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September 20, 2019

Book Review: Duel Between the First Ironclads

William C. Davis, author of Duel Between the First Ironclads, is a well-respected American historian who spent time as a Professor of History at Virginia Tech from 2000 – 2013; and he has spent most of his career doing research on the American South. He has written around forty books focused on southern U.S. history around the time of the Civil War, been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize twice, and has won the Jefferson Davis Prize for Confederate history three times. Davis was born in 1946 and graduated from Sonoma State University in California with a Masters of Arts in History in 1969. He is most known for his studies revolving around the American Civil War, with his most notable titles centered on the conflict itself.

William C. Davis

William C. Davis.

As stated, Davis enters the stage with a plethora of awards – ranging from nominations like the Pulitzer Prize to wins coming from the Jules F. Landry Award and the Jefferson Davis Award, both centered on southern/Confederate historical research and writing. This should essentially show any reader that William C. Davis has some extensive background knowledge on the topics that he has dedicated his life to.

On top of these awards, he has proven his expertise through other methods. One could claim that his focus on the “southern aspects” of American could lead to an extensive bias, but by reading through Duel Between the First Ironclads, one would see a properly balanced historical perspective – which is rare in most histories surrounding the Civil War.

His historical background calls for such a balance. For years, Davis edited and published a nineteenth-century focused magazine called the Civil War Times Illustrated, which has since transferred hands as the Civil War Times to Weider History Group, which operates ten other popular military history based magazines both online and in printed format[1]. He has also been called into an immense number of interviews to discuss the Civil War on every medium, from local newspapers to massive television bits.

Professional academics aside, William C. Davis has dabbled in the public side of the field. He was called in to serve as a consultant for the creation of a United States postage stamp, one that paid homage to disgraced Confederate President Jefferson Davis as the 130th anniversary of the Civil War came around. He also played a rather crucial role in the creation of the Museum of the Civil War in Petersburg, Virginia. He currently lives in Montgomery County, Virginia, where he spends most of his “retirement” from academia as a source of information for television documentaries and orating at book festivals and history conferences along the eastern coast.

When it comes to history, everyone has their own subjective interjections, no matter how subtle they may be. Davis does a fantastic job of limiting bias in his work, despite his go-to topic being one of the most controversial conflicts in American history. In 1996, Davis tackled the “myths” of the southern states in one of his critically acclaimed book The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy[2]. In this book, Davis flat-out destroyed any level of “the south will rise again and the war was fought over states’ rights” subjectivism that one might put against a man who has dedicated his life to southern history. “It is impossible to point to any other local issue but slavery and say that Southerners would have seceded and fought over it,” [3] Davis wrote, going on to highlight the differences between the goals and motivations of the Confederacy’s government versus the individuals who would later become statistics in the war itself.

Davis has a rather interesting style of writing in Duel Between the First Ironclads. While some historians focus too much on insignificant points and others lack the basic details to explain their main point, William C. Davis seems to have an intriguing writing style that works in his favor. To briefly describe his style of writing, one could call it ‘quick and to the point’ while also giving more than enough details to set up the stage in a way that doesn’t make the ‘smaller, finer points’ intrusive to the overall main purpose. The history in this book is written in such a way that it reads not as an academically and scholarly report but instead sells itself as a narrative that anyone can access and understand.

He portrays an average-length when it comes to sentence structure, throwing in the occasional paragraph of details such as dimensions of the ships he further explains throughout the book; and, when it comes to chapters, Davis has an easy-to-read and easy-to-understand format that focuses on both sides of the conflict at Battle of Hampton Roads. The chapters swap back and forth, with one focusing on the Confederate’s building of the C.S.S. Virginia and the next focusing on the Union’s construction of the U.S.S. Monitor. The pattern continues until the two ships meet, and even then, an equal amount of time is given to the two poorly designed ironclads.

I found that this style of setting up the history made it more accessible than if he had dedicated six consecutive chapters to the South and six more consecutive chapters to the Union, as it allowed for a more chronologically-based timeline that showcased both sides at the same time. Davis begins his structural writing with a back-and-forth method of discussing both sides. Rather than indulging a reader with a lengthy section of text on one perspective and then rapidly diverging to another point, Davis offers brief and subtle narrative on both sides.

Duel Between the First IroncladsDuel Between the First Ironclads is perhaps the most valid work of naval history that I have personally read. Davis presents an extensive “Documentation by Chapter” at the end of his work, which essentially serves as a sixteen-page fact-checking source. Rather than cluttering the bottom of every page with longwinded footnotes and references to other works, William C. Davis instead opted to end the book with his bibliography. His references showcase an incredible amount of valid resources that he used to construct Duel Between the First Ironclads. He used both secondary and primary resources, with several coming from 1861 as the boats were first being thought of. While technical terms weren’t brought up, several intriguing (and cited) photographs are inserted in the center of the book.

Duel Between the First Ironclads essentially describes the epic battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (once the USS Merrimack, and oftentimes referred to as such even after her confederate remodeling), the first two ‘American’ iron steamships. Rather than droning on about the necessary (and more advanced) naval history, Davis creates a sort of pseudo-narrative that supports the historical background of the topic. In a sense, he brings these historical figures to life within the pages of his book, and it does wonders when it comes to making such a considerably “boring” topic that tends to be marketed wrong throughout recorded history.

The topic of the two ships quickly builds up to the Battle of Hampton Roads, perhaps one of the most important and ‘unavoidable’ naval battles between the infant Confederacy and the industrialist Union. On March 9th, 1862, the two unique ships met off modern-day Norfolk, Virginia. The background behind this battle was discussed thoroughly throughout the entire work, and we as readers seem to see an inside perspective towards the more ‘desperate’ Confederate navy and the more ‘ahead of its wallet’ Union navy. While the Confederate Secretary of the Navy (and former Florida Senator) Stephen Mallory scrambled for resources by raising the sunken remains of a Union ship, the Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles fought tooth and nail in a wartime Congress to fund prototypes and, eventually, the first fully crafted American ironclad ship. He portrays the ingenuity of a poorer south, the industrious north, and a battle of wits that ultimately goes down in history as one of the most riveting naval battles in American history.


What personally interested me throughout the introductory pages was just how intriguing the history of so-called ‘iron’ ships as they were throughout all of history – not just within the American states. Davis openly admits that using iron in navy warfare was nothing original, and traced the roots of such materialized fighting to both the Scandinavian and Mediterranean naval advances centuries before. What made the ironclad ‘race’ between the waring states unique was the advancement that it attempted to make: from simple plating to actual construction – or, in the Confederacy’s case, reconstruction.

As the piece goes on, Davis describes the battle in great detail. He goes from discussing the overall background story on both sides to heavily describing the actual events of the battle. The two ironclad warships met off Sewell’s Point and the Union blockade prevailed over the Confederacy’s attempt to break through the line. If one was to wonder what the ‘peak’ of Duel Between the First Ironclads is, it would have to be when the two ships finally meet on the water within Chapter 7. The longest, and perhaps most informative chapter, is a measly seventy pages long.

Professional reviews tend to agree that this book heightens what most non-historians would see as ‘bland’ or ‘boring’ into an intriguing narrative. One review published only a year after the original publication of Duel Between the First Ironclads recognizes the importance of making the history of these two ships more accessible to those who don’t consider themselves academic or historical scholars. Alvin A. Fahrner, a contributor to The Journal of Southern History, had this to say about Davis’s written work: “All the campaigns have been written about many times before. Yet, here between two covers, a reader may rapidly compare the skills and luck of the Civil War’s most famous mounted warriors. This […] makes the book a valuable contribution to the shelves of buffs and scholars alike.” [4] I personally agree with Fahrner’s statement. Duel Between the First Ironclads does a fantastic job at opening the eyes of individuals who may be interested in naval history or history in general.

My final assessment of Duel Between the First Ironclads by William C. Davis would be positive. I would recommend this book to anyone – whether they be interested in the topic of history or not. I feel as if this book is enough to be a gateway into the U.S. Civil War for anyone, and the way it is written gives any upper-leveled reader a chance to understand not only the Battle of Hampton Roads but also the society that existed during the height of the Civil War through an intriguing account that pairs necessary details with a well-researched plot. This piece is a fantastic addition to our naval history; and although Battle of Hampton Roads may have already been high-ranking on my own personal favorite points during the Civil War, I finished reading this book with more knowledge and information on the subject than ever before.

[1] "Civil War Times Magazine." HistoryNet. Accessed August 28, 2017. http://www.historynet.com/civil-war-times.

[2] Davis, William C. The cause lost: myths and realities of the Confederacy. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 2003.

[3] Davis, William C. (1996). The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy. Kansas: University Press of Kansas. ISBN 0-7006-0809-5. Retrieved August 4th, 2017.

[4] Fahrner, Alvin A., and William C. Davis. "Duel Between the First Ironclads." The Journal of Southern History 42, no. 3 (1976): 435. doi:10.2307/2207178.

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