Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Newly Revised: Life and Death on the USS Monitor

Iron Coffin: War, Technology, and Experience Aboard the USS Monitor, David A Mindell,  Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Technology Series. Baltimore  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.  208 pp.  $23.00 (paper),

H-Net Review by Gregory Stern (Florida State University) Published on H-War (June, 2012) 

David A. Mindell's Iron Coffin is an update of the 2000 version of the book. The Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mindell adds a new preface and epilogue in light of the raising of the USS Monitor's steam engine and gun turret in 2001 and 2002 respectively--and in respect to technology's role in warfare since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In Iron Coffin, Mindell continues to impress on readers the complications of putting men in the midst of revolutionary new technology and suddenly thrusting man and machine into the throes of combat. From the _Monitor's creation by inventor John Ericsson, to its famous duel with the CSS Virginia during the American Civil War at Hampton Roads, to its foundering in a storm on December 31, 1862, the remarkable ship was a nexus of technological marvels and human controversies.

The argument in Iron Coffin remains unchanged from the 2000 version, a persistence that only enhances its power. More than telling a story of inventor and invention, Mindell contends that the Monitor frames issues of technology and society, thereby inviting us to reconsider the relationship between soldier and weapon, as well as expectation and experience. The human element, as Mindell highlights throughout the book, was essential to the ship's success or failure. Competing inventors, sailors living onboard, political figures, and the public's image of the Monitor through experience or literature were as much a part of the ship's legacy as its engines, guns, and rivets.

Mindell's book walks us through the steps that nineteenth-century nautical engineering took in bringing ironclad technology to fruition. He reiterates how transitioning from sail to steam and from wood to iron resulted from decades of gradual developments and uncertainty among shipbuilders and governments. Although aware of European innovations that led to France's ironclad Gloire and Britain's HMS Warrior in 1859 and 1860, U.S. naval officers only tinkered with steam engines and ironclad batteries (army or navy cannons set in a series). Except for the increasing use of steam vessels, Congress did not support any line of revolutionary ships before the Civil War. Mindell mentions how competition can change a situation rapidly. As Britain's _Warrior_ was a response to France's Gloire the Confederacy's pursuit of ironclad technology to thwart the Union's naval blockade forced the hand of Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.

Mindell continues the story of how the Monitor was built through his discussion of Welles forming the "Ironclad Board" and coming to settle on the ship design of Swedish engineer Ericsson. The middle part of the book takes the reader inside the Monitor, often through the eyes of its crew--especially paymaster William F. Keeler. Mindell uses Keeler's reminiscences (mostly Keeler's letters to his wife) as observations of life onboard the ship over the few months of its service. The book highlights the mixed feelings crew members had about the Monitor. The crew was simultaneously grateful for the Monitor's iron hull protecting them from ordnance, but loathing of the hot interior, stagnant air, and leaky joints of the vessel. Of note is Mindell's showcasing the crew as being fully aware of how experimental their ship was--recognizing the novelty of their being onboard, sometimes regretting their courage in serving on such an untried design.

For Mindell, the Battle of Hampton Roads (March 8-9, 1862) serves as much as a separation of image and reality as it does a trial by fire for the Monitor. 

The review continues at H-Net Reviews

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