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Technology and Culture 41.4 (2000) 838-841

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Book Review

"Monitor": The Story of the Legendary Civil War Ironclad and the Man Whose Invention Changed the Course of History

War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS "Monitor"

"Monitor": The Story of the Legendary Civil War Ironclad and the Man Whose Invention Changed the Course of History. By James Tertius De Kay. New York: Walker, 1997. Pp. vii+247; illustrations, maps, figures, notes/references, index. $21.

War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS "Monitor".By David Mindell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. Pp. x+179; illustrations, maps, notes/references, bibliography.

The subtitle of James De Kay's book says it all. In the tradition of Samuel Smiles, De Kay offers a linear and heroic presentation of John Ericsson fighting a reactionary naval establishment to present the naval world a revolutionary technology that became "the right ship, at precisely the right place, at precisely the right time" (p. 228). Although well-written, this book is derivative, presents a flawed history, and contributes no new historical insight. De Kay writes within a dated navalist historiographical framework, bemoaning the United States' "minimal naval service" of "only" forty-two ships in commission in 1861 (p. 34). He ignores the antebellum continentalist strategy that was a foundation of this "minimal" navy, whose mission was protection of American maritime commercial interests. He incorrectly states that many of the navy's most valuable officers "went south" and says of those who remained loyal "too many were over age and out of touch" (p. 34). De Kay's claim that Monitor "revolutionized naval warfare" (p. 221) is simplistic and ignores existing strategic and technological discontinuities manifested in earlier developments in Britain and France, specifically the French ironclad La Gloire (1859) and the armored, iron-hulled Warrior (1860).

Civil War historian James McPherson's jacket endorsement states that De Kay "has made the technological story of the Monitor's design and construction by the ingenious John Ericsson understandable and exciting." While an exciting story, the understanding De Kay offers readers is seriously flawed and perpetuates a very simplistic and deterministic perception of the relationship between technology and the military arts.

In contrast to De Kay's book, David Mindell's War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS "Monitor" is a thoughtful, broad analysis of the short career and wider effects of this famous ship. Mindell goes beyond the heroic inventor to include "patrons, contractors, constructors, rivals, users, public imagery, and literary expressions" in Monitor's history (p. ix). He correctly argues that "Monitor did not revolutionize warfare" and claims--perhaps too much --that "it redefined the relationship between people and machines in war" (p. 7). Drawing on John Keegan, Mindell is interested in the effect of the "face of technology" in war or considering "what becomes of people when the face of battle becomes that of a machine" (p. 8). In this he relies, by necessity but perhaps too singularly, on the detailed letters [End Page 838] written by William Keeler, a wartime volunteer who became a staff officer (acting assistant paymaster) and served in Monitor.

Mindell begins with a discussion of naval technology between 1815 and 1861. This is followed by treatment of the complicated entrepreneurial and political maneuvering that brought John Ericsson's Monitor into existence. Mindell's third chapter is devoted to constructing an "epistolary Monitor" based on Keeler's letters. In the next three chapters Mindell discusses the crew's "life in the artificial world," the Battle of Hampton Roads, and the "iron ship in a glass case"--the often ignored history of Monitor after her famous battle with CSS Virginia until her sinking in December 1862. He then presents contemporary assessments of Monitor by "utilitarians." The final chapter recounts Herman Melville's analysis of the "mechanic's war," including his writings about Monitor. In his concluding remarks, Mindell discusses the "mechanical face" of industrial war.

The book evidences a sound grasp of nineteenth...


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