Monitor National Marine Sanctuary

January 30

1975 - 1998



     On August 3, 1861, the United States Navy's newly formed Ironclad Board, placed ads in Northern newspapers inviting designers to submit plans for the construction of ironclad warships.

    In a letter to Abraham Lincoln dated August 29th, Swedish inventor John Ericsson offered to build a vessel, "... that within ten weeks after commencing the structure I would engage to be ready to take up position under the Rebel guns at Norfolk...."

John Ericsson

      John Ericsson had "been at odds" with the United States Navy since 1844 as a result of a cannon exploding on board of his ship, the U.S.S. Princeton.  The Princeton was the United States' first screw powered warship.  The ship's primary armament was two twelve inch smoothbores, one named Oregon and the other, an Ericsson design, named Peacemaker.  The new vessel was cruising the Potomac River crowded with government officials and prominent civilians "her big guns booming all day."  The Secretary of the Navy requested to see the big guns fired one more time before they returned to port, so Captain Robert Stockton took the lock string himself.  When the Peacemaker was fired, the cannon violently exploded, seriously wounding several bystanders and killing the Secretary and five others.  Although Ericsson was never officially blamed, he was considered at fault by many prominent naval officials. To further infuriate the inventor, the Navy refused to pay him any of the remaining money due on his contract.

    Ericsson never did receive a response from his letter to Lincoln.  He viewed this as a direct slap from his enemies in the Navy Department and had pretty much resolved to sit out the war continuing to work on his other projects.

    A couple of weeks later, Ericsson received a visit from Cornielus Bushnell.  Bushnell had been advised to seek out the inventors expertise on a matter of an ironclad ship he was going to help fund.  "I went to New York ... and laid the plans of the Galena before Captain Ericsson, asking whether the vessel would be able to carry the specified armor."  "I gave him the data necessary for the calculations and he told me to call the next day.  This I did and received the answer, "'She will easily carry the load you propose and stand a six -inch shot at a respectable distance."

    Ericsson asked Bushnell if he had time to look at a plan of "a floating battery, absolutely impregnable to the heaviest shot or shell."  "He then produced a small dust covered box, and placed before me the model and plan of the Monitor, explaining how quickly and powerfully she could be built, and exhibiting with characteristic pride a medal and a letter of thanks received seven years previously from Napoleon III."

    Ericsson had originally submitted his design for a "cupola battery" to Emperor Napoleon III during the Franco-Russian War hoping to aid in the defeat of his native country's "hereditary foe."  His offer was declined.  The war was winding down, and France had already committed to building "armored barges" in the fight against Russia.  The Emperor was intrigued and detailed his pleasure at the prospect of Ericsson's invention in a long letter and presented him with a medal of appreciation.

    Bushnell was quite excited by the model the Ericsson showed him and offered to take it to Washington on the inventors behalf and present it to the Naval Board.  "I was perfectly overjoyed when at the close of the interview, Captain Ericsson entrusted the box with its precious contents to my care."

    Bushnell first contacted some "wise and able associates."  He presented the model to John A. Griswold and John F. Winslow and explained the properties of the vessel that Ericsson had entrusted him with.  Griswold and Winslow, both owners of iron works in New York, were quite pleased with the vessel laid out before them.  With their help, a letter of introduction was obtained for the Governor of New York and delivered to Lincoln, on Bushnell's behalf.

    The President was also intrigued by the design.  He personally accompanied the three men to the Navy Department.  Bushnell met with the Navy Board on September 13, 1861.  Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavius Fox was present as were several other naval officers in an "unofficial" capacity.  They all listened intently to Bushnell's presentation. There were a lot of murmurs from around the room, "some advised trying it; others ridiculed it."  Lincoln had the final word that day.  He was holding the paste board model studying its unique features and remarked, "All I have to say is what the girl said when she stuck her foot in the stocking.  It strikes me there's something in it!"

    The meeting ended because there were only two members of the Ironclad Board present and any decision to commit to building an ironclad vessel had to be unanimous.  A special meeting of the Board would convene the next day.  Bushnell was back at the Navy Department early the next morning.  He made his presentation again.  Hours of debate began to go against Ericsson.  "I found the air...thick with croakings that the Department was about to father another Ericsson failure."  Bushnell eventually succeeded in convincing two of the Board members (Captain's Hiram Paulding and Joseph Smith) to commit to "one trial battery."  They would only agree to this if Bushnell could convince the third Board member, Captain Charles Davis.  Bushnell laid the model before Davis.  The captain looked at it and told Bushnell to, "take the little thing home and worship it, as it would not be idolatry, because it was in the image of nothing in the heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth."

    Bushnell was not daunted.  He resolved to get Ericsson himself to come to Washington and explain the properties of his vessel.  So he did what any other enterprising businessman would do, he lied to Ericsson.  Returning to New York, Bushnell went to see Ericsson;
    "Well how was it?"
    "Glorious, said I."
    "Go on! go on, said he with impatience.  What did they say?"
    "Admiral Smith says it is worthy of the genius of an Ericsson."
    "But Paulding - what did he say of it?"
    "He said it was just the thing to clear the rebels out of Charleston with."
    "How about Davis?"  Here, Bushnell hesitated for an instant.
    "Captain Davis wants two or three explanations in detail that I couldn't give him.  Secretary Wells wishes you to come right on and make them before the entire Board in his room at the Department."

    History has failed to record who was more surprised by Ericsson's appearance at the Navy Department when the truth of the situation came out.  Not only was Ericsson appearance a surprise, it was made quite plain that he was an unwanted guest.  He was informed that the Board had rejected his design.  The outraged inventor demanded to know why.  Commodore Smith told him there was a question about the stability of the design.  Ericsson was furious and was prepared to stomp out of the room.  He quickly regained his composure and began an hour long lecture that dazzled the Ironclad Board.  He made sketches on a black board that detailed the physical properties that made a vessel float.  He then went on and detailed just exactly what his boat could do and the fact that he could complete his vessel in ninety days.  Ericsson concluded by saying, "Gentlemen, I consider it to be your duty to the country to build the vessel before I leave this room."

    For a few moments, the room remained quiet.  Secretary Welles asked Ericsson how much such a vessel would cost?  Ericsson replied $275,000.  By the conclusion of the meeting. Wells had told Ericsson to "go ahead" and begin his vessel.  The Board was won over and even extended the completion time to 100 days.

    On his return to New York, Ericsson immediately went to work.  He met with his investors and contracted with Thomas Fitch Rowland, proprietor of the Continental Iron Works to build the battery.

    The ship would be 172 feet long with a 41 foot 6 inch beam.  Two 12 inch guns would be housed in a revolving turret.  The ship would have a flat deck with only 18 inches of free board and a draft of 10 feet 6 inches.  This would allow her to operate in any of the South's inland waters. Ericsson began to send out drawings and specifications to a host of iron works and yards.  There were many alterations that had to be made to meet the restrictions and limitations of the North's already over worked iron industry.  He originally intended to construct the turret with two layers of 4 inch thick iron plate, but when the Baltimore yard of Abbott & Sons informed the engineer that it would take two months to "re-tool" their equipment, Ericsson altered his design for eight layers of one inch thick plates (192 tons of plate).  The majority of the iron plates, bolts, nuts, rivets, etc., were manufactured by New york establishments. Holdane & Company, the Albany Iron Works,  and the Rensselaer Iron Works provided tons of flat plates, and angle iron.  The Niagara Steam Forge would pound out the eight inch thick port stoppers.  The turret and machinery were fabricated by the Novelty Iron Works.

    Ericsson's concept was simple.  Building an iron vessel was not new to the inventor.  Living in England the 1830's, Ericsson was employed by the Laird Brothers Yard (builders of the C.S.S. Alabama) where he helped design and build iron vessels for operation on the Thames River.  He claimed to learn a lot from his time there and it was also about this time that he first came up with the concept for a "sub aquatic vessel."   His new vessel would be constructed entirely of flat iron plate.  The plates were made "rigid" by riveting angle iron to the facings and along the edges.  The vessel was actually constructed as "two hulls" an upper and a lower. The lower hull was built entirely of iron.  The outer hull plates were 7/16" inch thick.  The upper hull was a composite of wood and iron.  The ships deck was supported by 10 by 10 inch oak beams.  The deck planking was 7 inch thick pine and oak beams. Two layers of 1/2 inch thick iron plates were spiked to the wood deck.  The side of the vessel was actually an armored shelf.  The shelf was riveted to the lower hull and packed with oak and pine beams and had 5 layers of 1 inch thick plate spiked in place over the wood making her side just under 3 feet thick.  When completed, the side armor was virtually impenetrable to the heaviest shot and ramming.

The Turret

    The iron turret had an interior diameter of 20 feet.  The eight layers of 1 inch thick plate were assembled around an iron skeleton.  The entire structure was powered by two "donkey engines" that turned massive gears and provided the turret with 2 1/2 r.p.m.  The turret revolved on a brass ring set into the deck.  A shaft from below was raised up by a wedge and "keyed up" to put the turret in motion.  The entire structure was temporarily assembled at the Novelty Iron Works.  When it was completed, all the pieces were marked and taken apart and shipped to the Continental Iron Works for re-assembly on the ship.

    Shortages and delays in materials began to slow the vessels progress.  Ericsson and his investors pleaded daily with their suppliers.  The Navy Department assigned 1st Assistant Engineer Alban Stimers to oversee the project.  It was probably a good thing for Ericsson.  He let Stimers handle the daily grumblings and correspondence from the Navy Department so he could pay close attention to more important matters.

    By late December 1861, the vessel was suffering from many material delays. When the inventor was informed that the Navy had no 12 inch guns available, he quickly recalculated the design to incorporate two XI inch Dahlgren smoothbores. Local papers began printing articles about "Ericsson's Folly" and how she would slide to the bottom of the East River upon launching.  He was lamented in the papers as an "incapable schemer" and condemned for, "the sin of wasting the resources of the country."

    As the January 12, 1862 deadline approached, there was still a tremendous amount of work to be done.  Commodore Joseph Smith wrote Ericsson reminding him that delays would be critical to the navy's plans for the vessel and could prove "detrimental" to the builder.  He was referring to the contract and how the Navy Department could forfeit Ericsson's payments.  Ericsson responded with the details of material delays and navy intervention into his project and how both were beyond his control.

    The deadline passed and the vessel was not complete. The work was going on at a furious rate, night and day.  On January 20th, Ericsson wrote to Secretary Fox,  "I submit for your approbation a name for the floating battery at Greenpoint.  The impregnable and aggressive character of this structure will admonish the leaders of the Southern Rebellion that the batteries on the banks of their rivers will no longer present barriers to the entrance of Union forces.  The iron-clad intruder will thus prove a severe monitor to those leaders.  But there are other leaders who will also be startled and admonished by the booming of the guns from the impregnable iron turret.  'Downing Street' will hardly view with indifference this last "Yankee notion" this monitor.  To the Lords of the Admiralty the new craft will be a monitor suggesting doubts as to the propriety  of completing those four steel clad ships at three and a half million apiece.  On these and many similar grounds, I propose to name the new battery Monitor.

The Launch

    On January 30, 1862, a vessel unlike anything the world had ever seen slid down the ways at the Continental Iron Works and into the East River.  There were many bystanders that day, most had come to see "Ericsson's Folly" slide to the bottom of the river.  Ericsson stood proudly on the stern of his ship.  Small boats were launched to retrieve the few men on board, just in case.  To the surprise of most, but not John Ericsson, the ship floated, and to within 3 inches of his designed water line.

The Crew

    The ship underwent her sea trials soon after.  Deficiencies with her rudder and machinery were quickly handled by Ericsson.  The ship was turned over to the Navy Department and commissioned on February 25, 1862.  The USS Monitor steamed for Hampton Roads on March 6, 1862 and entered the annals of history forever.

                                                                            Jeff Johnston
                                                                                           Monitor National Marine Sanctuary

Primary Sources
Church, William C.  The Life of John Ericsson. 2 vols., New York 1911
Ericsson, John  "The Building of the Monitor," Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel, editors, 4 vols., New York  1884 - 1888
Manuscripts, letters, documents, and plans in the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary collection

    One hundred years thirteen years to the day, on the Anniversary of the Monitor's launching, the site of the wreck of the USS Monitor was declared the nation's first National Marine Sanctuary for the purpose of protecting the site and preserving this American treasure.