USS Monitor: A Naval Shipbuilding Built in 118 Days

It was a juggernaut; a Confederate 275-foot blackened structure of iron that would forever change the face of warfare.

The ship was a black-iron beast reborn from the frigate Merrimack, a burnt husk raised and armor-clad, transformed into a ship with no purpose but war. Its formidable complement boasted more than 300 men and its iron-bound hull bristled with cannons. The renamed ironclad ram, CSS Virginia, seemed unstoppable given existing maritime technology. This was the monstrosity that was being built to wreak havoc in U.S. waters, with hopes of decimating the Union Navy. The time for action was slipping through Union hands, like fingers trying to grasp water.

Through intelligence reports, Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles learned of the refitting of the Merrimack, which began in July 11, 1861.

Welles published an announcement in August of 1861 calling on designers to submit plans for ironclad warships to the Navy Department. One of resulting plans was for that of the Monitor.

The Monitor was almost never built. John Ericson, a Swedish-born New York engineer and inventor submitted a steamship plan for what he called, “An impregnable steam battery of light draught, suitable to navigate the shallow rivers and harbors of Confederate States.” But his plan was rejected, because the board of Naval officers questioned its stability. Ericson went to Washington and personally demonstrated the soundness of his design to the board. That fateful day, the board gave him permission to build what would be the Union’s answer to the CSS Virginia – a 172-foot icon of Union justice that would mete out destruction wherever it went, armed with two menacing cannons.

The engineer’s plan had some characteristics that helped convince the board that his design was the right one. It was small; larger ships would have taken longer to build, time they did not have with the work on the CSS Virginia. It was completely iron; no vessel of wood could stand up to the bombardment from the battery of the CSS Virginia. It featured a revolutionary turret; the rivers and inlets of the southern U.S. were too narrow and it would be impossible for ships to turn broadsides at all times to shoot their cannons. It featured a shallow draft; the shallow waters off the coast of the South called for a ship that could maneuver nimbly.

Ericson returned to New York to begin building his ship, splitting the workload between eight New York state companies and one Baltimore company in order to build faster. Continental Iron Works constructed the hull, Delamater and Company built the steam engines and Novelty Iron Works formed the 8-inch thick turret.

Contracts to begin building were signed Oct. 4, 1861 and 118 days later a new type of ship was born into the world of naval supremacy. Even by 2013’s standards, 118 days to build any kind of working ship is a remarkable feat but at the time that speed would seem almost impossible.

“It’s a complex ship,” Calhoun said. “It was a far cry from the wooden warships that were being built. Any ship that has been built in the 20th century has flaws in it and not everything goes by the book when you take the ship out to commission it. The fact that they built this brand new ship that no one had ever attempted to build before in 118 days and not have many flaws in it is remarkable.”

The Monitor was a small, dynamically-designed, low lying craft with only 10 feet of draft and 987 tons displacement and a crew of only 65 Sailors.

“You will perceive by the dimensions that she is not very large, but she carries a couple of guns that throw a shot weighing 170 pounds,” wrote Alban C. Stimers, a Naval Officer inspector of the ironclads, of the Monitor, in a letter to his father. “When equipped and manned ready for sea she was only 20 inches out of the water. This gives her the most singular appearance. I could not for a time get over being impressed with the idea that she was sinking.”

The new ship was launched Jan. 30, 1862, outfitted over the next month and placed in commission Feb. 25 under the command of Lt. John L. Worden. After trials and modifications, Monitor received orders March 4, 1862 to move to Hampton Roads. She left New York March 6 and encountered her first challenge: stormy weather, which abundantly demonstrated both the inherent seakeeping problems of the design and some more-easily correctable technical difficulties. But her most notable challenge was only two days off. Late March 8, just a few hours after CSS Virginia had spread terror among the Union fleet, the weather-beaten Monitor arrived off Hampton Roads, where her exhausted crew spent a long night urgently preparing their ship for a battle that made history.

The Navy will honor Monitor Sailors March 8 with a graveside interment ceremony at Arlington National Ceremony for the remains of two unknown Sailors recovered from the USS Monitor shipwreck. The unknown Sailors were lost along with 14 of their shipmates when Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Dec. 31, 1862. All 16 Sailors will be memorialized on a group marker in section 46 of the cemetery, which is between the amphitheater and the USS Maine Mast memorial.

Shipbuilding Tribune Staff, February 26, 2013