Monday, April 26, 2021

Review - "Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862" by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes

[Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862 by Dwight Sturtevant Hughes (Savas Beatie, 2021). Softcover, 11 maps, 20 diagrams, photos, illustrations, appendices, reading list, order of battle. Pages main/total:xxvi,135/191. ISBN:978-1-61121-525-0. $14.95]

According to the series home page tabulation (in retrospect, numbering the books on the spine would have been a cool idea), this is the 35th Emerging Civil War series volume published since the 2012 release of Simply Murder: The Battle of Fredericksburg, December 13, 1862. That's quite a record of output over less than a decade. Though western topics are duly sprinkled in every once in a while, the series remains largely oriented toward eastern theater land campaigns, so another noteworthy aspect of the release of Dwight Sturtevant Hughes's Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862 is its status as the ECW library's first naval-themed installment. Of course, the contest between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia very much remains the battle most synonymous with Civil War naval combat, its coverage still far outstripping that of everything else (including the famous Battle of Mobile Bay and the popular story of the ill-fated CSS Hunley). Publication of books and articles related to the famous pair of ironclad warships and their epic duel continues unabated. Of marked assistance in the matter was the 2002 raising of the Monitor's great revolving turret. The preservation of it and other artifacts sparked a fresh round of intense study and writing.

Like many other Monitor-Merrimac/Virginia books that came before it, Unlike Anything That Ever Floated highlights the challenges each side faced in addressing the new realities of mid-century naval warfare. Both navies had only a very short period of time (months instead of years) to come up with a working ironclad design that met the needs of modern firepower and armored protection, and Hughes's recounting of the hurried construction of both ships contrasts their solutions. Also presented in some detail in the book are lively accounts of the epic March 9, 1862 Monitor vs. Virginia clash and the preceding day's Hampton Roads battle where the Virginia dealt the Union Navy a heavy blow by sinking two of its wooden capital ships and threatening another damaged and grounded foe with the same treatment.

Both warships, neither of which was truly seaworthy, employed new and untested naval designs and technologies, and many of the most significant of those features are addressed in the book, as are the strengths and weaknesses (some predicted and others unanticipated) of the vessels when it came to dealing or absorbing damage. A very helpful adjunct to the text discussion is J.M. Caiella's set of angled cutaways, vessel profiles, and cross-section diagrams. Many of those drawings usefully provide readers with a detailed visual representation of key design elements (ex. the Monitor's revolving turret mechanism and belt-driven air ventilation system).

Hughes's blow-by-blow account of the March 8-9 fighting at Hampton Roads can be considered among the finest short-form narrative treatments of those events. There are no notes or bibliography provided to indicate the full extent of the author's research, but a great multitude of participant accounts and other quoted eyewitness writings are seamlessly incorporated into the text. The result is a highly engaging record of the two days of battle interpreted primarily through the eyes of those who were there.

For how long and to what degree the Virginia delayed Union movement up the Peninsula in early 1862 will always be a source of debate, but determining who "won" the Battle of Hampton Roads also has a long and contested history. Hughes prefers to present both arguments and leave it to the reader to decide if any grand pronouncements regarding victory or defeat are in order. While everyone acknowledges that the March 9 nautical boxing match between Monitor and Virginia was a tactical draw, Confederate partisans at the time claimed overall success by pointing to the destruction of Congress and Cumberland, the vast disparity in casualties [Union 261K/108W vs. Confederate 7K/17W], and Virginia's self-destruction being the result of strategic considerations unrelated to its performance. On the other hand, Union advocates correctly note that the Monitor succeeded in its initial mission of saving the Minnesota from destruction, and its actions secured the Union Navy's continued vital presence at Hampton Roads.

Both ships demonstrated serious problems during their brief careers, but Hughes is persuasive in emphasizing instead how impressive it is that both ironclads fought and maneuvered as well as they did given that neither ship design had the opportunity to be fully tested before being committed to action. Some interesting what-ifs are also raised. That the Monitor used short charges (a direct consequence of having no time for extensive firing trials) is commonly cited, and Virginia had its own firepower issue in that it had no supply of solid shot with which to engage Monitor. Monitor crew claims that they could have pierced Virginia's armor with full propellant charges seems to have had at least some justification given the depth of plate denting and underlying wood framing damage that occurred with half-charges. On the other side, given a bit more time the Confederates might have had the opportunity to cast the armor-piercing shot that were being conceptualized. One wonders how the battle might have turned out differently had it occurred only a few months later.

Appendix section essays, a common feature of the series, address a range of topics. The first offers an 8-stop driving tour of Hampton Roads highlighted by visits to museums as well as interpreted park and historical overlook sites. This is followed by a brief overview history of Civil War ironclad operations. The third and final appendix highlights the large-scale and ongoing artifact preservation efforts of the USS Monitor Center located at the Mariners' Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia.

In terms of the quality of its writing and extent of its informational content, Unlike Anything That Ever Floated resides in the top rank of ECW series volumes. Though release of an 1862 New Orleans Campaign volume did follow closely in its tracks, the book will hopefully be the first of many more when it comes to naval representation in the series. Hughes, with the help of other contributors, also places both ships in their proper world history context in regard to the development (before, during, and after the American Civil War) of armored warships.


  1. Drew; I fully concur. This is an excellent and inexpensive addition to the Civil War Naval library. The Caiella drawings alone are worth the investment and the author's placement of this event in world naval context at the time and later is a very significant element.

  2. Drew, many thanks for this fine detailed review. Glad you liked it!


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