The American Civil War At Sea Wiki

Monitor's turret, July 1862. Note the damage to the turret, inflicted by CSS Virginia.


Built: New York City, New York

Commissioned: February, 1862

Service: Atlantic Blockading Squadron

Home Port: New York City, New York

Dimensions: 179' Length, 49' 6" Beam, 10' 6" Draft

Armor: 9" iron pilothouse, 8" iron turret, 4.5" iron hull, 2" iron deck.

Armament: 2x11" Smoothebores

Engines: Single Screw

Speed: 9 Knots

Crew: 49

Fate: Foundered, December 31st 1862.


In 1861, the United States Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, ordered the construction of three ironclad prototypes, intended to be the precursors to a larger fleet intended to counter the impending threat of the Confederacy's planned ironclad fleet. Monitor was one of these three initial vessels, and as it happens, the success of her design at the Battle of Hampton Roads in March, 1862, swept the country with "Monitor Fever," the unintended consequence of which was that the majority of Union ironclads completed during the war would be made to the "monitor" type design. So famous was the ship that she gave her name to an entire subtype of warships, the "monitors," terminology initially used in the United States, but eventually adopted by most of the rest of the Western world when describing turreted coastal defense vessels.

Monitor's designer was the sometimes arrogant but undoubtedly brilliantJohn Ericsson, who proposed a raft like hull mounted with a single, rotating turret equipped with two breechloading cannon. Although other turreted designs had been proposed and attempted in the past, Monitor was the first turreted warship to see wartime service. The ship was named by Ericsson, who said that he had selected a name appropriate to the role of a guardian, or watcher, of the sea lanes.

Though completed in a remarkably short period of time, particularly given the novelty of her design, Monitor was plauged with the problems endemic to any prototype weapon. Many unforseen weaknesses in her design were discovered only after her baptism of fire, including the unfortunate placement of the ship's pilot house directly to the fore of the hull, with the end result that the ship could not safely fire her armament directly to forward without the risk of killing or seriously injuring her command crew. Her box-like hull had poor seakeeping qualities, and her turret mechanism was extremely inefficient, requiring much more time to rotate into place than Ericsson had originally intended. Finally, Ericsson had insisted that she be equipped with his patented "vibrating lever" steam engine, which, though innovative, was underpowered and never quite perfected, despite its repeated use in subsequent monitor designs. Nevertheless, Monitor was sufficiently more maneuverable, faster, and more efficient than her most famous opponent - CSS Virginia - and this was a huge advantage, given the fact that Virginia carried considerably more firepower.

Monitor was rushed into service in April, 1862, in order to defeat or at least drive off the fearsome Virginia after it had plagued Union forces in the area of Norfolk. On the second day of the battle, Monitor arrived to challenge Virginia to battle, and the bait was taken, both crews confident that they had the superior vessel. In the end, it was actually a draw. Monitor was able to outmaneuver Virginia, but lacked enough firepower to significantly damage her; Virginia had more firepower, but lacked the maneuverability to target Monitor consistently enough to penetrate her armor.

After Hampton Roads, Monitor was transferred to the James River during one of several unssuccesful early attempts to seize control of that waterway and open the way to Richmond. Following her service on the James, Monitor was ordered to proceed to North Carolina in preparation for an attack on Wilmington. She never reached her destination, foundering in heavy swells on December 31st, 1862. Most of her crew was evacuated, but sixteen crewmen went down with the ship or were swept out to sea. The remains of two men were recovered aboard the wreck when the turret was raised in 2002; it is intended that they will be buried at Arlington National Cemetary in December, 2012, on the 150th anniversary of their deaths. The turret is now on public display at the Mariner's Museum Monitor Center in Newport News, Virginia.