Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Ships of Rebel Raiders - The Ironclads

 Rebel Raiders on the High Seas is a strategic game of the Civil War which focuses on the role of the navies on the rivers, along the coasts and on the oceans.  While most ships are represented by generic counters for Ironclads, Blockade Runners, Gunboats, Screw Sloops and, of course Raiders, there are cards and corresponding counters for many individual vessels.  This series presents those cards and offers a glimpse into the history of these storied ships.

 Part IV– The Union Ironclads : USS Monitor – Pulling Its Punches vs. CSS Virginia

The ironclad USS Monitor is of course represented in Rebel Raiders  (by USN Card 19) as is its opponent in the classic duel at Hampton Roads, CSS Virginia (CSN Card 70).

So much has been written on those ships and their epic if inconclusive battle, but what is often lacking from accounts is WHY that duel was so inconclusive.  The answer, as historian James McPherson points out in his recent book, War Upon the Waters, is that neither ship was properly prepared to fight the other.

The Union Navy distrusted John Ericsson, who designed and built the USS Monitor, because in 1844 a gun he had invented exploded during a trial on the USS Princeton – killing the secretaries of BOTH the Army and the Navy.  When Ericsson told them the pair of 11-inch Dahlgrens aboard his new warship could handle a powder charge of 45 pounds they balked – and issued an order that no more than 15 pounds of powder be used.   As a result, the 170-pound projectiles fired by the USS Monitor’s guns hit with far less force – merely cracking the armor on the CSS Virginia, rather than punching through it  (as later tests with a full charge demonstrated).

The CSS Virginia, however, was equally unprepared for the fight – instead of iron bolts or solid shot, she loaded up with only explosive shell – the perfect weapon to blow apart and set afire the wooden warships of the type she had encountered the previous day.   When these shells struck the Union ironclad, they did only superficial damage (except for fragments that entered through viewing slits and other openings (one such fragment temporarily blinded  USS Monitor’s commander, Lt.  John Worden who was peering through the slit in the pilothouse when it hit).

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