Battle of the Ironclads: “What if” Rodman’s guns were used?

Today being the 150th anniversary of the clash between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, posts and articles about the battle are all over the internet.

The Civil War Navy Sesquicentennial is in full “ironclad” mode with several posts relating to the battle, including the “big buzz” about the facial reconstruction from the remains recovered from the USS MonitorAndy Hall has a good piece on the reconstructed faces, with some comparison to wartime photos, the on the Civil War Monitor (Magazine) blog page.  But look for more posts about the ironclads today and through the weekend.  With the Civil War Navy Conference running through this weekend (I’m preparing to head out as I type this), no doubt we’ll have more to post over the next few days.

The Civil War Trust has an excellent “battle page” devoted to Hampton Roads.  The maps linked on the page detail the tactical actions that took place on both March 8 and 9, 1862.  Another map provided on the battle page, of a location in the news of late, shows the details of Fort Monroe.   That brings me to a “What if?” question for today.  What if this gun was in place on March 8-9, 1862?

That is, of course, the 15-inch Rodman prototype gun which I wrote of extensively in January.  The “Lincoln Gun” along with the “Union Gun,” a 12-inch rifle prototype, were at Fort Monroe in March 1862.  But neither played into the fight.  Although the 12-inch rifle sat on a barbette carriage the time of the battle, the 15-inch remained unmounted until later that month.

9 July 2011 399
15-inch Rodman Prototype at Fort Monroe today

Speaking technically, these guns did have the capability to fire upon the CSS Virginia and the other Confederate vessels (don’t forget there were several gunboats involved) as they sortied on March 8.  The 15-inch gun’s trials indicated a 5700 yard range at 28° elevation, or just over three miles.  Although untested for range the 12-inch rifle no doubt could match that.  Indeed, both guns covered the contested waterways a month later, firing on Sewell’s Point.  So, yes these guns had the potential to engage the Confederate ships.

From a standpoint of logistics, I’m not sure there were ample supplies on hand for the guns.  However, I do find it hard to believe that in March 1862 there were no 15-inch smoothbore or 12-inch rifle projectiles at Fort Monroe.  Perhaps limited quantities at least.  After all, the guns were there for trials.  And trials mean someone is planning to shoot some targets!

Tactically speaking… well, I would raise more than a few objections.  The Army’s gun handling drills assumed target ships would remain slow moving targets attempting to bombard the shore batteries.  The rate of fire for the heavy Rodmans was measured in minutes.  There were no standards for predicting fire against fast moving targets – particularly “dueling” ships locked in their “dance.” Lastly, there were plenty of “friendly” vessels at Hampton Roads which the gunners had to fire around.

But a weapons true effectiveness is not just a simple measure of fire rates and range.  Consider also the impression on the receiving end.  The simple fact that the Rodmans “had the range” might have changed the course chosen by Captain Franklin Buchanan, if not dissuading the sortie completely.  Even with the Rodman guns out of the equation, Fort Monroe boasted several large-caliber smoothbore guns and a few rifles.  Had the CSS Virginia ventured too close, I suspect the Buchanan would have learned a lesson similar to those of Captain Foote at Fort Donelson and Admiral DuPont outside Charleston.  Ironclading didn’t equate to invulnerability.

I would submit that even if the Rodman guns at Fort Monroe had been put to good use in the Battle of Hampton Roads, their effect wouldn’t have changed the inevitable – the steam-powered, armored warship had arrived on the scene.  Naval warfare, and by extension seacoast defense, changed that day.  The Army might “consider” the heavy smoothbore guns effective (even into the 1880s!) but the technological race to the dreadnought was on.

Still I have to ask why the Army didn’t at least “make a show” with the Rodmans at Hampton Roads.

Published by Craig Swain

"Historical marker hunter" and Civil War enthusiast.

2 thoughts on “Battle of the Ironclads: “What if” Rodman’s guns were used?

  1. Craig,

    An interesting conjecture. I had to chuckle at you remark about predicting rate of fire against “fast moving targets.” The CSS Virginia had a max speed of five knots–a brisk walk–and I doubt that she achieved anything near this on her initial sortie running on defective engines. And “maneuverability” was not exactly her middle name. …but points well taken.

    Phil Flowers

    1. I was more thinking of the other gunboats. But speed is relative. So don’t scoff at the Virginia. The Army built the sea coast defenses assuming any enemy would lay at anchor when engaged in bombardments.

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