The narrative begins on April 6, 1861. We meet an anxious Gideon Wells, Secretary of the U.S. Navy. He fears war is about to break out and is concerned that the Confederates will confiscate units of the U.S. fleet in southern ports. He is particularly concerned about the recently built USS Merrimack
, one of the few steam-powered ships in the fleet.
On April 12, the Confederates fire on Ft. Sumter and the long, devastating war begins. Abe Lincoln and his cabinet realizing the south has no industrial capacity and that it plans to import all weaponry and materiel in return for cotton, settle on the stratagem of blockade.
To his dismay, Welles learns that the Confederates have seized Merrimack
and plan to refit her as an ironclad with which to bust the anticipated blockade. Welles also learns that a New York engineer claims to have designed an ironclad that can counter Merrimack
and moreover, guarantees to build it in one hundred days.
Each side sets about frantically to build its ironclad, Merrimack
in Norfolk, and Monitor in New York. It is a race that can decide the outcome of the war since England, France, and Spain signal their intention to intervene on the side of the Confederacy if the integrity of the Union blockade cannot be maintained.
On Saturday, March 8, 1862, Merrimack
steams into Hampton Roads, anchorage of the U.S. blockading force, and decimates the Union fleet of wooden ships. The following day Monitor steams onto the scene, and the epic battle of the first ironclad warships begins; it proves to be the most critical naval engagement of the war, and one that renders the wooden navies of the world obsolete.