

The crew of the USS Cumberland had never seen anything like the Merrimack. They had heard of it, but they didn’t really associate it with a ship. Up until now they had been using words like Floating battery and on the 8th of March 1862 when Merrimack slowly steamed into Hampton Roads, looking for all the world like a floating barn roof with a single chimney, Cumberland’s Quartermaster could find no word other than “That thing” to describe it. The nickname “The big thing” would stick.
Inside the ungainly, clunking, metallic monster, the Confederate crews waited silently by their guns, while in the louder parts of the ship the engineers strained their ears against the noise of their own machinery, blind in what many considered an iron coffin. Officers watched tensely as the “old time Frigate” with her skyscraping masts and high sides, still considered the cutting edge of maritime technology, crept into their sights.
The battle when it came was brutal. Merrimack’s smaller but heavier battery tore through the old wooden walls as if they were paper, slaughtering the gun crews. While the broadsides of the conventional warships bounced off her armoured sides like India rubber. Hampered by the confines of the anchorage and the lack of wind, the giant old frigate was at the mercy of this godless, chugging, creation of modern war. Called everything from an infernal crocodile to a rhino, the Merrimack crawled slowly towards its target, blowing more holes in her her with every passing minute, then rammed her, and sent her to the bottom.

This was the beginning of the battle of Hampton Roads, which could have come right out of 20,000 leagues under the sea. Merrimack might as well have been Nautilus, with its iron hull and deadly ram, for the amount of terror she inspired, if only she could have submerged. But it didn’t matter what she couldn’t do, because what had just happened in this vital stretch of water, had made real the fears of all the politicians in Washington. Since the fall of Norfolk, they had shivered at the thought that the south had built a “floating battery” or else an iron ship, that single handedly could engage and sink multiple conventional ships twice her size. The implications of such a ship, let loose in a busy harbour or yard, would be like a 19th century pearl harbour, with the ironclad running amok amongst an entire fleet and sinking most of it. It just didn’t bear thinking about, especially when the north depended on the navy to keep the south locked down under blockade. But the question was, could such a ship really be capable of such an action?

The answer was yes, but no one knew that until the sinking of the Cumberland, and it was a scary enough thought to ensure the north got building one as well. So on the second day of the battle, when Merrimack came steaming for the grounded USS Minnesota and a sinister, crocodilian form slid out from behind the bulk of helpless timber-ship, most confederates suspected it was “Ericson’s iron battery”.
Sinister by name sinister by nature the Monitor, with its black decks almost awash and it’s revolving turret scanning for a target like a cyclops eye had one mission that day. After the news of the disaster of 8 March, she had been sent steaming down across the open ocean and though very nearly not making it into the calmer waters of the roads, she now fearlessly interposed herself between the two bigger ships, determined to save the Minnesota, and possibly the union.

Richard Snow has written a book worthy of a screenplay, the details are simply amazing. If this book was made (properly) into a war movie, it would garner the director and producer unending praise from the historical community. This book is about people and personalities, it’s about politics and agendas, it’s about science and engineering, it’s about war and how it was changing. In short it’s everything a work of narrative history should be.
A clear, straightforward account of the battle of Hampton Roads, excitingly told, but with the added padding of almost everything that occurred to bring the first fully ironclad steamers into battle, and what happened afterwards. The history is helped by the fact that it all occurred with almost novelistic timing, or at least it appears that way due to Snow’s expert writing. The confederates build a potentially war winning ship by converting the hulk of a burnt out captured Union vessel, based on armoured floating batteries and ironclad steam/sail ships already in service in Europe. The union gets wind of it and also gets building. One is beleaguered by supplies, the other with red tape, but the race is on and both reach the finish line together, having almost taken on lives of their own. Then one goes on a wrecking spree amongst Union ships, prompting the US to send their new equivalent to stop it. Showing up the next day, a legendary duel of machines occurs.

All of this is told with the precision, accuracy and verve of the best storytellers. The tension and fear in the opening of the battle of Hampton Roads is palpable, and inspires such crisp imagery that it’s darn near compulsive reading. First hand accounts put the reader right into the ship’s themselves, and practical and technical details abound in ways that promote the flow of the narrative rather than slow it down.
There are some rather grand statements made, but none that are not merited, because although these ships were in fact greatly limited in terms of speed and blue water effectiveness, indeed their duel highlighted everything that was wrong with them as well as what was right. However the potential was staggering nonetheless. It appears here as if, certainly for the north, it was as much a giant real time practical test as it was an effort to check the Confederate menace.

The legacy of the duel at Hampton Roads is both the most well known naval action American Civil War but also, the applications of armoured steam warships, which as one of the many interesting image sections show, was not taken lightly by the Union. The age of Ironclads and Dreadnaught’s had arrived with the gleam of an Iron Dawn. And this book shows how it happened.