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American Civil War: USS Monitor

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American Civil War: USS Monitor

USS Monitor, 1862

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center

USS Monitor - General:

  • Nation: United States
  • Builder: Continental Iron Works, Brooklyn, NY
  • Laid Down: October 1861
  • Launched: January 30, 1862
  • Commissioned: February 25, 1862
  • Fate: Lost at sea, December 31, 1862

USS Monitor - Specifications:

  • Type: Monitor-class ironclad
  • Displacement: 987 tons
  • Length: 172 ft.
  • Beam: 41 ft. 6 in.
  • Draft: 10 ft. 6 in.
  • Complement: 59
  • Speed: 8 knots
  • USS Monitor - Armament:

    • 2 x XI-inch Dahlgren smoothbores

    USS Monitor - Construction:

    USS Monitor was ordered in August 1861, as one of three experimental ironclads for the US Navy. The building program was begun in response to Confederate efforts to convert the captured remains of USS Merrimack into an ironclad. Monitor was designed by Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson who had previously had a falling out with the Navy in the wake of the 1844 Princeton Affair. Convinced to work on the project by Cornelius S. Bushnell, Ericsson produced a revolutionary design.

    Consisting of a revolving turret mounted on a low armored deck, the design was likened to a "cheese box on a raft." Possessing a low freeboard, only the ship's turret, stacks, and small armored pilot house projected above the hull. This almost non-existent profile made the ship very difficult to hit, though it also meant that it performed badly on the open sea and was prone to swamping. Highly impressed by Ericsson's innovative design, Bushnell traveled to Washington and convinced the Navy Department to authorize its construction. The contract for the ship was given to Ericsson and work began in New York.

    Subcontracting the construction of the hull to Continental Iron Works in Brooklyn, Ericsson ordered the ship's engines from Delamater & Co. and the turret from Novelty Iron Works, both of New York City. Working at a frenetic pace, Monitor was ready for launch within 100 days of being laid down. Entering the water on January 30, 1862, workers began finishing and fitting out the ship's interior spaces. On February 25 work was completed and Monitor commissioned with Lieutenant John L. Worden in command. Sailing from New York two days later, the ship was forced to return after its steering gear failed.

    USS Monitor - Operational History:

    Following repairs, Monitor departed New York on March 6, this time under tow, with orders to proceed to Hampton Roads. On March 8, the newly completed Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia steamed down the Elizabeth River and struck at the Union squadron at Hampton Roads. Unable to pierce Virginia's armor, the wooden Union ships were helpless and the Confederate succeeded in sinking USS Cumberland and USS Congress. As darkness fell, Virginia withdrew with the intention of returning the next day to finish off the remaining Union ships. That night Monitor arrived and took up a defensive position.

    Returning the next morning, Virginia encountered Monitor as it approached USS Minnesota. Opening fire, the two ships began the world's first battle between ironclad warships. Pounding each other for over four hours, neither was able to inflict significant damage on the other. Though Monitor's heavier guns were able to crack Virginia's armor, the Confederates scored a hit on their adversary's pilot house temporarily blinding Worden. Unable to defeat Monitor, Virginia withdrew leaving Hampton Roads in Union hands. For the rest of the spring, Monitor remained, guarding against another attack by Virginia.

    During this time, Virginia attempted to engage Monitor on several occasions but was refused as Monitor was under presidential orders to avoid battle unless absolutely required. This was due to President Abraham Lincoln's fear that the ship would be lost allowing Virginia to take control of the Chesapeake Bay. On May 11, after Union troops captured Norfolk, the Confederates burned Virginia. Its nemesis removed, Monitor began participating in regular operations, including a reconnaissance of the James River to Drury's Bluff on May 15.

    After supporting Major General George McClellan's Peninsula Campaign in the summer, Monitor participated in the Union blockade at Hampton Roads that fall. In December, the ship received orders to proceed south to aid in operations against Wilmington, NC. Departing under tow by USS Rhode Island, Monitor cleared the Virginia Capes on December 29. Two nights later, it began to take water as it encountered a storm and high waves off Cape Hatteras. Foundering, Monitor sank along with sixteen of its crew. Though in service for less than a year, it profoundly influenced warship design and several similar ships were built for the Union Navy.

    In 1973, the wreck was discovered sixteen miles southeast of Cape Hatteras. Two years later it was designated a national marine sanctuary. At this time, some artifacts, such as the ship's propeller, were removed from the wreck. In 2001, recovery efforts began to salvage the ship's steam engine. The next year, Monitor's innovative turret was raised. These have all been taken to the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, VA for preservation and display.

    Selected Sources

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    7. USS Monitor in the Civil War

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