March 9, 1862 marked a revolution in naval combat. The infamous high seas duel between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia heralded a change of the guard, where combat vessels made a leap from wooden hulls and sails to ironclad hulls and steam.
The USS Monitor was one of the first "armored" sea-bearing combat vessels. Designed by famous engineer and inventor John Ericsson, the Monitor went through many steps before production. At the time, both the Union and the Confederacy had been very cautious about moving the direction of United States' Navy ship production to strictly ironclad vessels. Previous attempts at warships similar to the Monitor proved successful, although manning the vessels was much more difficult, and most of the ships were limited to rivers and canals, as the engines powering the vessels were not of great capacity as to withstand ocean travel.
Ericsson received funding and support from the US Navy, who created a board of naval officers called the Ironclad Board. The men selected to the Ironclad Board were in charge of initiating and approving new ironclad vessels. In 1861, the US Navy announced the need for ironclad vessels, and submitted a request to the Union for designs for new ships. It was at this time that Ericsson submitted his early design for the USS Monitor. The Navy was very pleased with his design, and awarded a contract to Ericsson for $275,000. The contract had steep requirements, such as a completion date of 100 days after the contract was awarded, and a guarantee that the ship would work exactly as designed.
Ericsson wasted no time in receiving materials and building each part of the vessel. Contacting eight different foundries, he requested that each foundry forge a different piece of the vessel in a certain order, so that the assembly of the ship would take minimal time. Below is a listing of each foundry used, and what pieces they supplied:
Delamater Iron Works of New York City - engines and boilers
Novelty Iron Works of New York City - iron plates for the turret
Clute Brothers and Company of Schenectady - donkey engine for rotating turret
Holdane and Company of New York City - iron plates for the turret; bars and rivets
Albany Iron Works of Troy - iron plates for the turret; bars and rivets
H. Abbot and Son of Baltimore - iron plate for the turret; bars and rivets
Niagara Steam Forge of Buffalo - iron port stoppers
As each part was finished, Ericsson had them shipped to Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, New York, which is where the final assembly of the vessel occurred. To this day, Ericsson's impressive 118-day production time for such a revolutionary machine is astounding. Considering that eight different foundries produced an array of parts for a ship that they all had little or no final vision of, it was a wonder that the Monitor ended up such a grand vessel. It was a testament to Ericsson's determination and organization.
The USS Monitor was launched on January 30, 1862, and did not reach the high seas until March 7, 1862. Several repairs needed to be made to the vessel before its maiden voyage on the Atlantic Ocean, including a rudder repair, which caused less responsive handling. Also, the ship never reached the required 8 knots for an ironclad vessel, a standard set by the Ironclad Board when the contract was drawn up. Capable of 7 knots at best, the Monitor was accepted regardless, as the US Navy needed a response to a similar vessel, the CSS Virginia.
The USS Monitor did not see combat until March 9, 1862, in its infamous stalemate with the Confederate vessel, the CSS Virginia, who was at that time ravaging the Union Naval defenses near Cape Henry in the Chesapeake Bay. President Lincoln, who actually toured the Monitor at one point and was impressed by its design, ordered the vessel to avoid more combat, as its presence was enough to sway the Confederate Navy to stay away from the Fort Monroe area in Virginia.
The USS Monitor finally sank on December 31, 1862 off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, taking 20 crewmen with it. Its nemesis, the CSS Virgina, sank nearly eight months before the Monitor, destroyed by its own navigational crew as it tried to overcome high waters along the James River near Richmond, Virginia. The destruction of these ships was mourned by each respective Naval officer, but in their demise they also sounded in a new era of ship production, one where ironclad vessels (and soon steel) would become the norm.
The USS Monitor, despite having a short lifetime, was an extraordinary ship regardless. Many of the design elements of the Monitor were revolutionary and innovative, and proved Ericsson was a talented engineer for his time. By far, the most respected and feared piece of the Monitor was its rotating turret. Two 11" heavy cannons were secured within eight inches worth of ironclad protection, and the cannons were capable of firing nearly 180 pounds of shot in one blast. The ability to move the turret made manuvering the ship much easier, as the cannons on the starboard side of the vessel did not have the ability to be rotated.
Yet another excellent innovation was the amount of area exposed on the USS Monitor. Only 18" of the ship was visible above water, except for the rotating turret. Only a direct hit would seriously damage the Monitor, and the difficultly of placing a perfect shot on the vessel was merely a matter of timing and luck. Unfortunately, this feature did not really extend the life of the Monitor; however, it was the inspiration for future warship and submarine designs.
The remains of the USS Monitor are available fo viewing through the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary at Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Also, during the summer of 2002, the US Navy will begin efforts to recover parts of the turret from the Monitor to store in national maritime musesums.