(February/March 2013 Civil War News Book Review)
The CSS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender. By John V. Quarstein. Illustrated, photos, maps, notes, appendices, bibliography, index, 592 pp., 2012. History Press, $24.99
Like the author, I have been infatuated with Confederate ironclads since I was a kid (in landlocked Northern Iowa). I laid a pair of Sherwin Williams paint cans on their sides, cut off the tops, built a gun platform inside, knocked out crude gun ports, erected fake guns, dropped in plastic 54mm Marx circa 1900 Rebel soldiers, and dumped gunpowder from shotgun shells inside to add a little smoky realism to the slipshod affair. And what did I name my Iowa-based “ironclad”? The CSS Virginia.
So it was with no little anticipation that I opened this new book by John Quarstein, the author of several other books on the USS Monitor and other ironclads. Since virtually every book about the Virginia includes other Southern ironclads or is a dual comparison with the Monitor, this new focused book is a wonderful and refreshing study.
As most students of the Civil War know, the CSS Virginia’s appearance on March 8, 1862, turned naval warfare on its head. After a long and distinguished reign, the era of wooden warships was reaching an end. It is fair to say that the Southern crewmen had no idea they were making history in such a grand fashion that day.
Indeed, they believed they were on a shakedown cruise and not a determined assault into the heart of the enemy fleet. And when that long bloody day ended, with their commander Franklin Buchanan seriously wounded, they also could not have known their exertions had earned what would be the signal Confederate naval victory of the entire war.
Quarstein’s CSS Virginia is really two books in one. The first half is a solid and outstandingly researched history of the ironclad and its battles.
The author reaches back to the genesis of the USS Merrimack to explain how that frigate ended up as the makeshift iron monster that lumbered its way into history. His descriptions of how she was built, the men who crewed her, and her armament and machinery are helpful and interesting.
What many students fail to appreciate is just how horrendous the working and living conditions were aboard these vessels. Quarstein’s well-chosen firsthand quotes in this regard make it all too clear that service on these ships was about the worst service a sailor could draw.
He provides brilliant descriptions of the first day’s fighting against the wooden ships followed by the second day’s against the Monitor. The order of that fighting itself was a metaphor for the changes the world was about to undergo.
The second half of the book is essentially a reference work masquerading as 13 appendices. These entries range from wide-ranging essays about the designers and commanders of the Virginia to tidbits of golden minutiae about army and marine volunteers and casualties. The bulk of this section is a roster of biographies of the crew members down to their height and hair and eye color.
Never has the old ironclad come so close to living again. Quarstein’s bibliography is rich with sources. He did his homework.
As with most books, subjective quibbles abound. Many of the wonderful photos and illustrations are reproduced at quarter- or half-page size when they deserved full-page treatment. Similarly, the detail on the maps is too small to be of significant value. These do not seem to be author-related oversights.
Nevertheless, Quarstein’s effort is worthwhile and deserves to stand on its own as what will likely be the definitive single title on the CSS Virginia (Merrimac, Merrimack — there is also an appendix on the correct name for the ship) for a long, long time.
Theodore P. Savas is an attorney by training. He is a partner and managing director of Savas Beatie LLC, a publisher of military and general history titles. He teaches law and business-related evening classes and is the author or editor of 15 books on a wide variety of historical topics, published in eight languages.