Ironclads of the Civil War

Did you know?

The mid-19th century saw the development of more sophisticated, longer range guns and artillery. The wooden ships used by most navies at the time were ill-equipped to deal with firepower like this. The naval warfare environment was changing rapidly, and so innovation was needed. This innovation came in the form of the ironclad warship.

The first ironclads, developed in Europe by the French, were merely the standard ship design of the time with added metal plates on the side to protect against deadlier artillery. These designs jumped the Atlantic Ocean to see use in the American Civil War, where they were refined and changed to accommodate the shallower western riverfronts where many naval battles took place. Steamboats outfitted with metal plates saw use in battle, and the Union forces eventually developed the gunship that is now synonymous with the word “ironclad.”

These steam-powered ships sat somewhat low in the water and were nearly completely covered with heavy plating, making them quite impervious to standard gunfire, artillery, and even cannon fire. Fleets utilizing the ironclad could finally go toe-to-toe with armored forts, and in March of 1862, at the Battle of Hampton Roads in Virginia, the world saw its first naval engagement between opposing ironclad forces. The USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly the steam frigate USS Merrimack) dueled until the Virginia retreated, neither side able to inflict serious damage to the other.

Naval warfare had changed forever, and the ironclads of the Civil War would evolve into the gunboats and battleships we know today. Be sure to check out our cross-section of a Union ironclad located in our Military Gallery next time you visit Discovery Park of America.

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