History Civil War Ship “USS Monitor”
- USS Monitor was the first ironclad warship commissioned by the United States Navy. She is most famous for her participation in the first-ever naval battle between two ironclad warships, the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862 during the American Civil War, in which Monitor fought the ironclad CSS Virginia of the Confederate States Navy. The Monitor was the first in a long line of Monitor-class U.S. warships and the term “monitor” describes a broad class of European harbor defense craft.
Ironclads were only a recent innovation, started with the 1859 French battleship La Gloire. Afterwards, the design of ships and the nature of naval warfare changed dramatically.
Monitor was one of three ironclad warships ordered by the U.S. Navy, after Galena and New Ironsides.
Designed by the swedish engineer John Ericsson, the USS Monitor was described as a “cheesebox on a raft,” consisting of a heavy round revolving iron gun turret on the deck, housing two large (11 inch) Dahlgren guns, paired side by side. The original design of the ship used a system of heavy metal shutters to protect the gun ports while reloading. However, the operation of the shutters proved to be so cumbersome that the crews operating the guns adopted the procedure of simply rotating the turret away from potential hostile fire to reload the guns. Further, the inertia of the rotating turret proved to be so great, that a system for stopping turret to fire the guns was only implemented on later models of ships in the Monitor class. The crew of the USS Monitor solved the turret inertia problem by firing the guns on the fly while the turret rotated past the target. While this procedure resulted in a substantial loss of accuracy, given the close range at which the USS Monitor operated, the loss of accuracy was not critical.
The armored deck was barely above the waterline. Aside from a small boxy pilothouse, a detachable smokestack and a few fittings, the bulk of the ship was below the waterline to prevent damage from cannon fire. The turret comprised 8 bolted together layers of 1″ plate with an additional ninth plate inside to act as a sound shield. A steam donkey engine turned the turret. The heavily armored deck extended beyond the waterproof hull which was only 5/8″ thick. Thus the vulnerable parts of the ship were completely protected. Monitor’s hull was built at the Continental Iron Works in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York, and the ship was launched there on January 30, 1862. There is a statue in Monsignor McGolrick park in Greenpoint, facing Monitor Street, commemorating the ship.
Monitor was innovative in construction technique as well as design. Parts were forged in nine foundries and brought together to build the ship; the whole process took less than 120 days. In addition to the “cheesebox”, its rotating turret, Monitor was also the first naval vessel to be fitted with Ericsson’s marine screw. Ericsson anticipated some aspects of modern submarine design by placing all of Monitor’s features except the turret and pilothouse underwater, making it the first semi-submersible ship. In contrast, CSS Virginia was a conventional wooden vessel covered with iron plates and bearing fixed weapons.
Battle of Hampton Roads
At the Battle of Hampton Roads Virginia attacked the Union blockading squadron in Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 8, 1862, destroying USS Cumberland and Congress and forcing Minnesota aground before withdrawing. That night, Monitor, under command of Lt. John L. Worden, arrived under tow from Brooklyn. When Virginia returned the next day, March 9, 1862, to finish off Minnesota and the rest of the U.S. fleet, Monitor sailed forth to stop her. The ironclads fought for about four hours, neither one sinking or seriously damaging the other. Tactically, the battle was a draw—neither ironclad did significant damage to the other. However, it was a strategic victory for Monitor. Virginia’s mission was to break the Union blockade; that mission failed. Monitor’s mission was to defend the U.S. fleet, which it did. The Virginia did however occupy the ‘battlefield’ following the strategic retreat of the USS Monitor, after the captain was hit in the eyes with gunpowder. The two ironclads never again fought each other, although Virginia occasionally steamed out to Hampton Roads in an unanswered challenge to the Monitor.
The Monitor-class warship
USS Monitor became the prototype for the monitor class of warship. Many more were built, including river monitors and deep-sea monitors, and they played key roles in Civil War battles on the Mississippi and James rivers. Some had two or even three turrets, and later monitors had improved seaworthiness.
Just three months after the famous Battle of Hampton Roads, the design was offered to Sweden, and in 1865 the first Swedish monitor was being built at Motala Wharf in Norrköping; she was named John Ericsson in honor of the engineer. She was followed by 14 more monitors. One of them, Sölve, is still preserved at the marine museum in Gothenburg.
The last U.S. Navy monitor-class warship was struck from the Navy List in 1937.
Loss at sea
While the design of Monitor was well-suited for river combat, her low freeboard and heavy turret made her highly unseaworthy in rough waters. This feature probably led to the early loss of the original Monitor, which foundered during a heavy storm. Swamped by high waves while under tow by Rhode Island, she sank on December 31, 1862 in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. 16 of 62 crewmen were lost in the storm.
The name Monitor was given to the troop carrier USS Monitor (LSV-5), commissioned late in World War II. She served primarily in the Pacific theater, and was later scrapped.
In 1973, the wreck of the ironclad Monitor was located on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean about 26 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The wreck site was designated as the United States’ first marine sanctuary. Monitor Sanctuary is the only one of the thirteen national marine sanctuaries created to protect a cultural resource, rather than a natural resource.
In 1998 the warship’s propellor was raised to the surface. On 16 July 2001, divers from the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary brought to the surface the 30-tonne steam engine. In 2003, after 41 days of work, the revolutionary revolving gun turret was salvaged by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and a team of U.S. Navy divers. Before removing the turret, divers discovered the remains of two trapped crew members. The remains of these sailors, who died while on duty, were given a full military funeral by the United States Navy.
The site is now under the supervision of NOAA. Many artifacts from Monitor, including her turret, propeller, anchor, engine and some personal effects of the crew, have been conserved and are on display at the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Virginia.
In 1986, Monitor was designated a National Historic Landmark. It is one of only three accessible monitor wrecks in the world, the others being the Australian vessel HMVS Cerberus, and the Norwegian KNM Thor, which lies at about 25 feet off Verdens Ende in Vestfold county, Norway.
Campaign to honor the USS Monitor
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable is mounting a grassroots campaign to persuade the United States Congress and the Navy to name a Virginia class submarine after the USS Monitor. Despite the enduring fame of the original, innovative ironclad, there has not been a warship named Monitor listed in the Naval Vessel Register since 1961.