The civil war in America made in military science one step of progress of the highest importance: it revolutionized naval combats. From the earliest days of naval warfare nearly up to the year 1861 the wooden ship was the type of warlike vessels, oaken beams being the strongest bulwarks behind which fought the gallant sailors of the past. Somewhat previous to the outbreak of the war in American experiments in iron armor for ships had been made in England and France, but little had been done towards proving the efficacy of this expedient in war. The value of this method was first practically proved in the American war. The idea of coating their vessels with iron at once arose in the minds of the combatants, both sides simultaneously trying the experiment. Thus, in a crude manner at first, was brought into practical use that feature in naval architecture which has made such extraordinary progress within the succeeding twenty-five years.
At the opening of the war the navy was very weak, and its ships were widely scattered, there being, indeed, but one efficient war-vessel on the Northern coast when the first shots were fired. The dock-yards were also ill provided. Buchanan's Secretary of the Navy had been careful to strengthen the South and weaken the North during the later months of his term of office. Active steps were at once taken, however, for the creation of a navy, and war-vessels were built with remarkable rapidity. In this labor the idea of building iron-clads at once came into prominence. In the attack on Fort Sumter the Confederates had used a floating battery, composed of a raft with sloping bulwarks of iron. This expedient was quickly extended. The Merrimack, a large frigate which had been sunk at the abandonment of the Gosport navy-yard, at Norfolk, was raised with little difficulty, and the Confederates proceeded to cover the hull with a sloping roof of iron, the covering of mail extending beneath the water.
The Federal government, in like manner, proceeded to build iron-clads, for both river- and ocean-service. Gunboats, to be covered with iron mail, for use on the Western rivers, were contracted for, and built with such rapidity by Mr. Eads, of St. Louis, that in less than a hundred days after their commencement a fleet of eight heavily-armored steamboats were fully ready for service. Several other vessels, more thinly coated, but musket-proof, were built. These gained the title of "tin-clads." Mortar-boats were constructed, similarly protected.
For ocean-service, in addition to the numerous fleet of wooden vessels intended for use in the blockade of the Southern ports, some of them very large and powerful, an efficient fleet of iron-clads was prepared. Originally contracts were entered into for three such vessels, of different character. One was a small corvette, the Galena, covered with iron three inches thick. This experiment proved a failure, as solid shot easily penetrated that thickness of mail. A second, the New Ironsides, was a heavily-coated frigate, which did good service. The third brought into play a new idea in naval architecture, the invention of John Ericsson, a Swedish engineer. It consisted of a nearly-submerged, flat-surfaced hull, surmounted by a revolving turret strongly plated and containing a few powerful guns. This vessel, the Monitor, was to be built in one hundred days, and fortunately the contract was executed within the prescribed time. The great success of her first engagement encouraged the government to build several other vessels of the same type, some of them being very large and powerful. Several of these vessels were provided with rams, of solid wood and iron, calculated to pierce any vessel whose sides they might have an opportunity to strike. The Merrimack was also furnished with a ram, and the Confederates afterwards prepared several strong vessels of this sort, all of which, however, met with serious disasters. It may be said here that the use of the Monitor idea in warfare practically ended with our civil war. The development of the ironclad has proceeded in a different direction.
Another idea was adopted which also has had a revolutionizing effect on naval warfare, that of the employment of very heavy guns. Up to 1860 the English navy used no guns of larger calibre than eight inches. America had long given her ships a more powerful armament than those of England. In 1856 American frigates were afloat armed with guns of nine, ten, and eleven-inch calibre. With the outbreak of the war much heavier guns were made, the twenty-inch Rodman throwing a ball of eleven hundred pounds' weight, with a range of four and a half miles. The progress of iron-clad naval architecture has since rendered the use of very heavy guns an absolute necessity, and experiments in this direction have kept pace with those in thickening the steel coating of ships, until both seem to have nearly reached their limit of possible utility.
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