The Monitors

On August 3, 1861, Congress passed a bill entitled "An Act to Provide for the Construction of One or More Armored Ships and Floating Batteries and for Other Purposes." The Act authorized and directed the Secretary of the Navy to appoint a board of three naval officers to investigate plans and specifications for ironclad warships, and appropriated $1,500,000 for their construction.

This was the first positive response to the ominous development already taking place at the Norfolk Navy Yard, captured by the Confederates without a fight on April 20. The Confederate Navy Department had authorized an ironclad early in June, and work had already begun on the conversion of the USSMerrimack (rechristened the CSS Virginia).

The Navy Department issued a request for proposals on August 7, stating that the proposed vessel must be "either of iron or wood or of wood and iron combined, for sea or river service, to be not less than 10 nor over 16 feet draught," armament was to be "of from 80 to 120 tons weight, with provisions and stores for from 165 to 300 persons, according to armament, for sixty days, with coal for eight days, the smaller draught of water, compatible with other requisites, to be preferred."

The advertisement went on to request drawings of the vessel, armor, machinery, etc., as well the cost and time for completion. Twenty-five days were allowed for the completion of plans.

As authorized and directed by the Act of Congress, a reviewing board was appointed. This board, consisting of Commodore John Smith, Commodore Hiram Paulding, and Commander Charles H. Davis, proceeded to evaluate the various proposals, and on September 16 reported its conclusions.

After conceding its authors' scant experience with the subject, the report began with some general conclusions about ironclad warships which, rightly or wrongly, were to influence United States naval policy throughout the war and even into the postwar period.

These general conclusions were as follows:

1. Ironclads are formidable adjuncts to fortifications on land, for coast and harbor defense. As cruisers, their value is questionable, primarily due to the fact that the weight of their armor cuts down on their speed and cruising range.

2. Ironclads will never be able to cope successfully with properly constructed forts, since the fort, in addition to its masonry walls, also can be armored with as much iron as necessary.

3. Armored warships will be most valuable on rivers and in harbors, and for blockading. Thus the immediate requirement is for shallow-draft vessels, invulnerable to shot.

The board also declared itself to be in favor of iron and wood construction rather than all-iron construction. The report then went on to list 16 proposals which had been received and evaluated, including one for a rubber-clad vessel. Three designs were accepted. The first was from C. S. Bushnell and Co. of New Haven, Connecticut, for the Galena. The second was from Merrick and Sons of Philadelphia for the New Ironsides.

Both of these ships were more or less conventional ironclads, similar to the ironclads already in existence in the French and the British navies. They represented the conservative approach to the problem, and received the unqualified approval of the board.

The third design selected was that of the Monitor, submitted by John Ericsson.

The third design selected was that of the Monitor, submitted by John Ericsson.

Tlie Monitor—IiiWni Profile

THE Monitor

In its evaluation of Ericsson's design, the board was cautious. After conceding that the raft and turret arrangement would render her shot-proof, it expressed apprehension as to her seakeeping qualities. (These apprehensions were fully justified, as it turned out.) Actually, it was only after Ericsson's good friend, Bushnell, the builder of the Galena, had prevailed upon his good friend, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, to grant Ericsson an opportunity to explain and demonstrate his plan to Welles, Lincoln, and various naval officers, that the board accepted the plan for the design of the Monitor. At that, the acceptance was conditional. The board's recommendation was that one such floating battery be built as an experiment, with a forfeiture in case it did not measure up to its designer's claims.

Since Ericsson had no capital of his own to finance the venture, C. S. Bushnell sought the aid of two of the leading figures in the New York iron industry who were looking for an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of the mushrooming arms business. On September 27, a contract was drawn up between Ericsson and C. S. Bushnell, John A. Griswold, and John Flack Winslow. Griswold was a partner in the Rennselaer Iron Works in Troy, New York; Winslow was a partner in the Albany Iron Works as well as the Rennselaer Iron Works. These three agreed to provide all the financial support necessary to build the Monitor and that the four parties to the contract would share equally all net profits or losses. It also was agreed that future construction of any ironclads would be handled the same way. With this kind of backing, Ericsson was able to negotiate a contract with the Navy Department to design and build the ship. The contract was signed October 4, 1862. The Navy agreed to pay the sum of $275,000 in installments of $50,000. At the same time, in view of the experimental nature of the vessel, the government would withhold 25 per cent of each payment pending satisfactory completion and performance of the vessel. Besides specifying the dimensions, speed, etc., the contract called for Ericsson to provide masts, spars, sails, and rigging capable of driving the ship at a speed of 6 knots. Ericsson completely ignored this provision, and no attempt ever was made to hold him to it. The contract further called for a delivery of the completed Monitor within 100 days. Work began immediately.

Ericsson's backers formed a very competent team. Together they organized a far-reaching net of subcontractors: Rennselaer was to provide bar iron and rivets, Albany would produce angle iron for the framing, and armor plate; more plate was subcontracted to Holdane and Co. in New York and to H. Abbot and Co. in Baltimore. The ponderous portstoppers were forged in Buffalo by the Charles D. Delaney Company.

The Continental Iron Works at Green Point, in Brooklyn, was subcontractor for the hull. On October 15, 11 days after the signing of the contract, the first shipment of angle iron from the Albany Iron Works arrived in New York by steamer. Thereafter, daily deliveries were made to the Continental Iron Works or to the turret subcontractor, the Novelty Ironworks, also in New York. Meantime, Delameter and Company was building the engines.

All the designing was done by John Ericsson. From his drafting table at the Continental Iron Works came a continuous procession of drawings, usually rough sketches which were often taken directly to the shops without even being copied by the draftsmen. Every detail was Ericsson's, although the backers, at least, were inclined to credit the idea of the revolving turret to one Theodore Timby, who had secured a patent for such a turret in 1843. (Timby was paid a royalty of $5,000 for every Monitor turret built. ) Ericsson, in later years, sneered at the idea that the turret was Timby's, and maintained that the royalty paid was simply in the interests of prudence.

The launching took place on January 30, 1862. Due to her questionable buoyancy, two large wooden tanks were attached to her stern. Steam was applied to the boilers of the main engines for the first time the next day. On the igth of April, the Monitor was delivered to Brooklyn Navy Yard for armament and stores. Here she was armed with two 11-inch Dahlgren guns commandeered from the gunboat Dacotah. The task of placing these large guns in a rather small turret was accomplished in the following manner: the top of the turret was left completely open and the guns were lowered into place; afterward, the top was roofed with bars of railroad iron spaced several inches apart to form a grating.

Two more trials were made before the vessel set out on its famous voyage to Hampton Boads. On the first trip there was trouble with the main engines. The cutoff valves, according to reports, were improperly set and would not permit steam to enter the engine. (The engines were an Ericsson design too, incidentally.) The design had been tested in the steamers Judith and Daylight, and Ericsson was rightly confident that there was nothing seriously wrong.

On the second trial, more trouble developed—this time with the rudder. It turned out that the rudder was out of balance, the weight too great forward of the rudder post. The naval authorities immediately wanted to put the Monitor into dry dock and build a new rudder, but Ericsson managed to make adjustments to the rudder in place. By this time the newspapers were calling her "Ericsson's Folly."

On the 25th of February, the Monitor was commissioned, Lieutenant John Worden having been appointed to her command two weeks previously. He had already received orders to proceed to Hampton Roads, where the Monitor's opponent was also in the final stages of construction. Last-minute work was continued almost to 11 A.M., March 6, 1862, when, in tow of the tug Seth Low, the Monitor departed for her appointment in the South.

Ericsson's design was one of the first examples of what is known in modern terms as a "weapons system." Ericsson himself described it as a "fighting machine." The weapons system concept demands that all components be tailored to achieve the optimum performance in terms of the system's stated mission or function. Thus, the current warships could be described as "armed, armored ships," differing from a general ship design only in detail, whereas the Monitor actually was conceived as a "self-propelled gun platform." Ericsson's previous experience had been with propulsion systems (he designed the power plant for the USS Princeton, the first propeller-driven ship in the U.S. Navy in 1841) and in ordnance, but, after establishing the design criteria, or parameters, for the Monitor, he did not hesitate to engineer the entire ship, from stem to stern.

[He had, in fact, submitted a design for a turret ship to the French navy in 1854. It was a model of this ship, demonstrated by Ericsson, which convinced President Lincoln of the soundness of his ideas.]

In an article in the Century Magazine in 1885, Ericsson admirably outlined these design criteria:

"1. The work on the Virginia (Merrimack) had progressed so far that no structure of large dimensions could possibly be completed in time to meet her.

"2. The well-matured plan of erecting a Citadel of considerable dimensions on the ample deck of the razeed Merrimack admitted of a battery of heavy ordnance so formidable that no vessel of the ordinary type, of small dimensions, could withstand its fire.

"3. The battery designed by the naval authorities of the Confederate States, in addition to the advantage of ample room and numerous guns, presented a formidable front to an opponents' fire by being inclined to such a degree that shot would be readily deflected . . .

"4. The shallow waters on the coast of the Southern States called for very light draft; hence the upper circumference of the propeller of the battery would be exposed to the enemy's fire unless thoroughly protected . . .

"5. The limited width of the navigable parts of the Southern rivers and inlets presented an obstacle rendering maneuvering impossible; hence it would not be practicable at all times to turn the battery [the vessel—Ed.] so as to present a broadside to the points to be attacked.

"6. The accurate knowledge possessed by the adversary of the distance between the forts on the river banks within range of his guns, would enable him to point the latter with such accuracy that unless every part of the sides of the battery could be made absolutely shot-proof, destruction would be certain . . .

"7. The difficulty of manipulating the anchor within range of powerful . . . batteries . . . called for better protection to the crew than ever previously known."

Ericsson's design was a set of responses to these criteria. Indeed, the ship may be described essentially in terms of these responses:

1. The ship must be small and constructed quickly. The Monitor measured 172 feet in length and 41 feet in breadth. This was the measure of the armored deck or raft. The hull proper, beneath the raft, measured only 122 feet in length and 34 feet in breadth and drew no more than 10 feet. In the interest of the rapid construction, the bow and stern curves were identical and quite simple, being only arcs having radii of 75 feet. The sides were parallel for about 80 feet. (This same principle was applied in World War II to the hulls of Liberty and Victory ships, as well as submarines.) The hull cross section shows a rather odd and not too seaworthy appearance, due to the fact that, in order to save time in construction, the frames and plates were not curved. Similarly, the raft and turret design was such that Ericsson was able to divide the work among three major subcontractors. If he had designed a conventional "broadside" vessel, the power plant would have had to be completely installed before installation of the armament really could be started.

2. The vessel must be invulnerable. One might say that, instead of building a fort, Ericsson dug a trench. He lowered the hull into the water where it didn't present much of a target. The deck, since it only had to cope with shot at an extremely shallow angle, had only 1 inch of iron for armor.

3. She must be well armed. The saving in weight embodied in ( 1 ) and (2) enabled the Monitor to carry two 11-inch guns in the turret, larger than anything the Virginia could carry. Since no more than half of a casemate battery can be engaged at any one time, this was equivalent to four 11-inch guns, truly a formidable armament.

4. She must move adequately. Although having only a 10-foot draft, the Monitor carried a 9-foot propeller. Ericsson accomplished this by projecting the raft 32 feet beyond the hull in the stern and hollowing out its 5-foot thickness above the propeller. This was not a perfect solution by any means. The propeller, being partially blocked by the hull, must have produced a good deal of turbulence and lost quite a lot of power.

5. The battery must be able to fire in any direction. The turret accomplished this perfectly, in principle at least, and was not improved upon until the advent of the guided missile.

6. The battery must be shot-proof. With the saving of weight obtained by lowering the hull, it was possible to armor the turret with 8 inches of iron, double the thickness of the Virginia's armor. Ericsson's original design, submitted to the French, shows a hemispherical turret. The difficulties of construction would rule it out in this case, but one wonders why a conical turret was not considered. In any event, the 8-inch cylindrical turret was ample against the ordnance of that day.

7. Anchoring the ship under fire must be practicable. The conventional system was very much the same as is used today. The anchors were hung from the cheeks of the ship, and controlled by a capstan on deck. The capstan usually was located forward, and was turned by a gang of men. Ericsson located his anchor in a completely covered well in the bow of the raft, utilizing the 14-foot projection beyond the hull to raise and lower the anchor by means of a lever-operated reel. At no time was the anchor vulnerable or even visible. However, he carried only one anchor, and one wonders if he could not have installed a similar anchor aft.

These responses, then, constituted the design of the Monitor. Shortcomings there certainly were, and these can be described primarily in terms of criteria which Ericsson ignored.

1. The ship must be habitable (since the machinery must have human operators to function). This was the most obvious criticism leveled by the Navy at the design. The lowering of the hull almost to the water line made the ventilation of the ship a serious problem. On the initial voyage from New York to Hampton Roads, the blowers were frequently put out of action by quantities of water coming through the blower pipes as waves broke over the deck. Not only was the crew affected, but also the engines themselves frequently stopped, since they could operate only under forced draft. The water also came in through the smokestack, under the turret, and under the berth deck hatch which could not be secured sufficiently to resist the impact of the waves.

2. The design must be realizable in terms of the present [1861] state of the art. This fact, of course, is implicit in all designs, unless there is sufficient time and money available to improve the state of the art to accommodate the design.

The Monitors suffered from a number of troubles due to the limited technology available. One persistent difficulty was that the raft, with its overhang on all sides of the hull, was subjected to tremendous hammering from the sea as the ship rolled and pitched, especially in the bow. The technology of the time could not fasten the raft securely. In later monitors, most of the overhang was eliminated. The turret, in order to function properly, required a degree of power and control which was almost beyond the technology of the day. The turret was operated on a mechanical gear system powered by a small steam engine. It was slow to start moving, and once started difficult to stop on target. In the battle with the Virginia, the turret finally was secured for this reason, and the whole ship was pointed at the target instead. This worked at Hampton Roads, since there was ample room to maneuver, and the Monitor could steer rings around the sluggish Virginia, but it tended to nullify Ericsson's original criterion—that the battery must be able to fire in all directions. Another bad feature was the decision to locate the pilothouse in the bow, connected with the turret only by a speaking tube which worked only when the turret was trained on centerline. It would have required a telephone for this arrangement to function. Ericsson admitted that this was a flaw, although he tended to blame the other shortcomings on poor handling and training, and attributed it to the speed in construction which did not permit him to locate the pilothouse in what was obviously the best place—on top of the turret. This was done on all subsequent classes of monitors, but it required a more sophisticated construction, for the pilothouse, with its rudder control ropes, had to be located on a stationary column, while the turret rotated beneath it and around the column.

3. Some defense must be provided against mines. The "limited width of the navigable parts of the Southern rivers and inlets," to quote Ericsson, was ideally suited to mine warfare, as the Union Navy was to discover. Mines (called "torpedoes" at that time) were quite well known, and one could reasonably expect that they would be used. It is notable that Ericsson, in spite of his weapons system concept, could not come up with an idea to frustrate the mines, other than a rather clumsy raft, which will be described later.

Within a few months after the Monitor's test in combat, Congress had authorized the construction of 35 more turret ironclads. These ships received the generic name of monitor, which came to mean a relatively small, shallow-draft ship with a small number of large calibre guns mounted in turrets. The type existed, in one form or another, until the First World War, and later. ( Great Britain built some in World War II. )

Ten different types or classes were begun during the Civil War, although most of them were not completed or in service by 1865.


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