Reviewed by CAPT Derek R. Fix, USN
Unlike Anything That Ever Floated is one of the newest additions to the Savas Beattie Emerging Civil War Series, which offers compelling, easy-to-read overviews of some of the Civil War’s most important battles and stories. Author Dwight Sturtevant Hughes provides a captivating narrative of the Battle of Hampton Roads and the clash of the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. Hughes, a United States Naval Academy graduate, retired surface warfare officer, and Civil War naval historian is well-suited to this task, having previously published A Confederate Biography: The Cruise of the CSS Shenandoah and currently serving as a contributing author to the Emerging Civil War blog.
While the book touches on some of the significant strategic and operational considerations surrounding the events of March 1862, such as the overall Union blockade, Burnside’s North Carolina expedition, and McClellan’s impending Peninsula campaign, the primary focus is on the technical development of both vessels and the tactical actions of the battle from both the Union and Confederate sides. After setting the stage, the narrative shifts to the design and construction of both vessels. Looking across the Atlantic at recent British and French ironclads as possible prototypes, both sides rushed to develop warships shortly after declaring war. CSS Virginia represented the epitome of the Confederacy’s asymmetric naval strategy of attempting to counter material superiority with cutting-edge technology by leveraging the hull of ex-USS Merrimack. Though possessing superior resources, the US Navy had the difficult task of initiating a blockade of the Confederacy while overseeing an unprecedented ship-building program and trying to develop new technology to counter potential Confederate ironclads. Ultimately, the Navy Board decided to go with three designs to balance risk, one of which would become Swedish-born John Ericsson’s revolutionary Monitor.
The narrative then shifts to the fateful day of 8 March 1862, when Virginia emerged from the mouth of the Elizabeth River to wreak havoc on the North Atlantic blockading fleet, sinking USS Congress, destroying USS Cumberland, and causing USS Minnesota to run aground before being forced to retire due to waning daylight and shoal water. Fatefully, Monitor would arrive that night after a harrowing journey, setting up the historic clash the following day. Hughes provides a detailed narrative of the entire battle, relying heavily on first-person accounts of officers and men from both sides. The book contains numerous historical pictures, computer-generated technical diagrams of both vessels, and maps of the battle to complement the text. An afterward by Hampton Roads historian John Quarstein recounts the aftermath of the battle and the later fates of both Monitor and Virginia. Appendices and additional reference information include a tour guide to the battle site, an order of battle, and a suggested further reading list.
Per the author’s acknowledgement, he relied considerably on the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum and Park to craft this detailed historical account of both vessels’ development and subsequent battle; however, the book does not contain any citations, bibliography, or index. These would would have been helpful for further reference, especially in identifying the sources of the participants’ first-hand accounts.
Despite this shortfall, the book provides a comprehensive overview of the development of Monitor and Virginia and a blow-by-blow account of their meaningful engagement. As Hughes quotes Virginia’s Lt. John Eggleston, “With us of the navy it was real civil war. On both sides we were fighting men with whom we had lately intimately associated with a common profession.” Those associated with or interested in the history of that common profession will enjoy this riveting account.
CAPT Derek R. Fix, USN, is a Military Faculty member at the Joint Forces Staff College.
Unlike Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862 (Dwight Sturtevant Hughes, Savas Beattie, El Dorado Hills, CA, 2021).