Ironclads (1991)




Director:     Delbert Mann.

Starring:     Virginia Madsen (Betty Stuart),  Alex Hyde-White (Catesby Jones),  Reed Diamond (Leslie Harmon),  Philip Casnoff (Lt. Guilford),  E.G. Marshall (Commdr. Smith),  Fritz Weaver (John Ericsson),  Leon B. Stevens (Capt. Franklin Buchanan),  Kevin O'Rourke (Lt. Joe Smith Jr.),  Joanne Dorian (Blossom),  Beatrice Bush (Opal),  Conrad McLaren (Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy),  Burt Edwards (Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War),  James Getty (Abraham Lincoln),  Phil Whiteway (Cmdr. Davis),  Carl Jackson (Cletus).

the CSS Virginia versus the USS Monitor in the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Gosport, Virginia, April 20, 1861.  At the beginning of the American Civil War, the U.S. Navy had to abandon Gosport, it's finest naval facility.  The USS Pawnee arrived to make sure that nothing valuable fell into the hands of the rebels.  Sailors are ordered to blowup the USS Merrimack which is partly submerged in the water.  Confederate soldiers arrive and open fire on the sailors setting up the gunpowder barrels.  The sailors have to hurry to set off the explosions.  But the dry docks are not destroyed because sailor Leslie Harmon deliberately broke the gunpowder fuse line so the gunpowder could not be set off.  The captain of the ship, Commander Smith is very disappointed because this way the Confederates get the only first-rate dry docks south of the Mason-Dixon line.  He adds:  "God knows how they'll use it against us."

Washington, D.C., Office of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy.  Welles tells Commander Smith that the rebels are taking the bottom of the USS Merrimack and are constructing an ironclad structure on top of it.  And if the rebels are going to have an ironclad, then the Union must also.  They will advertise for some engineer who has a design for an ironclad.  He says he knows that the rebs are building an ironclad, because the rebs are not the only ones who can make use of spies.  They have a pretty young woman from a fine Virginia home going to school in Baltimore who serves as a spy for them.  

In fact, the young lady is named Betty Stuart and she saw sailor Leslie Harmon erase part of the fuse line.  Another person also saw Harmon do it.  The commander brings Harmon and Stuart into his office.  Harmon says that he is from New York.  He snuffed out the fuse because stones from the dry dock would have landed on people and houses and he couldn't see killing innocent civilians.  Some of those people are his friends.  Betty wants to let him off, but Commander Smith says that it is a grave offense to disobey an order in the face of the enemy.  But the commander says that he is going to offer Harmon a chance for redemption.  He introduces his son Lt. Joe Smith, Jr.  Joe tells Harmon that in the South, Harmon is a hero for what he did at Gosport.  This will give him entree into Southern society.  They will have him escape from the brig and he will get through the lines (with their help) and into Virginia.  They want Harmon to go back to Gosport and get them the specifications for the ironclad being build by the Confederacy. 

Harmon objects that they shoot spies.  And he will be on his own in Virginia.  Betty speaks up and says she will be there with him and no one would suspect a friend of hers is a spy.  She will introduce him to some of the best families of Virginia and they can do favors for him.  Commander Smith says that if he gets the specifications, he can come home to a presidential pardon. 

Joe is sweet on Betty and he asks her not to go back to Virginia.  He tells Betty that he has a terrible feeling that he won't see her again if she returns to Virginia.  Betty says she has to go.

Betty and Harmon go to an elaborate ball at the home of a wealthy Southerner.  A society woman takes Harmon to see Major Fletcher.  Betty's mother is there and she tells her daughter to go speak to Catesby Jones, a Confederate officer.  Betty says she will not.  If he wants to see her, Catesby will just have to come over to her and say hi.  The hostess comes over and says that Betty did not bring the woolens that are necessary for admission to the party.  Catesby hears this and comes over.  He puts on his formal military coat and gives his other coat to the hostess as the price of admission.  He now asks Betty to dance with him. 

Harmon is a bit jealous when he sees Betty dancing with a Confederate officer.  A female companion tells him that she once thought Betty would marry Catesby, but it fell through.  But now, however, she has her hopes up again for the marriage of the two.  So, Harmon asks his female companion to introduce him to the lieutenant who is aide to the admiral in command.  That's Lt. Guilford.  Harmon gets to meet the lieutenant and he asks him how he might get a commission in the Confederate navy.  Guilford says he will personally introduce Harmon to the admiral.  Betty and Catesby take a short walk and they kiss. 

Harmon tells Betty about what he found out about the new ironclad being built.  He draws a picture of what he saw.  Betty takes the paper.  Harmon tells her to memorize it rather than carry the drawing with her.  Betty says that her mother's black maid will take the note up north.  Opal comes in with a special shoe and Betty sticks the folded up paper between the sole layers of the shoe.  Betty then tells Opal to be careful on her journey. 

Betty goes with Catesby to the Officers' Club.  Lt. Guilford comes over to Betty to tell her that Harmon's commission in the navy is set to come in real soon.  He then adds that there will be a test firing for the ironclad CSS Virginia and Leslie Harmon is invited to attend. 

Betty and Catesby are seated at a table.  Catesby tells her that Guilford is in charge of sending out Confederate spies up north and he is also responsible for finding the Yankee spies in the south.  This news bothers Betty somewhat.

Swedish engineer John Ericsson brings in a model of his version of a northern iron clad.  On the surface of the water it looks more like a submarine than a ship.  There is a gun-tower on the deck of the ship and the ship sits low in the water.  The tower is able to turn around and around.  Present at the meeting is President Lincoln, Gideon Welles and Commander Smith among others.  Some of the navy men are worried about the stability of the ship because it does ride so low in the water.  Ericsson gets insulted by the question, becomes angry and walks out of the room saying he will be waiting for their answer.

The men now confer about whether or not to accept Ericsson's naval design.  They don't have much time because the CSS Virginia is due out of Gosport in four or five months.  Ericsson promises to have his ironclad ready in 90 days.  The design is accepted. 

A cannon is fired at the design for the walls of the CSS Virginia.  The steel walls are only dented, not destroyed.  A second shot, however, puts a hole in the steel wall.  Guilford says that they will have to increase the thickness of the steel wall from 3 to 4 inches.  A slave who works with Opal tells Harmon that they did an earlier test of the steel wall.  He suggests that Harmon sneak around to the building where they are storing the test results.  Harmon quietly goes to take a look.  What Harmon finds is two steel walls each of two inches, making for 4 inches, not the 3 as said at the public demonstration. 

Harmon gives Betty the new information.  He tells her that they must get this new information to the north.  Betty tells Harmon to take the information north himself.  Harmon says his job here is not done yet.  Betty tells him that Lt. Guilford suspects Harmon and she doesn't want Harmon getting hanged as a spy.  He says that he would do anything for her, so Betty says good, then get going. 

Betty walks with Catesby, who says they should wait for marriage until after the war.  He is thinking the war will be a short one.  Betty says Robert E. Lee said it would be a long war and she wants to get married now.  Catesby has to tell her that he has been given the position of executive officer on the CSS Virginia.   Betty now doesn't feel well and asks Catesby to take her home. 

Betty rushes to catch Harmon.  She sweet talks her way through the Union lines and reaches Harmon.  She tells him he doesn't have to go.  She has found someone else to take the message.  Harmon says it's better for two people to try to get through than one.  He guesses that she is lying to him.  She is not going to send anyone north with the message.  Betty confesses that this is true.  Catesby will be on the CSS Virginia, so she doesn't want the north knowing about the capabilities of the rebel ship.  Harmon tells her that Catesby can take his chances just like all the rest of the team is taking chances, including Betty herself.  He is going ahead with his mission.  Betty threatens to call the guards, but that doesn't stop Harmon.  He shoves off in his small boat.  Betty does not scream out. 

Ericsson tells the others that they can double the gunpowder the Monitor's uses in its two cannon.  The navy men demand a demonstration.  Lt. Smith writes a letter to Betty and sends it to her via Opal.  The letter says that through her help they are now sure that the Monitor will be able to defeat the Merrimack.  Betty is now very worried about what will happen to Catesby.  Her mother comes in to tell her that they have been invited to lunch on the Merrimack tomorrow. 

At the luncheon the speaker says that the Merrimack will free the south of northern tyranny.  Betty tells Catesby that the north does have a way of stopping the southern ship.  She says they must have greater fire power than before.  Catesby demands to know from Betty how does she know all of this?  She says she got it from Harmon.  Catesby calls her a spy.  He walks off to go to his ship without saying goodbye.

When Catesby speaks with Captain Buchanan, he hears that they are setting out for battle in one hour.  The Monitor is headed from New York and will be here tomorrow.  So they should sink as many Yankee ships as possible today.  Betty learns from her mother that the ship is going out to sink Yankee ships now and they will be able to watch the whole battle from the shore.  Betty starts to wave to Catesby, but he ignores her. 

Lt. Guilford now tells Betty that she is under arrest. 

March 8, 1862.  The Merrimack is heading into the James River at Hampton Roads.  On the ship the USS Congress, now Captain Smith, Betty's northern friend, gets a good look at the Merrimack.  He and others don't seem to think much of the Confederate ship. 

Betty is taken into a prison room and left there.  Captain Smith says the Confederates forgot that iron can't float.  Captain Buchanan tells his men to prepare for action.  The Yankee ships opens up on the Merrimack, but the shots bounce off the iron plates.  The Merrimack comes even with the Congress ship. 

Guilford lets Betty have her mother's servant Opal serve her.  Opal tells Betty that she got arrested because of her.  She was stopped and her clothes and shoes were taken off.  The rebs found the letter from Captain Smith to Betty and that's why she's in prison now.  Betty is actually relieved that she wasn't arrested because Catesby turned her into Guilford.  She is sure that Catesby still loves her because he didn't turn her in.  Betty feels confident that everything is going to be okay, but Opal asks her to take a look out the huge set of windows.  Betty sees that a gallows is just across from her prison room. 

The wealthy southerners watch the battle between the two ships.  The Merrimack goes by the Congress and readily sinks another ship, the Cumberland.  Now the Merrimack fires on the Congress.  Captain Smith is seriously wounded in the battle.  The officers agree to strike the colors and down comes the American flag. 

From the shore, northern General Mansfield has his men fire their rifles at the Merrimack.  Captain Buchanan goes out to fire back at the Yankees with his rifle even though Catesby warns the general not to go.  Captain Buchanan gets hit a couple of times

At the prison, a northerner named Brown is hanged while Opal and Betty watch.  After the hanging, Opal says she knows what Betty tried to do and she doesn't approve of her actions. 

The USS Minnesota runs aground on a sand bar.  Catesby decides to not risk grounding his own ship and decides to destroy the Minnesota tomorrow. 

Gideon Welles learns that around 125 crew members died on the Cumberland and the same number also applies to the Congress.  The casualties for the south were little or none as far as the north knows.  Commander Smith learns that his son Joseph was killed in the battle with the southern ironclad.  Welles is depressed, but Lincoln is still optimistic.  And, he says, if the Monitor doesn't stop the ironclad Confederate ship, then something else will.  

Guilford tells Betty that Joe Smith, Jr. has died in battle.  She cries.  And now Guilford wants the names of all those who helped Betty in her spying.  He tells Betty that he knows she was working closely together with Leslie Harmon.  So she can either tell him her contacts or walk up the 13 steps to the gallows.  He also tells Betty that she is a traitor to her side. 

As Catesby watches the Congress burning, the Monitor passes by.  John Wharton is the captain of the Yankee ship.  The captain of the Minnesota comes over to speak with the captain of the Monitor.  He tells Wharton that he has with him Leslie Harmon.  He shouts for Leslie go come over to them.  Wharton asks if Harmon knows these waters and Harmon says like the back of his hand.  Now the captain of the Monitor tells Harmon he is making him a midshipman.  Harmon is shocked and pleased. 

March 9, 1862.  The Merrimack prepares to sink the Minnesota.  But now they see the silhouette of the Monitor.  Both ships head for the other ship.  Catesby complains that the ship is now hard to steer.  The engineer explains that the bow has been taking on water.  The gunners get ready to fire at the Monitor.  The Merrimack has a cannon in its bow and it is fired.  The shot hits the turret of the Monitor and the men's hearing is disturbed by the consequent ringing of the turret. 

The two cannons of the Monitor fire and the cannon balls make a big impact.  The men see some iron sliding off the sides of the Merrimack.

Despite warnings, the Merrimack gets stuck on the bottom.  The Monitor crew fires at the waterline of the Merrimack.  The Yankee ship comes in close to the Merrimack.  Catesby tries to get power up to pull away from the grounding and after awhile it works.  They become unstuck.  The cannon balls from the Merrimack are bouncing off the Monitor, so Catesby decides to ram the Monitor.   

The Yankees see that the Merrimack is going to ram them, so the Union captain orders the cannons not to fire until the ships are extremely close to each other and then blast both cannons at the Merrimack.  The two ships collide.  Now Captain Wharton is going to try to take out the other ship's rudder.  The Confederates fire and the captain is hurt.  He complains about his eyes.  The Monitor starts heading away from the enemy ship.  The Merrimack now heads for Gosport and the Monitor heads for the USS Minnesota to provide her protection.  

Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, tells Lincoln and the others gathered in the room that the southern papers have called the battle a victory for the Merrimack.  Lincoln calls the battle a draw.  Gideon Welles say that the Merrimack failed it's mission of knocking out all the Union ships in the area when they only managed to knock out two:  the Cumberland and the Congress.  Ericsson comes in extremely angry at the navy because they refused to use the 30 pounds of gunpowder and remained with just the 15 pounds.  He tells everyone that the Monitor could have blown holes through both sides of the Merrimack using the 30 pound charges.  The navy was just not convinced that the cannon wouldn't blowup with the use of 30 pounds of gunpowder. 

Betty is released from prison.  Opal is also released.  Catesby wrote a report saying how Betty gave him the information about what weaponry the Yankees had on the Monitor and this helped save the ship.  When she gets out of prison, Catesby is there to greet her.  Catesby says he still loves Betty, but they can never see each other again.  She should go north, to the side which she chose to support.  Catesby now rides away. 

"The Merrimack never saw action again.  Two months after the battle, the Confederacy abandoned Norfolk leaving the ship without a base.  To keep her from falling into Union hands, she was grounded and burned. The Monitor did not survive the year either.  In December of 1862 she was ordered to join the Union attack on Wilmington, North Carolina.  On December 31st in a storm off Cape Hateras the Monitor went down with the loss of 16 lives." 


Good story about the first battle between ironclads in U.S. history.  There is also a love story between the southern female spy for the north and the Confederate Lt. Catesby.  I didn't know much of the details of the battle, but the film gives a good understanding of what actually happened. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


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