The Civil War’s iron age – MIT News Office

The Civil War’s iron age

“The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads,” a chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, produced by Louis Prang & Co., Boston.

Almost exactly 150 years ago, two warships fought the battle of the future.

The duel was the Battle of Hampton Roads, just off the coast of Virginia, during the U.S. Civil War. The ships were the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia, representing the Union and the Confederacy, respectively; it was the first time that two iron-clad ships engaged in combat.

As such, the iron ship constituted a “high-tech super-weapon,” changing the nature of battle, as MIT historian David Mindell asserts in the preface of a new edition of his book on the subject, Iron Coffin: War, Technology, and Experience aboard the U.S.S. Monitor (Johns Hopkins Press).

The Monitor was supposed to settle battles through its technological superiority, with vaunted innovations such as its armor and a rotating gun turret. Yet the ship also placed punishing new physical demands on its crew. In this way, the Monitor was “a prototype of modern military technology, with all of its apparent benefits and limitations, fighting new kinds of wars on new kinds of battlefields and forging new kinds of heroes,” Mindell writes.


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