(warning: this article contains spoilers)
What’s it about?
The main war event is the first battle between two ironclads. A historical event that led to the demise of wooden ships. The movie’s main battle actions feature the events of the 8th and 9th of March 1862. The duel between the ironclads ended in a draw, neither could destroy the other. The Confederate ship was called the Virginia (a conversion of the captured USS Merrimack) and the Union ship was called the Monitor, designed by a creative engineer called John Ericsson. Confederates hoped they could break the Union blockade of its harbors with the CSS Virginia and the Union came up with the US Monitor to prevent that.
The movie begins with the Confederate capture of Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard (or Norfolk naval shipyard).
A sailor is ordered to blow up the Navy Yard, but at the last moment he kicks dirt over the powder trail that would lead to a huge explosion. He claims to have done this to protect friends in Norfolk. He thought the debris could have landed on the inhabitants of the nearby town and he’s made some friends there.
Accused of treason and facing execution, he’s offered the chance to infiltrate the Confederate Navy and to see what they are doing with the captured navy yard. The only good navy yard in the Confederacy.
To accomplish this he gets the help of a Southern belle who opposes slavery. The movie categorically points to slavery as the cause of the war. Although true -the formation of the Confederacy was an attempt to expand slavery outside of the boundaries of the United States without interference from northern politicians- it’s not explained in detail.
Silly character development
The battle scenes are sort of interesting to watch, but the pathos of some of the actors is not very convincing. Somehow the actors that play the Confederates and the black servants are more convincing. The belle and the sailor are not exactly thrilling to watch, and especially some of the Union officers seem to be overacting a bit.
The character development is silly. The sailor is first out to save his own hide and doesn’t care about slavery, but quickly becomes a passionate abolitionist after he hears a Confederate officer humiliate a negro slave. Other than this incident the horrors of slavery are not shown. The humiliated slave is a well-dressed servant at a public event.
The belle and the sailor get help from slaves, at least this movie shows how important the help of the black population was in securing a Northern victory. Today neo-confederates will try to convince you that most slaves remained loyal to their masters and that a lot of them even became soldiers in the Confederate army, an allegation that has been widely and thoroughly disproved by books such as Confederate Emancipation, southern plans to free and arm slaves during the civil war, by Bruce Levine and many others.
The belle’s character development is also quite silly. First she does all she can to help destroy the Confederate ironclad, but when she discover that the man she’s in love with will serve on the ship, she immediately undoes her spying work and warns her lover about the North’s plans to destroy the ship. Plans that she’s supplied vital information for.
In the end she goes unpunished.
The sailor becomes something of a hero in Northern ranks.
The fight between the ironclads ends in something of a draw.
The Virginia fails to destroy the northern blockade by -now- vulnerable wooden ships, because the Monitor stands in its way, but the Monitor can’t destroy the Virginia, which hampers the operations of Union general George McClellan who is launching his so called Peninsular campaign, which involves lots of amphibious action.
The Confederates later burn the Virginia to avoid its capture by Union forces and the Monitor is lost at sea.
From then on both sides construct more ironclads. The CSS Arkansas is a rather succesful one, for example, even though the Confederacy lacked the machinery to construct a truly outstanding ship, this ironclad struck fear into the hearts of the north, as did the CSS Virginia. The US built a lot more monitors, although the original design was not without its flaws.
The Confederacy would never succeed in breaking the Northern blockade, and as the war went on, more and more blockade runners were captured by blockading squadrons, increasing the suffering of the Confederate population, and damaging its war effort.
There’s a Belgian comic book series that is set in the time of the American Civil War. One of its episodes deals with the duel between the Virginia and the Monitor. It’s called ‘the bluecoats’ or Les Tuniques Bleues or De Blauwbloezen (in Dutch).
Philip Casnoff, the actor that plays the villain in the romantic series North & South, a embittered, overly ambitious and vain character by the name Elkanah Bent, plays a Confederate officer in this movie.