Battle of the Ironclads - Confederate Merrimack vs. Union Monitor

16th March 2018

Recalling a seminal sea battle in the struggle between Union and Confederacy, which also resonates through the history of naval warfare is a stout oak walking cane with a finely engraved gold top which bears the following self-explanatory inscription:

'A PIECE OF THE MERRIMAC DESTROYED MAY 11TH 1862 / James B. Eads from Edward Bates. Quercus Ferro Cedit'

 Merrimack Cane Top (1)

The battle of Hampton Roads was fought over two days in March 1862. On the 8th, the Confederate Ironclad Ram ‘Virginia’ - constructed on the ruins of the former U.S. Navy frigate Merrimack and frequently referred to by that name – wreaked havoc among the wooden hulled Union warships who’s blockade of Southern ports threatened economic strangulation to the Confederacy. Congress and Cumberland were sunk, and Minnesota forced aground. The armoured Virginia, immune to the effects of return fire, had proven her value.

 

On the following day her brief reign of terror was brought to an end, as she was confronted by the Union’s own purpose designed ironclad Monitor. The two ships engaged one another in a furious fire fight – each impervious to the projectiles of the other. Although their combat (the first ever between two ironclad warships) was arguably inconclusive on that day; it was to have major ramifications for the course of naval history. The world was watching, and the conclusions that it drew established the primacy of the iron warship, and sealed the demise of wooden hulls.

 

How did this walking cane come into being? James Buchanan Eads (1820-1887), is famous as a civil engineer, salvage expert, and builder of the monumental Eads Bridge over the Mississippi. He was also a prolific builder of ironclad gunboats for the Union’s struggle over the strategic waters of this same vital waterway; and a major figure in the Civil War. Edward Bates (1793-1869) was Abraham Lincoln’s attorney general, and is well documented as having been a close friend of Eads. Bates diary for May 13th 1862 includes the following critical passage:

“Saw the wrecks of the Cumberland the Congress, and the Merrimack. Admiral Goldsborough gave me a stick of white oak, large enough to be turned into a heavy cane, sawn from a beam of the Merrimack”.

 

It is truly thrilling to note that this occurred just two days after the retreating Confederates had scuttled their Virginia (Bate’s Merrimack), while the war was still in progress, and long before the later era of souvenir production. The cane comes to us by descent through a branch of Eads’s family, in which it has been preserved with other mementos of his remarkable career, including a large body of press cuttings and correspondence, all of which lend weight to our firm belief in the authenticity of this remarkable artefact.

When it was first made this cane was a splendid gift from one great personality of the war to another. The Latin legend Quercus Ferro Cedit (Oak and Iron Yield) almost seems to hint that it was intended as a form of memento mori for a man, Eads, who had expended great energy in developing the new breed of fighting vessel. It survives as a superb prize for a collector or museum, whether they be concerned with the history of the Confederacy, the American Civil War more generally, naval warfare, or all of these things.

Merrimack Cane (1)

 

The cane is 37.75 in. (960 mm) in length. The gold knob has a slightly domed top bearing the inscription, and faceted sides finely engraved with tight foliate scrolls within panels. It is pierced for a lanyard, the hole being fitted with gold grommets; and it is shod with a brass ferrule.

 

AUCTION INFORMATION

Auction to be held: 3rd May 2018, starting at 10.30am

Enquiries to: Ned Cowell; nc@woolleyandwallis.co.uk; +44 (0)1722 341469

Each lot is subject to a Buyer's Premium of 25% plus VAT (totalling 30% inclusive) on the first £500,000 of the hammer price and 12% plus VAT (14.4% inclusive) thereafter.

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