The First Iron-Clad Monitor

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The First Iron-Clad Monitor

Monitor with crew on the James River, 9 July 1862
USS Monitor and Crew.jpg
U.S. Naval Historical Center Picture

(Picture) USS Monitor (1862). Crewmen relaxing on deck, while the ship was in the James River, Virginia, on 9 July 1862. View looks forward on the starboard side, with the gun turret beyond. Visible are numerous dents on the turret that it sustained while in battle with the CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack) on 9 March 1862, at the Battle of Hampton Roads. Note the men playing checkers at the right. Another man is reading a newspaper by the starboard smokestack. To view the history of the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, with numerous photographs, artwork and paintings, visit our pages on the links located at the bottom of this page. Photo is courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center.

The Navy of the United States, at the commencement of Mr. Lincoln's administration, was feeble, and in no condition for belligerent operations. Most of the vessels in commission were on foreign service; only three or four, and they of an inferior class, were available for active duty.
       Neither the retiring administration nor Congress seemed to have been aware of the actual condition of public affairs, or to have apprehended serious difficulty. No preparations had been made for portentous coming events. The assault upon Sumter, followed by proclamations to blockade the whole coast, from the Chesapeake to the Rio Grande, a distance of more than three thousand miles, necessitated prompt and energetic action by the Navy Department, to make the blockade effectual. Steps were immediately taken to fit out and put in commission every naval vessel, and to secure and arm every suitable vessel that could be procured from the merchant service. Commerce and the shipping interest were, for a time, so paralyzed by the war that a large number of excellent vessels were purchased on terms highly advantageous to the government. There was, in fact, an extraordinary pressure, by owners, to induce the Navy Department to take not only good, but old vessels, such as were not, from their size or defects, adapted to the service required. Large and expensive steamers, thrown out of employment, were tendered, at almost any price, by parties in interest, ,Who, desirous to assist the government in that emergency, as well as to get rid of their steamers, were actuated by patriotic as well as interested motives. The Vanderbilt, the Baltic, the Illinois, and other steamers of immense tonnage, costing a large amount to purchase, in the first instance, and which would have been a great expense to move and keep afloat. Vessels wholly unfit, from their great draught, to perform blockade duty on our shallow coast, were urged upon the Department, which declined to purchase them, and was soundly berated for declining. Economy and efficiency required a smaller and different class of vessels. The Secretary of the Navy was compelled to act without legislative authority or appropriation, and without funds, he, on his own responsibility, entered into contract for thirty gunboats, each of about five hundred tons.
       The Government was wholly destitute of iron-clad steamers or floating batteries; little interest had been given the subject, but the attention of Congress was invited thereto, at the extra session in July. The suggestions of the Secretary were approved, and an act was passed on the third of August, placing at the disposal of the Navy Department one and a half millions of dollars, to carry his recommendation into effect. On the seventh of August an advertisement was issued, inviting plans and proposals for armed vessels. On the next day, the eighth of August, a board of naval officers was appointed to receive and report upon the plans which might be submitted within twenty-five days.
       Commodore Joseph Smith, Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, was the senior officer and chairman of this Board, and with him were associated Commodore Hiram Paulding and Captain Charles Davis. All were officers of merit, but Commodore Smith, in addition to great nautical and civil experience, possessed a singularly mechanical and practical mind. On him devolved, ultimately, the chief responsibility and supervision of the execution of the plans adopted. My personal relations and acquaintance with him were not only friendly, but I may say intimate. We were each made Chief of a Naval Bureau, in the spring of 1846, and from the acquaintance then first commenced, I had confidence in his ability and intelligence, which was increased when, fifteen years later, I was called to preside over the Navy Department, where he had remained on continuous duty. I had, therefore, whenever required, the benefit of his counsel and judgment.
       Before the limit of twenty-five days for receiving proposals for iron-clads expired, I went to Hartford, which place I had not revisited after leaving, in February, on Mr. Lincoln's invitation to become a member of his Cabinet. While at Hartford, Mr. Cornelius S. Bushnell laid before me a model, invented by John Ericsson, for a turreted vessel, or floating battery, which impressed me favorably, as possessing some extraordinary and valuable features, tending to the development of certain principles, then being studied, for our coast and river blockade, involving a revolution in naval warfare. The twenty-five days for receiving proposals had, I think, expired; but I was so interested in this novel proposition that I directed Mr. Bushnell to proceed immediately to Washington, and submit the model to the Board for examination and report. But, deeming the subject of great importance, and fearing the Board would be restrained by the limit of twenty-five days, I immediately followed, and arrived in Washington almost as soon as Mr. Bushnell with the model.
       Seventeen Plans for armored vessels were submitted, and propositions made, by different parties, for their construction. Three of them received a favorable report, among them Ericsson's turret vessel, with guns of immense calibre, which, when built, was called, by his request, the "Monitor."
       A contract for this vessel was made and signed on the fourth of October, 1861. It was stipulated that she should be complete in all her parts and appurtenances; should have a speed of eight knots per hour, with security or successful working of the turret and guns, with safety to the vessel and the men in the turrets, and "that said vessel and equipments, in all respects, shall be completed and ready for sea' in one hundred days from the date of this indenture." It was agreed by the Navy Department, that the Government should pay therefor $275,000, in payments of $50,000, with the usual reservation of 25 per cent. as the work progressed, and that the final payment should be made after tests, satisfactory to the Navy Department, but which tests should he within ninety days after she was turned over to the Government.
       Unfortunately for the design of the Navy Department, and, perhaps, for the country, there was delay on the part of the contractors. Instead of completing and delivering the vessel as stipulated, in one hundred days, which would have been in January, she was not turned over to the Government until the third of March-forty days later than was agreed upon and expected. This delay of forty days defeated an arrangement which the Navy Department originally designed, if successful, should be a satisfactory test of the capabilities of this extraordinary vessel. That test may now be stated.
       The steamship "Merrimac," a naval vessel, which the rebels scuttled and sunk the day previous to the abandonment of the Navy Yard at Norfolk, they subsequently raised and took into the dry-dock, where she was being repaired and clothed with iron armor, when the contract for the "Monitor" was made. We, of course, felt great solicitude in regard to this proceeding of the rebels, not lessened by the fact that extraordinary pains were taken by them to keep secret from us their labors and purposes. Their efforts to withhold information, though rigid, were not wholly successful, for we contrived to get occasional vague intelligence of the work as it progressed. When the contract for the "Monitor" was made, in October, with a primary condition that she should be ready for sea in one hundred days, the Navy Department intended that the battery should, immediately after reaching Hampton Roads, proceed up Elizabeth river to the Navy Yard at Norfolk, place herself opposite the dry-dock, and with her heavy guns destroy both the dock and the "Merrimac." This was our secret. The "Monitor" could easily have done what was required, for her appearance at Norfolk would have been a surprise. But the hundred days expired, weeks passed on, and the "Monitor" was not ready.
       Late in February, a negro woman, who resided in Norfolk, came to the Navy Department and desired a private interview with me. She and others had closely watched the work upon the "Merrimac," and she, by their request, had come to report that the ship was nearly finished, had come out of the dock, and was about receiving her armament. The woman had passed through the lines, at great risk to herself, to bring me the information, and, in confirmation of her statement, she took from the bosom of her dress a letter from a Union man, a mechanic in the Navy Yard, giving briefly the facts as stated by her. This news, of course, put an end to the test, which bad been originally designed, of destroying the "Merrimac" in the dry-dock; but made us not less anxious for the speedy completion of the battery.
       The capitalists who were associated with Mr. Ericsson in the contract for the Monitor, even though delinquent as to time, are entitled to great credit for what they did, although, in addition to patriotic impulses, it was with them a business transaction, for which they claimed and received consideration in subsequent contracts. But, while acknowledging their merits, injustice should not be done to others.
       The "Monitor" was one of the early, and, it may be said, one of the most prominent practical developments of what may be called the American idea evolved by our civil war, which has wrought a change in naval warfare--that of concentrating the weight of metal in the smallest possible compass, and presenting the slightest possible target to an enemy. In the single shot of a fifteen-inch gun is compressed a weight of metal equal to a whole broadside of our old wooden ships, which, with their lofty bulwarks standing many feet out of water, presented a magnificent mark for the heavy ordnance of a floating and almost submerged "Monitor" battery to perforate. Whatever patriotic or money-making motives may have actuated or influenced the contractors, they were but the agents or instruments of the Navy Department in developing certain principles relative to ordnance and armament assault and resistance-which it had a purpose to accomplish.
       In Ericsson's invention there was an advance made, an incipient step taken toward the great object which naval intelligence and naval experts were studying in the early days of our civil war. The inventive genius and skill of our countrymen made rapid and great proficiency in the work before them. Their improved ordnance and their turret vessels compelled a change in naval tactics, and wrought such a revolution in naval operations as has added greatly to the security of our coast defenses, and probably put an end to ocean conflicts between immense squadrons like those of Trafalgar and the Nile. No large fleet of armored steamers will cross the sea to attack us, and a single ,Monitor," with its fifteen-inch guns, would make havoc with a squadron of wooden ships under canvas. But the Navy Department and its experts, who took the responsibility of these innovations, encountered opposition until their innovations proved successful; when contractors who had been employed, and party politicians who had ends to subserve, sought to appropriate to themselves the credit, denied the Department any merit, and utterly ignored its ingenious and scientific assistants.
       It was asserted on the floor of Congress, as late as 1868, by General Benjamin F. Butler, one of the leading and most influential politicians of that day: "I desire to say here, that the country is under the greatest obligations to a member of this House, a member from New York, who advanced the money and paid the entire expenses out of his own funds in order to get the "Monitor" built, which met the "Merrimac" in Hampton Roads."
       Mr. John A. Griswold, the gentleman alluded to, a wealthy ironmaster, and one of the contractors for the "Monitor," was then a member, and at the time this declaration was made was a candidate for the office of Governor of New York. He not only quietly listened, without any attempt to correct what he knew to be the misstatement of General Butler, but a paper published at his place of residence, and of which I was informed he was a part owner, repeated many times the averment, and asserted that Mr. Griswold and his associates "built the original "Monitor " at their own risk, having agreed not to call upon the Government for remuneration until the vessel bad been tested in action. Strong in faith, receiving but a negative support from the Navy Department, they completed the "Monitor" at their own cost."
       These misstatements, repeated and exaggerated by others, in newspaper paragraphs and sensational lectures, to miscellaneous crowds, as well by extreme partisans in Congress and out, found listeners and readers. They served to create false impressions ' and to make false history. Truth and justice to others demand correction. The project of attempting in this country the construction of iron-clad vessels and heavy ordnance originated in the Navy Department in 1861, and the "Monitor" plan, invented by Ericsson, was adopted by naval officers, with the approval of the Navy Department, within three months after the first recommendation of the Department was made. This was before the ironma6ter and capitalists who contracted for the battery were known to the Department that awarded the contract.   

USS Monitor (1862)
USS Monitor.jpg
U.S. Naval Historical Center Artwork

  Instead of advancing the money and paying the entire expense out of his own funds, as stated by General Butler, payments were promptly made by the Navy Department to Mr. Griswold and his associates, as rapidly, at least, as the work progressed, and was certified to by the supervising agent of the Department; there being an interval of only fifteen or twenty days between each payment, as will be seen by the following from the official record:

1861.- November 15, first payment, $56,000, less 25 per cent..........$37,500
           December 3, second payment, $50,000, less 25 per cent.........$37,500
           December 17, third payment, $50,000, less 25 per cent...........$37,500
1862.-January 3, fourth payment, $50,000, less 25 per cent...............$37,500
           February 6, fifth payment, $50,000, less 25 per cent................$37,500
           March 3, sixth payment, $25,000, less 25 per cent..................$18,750
           March 14, last payment, reservations.......................................$68,750

Total............................................................................$275,000

       Save reservations, which were made in all cases of vessels built by contract, the last payment, on the completion of the battery, was on the 3d of March, and, as time was precious and pressing, she was hastily commissioned, officered, manned, supplied, and left New York for Hampton Roads three days after, on the 6th of March.
       Intense anxiety was naturally felt by the officials in the Navy Department, who knew and appreciated the importance of the occasion, and the responsibility depending on them for the success of this vessel in her voyage, and in her power and fighting qualities after she should reach her destination. Many naval officers hesitated to give the experiment their endorsement. Some of the best engineers and naval constructors in the service expressed their want of confidence in the craft, and declared it would prove a failure. It was predicted that she could not float, that she would plunge to the bottom when launched, and that to send her to Hampton Roads would be recklessness amounting to crime. As mentioned by me on another occasion, it was the misfortune of the Navy Department to encounter hostility and forebodings of failure with every improvement made during the war, and often from those of whom encouragement and support might have reasonably been expected. A constant succession of struggles against prejudices, ignorance and fixed habits and opinions was the fate of the Department at every step which was taken in the extraordinary exigencies of the war, and the voyage and fighting qualities of the "Monitor " were now to be proved.
       Full confidence was felt in her commander, Worden, who had just returned from a captivity of several months at Montgomery, his subordinates, and the small but selected and gallant crew who were embarked in this experiment. So great was the interest that the Assistant Secretary, Mr. Fox, Lieutenant Wise, of the Ordnance Bureau, and some members of my family, left Washington on Saturday, the 8th of March, for Fortress Monroe, to meet and greet the "Monitor" on her arrival. Doubts were entertained and freely expressed whether the battery could perform the voyage.
       On Sunday morning, the 9th of March, while at the Navy Department, examining the dispatches received, Mr. Watson, Assistant Secretary of War, hastily entered with a telegram from General Wool, at Fortress Monroe, stating that the "Merrimac" had come down from Norfolk the preceding day, attacked the fleet in Hampton Roads, and destroyed the "Cumberland " and "Congress." Apprehensions were expressed by General Wool that the remaining vessels would be made victims the following day, and that the Fortress itself was in danger, for the "Merrimac" was impenetrable, and could take what position she pleased for assault. I had scarcely read the telegram when a message from the President requested my immediate attendance at the Executive Mansion. The Secretary of War, on receiving General Wool's telegram, had gone instantly to the President, and at the same time sent messages to the other Cabinet officers, while the Assistant Secretary came to me. I went at once to the White House. Mr. Seward. and Mr. Chase , with Mr. Stanton, were already there, had read the telegram, and were discussing the intelligence in much alarm. Each inquired what had been, and what could be done, to meet and check this formidable monster, which in a single brief visit had made such devastation, and would, herself uninjured, repeat her destructive visit with still greater havoc, probably, while we were in council.
       I stated that I knew of no immediate steps that could be taken; that Commodore Goldsborough, who was in command of the North Atlantic Squadron, had reputation for ability and skill; but that lie, on whom we relied, was not at Hampton Roads at this critical juncture, but in the sounds of North Carolina. There were, however, other and perhaps as capable officers as Goldsborough on the station, with some of the best and most powerful vessels in the navy, but judging from the dispatch of General Wool, they could be of little avail against this impregnable antagonist. I had expected that our new iron-clad battery, which left New York on Thursday, would have reached the Roads on Saturday, and my main reliance was upon her. We had, however, no information, as yet, of her arrival. General Wool made no allusion to her in his telegram, which, it happened, was the first received over the line that had been completed from Fortress Monroe only the preceding evening, but as we now had telegraphic communication, I momentarily expected a dispatch from Mr. Fox, or the senior naval officer on the station.
       Mr. Stanton, impulsive, and always a sensationalist, was terribly excited, walked the room in great agitation, and gave brusque utterances, and deprecatory answers to all that was said, and censured everything that had been done or was omitted to be done., Mr. Seward, usually buoyant and self-reliant, overwhelmed with the intelligence, listened in responsive sympathy to Stanton, and was greatly depressed, as, indeed, were all -the members, who, in the meantime, had arrived, with the exception of Mr. Blair, as well as one or two others--naval and military officers--among them, Commander Dahlgren and Colonel Meigs.
       " The Merrimac," said Stanton, who was vehement, and did most of the talking, "will change the whole character of the war; she will destroy, seriatim, every naval vessel; she will lay all the cities on the seaboard under contribution. I shall immediately recall Burnside; Port Royal must be abandoned. I will notify the Governors and municipal authorities in the North to take instant measures to protect their harbors." It is difficult to repeat his language, which was broken and denunciatory, or to characterize his manner, or the panic under which lie labored, and which added to the apprehension of others. I had no doubt, he said, that the monster was at this moment on her way to Washington, and, looking out of the window, which commanded a view of the Potomac for many miles, "not unlikely we shall have a shell or cannonball from one of her guns in the White House before we leave this room." Most of Stanton's complaints were directed to me, and to me the others turned-not complainingly, but naturally for information or suggestion that might give relief. I had little to impart, except my faith in the untried "Monitor" experiment, which we had prepared for the emergency; an assurance that the "Merrimac" with her draught, and loaded with iron could not pass Kettle Bottom Shoals, in the Potomac, and ascend the river and surprise us with a cannon-ball; and advised that, instead of adding to the general panic, it would better become us to calmly consider the situation, and inspire confidence by acting, so far as we could, intelligently, and with discretion and judgment. Mr. Chase approved the suggestion, but thought it might be well to telegraph Governor Morgan and Mayor Opdyke, at New York, that they might be on their guard. Stanton said he should warn the authorities in all the chief cities. I questioned the propriety of sending abroad panic missives, or adding to the alarm that would naturally be felt, and said it was doubtful whether the vessel, so out down and loaded with ,armor, would venture outside of the Capes; certainly, she could not, with her draught of water, get into the sounds of North Carolina to disturb Burnside and our forces there; nor was she omnipresent, to make general destruction at New York, Boston, Port Royal, etc., at the same time; that there would be general alarm created; and repeated that my dependence was on the "Monitor," and my confidence in her great. "What," asked Stanton, "is the size and strength of this "Monitor?" How many guns does she carry?" When I replied two., but of large calibre, he turned away with a look of mingled amazement, contempt, and distress, that was painfully ludicrous. Mr. Seward said that my remark concerning the draught of water which the "Merrimac" drew, and the assurance that it was impossible for her to get at our forces under Burnside, afforded him the first moment of relief and real comfort he had received. It was his sensitive nature to be easily depressed, but yet to promptly rally and catch at hope. Turning to Stanton, he said we had, perhaps, given away too much to our apprehensions. He saw no alternative but to wait and hear what our new battery might accomplish.
       Stanton left abruptly after Seward's remark. The President ordered his carriage, and went to the Navy Yard to see what might be the views of the naval officers. Returning to my house a little before twelve o'clock, I stopped at St. John's Church, and called out Commodore Smith, to whom I communicated the tidings we had received, and that the "Congress," commanded by his son, Commander Joseph Smith, had been sunk. The 'Congress' sunk !" he exclaimed, at the same time buttoning up his coat, and looking me calmly and steadily in the face; " then Joe is dead." I told him this did not follow; the officers and crew doubtless escaped, for the shore was not distant. "You don't know Joe," said the veteran father, "as well as I do; he would not survive his ship." And he did not; but, mortally wounded, perished with her.

USS Monitor Wreck (The Sinking of the Monitor).jpg
U.S. Naval Historical Center

(Picture) "The Wreck of the Iron-clad Monitor." Line engraving published in "Harper's Weekly", 1863, depicting USS Monitor sinking in a storm off Cape Hatteras on the night of 30-31 December 1862. A boat is taking off crewmen, and USS Rhode Island is in the background. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph.

Most of the Cabinet met again that sad Sunday at the White House, but not by appointment. A little time and reflection had brought a more calm and resolute feeling. Stanton, whose alarm had not subsided, said he had telegraphed to the North to take care of themselves; asked what I proposed to do to check the "Merrimac," and prevent her from reaching Washington. I replied, nothing more till I knew more. I told him she could not get over Kettle Bottom Shoals and come to Washington; thought we ought not to be frightened; not to make a general panic, but act deliberately, and with a knowledge of what was best.
       He spoke out with some fierceness, as if he thought my remarks were intended for him, and said lie had no expectation of any formidable resistance from any little vessel of two guns against a frigate clothed with iron, nor much confidence in naval officers for such a crisis. If not old fogies, their training was not for this state of things. He would soon have good sailors from the merchant service, and had sent for Vanderbilt to come to Washington, and intended to consult him. Vanderbilt, he said, had large steamers, was a man of resources and great energy, and his opinion would be more valuable than that of any other person. He also proposed to make preparations to put a stop to the "Merrimac's " coming to Washington by obstructing the channel of the river, and wished that he might have Dahlgren, who was in command of the Navy Yard, to consult with. To this I assented, but objected to any obstructions to navigation.
       At a late hour, I received a telegram from Mr. Fox, stating that the ,Monitor " had reached Hampton Roads a little before midnight of the 8th, and had encountered and driven off the "Merrimac." The submerged telegraph cable, which had been completed from Fortress Monroe to Cherrystone the preceding evening, parted on Sunday evening, and further communication ceased at this highly interesting crisis until the arrival of the mail, via Baltimore, on Monday.   
       It is not my purpose to narrate the particulars of the conflict, which has been so well and accurately detailed in the official reports of the officers, and are matters of record, and were published in the day and time of that remarkable encounter. Other and generally unpublished facts and incidents are here mentioned.
       On the evening of that memorable Sunday, I received from Dahlgren, who was in command of the Navy Yard, a message, stating that he, and all the force lie could command, were employed in loading and preparing the boats which had been sent to the yard. He supposed by my order and with my approval, although lie had received no word from me. I replied that I had purchased no boats, given no orders, and that if I, rightly apprehended the object and intention of the work in which lie was engaged, I did not approve it. When I called on the President the next morning, Stanton was already there, stating some grievance, and, as I entered, he turned to me and inquired my reason for countermanding his orders. He proceeded to state that He had directed the purchase of all the boats that could be procured in Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria, which were being laden with stone and earth, under the direction of Colonel Meigs and Dahlgren, with a view of sinking them at Kettle Bottom Shoals, some fifty miles or more below, in order to prevent the ascension of the "Merrimac." That while the officers whom he had detailed, he supposed with my approval, were actively engaged, they had been suddenly stopped by an order from me to Dahlgren. He was still complaining when Dahlgren, and I believe Meigs also, came in, and I then learned that great preparations had been made to procure a fleet of boats, which were to be sunk at Kettle Bottom, to protect Washington. I objected, and said I would rather expend money to remove obstacles than to impede navigation; that the navy had labored through the fall and winter to keep open this avenue to the ocean; that the army had not driven the rebels from the Virginia shore, nor assisted us in this work, though they bad been greatly benefited by our efforts in the transportation of their supplies, forage, etc.; that to our shame there was but a single railroad track to the Capital, though we had here an army of more than one hundred thousand to feed, and that I should not consent to take any of the naval appropriation to cut off water communication, unless so ordered by the President; but should protest against obstructing the channel of the river. Our conversation was very earnest, and the President attentively listened, but with an evident inclination to guard in every way against the "Merrimac," but yet unwilling to interrupt ocean communication, so essential to Washington. Giving the interview a Pleasant turn, lie said that it was evident that Mars not only wanted exclusive control of military operations, (Stanton had manifested much dissatisfaction with McClellan as General-in-Chief,) but that he wanted a navy, and had begun to improvise one. Having already got his fleet, the President thought he might as well be permitted to finish his work, but he must not destroy communication on the Potomac, or cripple Neptune. The boats purchased might be loaded and sent down the river, but not sunk in the channel until it was known that the "Merrimac" had entered the river, or was on its way hither. Whatever expense was incurred must be defrayed by the War Department. With this understanding, Dahlgren was authorized to supervise and assist Stanton's squadron.
       In addition to his fleet of canalboats, scowboats and other craft, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who owned several large steamers, a man of well-known energy and enterprise, was invited by Stanton to Washington for consultation and advice. He was informed that the egress of the "Merrimac" must be prevented, and the vessel destroyed whenever she appeared.; that the War Department did not rely upon the "Monitor," but proposed to stop and destroy her independent of the navy, and that he had more confidence in the capability, suggestions and prowess of individuals like Vanderbilt, who depended on their own resources, than on naval officers, who were circumscribed by their education, and trained to a particular service. He concluded by asking the great steamboat chief if he could, in any way, destroy or overcome the "Merrimac."
       Gratified with the summons, and complimented by the confidence expressed in his superior ability by the Secretary of War, Vanderbilt responded that he could destroy the "Merrimac," and was ready to do so, but he wanted the "Monitor" out of the way, and must be permitted to do the work subject to no control of naval officers, or any interference from them, or from naval vessels. If they would all get out of the way, he would run down the "Merrimac" with his big ship Vanderbilt. The employment of this great ship corresponded with Stanton's ideas of power and force. He was delighted, and went with Vanderbilt to the President, who assented to the scheme, but was unwilling to dispense with the "Monitor," which had done so well, and suggested that an encounter of the large wooden steamer with the armored ship might result in the destruction of the Vanderbilt instead of the "Merrimac." In that event a good sale would be made of the Vanderbilt, and the Government might be compelled to pay largely for the experiment, without being benefited. Vanderbilt replied that be would take the risk; that he was anxious to assist the Government; that he had already offered his vessel to the Secretary of the Navy on his own terms, and would have given her to him, but the Secretary wouldn't take her; he would make a present of her to the President, requiring, however, that the engineers and employees on board should be retained at present wages. Pleased with the suggestion that the "Merrimac" might be run down, and thus a double security provided against her, not only the Vanderbilt, but the Baltic, and one or two other large merchant steamers were chartered, and stationed in Hampton Roads.
       These immense vessels, lofty and grand, were anchored near Fortress Monroe, where they remained for two months, at no small expense, awaiting the appearance of the "Merrimac," but no opportunity occurred to run her down. That vessel in her conflict with the "Monitor " sustained serious injury, and her officers, dreading more the novel craft which she had encountered on the 9th of March than the large wooden steamers, never again descended Elizabeth river to the Roads.
       In the early part of May, the President, accompanied by Secretaries Chase and Stanton, took a steamer to visit Fortress Monroe and the army under McClellan, then on the York peninsula.
       While descending the Potomac the attention of the party was directed to a string of boats nearly a mile in length on the Maryland shore, some fifty miles below Washington. Inquiry was made as to the object of such an immense collection of miscellaneous water craft. The pilot said lie believed they were put there to oppose the "Merrimac," but the little "Monitor" had taken care of her. "Oh!" said the President, pointing to the boats which lined the shore, "that is Stanton's navy.; that is the squadron that Welles would have nothing to do with, and about which he and Stanton had the dispute. It was finally decided, I believe, that the War Department might have a fleet of its own to fight the "Merrimac," and there it is. We were all a little scared at that time. Mr. Welles felt bad enough, but was not enough scared to listen to Stanton's scheme of blockading the river; said the fleet of boats would be useless, and, if used, worse than useless."
       Stanton, who was a little disconcerted by the President's levity, said he had believed it was best to provide for an emergency, and should the "Merrimac" now attempt to come up the river, the boats which he had procured and loaded might be found to answer a useful purpose in protecting Washington.
       "Your emergency," said Mr. Lincoln, " reminds me of a circumstance which took place in Illinois. We had on our circuit a respectable lawyer named B----, noted for a remarkable development of his breast, the glands being enormous, more protuberant than those of many females. In a conversation which took place among the lawyers at one of the hotels, there was a discussion regarding the singular development which, in a man, was almost a deformity, and could be of no possible use. B---- controverted this, and said that, supposing he were to be cast away upon an uninhabited island, with no other human being but a nursing infant, for which he would have to provide. In such an emergency, he had no doubt Providence would furnish, through him, nourishment for the' child." This he said, remarked the President, "with as much apparent sincerity as Stanton showed when he urged a navy composed of canalboats to stop the "Merrimac." I think B----'s paps to nurse an infant will be as serviceable, and required about as soon, as Stanton's fleet to fight and keep back an iron frigate. The preparation for an anticipated emergency, which is about as likely to occur in one me as the other, is very striking."
       Mr. Chase related to me this incident, which was afterwards, at his request, repeated by the President in the presence of others, to the great annoyance of Mr. Stanton, who never enjoyed the anecdotical humors of the President if at his expense.
       The "Merrimac" was, a few days thereafter, on the 10th of May, while the President and party were at Fortress Monroe, abandoned and destroyed by the rebels themselves. The large steamers that had awaited her advent, at an expense of several hundred thousand dollars, were discharged, with the exception of the Vanderbilt, which remained a white elephant in the hands of the War Department. Eventually, she was turned over to the navy, that had declined to purchase and did not want her. She was too large for blockade service, but, as she was to be employed, the Navy Department sent her off on an unsuccessful cruise for the "Alabama," under a very capable commander, at a cost to the Government of more than one thousand dollars per day, without result. The War Department had paid two thousand dollars per day to her owner for her use.
       In giving this magnificent vessel to the Government, Mr. Vanderbilt performed a magnificent and patriotic act, for which he received and deserved the thanks of Congress; but it was to the Government a costly present. The Quartermaster General, on a call from Congress in 1865, reported that "previous to her presentation to the government," the War Department had paid for her services three hundred and three thousand five hundred and eighty-nine dollars and ten cents ($303,589.10). The Secretary of the Navy, on a similar call from Congress in 1868, reported that the Navy Department had expended over four hundred thousand dollars ($400,000) in repairing the Vanderbilt, and that a further outlay of, at least, half a million dollars would be then required to fit her for service; that she was at Mare Island, used for berthing and messing the men detailed to take care of the ships in ordinary. So that this ship, donated to the Government to run down the "Merrimac," if the "Monitor" would get out of the way, was, without accomplishing that object, an expense to the Government of three times the original cost of the "Monitor."
       I mention these facts, not to detract from the merit of Cornelius Vanderbilt's patriotic gift, but to exemplify the greater value of the little 11 Monitor " of John Ericsson for naval purposes, and the reason why the Navy Department declined to purchase the Vanderbilt, Illinois, and other immense steamers that were pressed, by influential persons, by the press, and by interested parties, upon the Navy Department and the Government. The War Department, taking, a different view, bought the Illinois for four hundred thousand dollars ($400,000). The Illinois, by the way, has never had a day's sea-service since the War Department purchased her, and will never pass Sandy Hook.
       The "Monitor," which rendered such gallant service to the country, and was the progenitor of a class of vessels that is to be found in the navy of almost every maritime nation, was foundered on the 30th of December, 1862, in a storm off Cape Hatteras.

Source: The Annals of the War, Article by Hon. Gideon Welles

Recommended Reading: War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor. Description: In a familiar story, the USS Monitor battled the CSS Virginia (the armored and refitted USS Merrimack) at Hampton Roads in March of 1862. In War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor, David A. Mindell adds a new perspective to the story as he explores how mariners -- fighting "blindly" below the waterline -- lived and coped with the metal monster they called the "iron coffin." Mindell shows how the iron warship emerged as an idea and became practicable, how building it drew upon and forced changes in contemporary manufacturing technology, and how the vessel captured the nineteenth-century American popular and literary imaginations. Continued below…

Combining technical, personal, administrative, and literary analysis, Mindell examines the experience of the men aboard the Monitor and their reactions to the thrills and dangers that accompanied the new machine. The invention surrounded men with iron and threatened their heroism, their self-image as warriors, even their lives. Mindell also examines responses to this strange new warship by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville, who prophetically saw in the Civil War a portent of the mechanized warfare of the future. The story of the Monitor shows how technology changes not only the tools but also the very experience of combat, generating effects that are still felt today in the era of "smart bombs" and push-button wars. "We find new significance in the otherwise well-known history of the Monitor. It is no longer the story of the heroic inventor and his impenetrable weapon thrusting themselves upon a doubtful and conservative bureaucracy... It is no longer the story of a heroic battle and the machine's epic loss soon after. Rather it is a story of people experiencing new machinery, attempting to make sense of its thrills, constrictions, and politics, and sensing its power and impotence -- both in glory and frustration." -- from War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor. About the Author: David A. Mindell is Dibner Associate Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. He has degrees in Electrical Engineering and Literature from Yale University and a Ph.D. in the History of Technology from MIT. His research interests include the history of military technology, the history of electronics and computing, and archaeology in the deep ocean. He is currently working on a history of feedback, control, and computing in the twentieth century, and on locating and imaging ancient shipwrecks and settlements in the deep regions of the Black Sea.

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Recommended Reading: Ironclad, by Paul Clancy (Hardcover). Description: The true story of the Civil War ironclad that saved the Union Navy only to sink in a storm--and its remarkable salvage 140 years later. Ironclad tells the saga of the warship USS Monitor and its salvage, one of the most complex and dangerous in history. The Monitor is followed through its maiden voyage from New York to Hampton Roads, its battle with the Merrimack, and its loss off Cape Hatteras. At the same time, author Paul Clancy takes readers behind the scenes of an improbable collaboration between navy divers and cautious archaeologists working 240 feet deep. Clancy creates a memorable, fascinating read, including fresh insights into the sinking of the Union ship and giving the answer to an intriguing forensic mystery: the identities of the two sailors whose bones were found in the Monitor's recovered turret. Continued below…

Its one great battle in the spring of 1862 marked the obsolescence of wooden fighting ships and may have saved the Union. Its terrible end in a winter storm off Cape Hatteras condemned sixteen sailors to a watery grave. And the recovery of its 200-ton turret in August 2002 capped the largest, most complex and hazardous ocean salvage operation in history. In Ironclad, Paul Clancy interweaves these stories so skillfully that the cries of drowning Union sailors sound a ghostly undertone to the cough of diesel generators and the clanging of compression-chamber doors on a huge recovery barge. The din and screech of cannonballs on iron plating echo beneath the hum of electronic monitors and the garbled voices of Navy divers working at the edge of human technology and endurance in water 240 feet deep.

Clancy studied the letters and diaries of the Monitor's long-ago sailors, and he moved among the salvage divers and archaeologists in the summer of 2002. John L. Worden, captain of the Monitor, strides from these pages no less vividly than the remarkable Bobbie Scholley, the woman commander of 160 Navy divers on an extreme mission. Clancy writes history as it really happens, the improbable conjunction of personalities, ideas, circumstances, and chance. The Union navy desperately needed an answer to the Confederacy's ironclad dreadnought, and the brilliantly eccentric Swedish engineer John Ericsson had one. And 140 years later, when marine archaeologists despaired of recovering any part of the Monitor before it disintegrated, a few visionaries in the U.S. Navy saw an opportunity to resurrect their deep-water saturation diving program. From the breakneck pace of Monitor's conception, birth, and brief career, to the years of careful planning and perilous labor involved in her recovery, Ironclad tells a compelling tale of technological revolution, wartime heroism, undersea adventure, and forensic science. This book is must-reading for anyone interested in Civil War and naval history, diving and underwater salvage, or adventures at sea.

 

Recommended Reading: The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (Mariner's Museum). Description: On March 8 and 9, 1862, a sea battle off the Virginia coast changed naval warfare forever. It began when the Confederate States Navy’s CSS Virginia led a task force to break the Union blockade of Hampton Roads. The Virginia sank the USS Cumberland and forced the frigate Congress to surrender. Damaged by shore batteries, the Virginia retreated, returning the next day to find her way blocked by the newly arrived USS Monitor. The clash of ironclads was underway. Continued below…

After fighting for nine hours, both ships withdrew, neither seriously damaged, with both sides claiming victory. Although the battle may have been a draw and the Monitor sank in a storm later that year, this first encounter between powered, ironclad warships spelled the end of wooden warships—and the dawn of a new navy. This book takes a new look at this historic battle. The ten original essays, written by leading historians, explore every aspect of the battle—from the building of the warships and life aboard these “iron coffins” to tactics, strategy, and the debates about who really won the battle of Hampton Roads. Co-published with The Mariners’ Museum, home to the USS Monitor Center, this authoritative guide to the military, political, technological, and cultural dimensions of this historic battle also features a portfolio of classic lithographs, drawings, and paintings. Harold Holzer is one of the country’s leading experts on the Civil War.

 

Recommended Reading: Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology). Description: "In this impressively researched and broadly conceived study, William Roberts offers the first comprehensive study of one of the most ambitious programs in the history of naval shipbuilding, the Union's ironclad program during the Civil War. Continued below...

Perhaps more importantly, Roberts also provides an invaluable framework for understanding and analyzing military-industrial relations, an insightful commentary on the military acquisition process, and a cautionary tale on the perils of the pursuit of perfection and personal recognition." - Robert Angevine, Journal of Military History "Roberts's study, illuminating on many fronts, is a welcome addition to our understanding of the Union's industrial mobilization during the Civil War and its inadvertent effects on the postwar U.S. Navy." - William M. McBride, Technology and Culture"
 

Recommended Viewing: The First Ironclads - Into the Modern Era (DVD) (2008). Description: This is the story of the great vessels, the formidable warships, the epic ironclads (early battleships), that changed forever naval ship design as well as naval warfare: the Monitor, the Merrimack (later renamed the Virginia) and it presents a fascinating animated reconstruction of their epic battle during the American Civil War. Continued below...

The Battle of Hampton Roads, aka Duel of the Ironclads, which made the world's navies tremble as well as obsolete, is handsomely depicted in this video. The First Ironclads – Into the Modern Era is a welcome addition for the individual interested in the Civil War, U.S. Naval Warfare, and shipbuilding and design. It also includes footage from aboard the world's most devastating “sailing ironship” the HMS Warrior.

 

Recommended Reading: Lincoln's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861-65 (Hardcover). Review: Naval historian Donald L. Canney provides a good overview of the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, describing life at sea, weapons, combat, tactics, leaders, and of course, the ships themselves. He reveals the war as a critical turning point in naval technology, with ironclads (such as the Monitor) demonstrating their superiority to wooden craft and seaborne guns (such as those developed by John Dahlgren) making important advances. The real reason to own this oversize book, however, is for the images: more than 200 of them, including dozens of contemporary photographs of the vessels that fought to preserve the Union. There are maps and portraits, too; this fine collection of pictures brings vividness to its subject that can't be found elsewhere.

 

Recommended Reading: Union Monitor 1861-65. Description: The first seagoing ironclad was the USS Monitor, and its profile has made it one of the most easily recognized warships of all time. Following her inconclusive battle with the Confederate ironclad Virginia on March 9, 1862, the production of Union monitors was accelerated. By the end of the year, a powerful squadron of monitor vessels protected the blockading squadrons off the Southern coastline and was able to challenge Confederate control of her ports and estuaries. Further technological advancements were included in subsequent monitor designs, and by the end of the war the US Navy possessed a modern coastal fleet carrying the most powerful artillery afloat. This book covers the design, development and operational history of the Union’s Monitor fleet.

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