USS Monitor (1862) Ironclad Gunboat
The USS Monitor became a legend when she tangled with the seemingly unstoppable Confederate CSS Virginia during the American Civil War.
Authored By JR Potts, AUS 173d AB; Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
Northern spies reported to the US War Department that the Merrimack was being rebuilt as an ironclad. Then Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, confessed his fears that the reborn Merrimack would break through the imposed blockade at Hampton Roads, Virginia, and then steam up the Potomac River to shell the White House itself. Secretary Welles, an accomplished politician, was able to acquire the funding for building Northern ironclads within days and then created the "Ironclad Board" to oversee construction. Secretary Welles charged the board to review ironclad plans and propose to the Navy Department the most promising of these designs. Three were chosen: a casemate design like the French Gloire, eventually to become the USS New Ironsides; a small armored gunboat to be named the USS Galena; and a turreted ironclad to become the USS Monitor, this design brought forth by one John Ericsson. Ericsson maintained a history with the Navy Department, feeling that he had been cheated out of payment for work completed in the past. He was known as a difficult man to deal with but he gained respect by being the recorded inventor of the screw propeller. The board members, themselves a collection of shipbuilders and engineers, were unsure about the radical design submitted by Ericsson for the blueprint represented no other ship built up to that point in history. One of the board members suggested to Ericsson that he add masts and sails as additional propulsion. Ericson refused because he understood that warship building was currently undergoing a revolution of sorts, doing away with masts and sails in favor of self-propulsion. Many of the shipbuilding firms of the time were still tied to wood construction and canvas rigging. Welles spoke to Ericsson in support of his all-iron design and was told "the sea would ride over her and she would live in it like a duck". Still, many other Navy professionals disapproved of the unconventional design. Sitting American President Abraham Lincoln, however, overruled them all and Welles funded the three designs with work to begin immediately.
To this point, there was nothing like the USS Monitor on the seas - the vessel alone contained some forty-seven patentable inventions. She was a small, flat, armored-hulled ship with a hat box-looking revolving gun turret. The turret was protected by eight layers of one-inch curved iron plate. The hull was constructed in two parts: the upper deck with .05-inch flat iron plate bolted to iron beams. This deck was fitted to the bottom hull like that of a raft. The freeboard, made to reduce waves washing over the deck, was only 18-inches high and proved ineffective to the point that sea duty could be a crew hazard. The deck armor provided minimal protection from overhead "plunging" fire but she was built as a response to the Confederate CSS Virginia - and not defensive, projectile-lobbing shore batteries. The hull sides fielded 5-inches of iron plate, bolted to 24-inches of oak timbers.
The USS Monitor showcased a shallow draft, allowing her to operate in less than 11 feet of water. Ericsson developed the Monitor's engine, calling it a "vibrating lever", and outputted enough power for the vessel to make 6-knots. The 120-ton, 20-foot diameter turret was the most ingenious invention on the Monitor and was built to rotate a full 360-degrees in 24-seconds using a separate small "donkey" engine. The turret was supported on a central column, or spindle, and rode a few inches above the main deck. Ericsson designed the turret to support two 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannons but, in the end, had to settle for 11-inch caliber Dahlgren types due to availability.
The New York Times called the Monitor "Ericsson's Folly" but one hundred days later on January 30, 1862, thousands came to watch the launching (or sinking as some would have had it) of the iron ship at the Greenpoint Brooklyn NY yard. Ericsson's Monitor was launched into Manhattan's East River before her two rival designs were completed. The hull floated and she looked like a drifting shingle along the surface of the river. She was launched sans turret at this point for the turret was to be mounted sometime later. After the turret was put in place, and when her crew came aboard, her brown water maiden voyage officially began. She steamed to the New York side of the river and turned towards Brooklyn, then back and forth like a drunken man; her crew finding that she would not respond to her rudder control. Adjustments were made onboard and additional short trips from Greenpoint were made until Lieutenant John Worden, commander of the USS Monitor, was fully satisfied.
Fearing the CSS Virginia would attack the Northern blockade, it was decided her blue water shakedown cruise would have to be made on the way to Hampton Roads. Her brave volunteer crew of 49 officers and enlisted men would have to drill and steam along the way at sea. As John Ericsson did not claim his design to be built for ocean going, a plan developed to maneuver her into shallow coastal waters like those found at Hampton Roads. On Thursday March 6th at 11AM, she was towed by the screw tug USS Seth Low out of New York Harbor between Staten Island and Long Island, accompanied by the two wood screw gunboats - the USS Sachem and the USS Currituck - as armed escorts. By 4PM, the flotilla rounded Sandy Hook and entered unprotected waters, steaming south down the New Jersey coast line for the 400-mile journey to Hampton Roads, Virginia.
The Monitor and her escort continued through the night in relatively calm waters. The waves came over the deck due to the low 18-inch freeboard and limited the crew from going out on deck with any degree of safety. By 6AM on Friday March 7th gale wings from the east hammered the Monitor as she was approaching Cape May at the southern end of New Jersey. Lt. Worden wrote in the ship's log "very heavy sea, and ship making heavy weather". The ship started leaking at the base of the turret and water flowed into the engine room. As water spilled into her design like a waterfall, the ventilator system failed and the ship filled with dangerous carbon dioxide fumes, some of the men beginning to faint. Worden was concerned the ship might flounder so the tug USS Seth Low towed Monitor back towards shore and into calmer waters. When Monitor got inside of protected waters, Chief Engineer Isaac Newton was able to vent the engine room of the carbon fumes and restart the engines and pumps, in effect saving the grand ship.
Monitor resumed her southward trip at 8pm Friday night with the gale having passed. The seas were reported as moderate with clear skies and she steamed on at 5 knots. However, by midnight off the Maryland coast, the weather worsened yet again and the seas were breaking over the air vents and smoke stack. As the sea pounded Monitor, the tiller ropes came loose and the Monitor turned broadside into the sea. Worden feared a rogue wave would capsize the ship but the tiller was repaired in time and she was able to steer once again. By dawn on Saturday March 8th, the sea had calmed and Worden had the tug tow her into shallow water so the crew could eat breakfast. Engineer Newton took advantage of the time to pump the Monitor out again and make repairs the best the crew could - the Monitor and her crew would need every ounce of perfection and luck when going into harm's way and facing off against the most powerful ship in the Confederate Navy.
At noon on Saturday, Worden sighted Chesapeake Bay in the distance and, by 3PM, he could see shell fire exploding in the air - he ordered his crew to prepare the Monitor for action. The crew had ample solid shot and powder stock piled in the turret for the two 11-inch smoothbore cannons. A pilot boat came out to meet the Monitor and Worden received the worse news possible - that he was too late and the Ironclad CSS Virginia was already shelling the blockading Union Naval Squadron. At 9PM, Worden brought Monitor alongside the squadron's flagship, the USS Roanoke. Lt. Worden learned of the day's carnage by the Virginia - still called the Merrimack for the North - the USS Cumberland had been sunk and the USS Congress was burning. Worden, along with all present, saw Congress blow up around midnight. As if this was not enough, the USS Minnesota and the USS St. Lawrence had run aground in the fighting. Monitor released her tug and escort and was ordered to protect the grounded USS Minnesota that was sure to be attacked by the Virginia the following morning. Worden maneuvered Monitor alongside the Minnesota - Captain Van Brunt of the 4,833-ton frigate looked at the 987-ton Monitor like a pigmy next to a giant. Lt. Worden was welcomed aboard the Minnesota and met with Captain Van Brunt; the meeting was short, both men having had a hard day. Van Brunt came to the point, "If I cannot lighten my ship off of the bottom I will destroy her". Worden replied "I will stand by you to the last if I can help you". Bravely spoken words from a captain with the untested Monitor in his command. By 1862, Ironclads represented the most powerful warships in the world, officially ending the reign of the wooden tall ships that owned the oceans for hundreds of years, depending on the winds and range of firepower to be truly effective. Ironclads could propel and steer under their own power and afford their crew greater protection while also serving as highly-capable battering rams in the way of the old Ancient ships.
On Sunday morning, dawn broke over Hampton Roads and the CSS Virginia was at protected anchor below the battery of guns at Sewell Point. With Captain Buchanan injured, acting Captain Lt. Jones looked towards what he thought would be his first victim of the day, the frigate USS Minnesota. In the early light, looking through his spyglass, Jones saw a small cheese box-shaped object positioned on a flat shingle-type raft floating beside the frigate and immediately recognized it as the pride of the North - the USS Monitor. Lt. Jones told Lt. Davidson his intention to ram the Monitor and keep at her until the contest was assured. Lt Worden, with little sleep, was up early and had Monitor's crew sit down for their breakfast. From his vantage point, he could see the CSS Virginia and her flotilla at Sewell Point. At 6AM, the Virginia slipped her mooring but Jones kept her close due to heavy fog and needing the tide to still come in. Around 8AM, Virginia began to make steam, smoking towards the crippled Minnesota.
Two miles away on the Minnesota, Worden stood on deck observing the Virginia. At 8:30AM, just a mile away from the Minnesota, she opened fire, sending a shot over Worden's head and into the side of the Frigate. Minnesota was still aground with Lt. Worden on board Monitor - his intent was to confront Virginia as far away from the Minnesota as possible. As Minnesota opened fire with her aft guns, Worden moved Monitor towards the threat. Worden had one immediate problem, however, for the speaking tube between the pilot house and the turret had broken down. The only way around it was to use "runners", messengers sent from point to point to deliver messages, so between Paymaster Keeler and Clerk Toffey, orders were relayed in this fashion.
When the two Ironclads were within 100 yards of each other, the Monitor fired the first shot of the one-on-one engagement and hit the Virginia at the waterline. The Virginia turned starboard towards the east and was now broadside to the Monitor, who was now steaming west. The Virginia opened up on the Monitor with a full broadside of 3x8 inch smoothbores, 1x7 inch rifle, and 1x6.4 inch rifle. Executive Officer Lt. Green indicated "It was a rattling broadside... the turret and other parts of the ship were heavily struck but the shots did not penetrate, the tower was intact and continued to rotate". Green further noted the surprise of his men in the turret, relieved that the shot from the CSS Virginia did not penetrate the iron plate of the Monitor or stop the turret from revolving. The underlining stress and fear of the Virginia's guns by the Monitor's crew was now being replaced with confidence that the Virginia could not sink the mighty Monitor. Some of the crew felt the Virginia was firing canister shot and not solid shot due to the sound against the iron plate. They were ultimately proved correct in their assumption.
The Monitor steamed slowly by the Virginia, firing solid shot against her casement. The revolving turret was able to concentrate fire towards one area, trying to penetrate the armor or, at least, dislodge the iron plates. Intense musket fire from the crew of both ships towards one another was noted. After two hours of firing, Jones felt his ship had met her match - he was impressed with the revolving turret that could fire with internal control. Jones could see her draft was shallower than the Virginia's and the Monitor had greater mobility, allowing her to move around the Virginia at will. This mobility allowed the Monitor to find blind spots and fire on the Virginia without the Virginia being able to fire back at the Monitor.
The ships circled each other, firing through the smoke and limited visibility and colliding with each other at least five times. The officers on board the Monitor began to realize the Virginia was trying to maneuver closer to the Minnesota so she could rake her with cannon fire. Worden tried to ram the rudder and propeller of the Virginia to disable her so the Monitor could concentrate her fire on vital parts of the ship. Soon, the Monitor ran out of ammunition stored on the gun deck. This forced Worden to disengage from the Virginia and replenish the shot and powder from below decks. Worden knew this would give the Virginia time to move against the Minnesota. Virginia made a slow turn and moved towards the grounded wooden frigate but herself ran aground. The Monitor had finished rearming and was in pursuit. Worden came in so close to the Virginia that the Virginia's guns could not be lowered enough to hit the Monitor. The Monitor fired many shots into the Confederate vessel without a return volley.
The Virginia continued to burn coal, trying to get off the sand bank, and Jones knew he was in trouble by becoming lighter - the Virginia would rise higher in the water, exposing her wooden hull to enemy fire. By adding additional fuel into Virginia's boilers she pulled herself off the bank. Jones had a decision to make: he knew he could not get close enough to the Minnesota due to the shallow water she was in and the Monitor maintained the Virginia's number. His ship had a deep draft so he decided to ram the Monitor even though the iron prow had been broken the day before. The Virginia had difficulty maneuvering and it took almost an hour to get into position. When she finally attacked the nimble Monitor, she was able to swerve, taking a glancing blow. The two ironclads were at point blank range and, as the Virginia passed by, Lt. Green on the Monitor fired both 11-inch guns, striking the casement of the Virginia about half way up from the water line. These did not penetrate but the concussion hammered the gun crew enough to cause their ears and noses to bleed. Shortly after noon, the Monitor was hit with a damaging shot on the pilot house at a range of 30 feet. Lt. Worden was looking out the eye slits and was temporally blinded in his right eye and permanently in his left. The powder burns on his face were serious and never fully healed. The order was given to the helmsman to change course while the damage was checked. Worden told the crew "I cannot see, it's up to you to save the Minnesota". As the officers consulted, the Monitor was steaming in shallow water so low that the Virginia could not follow - the decision was to return to the fight.
Lt. Jones on the Virginia was keeping an eye on the Monitor and trying to position his ship to finish off the Minnesota. Time was not on his side with the tide going out against his ship's 22-foot draft. Jones checked the ship and found the bow was leaking from the hit on the Monitor and the ammunition supply was running very low. Feeling he had driven the Monitor from the field, he set course for the protection of Sewell Point. The officers reported Virginia's new course away from the Minnesota to Worden who ordered several shots to be fired at the Confederate vessel. The four hour duel was over.
The Monitor returned to the Minnesota's side with cheers from her crew - she had not sunk the Virginia but her mission to save the frigate was a complete success. The day's battle was a disappointment to the crew of the Virginia, who failed to destroy the Minnesota or sink the Monitor, and the Northern blockade remained in place.
For the next two months, the Monitor protected the ships blockading Hampton Roads. The Virginia returned up the Elizabeth River to the Confederate Navy Yard at Gosport. Major repairs were needed and she returned to the fight on April 11th. The plan was to use the Virginia to lure the Monitor away from Fort Monroe where the Northern fleet controlled the bay. If the Monitor took the bait, a number of southern warships would attack and board her. Virginia played her part as the lure but could not bring Monitor out. After some exchange of fire the Virginia returned to base.
On May 3rd The Union Fleet started shelling the Confederate stronghold at Sewell Point with President Lincoln in attendance. All of a sudden the Virginia appeared and the entire fleet retreated along with the Monitor back to Fort Monroe. Lincoln was not impressed by the Northern response. By the 11th, the Confederates at Sewell Point withdrew and the Navy Yard at Gosport fell into Union hands leaving CSS Virginia without a home base. Virginia, having few options at this point, took a small flotilla up the James River, trying to reach Richmond, but she grounded out and had to be burned so as not to fall into enemy hands. The pride of the Southern fleet was gone.
Richmond seemed to be wide open for the taking so Monitor, and the armored gunship Galena, led a flotilla of seemingly unstoppable Union ships up the James River. At Drewry's Bluff, a fort with heavy guns has been constructed just 15 miles below the Confederate Capital of Richmond. When Monitor and the flotilla arrived, their guns could not be raised enough to shell the fort, however, the plunging fire from the bluff struck the ships. After four hours, the Monitor and the northern flotilla limped back to Hampton Roads. Richmond was saved.
Monitor remained on the James River during the retreat of the Army of the Potomac. On December 12th the USS Monitor received orders to steam south to blockade Wilmington. She was towed by the USS Rhode Island and, as they reached Cape Hatteras, a storm hit. Monitor, not an inherently seaworthy vessel, took on water in the rough action and, at 12:30AM on December 31, 1862, she sank with 4 officers and 12 men on board in 220 feet of water.
The wreck of the Monitor was discovered in 1973 and, on January 30, 1975, the site became a National Marine Sanctuary - this approximately 16.1 miles off Cape Hatteras.
ADDENDUM: March 2013
In August 1973, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, the National Geographic Society, Duke University, the University of Delaware and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology participated in a voyage to inspect a sunken ship site off Cape Hatteras. On March 8th, 1974, after naval historical experts and marine archeologists examined the evidence, an announcement was made by the Duke University team that the wreck of USS Monitor had been located. On September 26th, 1974 the wreck site was nominated for, and eventually became, a Marine Sanctuary.
Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia was chosen to be the site for the USS Monitor artifacts to be stored, studied and displayed. The United States Navy and supporting agencies began salvaging artifacts from the Monitor wreckage. The major parts of the ship raised were the ship's propeller and a section of its shaft, this recovered in 1998. The steam engine was raised in 2001 and the steam-powered turret the following year. Additionally, a cannon, the anchor as well as 125 other artifacts were salvaged and are being treated and studied.
The Monitor was built with devices that were largely advanced for the period. The monitor was a new type of watercraft requiring innovative designs such as flushing toilets and a small steam engine built within the cramped machine space available. So much of the ship was held under water when afloat that a forced-air ventilation system was designed and installed. Salvage divers found the hull had come to rest, bottom up, on top of the turret. When the turret was recovered and examined, the skeletons of two crewmen were found with the tattered remains of their uniforms. The Navy spent a decade trying to determine the identity of the remains through DNA testing.
The testing by forensic analysis of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii narrowed the identities of the two men to six of the 16 sailors who died when the Monitor sank. The Navy expects a large number of relatives of the men who served on the Monitor, in addition to 21 descendants of those lost in the Monitor, to attend burial services in Arlington. The forensic analysis indicated the older of the two men stood about 5 feet, 6 inches tall and was between 30- and 40-years-old. The younger man was 5 feet, 7 inches tall and between 17- and 24-years-old.
The remains of the two Union sailors found in the turret of the Civil War Monitor were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. on Friday, March 8th, 2013.