Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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Monitor I (Ironclad Monitor)

1862

An individual who warns or instructs. John Ericsson suggested the name in the hopes that his novel warship would admonish the Confederacy as well as Great Britain, the latter sympathetic to the Southern States.

(Monitor: tonnage 987; displacement 11'4"; length 172'; beam 41'6"; draft 10'6"; complement 47; armament 2 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores; class Monitor)

I

The prime contract for construction of Monitor was awarded to her designer John Ericsson on 4 October 1861. Construction of her hull was subcontracted to the Continental Iron Works at Green Point, Long Island; fabrication of her engines was delegated to Delamater & Co., New York City; and the building of her turret, composed of eight layers of 1-inch iron plates, was assigned to Novelty Iron Works, also of New York City. The first ironclad in the U.S. Navy —was launched on 30 January 1862; and commissioned on 25 February 1862, Lt. John L. Worden in command.

The ironclad departed New York Navy Yard on 27 February 1862, but a steering failure caused her to return to port. On 6 March, she again departed the New York Navy Yard, though this time she was under tow by Seth Low, and headed for the Virginia capes.

As Monitor approached Cape Henry on the afternoon of 8 March 1862, CSS Virginia, the former U.S. steam frigate Merrimack rebuilt as an ironclad ram— steamed out of the Elizabeth River into Hampton Roads and attacked the wooden hulled Union warships blockading Norfolk. Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, the Confederate commander, singled out sailing sloop Cumberland as his first victim.

Virginia opened the engagement when less than a mile distant from Cumberland and the firing became general from blockaders and shore batteries, but most shots from the Union guns glanced harmlessly off the Confederate ironclad's slanted sides. Virginia rammed Cumberland below the waterline and the latter sank rapidly. Buchanan later reported the Union sailors remained “gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water.” Buchanan next turned Virginia's attention on the frigate Congress, which had run hard aground while attempting to close, and then set her ablaze with hot shot and incendiary shell. She also damaged Minnesota before retiring to Sewell's Point for the night.

Monitor's crew could hear the roar of cannon as they rounded Cape Henry into Chesapeake Bay and headed toward the scene of battle. But all was quiet when she hove to alongside Roanoke. Captain Marston directed Worden to assist battered Minnesota, hard aground off Newport News.

At dawn on 9 march 1862, Virginia again emerged and headed toward Minnesota to administer the coup de grace. Monitor steamed out of Minnesota's shadow to intercept the Confederate ironclad ram. A Confederate officer on CSS Patrick Henry, one of Virginia's paddle wheel consorts, described the Union challenger as “an immense shingle floating on the water with a gigantic cheese box rising from its center; no sails, no wheels, no smokestack, no guns.” The unusual federal vessel, however, soon won the respect of friend and foe alike, fighting the Confederate ironclad to a standstill in an exhausting four-hour duel. With both warships damaged and running low on shot, Virginia retired to Sewell’s Point after failing to break the Federal blockade.

In the weeks that followed, Monitor remained alert in Hampton Roads ready to renew the engagement should Virginia venture forth. The southern ram did make a brief appearance off Sewell's Point on 11 April 1862, but neither side forced a second engagement between the two vessels. Early in May, while General George B. McClellan pushed through Yorktown and up the peninsula toward Richmond, the South withdrew from Norfolk and the southern bank of the James River, retiring toward the Confederate capital. Virginia, with too deep a draft to reach Richmond, was set afire on 11 May and blew up soon thereafter.

Monitor, reinforced by ironclads Galena and Naugatuck, steamed up the James to gather information for McClellan and to strengthen the Union Army's left flank. On 15 May 1862, however, when they reached Drury's Bluff some eight miles below the southern capital, their progress was stopped by obstructions across the channel. Confederate riflemen fired on the Union ships from both shores and heavy naval guns mounted high on the cliff shelled them from an angle which minimized the effectiveness of their armor. Although Monitor moved up to protect the heavily damaged Galena, her crew was unable to elevate her guns to hit the shore batteries, and so the ironclads retreated downstream.

Although checked in their thrust toward Richmond, the Union ships continued to provide McClellan with gunfire support. After his defeat by General Robert E. Lee in the Seven Days Campaign, their guns helped save the Army of the Potomac from annihilation.

At midsummer, Monitor helped cover the Union Army as it retired from the peninsula to shift operations back to northern Virginia. Thereafter, she performed blockade duty in Hampton Roads until ordered on Christmas Eve to proceed to North Carolina for operations against Wilmington. Towed by Rhode Island, she departed the Virginia capes on 29 December for Beaufort, but the historic warship foundered in a storm off Cape Hatteras shortly after midnight on 31 December. Four officers and 12 men went down with Monitor.

The wreckage of the ironclad was discovered in 1973 by a team of scientists from Duke University, the State of North Carolina, and the Massachusetts Institute Technology. As part of a series of marine sanctuary laws passed by the U.S. Congress, the site of the wreck was designated a National Marine Sanctuary on 30 January 1975 and placed under the protection of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Owing to deterioration of the wreck from storm and other damage, some artifacts— such as the propeller shaft and hull plates— were later recovered for historic preservation. Starting in March 2001, a five month long expedition involving NOAA, the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA), Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two (MDSU TWO) and The Mariners’ Museum, raised the ironclads innovative steam engine and other parts recovered at the site. The following year, in July and August 2002, the gun turret was raised from the site. These artifacts were transferred to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Va., for historic preservation.

10 February 2004

Published: Mon Dec 28 12:05:14 EST 2015