When reports reached Washington that the Confederates were building an ironclad warship, the Navy Department became alarmed, and lobbied for funds to counter the threat with their own ironclad program. Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, was a highly experienced and competent administrator, but so far his efforts had been concentrated on expanding the navy by ordering new conventional warships and converting merchantmen for naval service. His primary aim was to create an effective blockade of the Confederacy, and the Merrimac threatened to break this maritime stranglehold. Congress was equally perturbed, and allocated funds for the creation of ironclads within days. Welles founded an "Ironclad Board", charged with examining proposals for ironclads, and following an appeal for designs the board retired to select the most promising. Three were chosen; a casemate ironclad similar to the French Gloire which became known as the USS New Ironsides, a small armored gunboat which became the USS Galena, and the revolutionary design proposed by Swedish-born designer John Ericsson for a turreted ironclad. This last vessel would become the USS Monitor. The Board was initially hesitant to approve Ericsson's design, as his vessel looked like no warship that had ever been seen before. One Board member even tried to force Ericsson to add masts and sails to the design, but the inventor refused. At a time when naval technology was being transformed, advocates of older, more traditional methods of ship construction were resistant to change.
A poster dedicated to Thomas F. Rowland of the Continental Iron Works gives a good impression of the difference in size between the two ironclads. Commissioned almost four decades after the battle, it emphasized the new spirit of unity in the nation by honoring the participants of both sides. (Hensley)
One of three sail-powered warships to participate in the battle, the USS St. Lawrence carried 44 guns. She ran aground during the afternoon of 8 March, but unlike her consort the Minnesota, the frigate could be refloated. (Mariners)
Ericsson's design was for a small armored hull lo be fitted with a revolving gun turret containing two smoothbore guns. These guns were to be protected by eight layers of lin. iron plate, bent into a curve to create the shape of the turret. The hull was constructed in two parts, the upper portion sitting on top of the lower hull like a raft. This upper part was protected by two 'Am. deck plates laid over the deck beams, which provided little protection to fire from above, but as the design was meant to be a response to the threat of a Confederate ironclad, this was not considered a problem.
The sides of the hull were protected by 5in. of side armor in five lin. strips, backed by just over 2ft of oak. When the guns were fitted and all the crew and stores embarked, the freeboard of the ironclad was less than 18in., which meant she was only capable of operating in calm coastal waters. It also meant that the hull presented an almost impossibly small target for enemy gunners. The hull was flat bottomed, and the upper portion of the hull extended over the lower part, protecting the rudder and screw. Unlike the Virginia, which had a draft of 22ft, Ericsson's ironclad could operate in less than 1 lft of water.
She was powered by Ericsson's own "vibrating-lever" engines, which gave her a top speed of around 6 knots. A smaller engine powered the turret's rotation mechanism, which was controlled by an engineer inside the turret using a clutch mechanism. In theory, the 120-ton, 20ft diameter turret could rotate through 360 degrees in 24 seconds. It turned on a heavy central spindle, and to turn the whole device was elevated a few inches off the deck, so it effectively sat on the spindle's central column. Designed to house two powerful 15in. Dahlgren smoothbores, the turret was fitted with llin. Dahlgrens instead, as the production of the larger guns was plagued by problems. The smaller llin. pieces were available immediately, and were proven to be effective. Iron shutters known as "port stoppers" could be lowered over the gunports by means of pulleys inside the gun turret when the guns were not in use, or to protect the gunners from enemy fire.
When she was completed, the little ironclad was 179ft long, with a beam of 41^ft. Although newspapermen had dubbed her "Ericsson's folly", the ironclad was the only one of the three Union ironclads that were any way near completion in early 1862, and it became inevitable that as soon as she was completed, the ironclad would be sent south to Hampton Roads. The vessel was launched on 30 January 1862, when she was named the USS Monitor, a name chosen by her designer and approved by Gideon Welles. Her crew of 49 men was completely unused to any such vessel, and they had to discover the quirks of their vessel during the voyage south to Hampton Roads. Although far smaller than the Virginia, the Monitor was capable of virtually all-round fire, and was protected by thicker armor. She was also far more maneuverable than her opponent, but she lacked the sheer weight of armament of her rival. Although some naval officers who viewed her claimed she could "sink any vessel afloat," others expected her to sink as soon as she was launched. The all-volunteer crews were brave men to venture to sea in such an untested experimental vessel, let alone take her into action against the most powerful warship in the Confederacy.
USS Monitor's Officers
Commanding Officer: Lieutenant John Worden Executive Officer: Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene Chief Engineering Officer: Lieutenant Stimers Lieutenants (3), Midshipmen (5) Surgeon: Daniel C. Logue Paymaster: William Keeler
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