An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Hunley Rises Again!

Jun 30, 2011 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico


1. Professor Elder, it may not be common knowledge, except to historians, but the Civil War was really the beginning of naval battles, specifically with what we now call “iron-clad” vessels. How did this idea come about?

Going back to the early ,early days of the nineteenth century, a number of military experts had suggested the possibility of using iron to make naval vessels impervious to the solid-shot artillery shells used in those days. Some experts envisioned putting iron plates on the side of naval vessels, while a few far-sighted individuals suggested building craft entirely of iron. Just before the American Civil War, the British and French navies had developed iron-clad warships, but neither country had used them in combat prior to 1861.

2. Prior to the Emancipation Proclamation- were the North and South actively preparing for war? And which side had a better navy if you will?

Prior to the Civil War, neither the newly formed Confederate government nor the United States had embarked on what we would call today an arms race. Thus, when the Confederates fired on Ft. Sumter, the US Navy consisted of only 42 vessels, while the Confederates had no fleet per se. The Confederates would build a number of vessels during the war, but their efforts were far outmatched by those of the Union. Indeed, by the end of the war the US Navy had more vessels than any other nation.

3. The Monitor and the Merrimac seem to be the perennial naval battle of iron clad ships- what was that battle like and who “won” that battle if you will?

The battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac is justifiably famous because it was a first in the history of war. It pitted a ship covered with iron (the Merrimac) versus one made entirely of metal (the Monitor). Neither ship won the battle in a tactical sense; the Monitor disengaged briefly when its commander was blinded by a shot fired by the Merrimac, at which point the Confederate vessel pulled back to deeper water. Each side claimed victory, but neither had done real damage to the other. In a strategic sense, the Merrimac had won a decisive victory. The Merrimac had hoped to destroy the wooden Union vessels blockading the Confederate coastline, but the Monitor had prevented that from happening. In the years to follow, the Union would inexorably tighten the blockade, gradually depriving the Confederates of much needed supplies.

4. Now, the Hunley recently made news as it seems they are re-examining the hull. What is it about the Hunley that is so novel or distinctive?

Here again, the idea of a submarine was not new to the Civil War. The Americans had used a submersible craft during the Revolutionary War (the Turtle), and the great American inventor Robert Fulton had designed a submarine back in the early nineteenth century. The Hunley was therefore not the first submersible. It does have one important distinction, however. In 1864 it sank the USS Housatonic in Charleston Harbor, thus making it the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel.

5. How would you compare the North and the South in terms of the variety of naval vessels?

The Confederates were very successful, especially considering their limited industrial base. They built ironclads, commerce raiders, and the Hunley. But as previously mentioned, the Union’s efforts far exceeded those of its enemy. It built craft that allowed the Union Navy to effectively blockade the Southern coastline, but also developed vessels that dominated the inland waterways of the South.

6. Are there books about the Civil War specifically dealing with naval battles for those students of history who are interested?

The two best works are Naval Battles of the Civil War, by Peter Copeland, Gunfire Around the Gulf, by Jack Coombe, and Warships and Naval Battles of the Civil War, by Tony Gibbon.

7. Are there historians that delve into this aspect of the Civil War?

Jack Coombe has written extensively about the naval aspects of the Civil War. I’d recommend him.

8. You have written cogently and comprehensively about the Civil War, but your books focus on other aspects than naval history- what is your realm of interest?

I am most interested in what is called “the bottom up approach” to history. I like to look at individual accounts of the war, and then try to put these stories into the larger context of the conflict.

9. What have I neglected to ask?

I can’t think of anything!

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