00826 - Federal Ironclad USS GALENA; Effect of Confederate shot, James River, VA 1862 [LC-DIG-cwpbh-00826]
When we think of Civil War ironclads today we typically think of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (Merrimac). At the time of the war many ideas regarding ironclads existed and most prevailing opinions of the day concluded that designs such as the Monitor were not worth the time or expense to produce.
The Navy, unsure of which design was superior, commissioned three vessels from seventeen designs that had been submitted. The “New Ironsides”, the “Galena” and as a last minute, almost throw away design, the “Monitor” were selected. The “New Ironsides” was a very traditional design and borrowed heavily from a French ship “Glorie”. The Monitor of course was the most radical, with barely two feet above the waterline and only a single pair of cannon’s it was considered the least likely to succeed.
The design to beat was the USS Galena. Using sloped, curing sides and interlaced armor belts it would be impossible for a shot to be fired directly at the side of the ship. Instead all incoming fire would hit the rounded hull and bounce off harmlessly. It’s armor was a unique design of interlocking iron plates 2.5 inches thick overtop of a rubber layer another 1.5 inches and then finally a rounded wooden hull a full 18 inches thick. Once under construction the rubber layer was replaced by an additional 5/ 8 of iron bringing the plating to just over 3 inches.
Articles of the day praised the innovative design and how the interlocking rounded iron hull would prove to be the winning design of the three. In her first trial by fire in 1862 she was sent, along with the Monitor to Drewry’s Bluff on the James river. It was quickly apparent that nothing of her superior design could be further from the truth. Instead of deflecting shot, the interlaced armor absorbed shot and the captain reported that many of the killed and wounded during that engagement were from iron shrapnel from her own plates. If you look closely at this image you will see a confederate shell sticking out just below the rope line and then to its right, just above the waterline a cannon ball.
For most of the rest of 1862 she continued to support Union activity in the Virginia area. With continued issues with plating it was decided in 1863 to remove all of the iron plate and have her serve as a wooden warship. With that the design that was considered by many to be the most superior vanished. She remained in service till the end of the war and then was decommissioned and remained inactive till she was broken up in 1872.