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Union Unveils New Weapon of War

On Jan. 30, 1862, a new weapon of war was unveiled at Continental Ironworks in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, N. Y. The weapon was the USS Monitor and it looked like no other vessel on the water. Designed by John Ericsson, the Monitor was the first warship constructed with a coating of iron. The vessel is an example of technological advances often made during wartime.

The need for such a vessel as the Monitor occurred in 1861 when Virginia seceded from the Union. As Federal forces evacuated the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Va., they scuttled ships there to prevent them falling into Confederate hands. One vessel, the Merrimack, was only burned to its waterline.

The Merrimack was raised and the Confederate Navy built a new upper works on top of the existing hull. The upper works of the vessel included an armored casemate. Once guns were added to the vessel, the Merrimack was rechristened the CSS Virginia.

Realizing the South was working on an armored vessel, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles created a board of three naval officers to review and decide upon a design for an ironclad.

Seventeen designs were reviewed and three chosen. These were the USS Galena, USS New Ironsides and the Monitor. Ericcson’s design of the Monitor represented quirk of fate rather than a concerted effort by the Swedish engineer.

Cornelius Bushnell, the designer of the Galena, traveled to New York City to show his design to Ericcson. During Bushnell’s visit, Ericcson showed him a model of what would become the Monitor. Realizing Ericcson’s design was better than his, Bushnell tried to convince the Swede to present his design to the Ironclad Board. Bushnell eventually obtained permission to present Ericcson’s design.

The Monitor, which was described as a “cheesebox on a raft,” was different from virtually all vessels on the seas. The ship’s hull was almost totally underwater to protect it from cannon fire. Only the pilothouse and a round, revolving gun turret could be seen above the waterline. Layers of one-inch iron protected the turret and pilothouse, creating an armored vessel.

The turret, which could rotate 360 degrees, housed two 11-inch Dahlgren guns. Initially, it was designed to have metal shutters to protect the gun ports while reloading. These shutters proved troublesome to operate. Gun crews solved the problem by rotating the turret away from gunfire while reloading.

The rotating turret created another problem in that its momentum made it difficult to stop the turret and fire. Once again, crews chose to fire on the fly as the turret was rotating. This greatly reduced accuracy but the Monitor was usually so close to its opponent that precise accuracy wasn’t a huge issue. The primary concern in firing on the fly was not to shoot the pilothouse as the turret was spinning.

As the Monitor was unveiled in January 1862, those on hand celebrated the new unusual looking vessel. In less than two months, the Monitor would face the Virginia at Hampton Roads, Va., in an epic encounter.