Harrison Loring, Duxbury’s Builder of Ironclads

USS Nahant, in 1862 the first ironclad launched in New England, photo 1898

In this blog we have primarily focused on the Civil War experiences of soldiers, sailors, and nurses. Turning to a different aspect of the war effort, the business of manufacturing war materiel here at home, it is interesting to consider the fact that one of Boston’s most successful builders of warships was a man from Duxbury.

Harrison Loring (1822-1907) was born in Duxbury to Samuel Loring and Nancy Sprague Loring. At the time of his birth, Duxbury was at the apex of its shipbuilding era. Harrison’s maternal grandfather was Seth Sprague, one of the leading shipyard owners and merchants in the town. In his youth, Harrison learned the shipwright’s trade. But he eventually formulated plans that went beyond wooden shipbuilding.

Loring was a man ahead of his time. After moving to Boston, he built, in 1847, a machine shop for the construction of boilers. Then, in 1857, he established the City Point Works in South Boston. He acted on a gutsy vision. His would be the first Boston business entirely devoted to the construction of steam engines and iron ships.

Boston shipbuilders, according to historian William H. Roberts in his history of ironclad warships, were still very much stuck in the old ways of building wooden ships. Most were struggling to make the transition to steam power, let alone the quantum leap to iron ships. The old guard in Boston resented the notion of Loring, the young, nervy interloper, leading the way.

Loring’s vision would pay off. In March 1862, the famous clash between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor took place—the first battle between two ironclads. The engagement, a terrifying spectacle to those who witnessed the seeming invincibility of the iron warships, remains legendary. As put in Ken Burns’s documentary of the Civil War, “From the moment the two ships opened fire that Sunday morning, every other navy on earth was obsolete.”

But it is not just the navies that became obsolete. That March day, numerous Boston shipyards that had failed to keep up with the times became obsolete. Those still clinging to the pre-Civil War golden age of sail would now scramble to catch up. But Harrison Loring was ready for this transformative moment.

During the summer and fall of 1862, the U.S. Navy was enormously eager to get more monitors built. John Ericsson, the naval architect who had designed the original Monitor, soon improved on the plan and came up with the Passaic-class monitor. Ten of these were built. Harrison Loring, one of only two manufacturers in Boston capable of building these vessels, landed one of the contracts.

The USS Nahant, the first iron warship built in New England, was launched from Loring’s City Point Works in South Boston on October 7, 1862. She was the third of the Passaic-class monitors built. At 200 feet long, she was a bit larger than the original Monitor. 150 years ago this month, the Nahant was making preparations to join the Atlantic blockading fleet off the coast of the American South. She was commissioned on December 29, 1862.

By February 1863, the Nahant, with a crew of 75 under Commander John Downes, had joined the growing Union squadron of ironclads off the coast of South Carolina. The Nahant’s first action took place on March 3, 1863 when Admiral Samuel Du Pont decided to test three of the new ironclads against a land fortification by sending them to attack Fort McAllister near Savannah, Georgia. The three new ships, including the Nahant, failed to destroy the fort. But they were virtually undamaged in the attempt. The experiment therefore seemed promising.

On April 7, 1863, Admiral Du Pont, spurred on by officials in the Navy Department who very much wanted to show what the new ironclads could do, attacked Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston had little strategic significance. But its symbolic significance, being the location of Fort Sumter and the start of the war, was enormous. Du Pont’s fleet consisted of nine ironclads–the strongest squadron afloat at the time.

Forming an imposing line of battle and steaming into Charleston harbor, Du Pont’s squadron blazed away at the fortifications there for hours. Unfortunately, their fire was not effective. Although no ships were destroyed or crippled, the massive firepower from the Charleston forts took its toll and Du Pont eventually called off the attack. The Nahant was hit 36 times and her turret was damaged.

So, while the ironclads may have made every navy in the world obsolete (and most shipyards), the Battle of Charleston Harbor taught the Navy Department that a city could not be taken with ironclads alone. Gone were the naive notions of sailing an ironclad into a harbor and battering a city into submission.

Harrison Loring built other vessels for the U.S. Navy, his largest being the USS Canonicus, the first of a new class of ironclads and one that played a key role in the bombardment of Fort Fisher near Wilmington, North Carolina, one of the final Confederate coastal strongholds.

After the war, Loring continued building vessels up until the 1890s when financial troubles and poor health forced him to sell his South Boston shipyard. He moved back to Duxbury and, in partnership with his sons, established Bay Farm, a successful dairy operation. He died in Boston in 1907.

[Sources: John V. Quarstein, A History of Ironclads, 2006, 139; William H. Roberts, Civil War Ironclads, 2002, p. 189.]