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There are few Englishmen who are not capable of forming a sound judgment, when they give themselves the trouble of thinking, regarding a point in which the national honour is concerned ; and the unanimity and good sense shown by the whole people on the first occasion was as striking as it was honourable and creditable to us as a nation. Unfortunately, however, there are very few persons who have the special knowledge which is requisite to draw any satisfactory conclusions from an unusual and complicated military event, or who are competent to give an opinion on the recent experiment of a fight between two ironplated vessels. The consequence is that a panic has seized the public mind. Everything is considered as known, everything as settled, by this one action. Both in Parliament and outside, the most violent opinions have been asserted in the most dogmatic manner, and Ministers have been forced by the clamour to give way against their conviction on matters nearly concerning the interests and the safety of the country. Had Parliament not been sitting at the moment, had more time been allowed for reflection, or for obtaining more accurate information, the result would probably have been different; but while things are in this position it may be well worth while to examine the details of the fight in Hampton Roads a little more closely than has hitherto been done, and to see if any modicum of real knowledge can be extracted from the vague and scanty intelligence which has yet reached us.
The first vessel that took a part in this memorable action was the Merrimac'-since called the Virginia'-originally one of six first-class wooden frigates, built by the Americans in or about the year 1855. The Minnesota' and the Roanoke,' which also appeared on the scene of action, are sister vessels ; their tonnage ranging between 3400 and 3600 tons, and equal to that of a first-rate line-of-battle-ship. (The tonnage of our . Duke of Wellington,' 130 guns, is only 3776 tons.) They were all screwsteamers of the most improved class, and it was to match them that our · Orlandos' and · Merseys, and other vessels of that description, were constructed. The Merrimac' was sunk and supposed to be destroyed by the Federal officers, when the Confederates took possession of the naval yard at Norfolk. She was, however, afterwards raised and converted into an iron-plated vessel of the most formidable description for inland defence. So far as can be made out from the very imperfect descriptions which have reached this country, it seems that her top sides and upper deck were entirely removed flush with the gun-deck, and for these a casing of iron was substituted, sloping inwards at an angle of 45 degrees. This coating must consequently
have extended some feet beyond the original sides of the ship at the water-line, to which it was carried, on the assumption that she floated to her original depth. Upwards it extended to the level of the original upper-deck, which was considerably narrowed, and was also covered with thin plates of iron. The weight of all this additional armour being considerably in excess of the portions removed, and for which it was substituted, seems to have lowered her line of floatation, as was intended, some three or four feet, so that her armour extended to that distance below the water-line; but her port-sills were also brought so low as to render it extremely doubtful how she would behave in the open sea, or with any swell on.
Her armament consisted of twelve guns, so disposed that four or five of them were broadside-guns on each side, and either two or one facing forward and aft in the direction of the keel. The accounts are not quite clear on this point, which is in fact of very little consequence. The broadside-guns were 11-inch Dahlgrens ; the fore and aft guns seem to have been rifled, though on what system is by no means clear.
In addition to these she was fitted with two prongs or rostra, projecting from the bow, it is said, like ploughshares. These were intended to run into and pierce any vessel she might be engaged with ; and from the use made of them they appear to have been as much or more depended on by her officers than even the armament detailed above.
Thus fitted and equipped, the Merrimac' left her moorings at 11 o'clock on the 8th of March last, and steamed down the James River to Hampton Roads, at the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay. Here she found two frigates belonging to the Federal navy, lying at anchor,—the ‘Cumberland,' a sloop of 24 guns and 1726 tons, built in 1842, and the Congress,' by some said to be the old Congress of our war with the United States, by others to have been built in 1841,--at all events bearing 50 guns, though only 1867 tons burthen. Both were sailing-vessels, and, as may be supposed from these particulars, neither of the first class, and the guns of the Congress' at least must have been of very small calibre to enable so small a vessel to carry so many of them.
On approaching the Federal squadron the Merrimac' seems to have singled out the Cumberland' for her first victim, and, after firing once or twice into her from her bow-guns, ran straight at her, and gave her the stem' immediately abreast of the foremast. She then rounded off, firing shell from her broadsideguns into her adversary; and, having gained a sufficient offing, again ran into her right amidships ; on both occasions making
such holes in her sides below the water-line as to insure her destruction, even without the assistance of the shells, which seem, however, to have spread havoc and destruction wherever they struck the vessel.
While thus engaged with the Cumberland,' the Merrimac' seems also to have fired occasional shot and shell into the
Congress ;' and having completed the destruction of the former vessel, she turned her serious attention to her consort. A few rounds, however, and the example of what she had just witnessed, convinced the latter that resistance was hopeless, and she hauled down her flag and surrendered,—not one moment too soon, -as a very few minutes more would have sufficed for her entire destruction from the shells of the Merrimac,' without the necessity of any attempt to run into her.
Having destroyed these two vessels, the 'Merrimac' seems to have amused herself for some time in playing at long bowls with the shore batteries, and neglected her opportunity of destroying the ‘Minnesota,' which she could easily have done, as the latter had run aground in coming to the assistance of her consorts, and lay at the mercy of the shells of the · Merrimac,' though of course out of reach of her prow, which at that time the officers seem to have considered their most powerful weapon of offence.
As night approached the “Merrimac' retired, either to refit or to replenish her ammunition; feeling no doubt perfectly secure, from the experience of the day, that the rest of the Federal squadron would fall an easy prey on the morrow. Most fortunately, however, for the honour of the Federal flag a new competitor had appeared on the scene of action before the day dawned, in the form of the now celebrated • Monitor;' which was able not only to check the · Merrimac's' career of victory, but almost to turn the tables against her.
According to the accounts we have received, the “Monitor' is a vessel 172 feet long over all, and 41 feet 4 inches in extreme breadth. Internally she is a complete iron vessel, composed of plates of half an inch in thickness. Over this, to the depth of some three feet below the water-level, is a coating of 26 inches of oak, and over this again a five-inch rolled plate of iron. The composition of her sides seems consequently to be almost identical with that of the Warrior,' the weight of iron being nearly the same, though with a slight difference in the mode in which it is disposed, but with eight inches more wood : these, however, seem unnecessary incumbrance. Her deck is planked with seven inches of timber, over which is one inch of iron, and she floats with her deck only two feet above the water ; and may be more appropriately called a raft or a barge than
a ship,-it being evident that she could hardly live in a sea-way.
The great peculiarity, however, of her structure is the towe or turret, which rises above the deck in the centre. This is described as in appearance like a small gasometer. Its external diameter is 21 feet 6 inches, * its height 9 feet, and it is composed of eight thicknesses of one-inch plates of rolled iron. It stands on a turn-table, which is moved by steam-power between decks, and is armed with two Dahlgren guns, placed side by side, and firing through two narrow portholes in the side of the tower, These are further protected by shields and pendulums, intended to prevent the entrance of the enemy's projectiles when the
guns are withdrawn. No sooner had the Merrimac' appeared on the scene of action on the following morning than the gallant little • Monitor proceeded to encounter her, and for five hours the combat raged between these two strange-looking antagonists. During the course of it the Merrimac' endeavoured to run down or pierce the sides of the Monitor,' but, so far as we now know, with singularly little success, having injured herself in the attempt much more than she did her enemy.
She also tried boarding, but equally in vain. Every opening was closed with iron gratings, and no hole left for the boarders to enter; while the tower could be turned round so as to sweep the deck either way.
Foiled in these attempts, the vessels contented themselves with a cannonade, which appears to have been almost as innocuous on either hand as the celebrated fight that caused the surrender of Fort Sumter. Towards evening the action ceased, and both vessels withdrew, each satisfied of the impregnability of the other. During its continuance, however, the Merrimac' had fired occasional shots at the shore batteries, or at the Minnesota.'
What surprises us most in this, as in every other action of this great war, is the want of dash and energy shown by the commanders on either side. Why did not the Merrimac,' when she found she was invulnerable, and that the ‘Monitor' could do her no damage, turn at once to the Minnesota' or 'St. Lawrence, and destroy them with her shells? or why did she not at once steam up the Potomac, break down the Long Bridge, throw her shells into the capital on the one hand, and the Federal camp on the other ? Such an action might have had some influence on the fate of the war, and here was a golden opportunity that may not soon occur again. Why, on the other hand, did not the invulnerable
* If only breech-loading guns were used, a much smaller turret would suffice; but one immense advantage of the 'Ericsson turret' over the Coles shield' is, that it admits of the use of muzzle-loading guns, which the other does not.
Monitor 'try the same thing at Richmond? Up to the date of the latest accounts neither has attempted anything further; so, while the combatants are reposing on their laurels and recovering their breath, let us try what crumbs of information we can gather from the late action of Newport News.
The experience gained from this most remarkable encounter may be conveniently examined under four separate heads :
1. As regards the use of iron-plated vessels as rams.
2. As to the effect of horizontal shell-firing against wooden ships.
3. As to the experience gained from an action between two iron-coated men-of-war; and
4. As regards the probable results of an action between an ironplated vessel and a fort; the latter being the point on which it has been considered as decisive in this country, though, strangely enough, it is the only point of the four in which the action affords us no direct information whatever.
With regard to the first branch of the subject, the result, so far as it goes, seems to be adverse to the idea of using ironplated vessels as rams. It did not require this action to tell us that the bilge is the weakest—the stem the strongest part of any vessel ; and that if any ship of 3500 tons caught one less than half her size at anchor, and chose to run full tilt at her side, she would certainly drive it in and sink her.
Unfortunately we have already too much experience of this sort. In our own river Thames, even little penny steamers have an unpleasant knack of running their noses against sailing-vessels twice or three times their size, and with the uniform result of piercing their sides. The only unexpected feature is that the attacking vessel not only receives no injury in her prow, but that neither her engines nor any part of her moving gear are deranged by the shock. It is extremely probable that if any wooden screw line-of-battle ship or frigate ran full tilt against the side of another vessel of equal, or even of superior weight and power, she would sink her. This, however, is a point on which naval men are by no means agreed ; but, supposing it granted, it by no means follows that the addition of an iron beak gives to an iron vessel an additional advantage at all in proportion to the immense increase of strength which is certainly gained by the iron-plating and stronger construction of that class of war ships, and it is consequently by no means clear that they will be successful as
What the present experiment teaches us,-if it teaches anything,—is that when one iron vessel especially fitted for the