The war in the Mississippi Valley required ironclad warships. At first the makeshift gunboats were adequate, but as Confederate shore defenses became more powerful and better organized, it was obvious that something more potent would be required. This inspired one of the most ambitious building programs of all—the shallow-draft monitors.
In August of 1862, Gustavus Fox, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, who functioned as a de facto Chief of Staff, asked Ericsson to design a shallow-draft monitor suitable for operations on the Mississippi and its tributaries. Specifically, he wanted a 10-foot draft. These monitors would be contracted for by the government, and Ericsson would receive $10,000 royalty on each one built.
Fox received a preliminary plan in something like two days, and by October this plan was developed into a complete set of specifications for a vessel 221 feet by 41 feet, with a draft of only 6 feet.
The Advertisement for Bids followed on February 24, 1863, and for the first time Ericsson learned that his original specifications had been radically altered, by—among other things—a requirement for a 4-foot draft!
What had happened was this: Under pressure from the Cabinet, the Army, the Bureau of Yards and Docks, the Assistant Secretary had appointed the ubiquitous Chief Engineer Alban C. Stimers to revise Ericsson's design.
As in the case of the Dictator, additional requirements were imposed: a heavier turret, ballast tanks (normally filled with water) that could raise the hull when emptied, a heavily armored pilothouse. Discarded was the forward overhang of the armored raft which had been perennially objected to.
When Ericsson learned of these changes, he wrote to Fox and told him that the design was unsound; he offered to redesign the ship himself, otherwise he wanted no part of it. Ericsson further informed the Assistant Secretary that Stimers had not really consulted him, and had talked briefly on minor points, giving Ericsson no idea what he was doing.
In spite of this, Stimers was allowed to continue. When the Bureau of Construction refused to approve his plans, he was established in New York with an organization of constructers and engineers (which was almost as large as the total office force of the Navy Department), reporting directly to Fox. From here he managed a $14,000,000 operation, with ships building in Boston, New York, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Baltimore, and Portland, Maine. While the project was getting under way, he was sent to inspect the Passaics engaged at Charleston, and his collateral duties included supervising the construction of the Canonicus class. Ericsson, and Bear Admiral Gregory, of the Bureau of Construction and Steam Engineering, were ignored.
In a letter to Gregory in May, 1864, Ericsson confidently predicted that the Cascos would sink on launching. He had come to this conclusion after inspecting a set of standard contractor's plans.
The Chimo was the first of the class to be launched. While she did not actually sink, she had only 3 inches of freeboard, instead of a planned 15 inches, and this was without guns, stores, fuel, or crew!
The wretched Stimers was removed immediately as General Superintendent of the Casco project, and the problem of what to do next was handed to Rear Admiral Gregory. Gregory wasted no time in calling on Ericsson, who was most insistent that it be made clear he had nothing to do with the fiasco.
At this time both Rear Admiral Dahlgren, of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and Rear Admiral S. P. Lee of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron were asking for torpedo boats, so it was decided to convert to this use the five vessels nearest to completion. The turrets were eliminated and a single unprotected 9-inch pivot gun mounted on deck. The others had their sides built up 15 inches.
Stimers was appointed, with some irony, to the post of Chief Engineer of one of the five converted Cascos, the Tunxis. Upon reporting for duty, he was confronted with a handsome brass plaque, attached to a bulkhead, which proclaimed that this ship had been "built from designs prepared by Alban C. Stimers, Chief Engineer, U.S.N." (Officers of the Tunxis related that Stimers was found later attempting to remove the plaque with a cold chisel.)
The total effect of the monitors upon war was, in the final analysis, not very great; certainly it was far less than the effect of the armored gunboats of the Western Flotilla. Their relative failure at Charleston cast doubt on their ability to attack forts, a requirement, it will be remembered, which was one of their chief reasons for existence. Although monitors were decisive in operations against the Confederate ironclad Tennessee at Mobile Bay, they were found to be extremely vulnerable to mines. The Tecumseh was lost to a mine at Mobile Bay and later two shallow-draft monitors of the Milwaukee class were also lost. In further action against the Confederate forts in the Mobile area, they were not especially effective, nor in subsequent operations against Fort Fisher, guarding Wilmington, North Carolina, were the Canonicus, the Saugus, and the Mahopac, and the double-turreted Monadnock in the bombardment.
As demonstrated in action, the greatest design fault of the monitors was their general unseaworthiness and low buoyancy. The ease with which they foundered and the sickening rapidity with which they sank when they struck a mine were defects which the invulnerability of their decks and turrets could not quite counterbalance.
The end of the war brought an immediate halt to the design and construction of monitors. The unfinished Cascos were broken up or left on the stocks. Another class of four giant seagoing monitors, the Kalamazoo class, which had been laid down late in 1863, was also left on the stocks, where after several years the ships were broken up.
In 1868 Congress authorized the Secretary of the Navy to sell all the remaining monitors in the Navy except the Dictator, the Passaic class, the Miantonomoh class, and the incomplete Kalamazoo class. The first monitors disposed of under this authority, the Catawba and the Oneota (Canonicus class), were sold to Peru, which at that time was at war with Spain. The intention of the Peruvians was to fit out these ships at New Orleans and use them to attack Havana, and preparations were actually begun. The war between Spain and Peru ended before they could be used. Needless to say, the attitude of the United States Government (which was at that time the Alabama claims against Great Britain) in this matter was somewhat negligent.
The Miantonomoh's voyage to Europe, and the Monadnock's similar voyage around the Horn to California, convinced many foreign naval leaders of the monitor's seaworthiness. Both Sweden and Russia built fleets of single-turreted monitors for service in the Baltic, and eventually England and France experimented with them, too.
In 1898 five monitors of the original Passaic class were taken out of retirement, refitted, and sent up and down the coast to serve as a harbor defense force against the Spanish Fleet. The last of these was scrapped in 1905.
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