Ericssons Folly

On 3 August 1861, the Union Navy Department secured Federal funding to build ironclads in response to the threat posed by the Merrimac. The "Ironclad Board" reviewed the 16 tenders that had been submitted, and encouraged by the financier Cornelius Bushnell, and prompted by Welles, the Board reluctantly approved the design proposed by John Ericsson. None of the board members were engineers, or even advocates of ironclad warships, but all three members understood the danger facing the blockading squadron in Hampton Roads. Of the two other tenders approved, the ironclad gunboat USS Galena would be commissioned in April 1862, and the powerful casemate ironclad USS New Ironsides would enter service four months later. As reports suggested the Merrimac would be ready for service by February at the latest, Ericsson's design for a turreted

Folly Creek Accomac

When the Confederates captured Norfolk Navy Yard on the morning of 19 April 1861, they found 1,085 pieces of ordnance that had survived the destruction. These included modern Dahlgren smoothbores, which were subsequently mounted in the Virginia. (Hensley)

Fort Folly

An impression of the CSS Virginia around the time she was commissioned in Norfolk Navy Yard. Her armor plating has already been secured in place, and apart from small details such as her gun ports, she was ready for action. Illustration from the "Battles and Leaders" series. (Hensley)

ironclad was the only vessel of the three that stood any chance of being commissioned in time to counter the Merrimac.

Ericsson was a designer of moderate means, and he lacked the capital needed to start work on the project. His alliance with the Connecticut financier Cornelius Bushnell ensured he had the support of Bushnell's friend Gideon Welles. It also brought Ericsson into contact with Bushnell's two partners, John Griswold and John Winslow, both of whom owned foundries on the Hudson River. It also ensured funds were available to undertake the project. On 27 September the four men signed a contract with the Navy and work began immediately.

The agreement signed by Ericsson and his three backers specified the vessel would be completed in just over four months. Sub-contracting much of the work helped speed the process, and the constituent parts would then be brought to the Continental Iron Works in Brooklyn for final assembly, under the supervision of Ericsson. The turret plates were to be manufactured in the Abbot foundry in Baltimore, while the hull plates came from John Winslow's own works in New York. Ericsson made all the design decisions; many of which involved compromises, such as the decision to use lin. rather than 2in. plate for the turret, as the thicker metal would take too long to produce. The Novelty Iron Works of New York constructed the turret, as they had the most suitable hydraulic presses to bend the plate supplied by Abbot. Ericsson's friend Cornelius Delamater built the engines in his foundry in New York, while auxiliary engines were produced under contract in another foundry. As Ericsson boasted afterwards, production began even before the Navy Department clerks had drawn up the contract.

To many serving naval officers, the idea of a semi-submerged floating ironclad warship was preposterous, and they ridiculed the project in the press. Newspaper reporters dubbed the vessel "Ericsson's folly", and some contemporaries even doubted she would float. The initial contract specified the inclusion of "masts, spars, sails and rigging", a freeboard of 18in., and demanded that the vessel carry sufficient stores and water to

An impression of the CSS Virginia around the time she was commissioned in Norfolk Navy Yard. Her armor plating has already been secured in place, and apart from small details such as her gun ports, she was ready for action. Illustration from the "Battles and Leaders" series. (Hensley)

Fort Folly
Camp Butler was sited close to Newport News Point, and served as a holding camp for troops garrisoning the tip of the Virginia Peninsula. Detachments of sharpshooters from the camp were used to provide supporting fire for the Cumberland and Congress. (LoV)

feed 100 men for three months. Clearly these were all devices added by the Navy to compromise the project, as was the clause whereby Ericsson and his backers remained liable for the vessel until the Navy approved its design. Twenty-five percent of the cost of the vessel was withheld by the Navy Department until the vessel's captain pronounced her a seaworthy and effective warship. This meant that when the Monitor steamed toward the Virginia, she was still partly owned by her builders!

The keel was laid on 25 October, and during the following month the project took shape. The lower hull was completed within three weeks, and work began on the raft-like upper hull. The turret was shipped to the Brooklyn yard in pieces, then assembled in situ. The engines were tested, then disassembled and installed before the vessel's deck beams were fitted. Ignoring the contract stipulations, the Monitors coal bunkers were sufficient for just over a week of steaming, which Ericsson considered sufficient for the needs of the vessel. By the first days of January, the vessel was nearing completion, and Ericsson informed the Navy Department that he wanted to call her the Monitor, so that "the ironclad ... will thus prove a severe monitor" to the Confederacy. He added that "this last Yankee notion, this monitor" would also amaze the British. The name was approved, and on 30 January 18G2 the Monitor was launched into the East River. Thousands had come to watch the launch, and many considered her the epitome of the "iron coffin" the vessel had been clubbed in the press. Confounding many of her critics, she floated. Ericsson's folly was almost ready for service, just four months after the Navy ordered her to be built. Ericsson ignored the contractual obligations to supply stores, masts, and other non-essentials, and instead he supplied the Navy with a revolutionary warship, custom built to fight Confederate ironclads.

Two weeks before the launch, the Navy Department named Lieutenant John Worden her first Commanding Officer, and Word en duly arrived at the Brooklyn Yard on 16 January. Worden was an experienced naval officer, and although a quiet, retiring man, one of his officers reckoned, "he will not hesitate to submit our iron sides to as severe a test as the most warlike could desire." As soon as the Monitor was launched he led his volunteer crew on board and together with Ericsson he examined his new command. He also supervised the installation of the two 11 in. Dahlgren smoothbore guns into the Monitor's turret. Despite pleas for larger 12in. Dahlgren pieces, the commandant at Brooklyn Navy Yard reported that none were available. It was the Navy's last attempt to prevent the ironclad's completion. Like many other features about the Monitor, her armament was a compromise, as Worden and Ericsson settled for llin. guns instead. Worden formally took command of the ironclad at 2.00pm on 19 February 1862, and although an initial trial demonstrated problems with her engines, the vessel was duly commissioned into the Navy six days later. The USS Monitor was ready for active service.

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