Crucible of Blood - Part Five

Crucible of Blood - The American Civil War And the Evolution of Modern Military Technology

The Fifth and Final Part of a Series

(Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

By William R. Trotter

The Rise of the Ironclad

There was nothing new about the idea of armoring wooden warships: dampened hides had been draped along the thwarts of Greek and Roman galleys to afford a reasonable measure of protection against flaming arrows and catapult projectiles. But the real impetus for developing armored warships came when the first crude shell-firing guns began to appear on ships in the 16th Century. The first recorded example of a “proto-ironclad” appeared when the citizens of Antwerp were hastily beefing up the defenses of the Scheldt Estuary against the impending attack of the Duke of Parma and his formidable Spanish legions. It was a curious-looking vessel named The Belgian Lion (De Leone Belgico (see illustration 1), an unusually large, flat-bottomed coast defense craft with a castle-like superstructure whose slanted walls provided additional protection, augmenting the iron plates affixed to its sides. The rectangular structure amidships was loop-holed on each side for four large cannon and it bristled with small swivel-guns and musketeer positions, making it a formidable ship to carry by a boarding attack. History does not record, unfortunately, what active role, if any, the picturesque but rather top-heavy Belgian Lion played in the defense of Antwerp, so one may infer that its performance was less puissant that its appearance.

Change must have been in the air, and globally too, for in 1592, the highly respected Korean admiral Yi Sung Sin conceived and constructed a number of “tortoise ships” as a deterrent to Chinese naval aggression. These were low, rounded, oar-powered craft well-protected by overlapping iron plates, which were in turn studded with sharp iron spikes to discourage boarding attacks. They also carried a long iron-tipped prow for close-in ramming attacks, although considering their weight and lack of streamlining, the rams were either a sign of excessive optimism on Admiral Sin’s part, or a testament to the brawny physiques of his Korean oarsmen. Details are frustratingly vague and contradictory, but since the Koreans are known to have won a number of naval engagements against larger but less agile and more vulnerable Chinese ships, we may presume that the Tortoise Ships proved to be effective in battle.

Obviously influenced by their progressive Korean neighbors, the Japanese also got into the act, at least in a limited way. An English traveler named William Adam described a big, ungainly, Noah’s-Ark type vessel he’d seen in Osaka harbor, ponderous-looking but well-armored and displacing an estimated 1000 tons. This ship, his Japanese hosts explained, was kept on station in case the Shogun needed heavy firepower to suppress insurrections on any of the many outlying islands that made up a restive part of his realm.

Although still fairly crude and short-ranged, shell guns became a common part of the man-o-war’s armament during the last few years of the Napoleonic Wars, and given the inevitability of their further improvement, clear-headed naval experts discerned how much of a threat they would soon become. While the collective smashing-power of a Nelsonian battleship was immense, the natural resiliency of seasoned oak caused many puncture-hits to swell up and more or less repair themselves after the passage of several hours – one reason why it was so difficult to actually sink a large Nelsonian warship. Once in a while, a lucky hit might touch off a powder magazine and blow up the hull, but most warships were forced to strike their colors only when their masts and rigging were so badly cut up as to render them immobile, or when their crews were so reduced by the ravages of iron balls and wooden splinters as to make further resistance hopeless.

In early Nineteenth Century Europe, credit for proposing the first feasible ironclads goes to a French officer, Captain Jacques Phillip de Montgery, who as early as 1810 submitted a proposal to cover all existing French ships-of-the-line with four-inch armor plates. The idea was feasible, though expensive to implement, and the technology existed to make it happen. But Bonaparte – who was as nebulous regarding maritime strategy as he was incisive about land warfare – was still smarting from the dual naval debacles of the Nile and Trafalgar, had given up any notion of an amphibious invasion of England, and simply refused to pay serious attention to Captain de Monterey’s proposal, one which seems in retrospect to have been basically quite sound.

Roughly contemporaneous with this event, American naval designers were forging ahead with the new and hugely promising concept of steam propulsion. The connection between the advent of the steamship and the adoption of shipboard armor would in fact prove highly synergistic. Steam-powered vessels could carry heavier ordnance than comparable sail-rigged ships, without sacrificing speed or maneuverability, and it was only a matter of time until bigger, much longer-ranged shell guns made their appearance as standard armament, firing projectiles that could wreak much more dangerous damage to an un-armored opponent than round-shot. The name that keeps cropping up at this point in American naval history is that of the Stevens clan, a family of inventors and naval architects living in Hoboken, New Jersey. Students of history will probably recognize the name of the pater familias, Col. John Stevens, who designed and supervised construction of the first steamship capable of venturing into the open sea, the good ship Phoenix. With the successful trials of the Phoenix, in 1808, the Age of Steam may be said to have properly begun, although it would take another couple of decades for the new technology to fully transform naval warfare as it had been known and practiced since Elizabethan times.


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