History of the USS Monitor
What does the famed ironclad ship the USS Monitor have to do with Madison, Connecticut? Well, one could argue, she was practically born here.
At the very least, the ship’s most exuberant proponent was born here. Most famous for her role in the world’s first naval battle between two ironclad warships, the USS Monitor was one of three such vessels commissioned by the United States Navy during the Civil War. In the Battle of Hampton Roads, on March 9, 1862, the Monitor fought the ironclad CSS Virginia (formerly called the USS Merrimac) of the Confederate States Navy.
Neither the Monitor nor the Virginia was the first of the world’s warships to be armored with metal, but both were among the first to have their capabilities tested in a naval battle. In fact, after their battle, the U.S. Navy cancelled all plans to build any more wooden warships.
Designed by Swedish-born engineer John Ericsson, the Monitor had a round, rotating gun turret on her deck. The iron turret housed two Dahlgren guns, installed side by side. Innovative in design as well as in construction, the Monitor had components and attributes that were later echoed in submarine design. Her armored deck, 172 feet long and 41.5 feet at the beam, rode just 18 inches above the waterline and extended beyond the hull, which was only 5/8-inch thick and thus nearly submerged for protection against cannon fire. On the deck with the gun turret was little more than a small pilothouse and a detachable smokestack. The turret was made from eight layers of 1-inch iron plate bolted together. A ninth plate within the turret provided a sound barrier.
The CSS Virginia, on the other hand, was fairly conventional. Built upon the hull of the USS Merrimac, it was a wooden vessel covered with iron plates, and it had fixed weapons. Still, she was a formidable threat. When federal authorities discovered in the summer of 1861 that the Confederates were armoring the old Merrimac, they knew they had to commission a unique vessel of their own to challenge her.
The Race to Build the Ironclads Begins
Regardless of the immediacy of the threat posed by the armoring of the Merrimac, the Union’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, knew he would have to convince Congress to authorize the creation of an Ironclad Board and the expenditure of $1.5 million for the ships. To get the job done, he went straight to the most persuasive man he knew: Cornelius Scranton Bushnell of New Haven, Connecticut. A native son of Madison, Connecticut, Bushnell was one of the most influential men in the state at the time of the Civil War (see his biography). Sure enough, Bushnell happily carried a draft of the proposed bill to Capitol Hill.
Welles’s hunch about Bushnell proved wise. By mid-July 1861, Bushnell had spoken to all the right people, and the bill had been introduced in Congress. On August 3, 1861, Abraham Lincoln signed it into law. Immediately Welles published an advertisement calling for plans for ironclad warships. Seventeen designers submitted proposals for the consideration of the Navy’s Ironclad Board. From these seventeen, three designs were selected as “sufficiently meritorious to warrant construction.” Among them was a design by Cornelius Bushnell himself.
Using knowledge gained from his careers in shipping, ironworks, and railroads, Bushnell had developed a design for a conventional steamer that was armored with a layer of iron bars over iron rails. Seeking some confirmation of his ideas, Bushnell visited the New York office of Captain John Ericsson, renowned for his patented marine screw and other designs in the area of naval architecture. Bushnell asked Ericsson if he thought that his ship, later christened the Galena, could in fact carry the weight of the armor, armament, and operating equipment that Bushnell had proposed for its construction. Ericsson asked him to wait a day for an answer to his questions, and Bushnell agreed.
According to Bushnell’s own recollections, recorded in an 1877 letter to Gideon Welles, he returned the next day to collect Ericsson’s verdict. Ericsson confirmed that the Galena could “easily carry the load” Bushnell had proposed. Further, he asserted that it could “stand a six-inch shot if fired from a respectable distance.”
Then, according to Bushnell, Ericsson asked, at the close of their interview, if Bushnell had time to take a look at one of his designs. He brought forth a plan for a ship with “a floating battery absolutely impregnable to the heaviest shot or shell.” Previously proposed to and rejected by the French Emperor Napoleon III in 1854, the model featured a nearly submerged hull and a single revolving turret fixed to its deck. Embittered by some unpleasant dealings with the Naval Department over a tragic incident with the warship Princeton nearly twenty years earlier, Ericsson had resolved never to do business with the government again—but he couldn’t resist sharing his ingenious design with a kindred spirit.
Bushnell was so excited by Ericsson’s model that he prevailed upon Ericsson to let him show it to Secretary Welles. Equally impressed, Welles agreed that the design should be submitted to the Ironclad Board, and Bushnell indeed presented it for consideration. The design was met with some curiosity, some appreciation, and a good bit of ridicule, and Bushnell left the Board offices determined to convince Ericsson to appear before the Board to defend his design. Ericsson agreed, and his presentation of his design was compelling. When the Ironclad Board submitted its final report to Secretary Welles, Ericsson’s was among the three designs approved for construction.
The Monitor is Built and Launched
Over the course of the next four months, the Monitor’s parts were forged in eight separate foundries, most of them in New York State, and the pieces were brought together to build the ship. The construction process, from start to finish, took 118 days, with ironworkers laboring in shifts throughout days and nights.
Specialty foundries in such places as Brooklyn, Manhattan, Albany, Buffalo, Renssalaer, and Baltimore had much more access to iron than the Confederates had in the South, but the race to complete the Monitor was nevertheless intense. Without an ironclad to defend the Union blockade against the Virginia (which was then still called the Merrimac), the federal navy’s wooden vessels would be at risk. In a battle against time, the boilers, port stoppers, radiators, bulkheads, anchor wells, and the turret were finally gathered and assembled at the Continental Iron Works at Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York, where the hull had been built. On January 30, 1862, before crowds of spectators, the Monitor was launched into New York City’s East River. By March 4, after some adjustments, it was commissioned into service and was on its way south, under the command of Lt. John L. Worden.
The Battle of Hampton Roads
On March 8, 1862, the newly christened CSS Virginia attacked the Union blockading squadron in Hampton Roads, Virginia. Before withdrawing in under four hours, the Confederate ironclad had forced the steam frigate Minnesota aground, rammed and sank the sailing sloop USS Cumberland, and fired a battery of red-hot cannonballs onto the sailing frigate USS Congress, which was consumed by flames.
At 9 pm the Monitor arrived from New York, entering the Roads under a night sky illuminated by fire. Hardly more than half the size of the Virginia (which nearly everyone still called the Merrimac), the Monitor sidled close to the helpless Minnesota and waited for dawn.
At half-past 7 am, the Virginia returned with four other Confederate vessels, intending to take down the Minnesota and the rest of the nearby Union squadron. The Monitor, hunched low in the water and half-hidden by the Minnesota, emerged from the shadows. An officer on one of the Confederate boats described the odd-looking craft as “an immense shingle floating in the water, with a gigantic cheese box rising from its center.” Ignoring the strange vessel for the moment, the Virginia fired upon the Minnesota, and the drama began, as illustrated in the adjacent J. G. Tanner painting, Engagement Between The Monitor and Merrimac, Hampton Roads, which is owned by the National Gallery of Art.
Captain Worden deliberately placed his vessel between the Minnesota and the Virgina and braced for battle. He steamed toward the Confederate vessels and commenced firing. For another four hours or so, the ships circled, firing continuously and often passing within yards of each other. The excitement inside the Monitor was intense. The men discovered that their ship seemed indeed impenetrable, but they struggled with the drawbacks of their rotating turret and a breakdown in Ericsson’s communication system between the turret and the pilothouse.
Just past 10 am, the Virginia ran aground, and the Monitor closed in. But the Virginia managed to break free of the shallows, and the bombardment recommenced for another few hours. At one point, the Monitor headed for shallow waters to restock its supply of cannonballs, and the Virginia set off to batter the Minnesota once more. At another point, the Monitor, having sustained a blow that blinded Captain Worden, retreated again to shallow water. The Virginia, interpreting that as a withdrawal, moved off, which the men aboard the Monitor interpreted as retreat. Each ship dealt blows to the other, but in the end, neither vessel had sustained serious damage and neither boat sank.
Neither crew suffered any fatalities, and both crews celebrated their triumph. Some say the battle was a strategic victory for the Monitor since it protected both the Union blockade and the U.S. fleet. Some argue that the Virginia was victorious, holding the Roads until the perceived withdrawal of the mighty little “cheesebox.”
Between March 9 and May 8, the Virginia returned to challenge the Monitor three more times, but no encounters came of that bravado. The Monitor was under orders not to respond to this blustering unless the Virginia sailed out of Hampton Roads, and the Virginia seemed content, for the most part, to rest upon its perceived laurels.
What does seem inarguable is that whichever vessel won the battle strategically or tactically, the Confederacy lost its bid for European support that day, and, in doing so, lost its chance to win the war.
Postscript: The Virginia Burns and the Monitor Is Lost at Sea
On May 10, just two days after the last challenge of the Virginia echoed off the water, the Confederate Army marched to defend Richmond. While the troops in gray moved north, the rebel sailors in the abandoned Confederate port of Norfolk struggled to move the Virginia up the James River. Unwilling to surrender her to Union forces, her captain ran her aground and ordered his crew to set her afire. She blew up and sank.
Except for a brief sortie up the James River to help, unsuccessfully, in the action unfolding at Richmond, the Monitor stayed uneventfully at anchor in Hampton Roads for the rest of the summer of 1862. A report submitted by her new captain as to her capabilites and design was exceedingly critical and peeved John Ericsson to no end. In September she was sent to Washington Naval Yard for an overhaul. Then, after a brief return to Hampton Roads, she was ordered to defend the blockade of Wilmington, North Carolina. Ignoring an earlier incident that had revealed her deficiencies in rough seas, the Navy ordered the side-wheeler steamer Rhode Island to tow her southward toward the Virginia Capes on December 29, 1862. Within two days she was swamped by high waves while under tow. As the storm grew more and more violent, the Rhode Island attempted a full rescue of all sixty-two crew and officers aboard the Monitor. Despite their efforts, sixteen men were lost when the ironclad went down on December 31, off Cape Hatteras, just eleven months after her launching.
Epilogue: The Monitor Is Found
The wreckage of the Monitor was located in 1973 on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, where it lay about 26 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. In 1986, the Monitor was designated a National Historic Landmark, and the wreck site was designated as a United States marine sanctuary, the first of its kind. Today there are thirteen national marine sanctuaries and two national marine monuments, but the Monitor Sanctuary is the only one that was created to protect a cultural rather than a natural resource.
In 1998 the Monitor propellor was raised to the surface. In 2001 her 30-ton steam engine was raised. In 2003 the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a team of U.S. Navy divers brought up her revolving gun turret. Within the turret were the remains of two of her trapped crew members. These sailors were given a full military funeral by the United States Navy. Many Monitor parts and artifacts can be seen today at the Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Virginia.
For more information about the USS Monitor, the USS Virginia, and the Battle of Hampton Roads, you may enjoy checking the websites of:
- The USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum, Newport News, Virginia
- Hampton Roads Naval Museum
- U.S. Naval Historical Center
- NOAA Ocean Explorer
- National Geographic: “Iron vs. Oak“
- John Ericsson Memorial, D.C.
- John Ericsson Society New York
In addition to information researched on the websites listed above, the preceding text was compiled with information gathered from the following texts.
William S. Wells. The Story of the Monitor: The First Naval Conflict Between Ironclad Vessels. Issued by the Cornelius S. Bushnell National Memorial Association, New Haven, CT; 1899.
Rev. Samuel C. Bushnell. The Story of the Monitor and the Merrimac. New Haven, CT.
William F. Keeler. Aboard the USS Monitor: 1862 The Letters of Acting Paymaster William Frederick Keeler to His Wife, Anna. Naval Letters Series: Volume One. United States Naval Institute, Annapolis, MD, 1964.
James Tertius de Kay. Monitor: The Story of the Legendary Civil War Ironclad and the Man Whose Invention Changed the Course of History. Walker and Company, New York; 1997.
William S. Wells, Cornelius S. Bushnell, John Ericsson, and Gideon Welles. The Original United States Warship “Monitor.”: Copies of Correspondence Between the Late Cornelius S. Bushnell, Captain John Ericsson and Hon. Gideon Welles. Together with a Brief Sketch of Mr. Bushnell’s Life … Records Showing How the Plans of the Monitor Were Urged Upon the Government and Finally Adopted. New Haven, CT: Cornelius S. Bushnell National Memorial Association, 1899.