Iron Thunder

The Battle between the Monitor & the Merrimac


By Avi

Illustrated by Unknown

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When his father is killed fighting for the Union in the War Between the States, thirteen-year-old Tom Carroll must take a job to help support his family. He manages to find work at a bustling ironworks in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York, where dozens of men are frantically pounding together the strangest ship Tom has ever seen. A ship made of iron.

Tom becomes assistant to the ship’s inventor, a gruff, boastful man named Captain John Ericsson. He soon learns that the Union army has very important plans for this iron ship called the Monitor. It is supposed to fight the Confederate “sea monster”–another ironclad–the Merrimac. But Ericsson is practically the only person who believes the Monitor will float. Everyone else calls it “Ericsson’s Folly” or “the iron coffin.”

Meanwhile, Tom’s position as Ericsson’s assistant has made him a target of Confederate spies, who offer him money for information about the ship. Tom finds himself caught between two certain dangers: an encounter with murderous spies and a battle at sea in an iron coffin



Dear Friends:

I love to read good, strong stories with lots of adventure, action, and emotion—and plenty of detail. No surprise it’s the kind of story I like to write, too.

That’s what this series, I Witness, is all about: exciting stories about fictional young people during real events in history. I Witness stories will make you feel as if you are right in the middle of the action. The illustrations will show you what things really looked like.

One of the most exciting stories I’ve come upon is the tale of the Monitor and the Merrimac—the Civil War moment that brought two ironclad ships to battle for the first time. Iron Thunder is as true to what really happened as I could make it. In fact, on the Monitor there really was a boy by the name of Tom Carroll.

This is Tom’s story—as I imagined it. Now it is your story.

Hang on …

Text copyright © 2007 by Avi

Illustrations on illust. 1, illust. 2, illust. 3, illust. 4, illust. 5, illust. 6, illust. 7, illust. 8, illust. 9, illust. 10, illust. 11, illust. 12, illust. 13, illust. 14 © 2007 by C. B. Mordan All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion Books for Children, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Hyperion Books for Children, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011-5690.

Images on fig. 1, fig. 2, fig. 3, fig. 4, fig. 5, fig. 6, fig. 7, fig. 8, fig. 9, fig. 10, fig. 11, fig. 12, fig. 13, fig. 14, fig. 15, fig. 16, fig. 17, fig. 18, fig. 19, fig. 20, fig. 21, fig. 22, fig. 23, fig. 24, fig. 25, fig. 26, fig. 27, fig. 28 courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum and Library, Newport News, Virginia

Illustrations on illust. 15, illust. 16 from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Vol. XLII Illustrations on illust. 17, illust. 18 from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Vol. XXIX Photograph on illust. 19 courtesy of the American Numismatic Society

Printed in the United States of America

First Edition

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data on file.

Book design by Christine Kettner

This book is set in 11-point Coldstyle.

eISBN-13: 978-1-4231-4062-7

ISBN-13: 978-1-4231-0446-9


Reinforced binding


For Jeff Oliver

From Brooklyn to Virginia





How It Began


I Get a Job on I Don’t Know What


I Meet a Genius


I Gaze Upon Something Strange


I See Gold in the Snow


I Don’t Tell the Truth


I Learn Some Big Things


I Meet Mr. Ogden Quinn


I Learn the Ship’s Name


I Battle for the Monitor


I Have a Meeting


I Go to Garrett Falloy


I Ride the Monitor Into the East River


I Escape


I Find a Place of Safety


I Get a Surprise


My Life Inside the Monitor


We’re Almost Ready


We Make Our Final Preparations


The Night Before Departure


I Say Farewell to Brooklyn






We Arrive at Hampton Roads


The Pilot’s News


I See a Sight I Never Wish to See Again


The Morning of March 9, 1862


The Battle Starts


The Battle Continues


Who Won?





Ma and I had halted at the dim bottom steps of the shabby York Street tenement


How It Began

“TOM, WE JUST NEED more money. You’re going to have to take your pa’s place.”

It was a cold early evening in January 1862, and the war had been going ten months. But only a week had passed since we’d learned that my pa had been killed fighting in some town in Maryland. We didn’t know where exactly. No more than we knew if his remains would be returned. The only thing we did know was that he was gone—forever.

Ma and I had halted at the dim bottom steps of the shabby York Street tenement, where we lived in the Vinegar Hill section of Brooklyn. I’d been carrying home one of her laundry loads. So when she sent my older sister, Dora, on up ahead, telling her to light the wood stove, I thought she just wanted to take a rest. The three flights up to our rooms always tired her.

Her words gave me two feelings: some kind of pride she’d consider me able, but upset that she’d ask me to take over from Pa. I didn’t see how I could. His dying left me sad, and angry too, at the army, at the Union, at President Lincoln for taking my pa away and altering our lives in ways I could not know. Getting a job was the first big change.

Like lots of boys, I’d been peddling newspapers—the Herald—around the neighborhood. You could pull in buyers if you called out the war headlines right. I may have been small for my thirteen years, but I was loud. Thing is, since I had to buy the papers before I sold them, I made, maybe, thirty-five cents a week. The best corner was right outside the Brooklyn Navy Yard gates. But Garrett Falloy, being the biggest newsboy around, had that one.

I was going to the local school. Well, some days, at least. Liked it fair enough. Learned to read, anyway.

“What kind of work you figure I could get?” I said, adding, “And I won’t join no army.”

She looked at me so mournful I wished I hadn’t spoken. “Tom,” she whispered, “you know I wouldn’t want that.”

We all knew what was happening with the rebellion. About ten months ago—when Mr. Lincoln became president—eleven southern states left the Union. Claimed they were an independent country. Named themselves the Confederate States of America. Rebels or “secesh” is what we called them. Back in April, they began the war by firing on Fort Sumter down in South Carolina.

When the war began, lots of neighborhood men and boys signed up for Brooklyn’s Fourteenth Regiment. My father did. Maybe they believed in the Union, like my pa. I supposed it was the pay, too. We needed money, and a private made thirteen dollars a month.

The truth is, no one thought the war was going to last so long or be so bloody. But by early winter, though newspapers said otherwise, folks knew the war wasn’t going well. Not for the Union. Lots, like my pa, had been killed.

We got along because Ma and my sister each earned about two dollars a week by taking in officers’ washing from the nearby Navy Yard. But my sister made less because she got sick a lot. So I knew my ma was right. We needed more money.

“What do you think I could do?” I asked.

“I spoke to the yardmaster today,” she said. “Mr. Hendricks. He might need help.”

“Doing what?”

“Not sure,” she said. “Said I should just bring you around tomorrow.”

Trudging upstairs that night, I had no idea what would happen. I felt like an ox must when a yoke is thrown over its neck for the first time. I supposed school was over. But if you’d told me then I was going to be part of the most amazing adventure of the whole war, I’d have called you a liar—flat out.

Except it was no lie—I was there—I saw it all.


I Get a Job on I Don’t Know What

IT WAS STILL DARK next morning when I heard, “Tom! Get up!” My sister, Dora, was standing over me with a cup of coffee in one hand, lit candle in another. “Ma’s almost ready,” she whispered.

Dora was seventeen and worried about me a lot. No more than I worried about her. Thin and pale, she coughed too much. And it was so cold that January, the East River was clogged with ice. Mostly she stayed home.

I got up, threw cold water on my face, hot coffee into my belly. As we left, Dora slipped a piece of bread and molasses into my hand.

Ma led the way to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Those days, Brooklyn was the country’s third biggest city, right behind New York and Philadelphia. But the Yard, perched on the East River opposite New York City, was a city itself. There were many huge warehouses and open workshops where cord was twined and canvas sails stitched. Cranes for lifting heavy things. Coils of rope lay everywhere. Mounds of cannonballs were set in pyramid fashion, the cannons lined up in rows like so many giant iron bottles ready to pour out fire and hot shot. The air, cold though it was, smelled of hot tar, cut wood, and brackish sea.

This is the entrance to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Usually it was very cluttered and busy.

People said the Yard had never been so busy. That was because when the war began, Mr. Lincoln told the Union navy to close down the Southern ports—a blockade. Called it the “Anaconda Plan,” after that huge snake that kills by squeezing. It’s what the Union wanted to do to the Rebels—choke the fighting out of them. But to do it, the Union needed ships. That’s why the dry docks were full of ships—sail and paddle—being refit or new-made. Mechanics, laborers, sailors, and soldiers, almost all men, but some boys, were working day and night.

Guards with rifles were on tight watch at the gates. Secessionist spies and saboteurs—I’m not saying just Southerners either—were said to be everywhere. “Copperheads,” is what we called those traitors.

Ma led me to the Yard’s central court, to the Round House. It was a big, four-story building, not really round but eight-sided with a great clock set in one wall so people could mark time. It’s where workers signed up and pay was passed out.

The Round House. The big clock is on the far side.

We slipped through the crowds to a door that was split in two, with the top half opening outward, the bottom half fitted with a shelf. Over the door was a sign:


Ma knocked on the shelf. “Mr. Hendricks, sir!” she called.

An old gent with a curly gray beard appeared. He was wearing a blue navy uniform.

“Ah, Mrs. Carroll, ma’am,” said this Hendricks with a tip of his navy cap. “Morning!”

“Mr. Hendricks, sir,” said my mother, nudging me forward, “I told you I’d be bringing my son. Name’s Thomas Carroll, though most everybody calls him Tom.”

“Do they, now?” said Mr. Hendricks, fixing his eyes like he was measuring me for a Sunday suit. I don’t doubt he saw what there was: a kid with brown hair crowning a face with dark eyes, thick eyebrows, and ears to grow into, but no more blarney than most. As usual, I was wearing a checked flannel shirt, baggy trousers held up by braces, plus boots and a cloth cap.

“What kind of work would that be, now?” he asked me.

“Most anything that’s fitting, sir,” I muttered. “I’m more than willing.”

“You don’t look particular willing,” he said, laughing. “How old?”

“Thirteen,” I said.

“Small for your age, ain’t you?” said Mr. Hendricks.

“He’s very strong,” said Ma, bringing heat to my face.

Mr. Hendricks nodded. “And I suppose he’ll take anything that’s offered?”

“Yes, sir,” Ma said quickly. “We’re in sore need.”

“You and everybody else,” Hendricks muttered. All the same, he gave me another sharp look as if to pin me in place, then picked up a ledger book.

“A boy your size …” he muttered to himself, turning pages. “Here’s the ticket,” he said, jabbing a finger down. “Rowland’s Continental Iron Works. Greenpoint. About a mile or so upriver.”

“What’s there?” asked Ma.

Mr. Hendricks grinned. “They’re bolting Ericsson’s floating battery together. Need all the help they can get.”

“What’s a floating battery?” I asked.

“Something new in navy ways,” said the yard-master. “An ironclad ship.” He added a wink and said, “Useful, I suppose, if she floats.” He pushed if more than he did useful.

“What’s her name?” I asked, thinking a ship with a brave name would be worth working on. A good brag, anyway.

Mr. Hendricks laughed. “No real name yet. But folks are calling her ‘Ericsson’s Folly.’ They say she’ll have tight quarters, so you could be a help.”

I thought of a smart answer to his mocking words, but kept my mouth shut.

“Now then,” he said, “for a likely boy, they’ll pay a whole seventy-five cents a week.”

I was sure we needed more, but when I glanced at Ma she nodded.

“I’ll take it,” I said without much enthusiasm.

“Yours, then,” said Mr. Hendricks. He wrote out an order on a yellow chit of paper and handed it down. “With my compliments. Just give this to Mr. Ericsson,” he said.

“Who’s he?” I asked.

“The man building that floating pot,” he said. Then he added, “But I suppose the Union needs pots, too, right?”

I thought, but didn’t say, Don’t care beans for pots or the Union.

Not talking, Ma and I went back out through the Yard gates. Lacy snow was floating down.


On Sale
Feb 12, 2010
Page Count
208 pages


About the Author

Avi is the author of the Newbery Medal novel Crispin: The Cross of Lead and the Newbery Honor books Nothing but the Truth and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, among many other books for young readers. He lives in Colorado with his wife, an inventor. You can visit him online at

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