James L. Nelson,
Reign of Iron
(Perennial, 2004)

Even as a child, the story of the epic battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack ignited my imagination. This was a clash between titans, the first of the great ironclad ships and a turning point in the still-fresh Civil War that was rending the United States in twain.

James L. Nelson brings that battle to the fore in Reign of Iron, a historical study of the events leading up to and proceeding after the battle. The book begins with the Merrimack, newly recommissioned Virginia, steaming into its first battle and decimating the Union navy's proud wooden ships blockading Hampden Roads, and the Monitor, after struggling through rough seas down the coast, arriving on the scene at the end of a hard day's fighting. But Nelson, a master tactician himself, tears readers away before the two ironclads meet, taking us back to the beginning of the war and the race by North and South to develop ironclad vessels for battle.

The situation was certainly different on either side of the war. The South was strapped for materials and technology, forced by circumstances to strip the captured vessel Merrimack for conversion with iron plating. The North, on the other hand, had ample resources and the luxury of building from the keel up, but a great deal of disagreement among the engineers, politicians and military leaders over the vessel's design.

Nelson carries readers quickly but thoroughly through the process, switching perspectives from North to South as each ship takes shape. Before you know it, you'll find yourself back at Hampden Roads on March 8, 1862 -- Virginia has ruled the day, leaving the pride of the Union's fleet -- the Congress and the Cumberland -- as smoking ruins, and the Minnesota aground in the shallow waters and waiting only for sunrise on March 9 for Virginia to finish the job.

But the Monitor, with timing worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, arrived late on the 8th. Its diminutive size didn't inspire much confidence among sailors of the massive frigates who'd been bested that day, but the plucky iron "cheese box," as it was called, placed herself at Minnesota's side and defended her admirably. For hours, the two iron ships pounded each other with their big guns -- ultimately doing little real damage to each other, but stalemating in a spectacular fashion.

And their stories didn't end there, although neither ship had a lengthy career in the war.

Nelson, a practiced novelist, shows his storytelling skills here by keeping history from being dry despite the long list of characters who appear in the narrative and the lengthy technical explanations that the story requires. This is a thoroughly enjoyable book that will appeal to history buffs, particularly those who enjoy Civil War or battles at sea.

[ visit the author's website ]

review by
Tom Knapp

19 April 2008

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