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  • "Our Little Monitor": The Greatest Invention of the Civil War by Anna Gibson Holloway and Jonathan W. White
  • Steven D. Smith
"Our Little Monitor": The Greatest Invention of the Civil War. By Anna Gibson Holloway and Jonathan W. White. Civil War in the North. (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2018, Pp. xx, 283. $34.95, ISBN 978-1-60635-314-1.)

This beautifully illustrated book is a comprehensive treatise on the Federal Civil War warship the USS Monitor. The Monitor was the first ironclad in the Federal fleet, and its most famous. There have been several books written on the Monitor and its well-known battle against the ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) in the roadstead of Hampton Roads, Virginia. This book is one of the best. It not only covers the history of the building of the Monitor and its battle with the Virginia, but also includes chapters on the Monitor's later sinking, its archaeological recovery, and its postwar memory and meaning.

The book is divided into two parts. Part 1 includes eight chapters summarizing the subjects mentioned above. It begins with a chapter on the construction of the Monitor's nemesis, the ironclad CSS Virginia. This discussion is followed by two chapters describing the Monitor's design and construction by John Ericsson. Ericsson had previously designed the USS Princeton, the first steam-screw warship for the U.S. Navy, which unfortunately suffered a gun explosion during a demonstration in 1844, killing seven people, including the secretaries of state and the navy. Nevertheless, Ericsson was able to convince the navy's Ironclad Board to back his radical new design.

Chapter 4 describes the naval battle of Hampton Roads, when the Virginia and Monitor met for the first and only time. On the first day, the ironclad Virginia attacked the wooden Union fleet, causing the USS Congress and USS Minnesota to run aground and ramming the USS Cumberland. The next day, March 9, 1862, the two ironclads met in an epic standoff. Throughout the day, they exchanged gunfire. Neither ship could sink the other, while they maneuvered for advantage and attempted to ram or board the other. Eventually, both ships were damaged but not sunk, and they withdrew to assess damage. Both sides claimed victory. While the battle itself was a draw, its significance was clear. As reports of the battle spread, naval personnel across the globe knew that the era of wooden ships was coming to an end.

Part 1 continues with an examination of the impact of the battle both on the war effort and on later American memory. The final chapter in Part 1 describes the finding and eventual excavation of the Monitor wreck in 240 feet of water off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Complete excavation and recovery of the [End Page 460] vessel are impossible at that depth, but sections have been brought up, including the turret. These artifacts are now on exhibit at USS Monitor Center, a part of the Mariners' Museum and Park, in Newport News, Virginia. The rest of the Monitor wreck is a national marine sanctuary.

Part 2, a documentary history of the Monitor, provides primary source material, including firsthand accounts of the battle, letters to President Abraham Lincoln, news reports, and letters about the vessel by an engineer. These chapters include drawings and sketches related to the battle, the Monitor, the Virginia, and other ironclads. There are probably more in-depth examinations of the battle and the Monitor, and certainly there are technical reports that provide greater detail on the particulars of the Monitor's construction. This book, however, summarizes these topics extremely well. The writing is excellent, and again, the book is beautifully illustrated and formatted. It is highly recommended as the first book to read on the Monitor.

Steven D. Smith
University of South Carolina


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pp. 460-461
Launched on MUSE
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