On the Road to an Ironclad Battle, USS Monitor is Launched

Aquarelle facsimile print of a painting by J.O. Davidson depicting USS Monitor in action with CSS Virginia, March 9, 1862. From the Collection of President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Aquarelle facsimile print of a painting by J.O. Davidson depicting USS Monitor in action with CSS Virginia, March 9, 1862. From the Collection of President Franklin D. Roosevelt

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier. Affirmed had Alydar. Chris Everet and Martina Navratilova.  Army vs. Navy. Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. Capt. James T. Kirk vs. Khan. History will forever remember these matchups for the status of top dog.

Another pair of names that belong on that list are Monitor and Merrimack. Monitor was the first ironclad to launch 153 years ago today on Jan. 30, 1862, just 18 days ahead of the repaired and up-armored Merrimack, rechristened by the Confederacy as CSS Virginia.

The race to launch Monitor began in the summer of 1861 at the beginning of the American Civil War, in which epic and tragic battles saw brothers fighting brothers and where even eventual victory was tainted by grief and loss.

Federal authorities learned the Confederates had raised the Merrimack, once a powerful frigate with steam power that had been burned by the U.S. Navy some months earlier as it retreated from Norfolk, Va.

When news of the Merrimack‘s resurrection reached the Union’s Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, he knew the U.S. Navy had to commission its own armored vessel to challenge Merrimack.

Secretary Welles asked railroad executive and shipbuilder Cornelius Scranton Bushnell, of binocular fame and one of the most prominent and influential men in Connecticut, to use his position and influence to provide a bill to Congress to fund the project.

It wasn’t long before President Abraham Lincoln signed the bill creating the Naval Ironclad Board. Bushnell and his partners quickly developed plans for their own ironclad, a vessel known as the Galena.

Bushnell traveled to New York to meet with John Ericcson, a renowned inventor and naval architect, to get his analysis and opinion on the design and feasibility of the Galena and how it could be improved.

Ericcson wasn’t too keen on working with the Navy after being wrongly blamed for the accidental explosion of an experimental gun, the Peacemaker, on a ship he designed, USS Princeton. The explosion killed six people in 1844 and political pandering bounced the blame from the ship’s skipper, Capt. Robert Stockton, to Ericcson, even though he had nothing to do with the weapon.

Sailors relaxing on deck of U.S.S. Monitor in the James River, Virginia, in 1862. Library of Congress Photo #01061

Sailors relaxing on deck of U.S.S. Monitor in the James River, Virginia, in 1862. Library of Congress Photo #01061

Luckily for the Union, Ericcson was excited to share his designs for an ironclad with kindred spirit Bushnell. Ericcson’s design featured a ship with “a floating battery absolutely impregnable to the heaviest shot or shell.” The model Ericcson presented featured a nearly submerged hull and a single revolving turret fixed to its deck.

Bushnell, amazed at the model and its potential, asked Ericcson to meet with Secretary Welles and pitch his design to the ironclad board because it showed promise in dealing with the imminent Confederate threat. Ericcson’s design was one of three approved for construction.  The foundries in New York and in Baltimore, Md. had easier access to iron than the Confederates, so the race was on.

Over the next four months, the parts of a new ship based on Ericcson’s design were forged in eight separate foundries, most in New York. Boilers, port stoppers, radiators, anchor wells, bulkheads, and the turret from all over New York were gathered and assembled at the Continental Iron Works in Brooklyn where the hull of Monitor was waiting.

On Jan. 30, 1862, in front of crowds of spectators, Monitor was launched into New York City’s East River. Eighteen days later, the former Merrimack, CSS Virginia, was launched.

USS Monitor was a technological marvel for its time. She was powered by steam alone and was the first American warship with no masts or sails. Barely one foot of her deck was visible, with all storage, machinery, berthing and working areas below the water line.

The ship’s most novel feature was its revolving turret in the middle of the ship. The turret boasted two 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannons. Constructed almost exclusively of iron, the ship was heavy and thereby required it to avoid shallow water because it could become stuck and quickly become a target.

The Ironclads Painting by Raymond Bayless, depicting the battle between CSS Virginia (foreground) and USS Monitor (at right). USS Minnesota is also shown, in the left middle distance. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. Donation of Raymond Bayless, 1975 U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

The Ironclads Painting by Raymond Bayless, depicting the battle between CSS Virginia (foreground) and USS Monitor (at right). USS Minnesota is also shown, in the left middle distance. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. Donation of Raymond Bayless, 1975 U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

The two ironclads met for their date with fate March 9, 1862 at the Battle of Hampton Roads. CSS Virginia had already decimated the Union Blockading Squadron the day before. Once within range of each other, the two ships opened up on one another. After two days of pounding, battle was declared a tactical stalemate and the ships withdrew without either suffering much damage. It was the first time iron ships clashed in naval warfare and signaled the beginning of the end of the era of wooden warships.

Alas, Monitor’s end would come all too soon. Shortly after midnight on Dec. 31, 1862, while being towed by USS Rhode Island to Beaufort, N.C., Monitor sank in a gale off Cape Hatteras. Its final resting place was designated as the nation’s first national marine sanctuary in 1975.

In 2002, the remains of two Sailors were recovered from the gun turret when it was raised off the coast of North Carolina.  After 10 years of attempting to determine their identities through DNA and even facial reconstruction, the remains were buried at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013. Fourteen other crewmembers remain missing. The turret and other artifacts from USS Monitor are showcased at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Va.