USS Monitor

Mar 20, 2012, 7:00AM EST
USS Monitor
An innovative ship, despite its short career.

 The French and British navies launched iron-clad or iron-hulled warships in 1859 and 1860 respectively.  Although the United States was well aware of these developments, it made no move to follow until it was prodded by the nascent Confederate Navy.  When the US Navy abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War, it scuttled various ship located there.  One of those ships, the USS Merrimack, was salvaged by the rebels, who built new upper works including the addition of iron-clad casements for protection of the guns (in a manner somewhat similar to that used by the French in the warship La Gloire) and renamed the ship CSS Virginia.  When Union spies reported the development, the US Navy launched a crash project to build its own iron-clads.  Proposals were sought from various naval architects and shipyards for construction of iron-clad warships for the Union Navy.  One condition was that the ship or ships selected had to be launched within six months.  Three significantly different designs were selected for construction.  The most radical design was submitted by the Swedish engineer John Ericsson.  His design called for a flat-decked ship with almost no freeboard.  Virtually the only thing rising above the main deck was a large flat cylinder containing two heavy guns.  The cylinder and the hull, down to several feet below the waterline, were protected by heavy iron cladding.  The cylinder was designed to rotate 360 degrees, so as to allow the guns to be pointed at any target, regardless of the heading of the ship.  The rotating gun mount was the first ever on a warship.  The other innovative part of the project involved the construction of the various parts of the ship in nine different foundries, for final assembly in the shipyard.  Nothing like this had ever been done on this scale or timeframe.  The contract for construction was signed on October 4, 1861.  Her keel was laid on October 25.  The Monitor was launched in Brooklyn on January 30, 1862.  Dahlgren guns were installed in the turret, which detractors called a cheesebox on a raft, and the ship was commissioned on February 25.  It was immediately put under tow bound for Hampton Roads.  The Confederate Navy completed work on the CSS Virginia in the meantime.  On March 8, 1862, it attacked the Union blockading squadron in Hampton Roads, sinking two wooden hull frigates and causing a third to run aground.  When the CSS Virginia returned the next day to finish the job, it was met by the USS Monitor, which had just arrived.  The two ships slugged it out at close range, each inflicting minimal damage on the other despite landing numerous hits.  The Virginia never saw combat again.  It was scuttled in May when the Confederates were forced to abandon Norfolk.  The Monitor engaged in some combat thereafter, consisting mostly of gunfire support against Confederate emplacements ashore.  The ship, which was known to be minimally seaworthy when designed, sank in heavy weather on December 31, 1862 off Cape Hatteras, losing 16 of its crew of 62 sailors.  The Monitor had a career of less than one year, but its use of multiple fabrication sites and its revolving turret set standards for warship construction that are still in use today.   

 
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