By Paul Clancy, 266 pages, $24.95, International Marine, Camden, Maine , www.mcgraw-hill.com
Author Paul Clancy’s new book snagged me even before I’d read the prologue. He begins with a list of characters, as though he’s drawing you into a theater production. The list goes on for two-and-a-half pages, describing the people of the past and present who had a hand in the rise, fall and recent resurrection of the U.S.S. Monitor. This is the feisty ironclad vessel that changed the face of naval warfare in a few hot hours off Norfolk during the Civil War, then went down in stormy seas off the Carolina coast not many months later. This is drama of the highest order, and Clancy’s book captures the essence of the story as deftly as any playwright, right down to the smell of the coal dust and the grind of the gears.
The groundbreaking, history-making Monitor raised Union eyebrows when it was launched, then Union hopes when it stopped the U.S.S. Virginia in her tracks as she bludgeoned her way through Yankee warships blockading Hampton Roads. When the Monitor sank on New Year’s Eve 1862, under way to more action in southern ports, her loss signaled yet another gut-punch to the Union, still reeling from a slew of Confederate victories. Clancy (who is also one of CBM’s contributing writers) tells the all-too human story of her victories and her demise, piecing together the details from letters, journals, newspaper clippings and military records. The remains of the ironclad were formally identified in 1974 and the all-out recovery of artifacts and the ship’s turret began in 2002. Clancy scrupulously follows and reports on the action, watching from the deck of the recovery ship and chronicling the hedge and play of politics as Navy divers jockey with NOAA scientists and archaeologists from the Mariners’ Museum.
This is not just a book for history buffs. The exploits of the divers and the equipment they tested and developed for the project kept even this claustrophobic reader hooked. I imagine that any avid aquanaut would relish the scene and sympathize with the players as they engage in the dangerous work of bringing long-submerged history to the surface. Leading the operation was Navy Commander Barbara Scholley, whose own private drama required her to face-off with male counterparts not always receptive to her command. I appreciated Clancy’s sensitive treatment of this element of the story as much as I applauded the whole narrative. Standing ovation, at that.