The American Civil War and the Ironclads and Rams

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written June 1862


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Source: Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 19, p. 213;
First published: in Die Presse, July 3, 1862.
Collection(s): Die Presse

About three and a half months ago, on March 8, 1862, the naval battle between the Merrimac and the frigates Cumberland and Congress in Hampton Roads ended the long era of wooden men-of-war. On March 9, 1862, the naval battle between the Merrimac and the Monitor in the same waters opened the era of war between ironclad ships.

Since then the Congress in Washington has approved considerable sums for building various ships armoured with iron and completing the large iron floating battery of Mr. Stevens (in Hoboken, near New York). In addition, Mr. Ericsson is engaged in completing six ships built on the pattern of the Monitor, but larger and with two mobile turrets, each flanked with two heavy cannons. The Galena, a second ironclad, not constructed by Mr. Ericsson, and of different design to the Monitor, has been completed and has joined the Monitor, at first to watch the Merrimac and then to clear the banks of the James River of rebel forts; this task has been performed to within seven or eight miles of Richmond. The third ironclad in the James River is the Bengaluche, first named the Stevens after its inventor and former owner.

A fourth ironclad, the New Ironsides. is being built in Philadelphia and should be ready to go to sea in a few weeks. The Vanderbilt and another large steamer have been converted into rams; a large number of other wooden men-of-war, such as the Roanoke, are to be reborn as ironclads. In addition, the Union government had 4 or 5 ironclad gunboats built on the Ohio, which did good service at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson and Pittsburg Landing. Finally, Colonel Ellet and his friends fitted out various rams by levelling down and ironcladding the bows of old steamships at Cincinnati and other places on the Ohio. He did not arm them with cannons but with sharpshooters, in which the West abounds. He then offered the rams, the crews and his own services to the Union government. We shall come back later to the first feat of arms of these improvised rams.

On the other side, the Confederates did not remain inactive. They began to build new iron ships and remodel old ones at Norfolk. Before they had finished their work there, Norfolk fell to the Union troops and all those ships were destroyed. In addition, the Confederates built three very strong iron rams at New Orleans, and a fourth ironclad of enormous size with excellent armament was nearing completion when New Orleans fell. According to Union naval officers, the last-named ship, when ready for battle, would have exposed the entire Union navy to the greatest peril, since the government in Washington had nothing equal to opposing this monster. Its cost came to two million dollars. As we know, the rebels themselves destroyed the ship.

At Memphis, the Confederates had built no fewer than eight rams, each of which carried four or six guns of large caliber. It was at Memphis that the first “battle of the rams” took place on the Mississippi on June 6. Although the Union flotilla, coining down the Mississippi, had five ironclad gunboats, it was two of Colonel Ellet’s rams, the Queen and the Monarch, that essentially decided the combat. Of the eight enemy rams, four were destroyed, three were captured and one escaped. After the gunboats of the Union flotilla had opened a lively cannonade against the rebel ships and kept it up for some time, the Queen and the Monarch sailed into the midst of the enemy squadron. The fire of the gunboats ceased almost completely, since Colonel Ellet’s rams were tied up in such a knot with the enemy ships that the gunners could not distinguish friend from foe.

Ellet’s rams, as already mentioned, carried no cannons but a host of sharpshooters. Their engines and boilers were protected only by timber work. Powerful steam engines and a sharp oak bow covered with iron constituted the entire equipment of these rams. Men, women and children streamed out of Memphis by the thousands to the steep banks of the Mississippi, at some points hardly half an English mile from the scene of battle, to watch the “battle of the rams” in anxious suspense. The conflict lasted little more than an hour. While the rebels lost 7 ships and 100 men, about 40 of them by drowning, only one Union ship was seriously damaged, only one man wounded and none killed.

Apart from the one iron ram that escaped from the naval engagement at Memphis, the Confederates may still have a couple of rams and ironclads at Mobile. Except for these, and the few gunboats at Vicksburg, which are, simultaneously, threatened by Farragut, sailing up the river, and Davis, sailing down it, their navy has already seen the end of its days.