About This Artifact
When the Civil War began most of the Union navy was aged and obsolete. "The time was ripe for tremendous advances in the technology of ships and weapons.1" The United States Navy was aware that the Confederate navy had already converted a captured Union ship into the ironclad Virginia. The Galena, built in Mystic's Maxson & Fish shipyard, was the first ironclad vessel to join the Union fleet. The first consideration was one of design. The navy wanted a reasonably fast ship, heavily armed, and sturdy enough to be clad in iron. John Winslow, an iron manufacturer from Troy, New York, proposed that the new vessel's armor be attached like ship's planking. The bolt heads, which ran through the iron and into the wooden inner hull, had to be covered, else a direct hit send the bolts flying like shrapnel into the ship. After tests, Winslow's armor design was approved for the Galena. The hull sloped up and in from the water line, a style known as "tumbledown," a design calculated to deflect cannon shot in a ship-to-ship engagement. The Galena was launched on February 14, 1862.
The Galena saw her first action on the James River in Virginia in May, 1862. Rather than engage in a ship-to-ship action, which was the purpose of her design, she anchored beneath the guns of a powerful Confederate battery on Drewry's Bluff. Few of the Confederate shells were deflected because they fired down on the ship and so defeated the slope of the Galena's hull.
Rather than admit to a tactical blunder the navy faulted the design of the ship. The Galena was stripped of her armor, converted into a wooden sloop-of-war, and participated in the battle of Mobile Bay. Many years later the Galena was wrecked near Gay Head while being towed to Boston.
This print is a wood engraving that originally appeared in Harper's Weekly on October 19th, 1861. The crude hand-coloring was done after it was issued.
- Christley, James L., "Mystic Builds an Ironclad," The Log of Mystic Seaport 32, no.4 (Winter 1981): 129.
Questions for Further Thought
- Why and how does warfare often lead to rapid technological advances in many areas, including ship construction?
- Can you think of other innovations in naval ship construction that had changed the face of warfare on the seas?
- Why do you suppose the navy faulted the design of the ship rather than human error in the engagement in the James River?