No one asked which was the stronger naval power when the United States broke into Civil War. The North boasted a fleet of 42 warships. The South had virtually none.
Yet, with the fall of Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth in April 1861, the Confederacy embarked on a daring gamble. Raising a scuttled Union frigate called the Merrimack, they put more than 1,500 men to work around the clock, building an ironclad vessel that observers in both North and South soon began to describe as a "monster."
Ugly, slow and lethal, the newly renamed CSS Virginia was the primitive first child of the first modern arms race - a contest in which the South hoped to overcome the lopsided numbers of its adversary with a technologically superior weapon. The nimbler and more adventurous USS Monitor was the sophisticated second child in this struggle of innovation, and it ultimately became the symbol of a revolution that shocked the world.
In a single afternoon the Confederate ironclad obliterated hundreds of years of naval tradition, repelling cannonballs as if they were peas and sending two powerful wooden ships to the bottom of the James River off Newport News. The following day's battle with the Monitor, which thousands watched in awe from the shores of Hampton Roads, proved inconclusive. But the thundering, four-hour slugfest of armor against armor set the course of war at sea for generations to come.
The historic fight also signaled the emergence of America on the global stage, marking the relatively backward but resourceful country as a force to be reckoned with by the world's great military and industrial powers. In London, the startled Admiralty stopped work on all new wooden vessels almost immediately. The Times lamented the sudden obsolescence of all but the two ironclads in the 149-ship English fleet.
"This was an arms race - and a very dramatic one - with decades of development distilled into a few months," says historian John M. Coski of The Museum of the Confederacy.
"The world was watching because everybody was developing these weapons. We were simply the first to put to them to the test."
Indeed, Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory, a former chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Naval Affairs, began to act only days after the Portsmouth shipyard fell into Rebel hands.
Keenly aware of the experimental ironclads in Europe, he quickly convinced the Confederate Congress to appropriate $2,000,000 toward the construction of an armored naval force.
"I regard the possession of an iron-armored fleet as a matter of first necessity," he argued. "Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States, prevent all blockades, and encounter, with a fair prospect of success, their entire Navy.
"Inequality of numbers may be compensated [for] by invulnerability," he continued. "And thus not only does economy but naval success dictate the wisdom and expediency of fighting with iron against wood."
Still, Mallory ran into problems almost immediately because of the Confederacy's poorly developed industrial base.
The Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond could not produce anything thicker than 1-inch armor plate without a time-consuming retooling process. No place in the South could manufacture the engines needed to power the ships.
So Mallory and his chief designer, naval ordnance officer John M. Brooke, turned to the conversion of the scuttled Merrimack for reasons of both economy and speed. Raising the vessel from the Elizabeth River in May, the shipyard crews worked at a feverish pace, cutting away its charred upper timbers and constructing a new gun deck. Then they began building a sloping casemate to enclose and protect the guns.
Iron shortages forced the Confederates to tear up railroad tracks to obtain enough material for the vessel's armor. Then, after a series of firing tests conducted at Jamestown in September, Brooke decided he needed two-inch plate.
More problems sprang from the South's lack of railroad cars, greatly delaying the delivery of the armor from Richmond. The waterlogged engines presented another challenge, especially since - even before the Merrimack was scuttled - they had been condemned.
Brooke fought constantly with naval constructor John L. Porter, too, and the disagreements with his chief collaborator resulted in several design flaws that later threatened the vessel. But the new weapon was still floated and commissioned on Feb. 17 - after only nine months of construction.
"The concept of a casemated ironclad had been talked about for years, but Brooke was the one who made it a reality," says historian John V. Quarstein, director of the Virginia War Museum.
"It really was an ingenious adaptation of what was available and practical for the South at the time. He was a brilliant man."
Up North, news of the Confederacy's secret effort began to surface by early summer.
Though several reports planted in Norfolk newspapers described the salvaged hulk of the Merrimack as worthless, the mayors of the Union's exposed coastal cities began to clamor for protection from the ironclad's guns.
It took some prodding by Congress, however, before the navy appointed an ironclad board and started soliciting proposals in early August. Then, only the intervention of a well-connected Connecticut businessman, Cornelius S. Bushnell, made the Monitor one of three experimental ships the North decided to build.
Seeking help with a plan of his own, Bushnell went to renowned Swedish-American engineer John Ericsson - the inventor of the first practical screw propeller - who showed him a dust-covered model for an "impregnable floating battery" with a revolving turret. Struck by the innovative design, Bushnell enlisted the aid of a friend, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, and presented the proposal to President Abraham Lincoln.
Despite the president's support, the Navy board rejected the radical notion at first, with one officer saying "it was made in the image of nothing in the heaven above, or in the earth below, or in the waters under the earth." They also expressed deep misgivings about the temperamental inventor, whose reputation still suffered from a fatal explosion aboard one of his ships nearly 20 years before.
In response, Bushnell traveled directly to Ericsson's New York home, telling him the board had received his plans favorably except for a few small questions. Then he asked the engineer to go to Washington, D.C., where he could easily address those technical queries himself.
"History has never recorded who was more surprised at the beginning of that meeting," says historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
"But by the end, Ericsson had answered every one of their questions about the ship's stability, the operation of the turret and the firing of the guns. He wasn't just a shipbuilder - he was also an engineer and an ordnance officer. The man was just a genius. There's no doubt about it."
Ericsson would need all of his genius - and a huge store of determination - to construct his vessel within the 100-day period originally demanded by the Navy.
In addition to its revolutionary gun turret and unusually low profile, the demanding design incorporated dozens of other pioneering features, including a fan-powered ventilation system and the first recorded instance of a below-the-waterline flush toilet.
"On the evolutionary tree, the Monitor is the branch that fell off and stuck its own seed in the ground," Johnston says.
"Unlike the Virginia, it was complete departure from the traditional warship."
Such innovative concepts required Ericsson and his lead draftsman, Charles W. McCord, to produce hundreds and hundreds of additional drawings for workmen who hadn't fabricated such things before.
They also prompted flurries of time-consuming questions from skeptics in the Navy. Most were all too willing to believe the press reports that called the strange iron ship "Ericsson's Folly."
Late government payments added to the Monitor's delays, making it impossible to erase the huge head start of the Confederate ironclad.
"Hurry her for sea, as the Merrimack is nearly ready at Norfolk," assistant navy secretary Gustavus Fox wrote, urging Ericsson to redouble his efforts after the Monitor was launched at Long Island, N.Y., on Jan. 30.
Indeed, the two ships raced neck-and-neck at the end, with the last of the Merrimack's armor arriving in Portsmouth Feb. 12 - only a week before the Monitor's sea trials started. On Feb. 24 Navy veteran Franklin Buchanan took command of the Confederate vessel, which was renamed the Virginia - only a day before the Monitor received its commission at Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Engine and steering problems frustrated the Union ironclad's departure for Hampton Roads until March 6, giving the Rebel crew additional time to equip their untested vessel. But they still found themselves begging for powder and ammunition from the war department's meager stores.
Two days later, on the morning of March 8, the Virginia left its berth and swung out into the channel of the Elizabeth River.
The atmosphere was electric, witnesses said. But no one except the fiery Buchanan imagined that the ship's maiden voyage would end in one of the bloodiest and more historic days in American naval warfare.
"In an instant the city was in an uproar, [with] women, children, men on horseback and on foot running down toward the river from every conceivable direction shouting, `the Merrimac [sic]' is going down,'" wrote a Georgia infantry private who watched the scene.
"I saw the huge monster swing loose from its moorings and make her way down the river ... a good portion of her crew were on top and received the enthusiastic cheers from the excited populace without a single response. Everything betokened serious business."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times