In the 18th century wars began to become larger and larger as European powers with far-flung empires engaged in conflict on a scale never before witnessed. America seceded from the British Empire with the help of the French, who then proceeded to war with the English navy over the West Indies. The spiral of war seemed to grow ever larger in its scope and the French Revolution which put the conquest-minded Napoleon on the throne only added fuel to the fires of Europe. Finally, in the early 19th century, things came to a head at the Battle of Trafalgar. In this climactic battle the British navy sent 27 ships of the line against a combined French and Spanish fleet numbering 33 ships of the line. The British fleet was led by its greatest naval hero Admiral Lord Nelson and despite his death during the engagement it was a tremendous victory for England, who reasserted her naval dominance in this battle. In fact the battle finally brought peace to the oceans, the so-called “Pax Brittanica”. Following Trafalgar there would not be another major engagement at sea until the First World War.
Despite the peace imposed by the fearsome British Navy during this period, technological change began to come to naval warfare, the first revolutionary changes since the introduction of the large sailing vessel and the cannon. Ship designers began to experiment with steam engines to replace the sail as a vessel’s primary motive force. Weapon designers also began to adopt exploding shells to replace the iron cannonball. These explosive rounds could sink a wooden vessel with a single hit, prompting the need for iron plating over the ship’s now vulnerable wooden hull.
Although these technologies had all been under development for decades, it was the American Civil War that marked the turning of the tide in naval warfare. Here two ironclads, the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor fought for the first time. The age of the ironclad had officially arrived. A mere four years later, in 1866, the first battle between fleets of ironclads was fought between the navies of Austria and Italy at the Battle of Lissa. This engagement was ended by a ramming maneuver and for a few decades ironclad designers focused on the ram once again as an essential part of a ship’s design.