Fuller, Howard J. Clad in Iron: The American Civil War and the Challenge of British Naval Power. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008.
Civil War naval histories are itself a niche market in the spectrum of scholarship written about the five year conflict. As we draw near the beginning of the sesquicentennial celebration of the American Civil War, a cursory examination of previous scholarship reveals an obsession with fleet operations and technology. It is no surprise then that monographs written about famous naval battles and leaders of the Union and Confederacy will continue to increase in their appeal. Yet what is perceived as new scholarship about the dawn of modern naval warfare more often a metaphorical “slight of hand” to previous arguments. University of Wolverhampton Senior War Studies lecturer Howard J. Fuller’s recent work, Clad in Iron: The American Civil War and the Challenge of British Naval Power, breaks this chain, offering readers an interesting and insightful interpretation to the Civil War’s most overlooked aspect.
Amidst the greatest test in our nation’s history, massive technological, political, and social change occurred on all fronts in the United States. Between these lines of conventional wisdom, a far more pressing issue occurred between policymakers in Washington and London over the threat of war. Fuller discusses these issues thoroughly from a naval perspective, examining the diplomatic and strategic goals of Britain’s budding ironclad navy in direct response to American sea power.
Clad in Iron is not a narrative of conflict so often found in Civil War historiography. The focus instead resides in how conflict was ultimately avoided with Britain. Even in the wake of an international crisis like the TrentAffair, an unnecessary war between Britain would be an equally unprepared one between fleets on either side of the Atlantic. That possibility of war from the British perspective, Fuller suggests, became a necessary challenge to the growth of a large maritime force in the pre-Dreadnaught era. Victory in 1865 became a dual one over the Confederacy militarily and the British diplomatically.
Clad in Iron begins with an informative discussion on why Anglo-French naval policy before the Civil War inexorably altered the course of change in America. Although the British ironclad program “began purely as a response to the establishment of the French ironclad fleet of Napoleon III,” focus shifted after the introduction of the American program in the first two years of the war. It is interesting to note how Fuller details the naval rivalry between France’s La Gloire and Britain’s Warrior occurred well before the Monitor and Virginiaever engaged in combat. Naval architects like Captain Cowper Coles and Dupuy de Lôme are given due credit to the evolution and revolution of ironclad navies normally reserved only for John Ericsson.
Several chapters are devoted to the “war within,” as the debate and hesitancy of Union political and military officials mirrored that of Great Britain. The need to satisfy Washington of a sufficient coastal force with the possibility of foreign intervention became the ammunition to the argument for the ambitious program initiated by Ericsson. Fuller posits the necessity of such ambition in correlation to the “vested interest” of Britain in the failure of the southern blockade. He notes how Union War Secretary William H. Seward feared British reception during the beginning years of the war under the backdrop of events like the 1861 Trent Affair and Battle of Hampton Roads. The best chapter in the book, “Two Ironclad Adversaries,” sums up a large portion of this central theme. Fuller feels that necessity of an effective ironclad navy was built in direct response to both the Confederacy and Great Britain, one being “actual” and the other “potential.”
With regards to Hampton Roads, it is one of Fuller’s main points to mention how Monitors were used not for their capacity to become the scourge of Confederate fleets and coastal force, but as a technological “check” to competing programs in Britain as well. The Trent Affair is used “in direct contrast to the battle of Hampton Roads,” because “the Anglo-American naval balance of power was completely upset” in a mere three month window. Fuller also suggests the greatest loser in mid-19th century naval innovations was the French. Through clash of armor, Union and Confederate ironclad warships confirmed British suspicions while damning the French’s narrow disregard for such vessels. It would be multi-turreted ships that survived and evolved after the war, not broadside and sail ironclads as the French suspected. The Monitor’s innovation brought forth the emergence of the first turreted capital ship in the Royal Navy, HMS Devastation. Fuller makes good use of the ironclad-era to detail how events occurring in one conflict continually shaped others.
One of Clad in Iron’s hallmarks is the method Fuller uses to formulate his arguments. Interpretations of events are taken from letters and reports written by sailors, foreign ministers, and politicians. The analysis is evenhanded and methodical, often offering comparisons in minute details like tonnage and budgetary restrictions. Indeed, Fuller intends to leave no stone unturned. More interesting is the analysis of print media in the United States and Great Britain. Fuller makes the reader believe that the threat of foreign intervention was at a state of near paranoia in both countries, with its only solution through the use of iron-wielded steam power, not amassed troops and musket fire.
Flaws to Clad in Iron are merely superficial. More attention might be paid in future scholarship on the relationship Britain and Confederate blockade running, which is mentioned only in passing. Fuller also gives very little credit to the Union’s broadside ironclad USS New Ironsides, which many consider to be a comparable vessel to the Monitor.
Civil War historians will champion the level of care taken by Fuller to accurately document and chronicle the challenge British naval experts and politicians had on the American ironclad program. His work is highly recommended for scholars and layman alike who might find interest in the unspoken foe across the Atlantic chessboard. Clad in Iron is not the definitive Civil War naval history written on the heels of the sesquicentennial, but it is a fantastic and fresh start.