Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Review - "The Laird Rams: Britain's Ironclads Built for the Confederacy, 1862-1923" by Andrew English

[The Laird Rams: Britain's Ironclads Built for the Confederacy, 1862-1923 by Andrew R. English (McFarland, 2021). Softcover, photographs, illustrations, glossary, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:v,158/212. ISBN:978-1-4766-8276-1. $45]

While native southern industry clearly possessed a limited but significant capability of converting existing craft into ironclad warships or even constructing such vessels entirely from scratch, Confederate naval planners nevertheless quickly realized foreign sources, particularly the shipyards of Britain and France, would need to be tapped if the southern coastline was to have any chance of being adequately defended. Of course, much attention has been paid to British-built ships purchased by the Confederate Navy such as the commerce raiders CSS Alabama and Shenandoah, but even more formidable ships were funded though ultimately not delivered into Confederate hands. Andrew English's The Laird Rams: Britain's Ironclads Built for the Confederacy, 1862-1923 tells the full history of two such vessels contracted by the Confederacy but seized by British authorities before they could leave the country, the controversial double-turreted ironclads that came to be known as the "Laird Rams."

The biographies and activities of Confederate purchasing agents sent to Europe have been well documented in the very recent Civil War literature. The best man the Richmond government had in Britain, James D. Bulloch, has been the subject of at least two biographies published within the last ten years, and he is the Confederate representative most closely associated with the Laird Rams. English does a fine job of recounting the story of the Laird Rams from the military, economic, and political perspectives of all the primary stakeholders: the Confederate government, the US government, the British imperial government, and the Laird shipbuilding firm. The Laird company very willingly collaborated with Bulloch in trying to keep Confederate ram construction and ownership secret, but both truths were exposed early on and the business deal threatened to cause a major rift in relations between the United States and Great Britain. Though largely willing to look the other way at first, the British government by 1863 was engaged in a great deal of diplomatic back and forth with the US when it came to the fate of the two rams. Finally, after seeing its best interest in avoiding war with the US, British authorities seized both ships in 1864 and arranged for them to be purchased by the Royal Navy.

Throughout the first half of the book, English clearly illustrates the delicate (and often shady) balance struck between the British government's enforcement of its own neutrality laws and policies on the one side and on the other its general lack of willingness to impose itself upon private business dealings. As all of the best works on trans-Atlantic Civil War diplomacy have also noted (and there has been a number of them published in recent years), this study appropriately stresses US superiority over their Confederate rivals when it came to diplomatic appointments, intelligence networking, funding, and cause messaging. As outlined in the book, skillful and unrelenting US pressure in the matter of the rams eventually succeeded, but it is also recognized that their Confederate opponents labored under major diplomatic handicaps. As others before him have done, English traces the ways in which Confederate agents, due to their unofficial status, could never gain access to important diplomatic channels available to their US foes.

The most interesting design features of the ships themselves, which were called Nos. 294 and 295 during construction and HMS Wivern and Scorpion in 1864, are well explained in the book, as are their strengths and weaknesses stemming from the many compromises associated with building warships to specific tasks (ex. to reduce draft for coastal service, the rams were flat-bottomed and thus did not ride or handle well in stormy, mid-oceanic conditions). The author also informatively contrasts the turret design implemented in the Laird rams with that of Ericsson's US monitors. Neither ram fired its guns in anger, so we'll never know how the ships might have fared against the US Navy or against the ships and shore fortifications of any foreign power at war with Britain.

In meticulously documenting the long Royal Navy careers of the Wivern and Scorpion, the second half of English's study convincingly refutes the popular opinion commonly expressed then (by the British government, navy, and press) and now by many modern observers who have taken their cue from the past that the ironclads were "failures." Purchased and designed for harbor defense and for breaking the Union Navy's inner blockade of the Confederate coastline, the ships were never intended to spend the bulk of their service cruising the oceans, so much of the criticisms leveled at their awkward seaworthiness as part of the Royal Navy are rather misplaced. In being assigned the role of port guardian at key locations across world, especially in the Pacific and Caribbean, the ironclads fulfilled an important task by freeing up for active service Royal Navy warships more suitable to patrolling the empire.

Overall, English's narrative very effectively situates the long history of the Laird rams (the Scorpion sank at sea while under tow in 1903 and Wivern was finally scrapped in 1923) within the context of an age of very rapid changes in warship design and technology. During the decades between the launching of the first ironclads and the emergence of steel warships, innovation was so fast paced that basically every vessel could be considered experimental and design features that were state of the art during construction were arguably obsolete by commissioning. Used to seeing readily identifiable ship classes, those who observed any large concentration of Royal Navy ironclads during the decades following the American Civil War frequently remarked about how very different they all looked from each other. The book is very convincing in its thematic claim that the Laird rams should be regarded not as failures but rather as important naval architectural and technological waypoints in the transition between the last generation of wooden ships of the line and the pre-Dreadnought battleships that ushered in the Great War's "castles of steel."

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