The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> Ships of the United States Navy, A-Z
The USS Monitor

the Union Navy's "cheesebox on a raft"

Contemporary drawing of the Monitor, with wooden ships in the background.
contemporary drawing of the Monitor, with wooden ships in background

Soon after outbreak of the Civil War, the Union Navy scuttled several of its ships at Norfolk, Virginia, to prevent their use by the Confederate Navy. While most of those ships remained scuttled, the Confederacy managed to raise one, the USS Merrimack, which it then refitted into an iron-clad. On August 3, 1861, Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles published an announcement calling on designers to submit plans for ironclad warships capable of defeating the Merrimack, which the Confederates renamed the CSS Virginia. Seventeen designs were submitted, including one from Swedish-born designer John Ericsson that was so radical it was initially rejected. Ericsson was able to get a special meeting with President Abraham Lincoln, however, and he was awarded the contract on October 4, 1861.

The ship designed by Ericsson was described by many as a "cheesebox on a raft." The majority of the ship was below water, with only about two feet of upper hull above the water line. The hull was covered with iron plates five-eighths of an inch think The round turret, which was about 20 feet in diameter, about 9 feet high, and protected by eight layers of iron plate one-inch thick, could be rotated; its armament consisted of two 11-inch Dahlgren guns. The upper hull was 174 feet long, 41 feet 4 inches wide, and 5 feet deep, while the lower hull was 124 feet long, 34 feet across at top, and 6 feet 6 inches deep. The projecting ends of the upper hull protected the ship's propellor, rudder and anchor, and since the upper hull was also wider than the lower hull any shot would have to somehow travel under water in order to damage the lower hull. The ship was powered by a vibrating-lever steam engine and propelled by a screw propellor, both of which were developed by Ericsson, and had a top speed of 8 knots (9.2 mph). It carried a crew of 59 officers and men.

Cutaway drawing of the Monitor showing its turret machinery.
cutaway drawing of the Monitor showing its turret machinery

The USS Monitor was launched from Greenpoint, New York, on January 30, 1862, and commissioned on February 25, 1862. Commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden, the Monitor engaged the CSS Virginia (Merrimack) in the James River at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 9, 1862. After four hours of close-quarter fighting, the only real damage done to either ship came when a shot from the Virginia hit the Monitor's pilot house. Lt. Worden was temporarily blinded by shell fragments and gunpowder residue in the explosion and his second-in-command ordered the Monitor to break off its attack. By the time the Monitor was ready to resume battle the Virginia had managed to slip away. Although the Battle of Hampton Roads ended in a strategic draw, the Monitor had successfully kept the Virginia away from other Union ships in the area and allowed the Union to maintain its blockade of Norfolk.

The Battle of Hampton Roads.
the Battle of Hampton Roads

The Monitor remained in the James River after Hampton Roads and actively supported the Army's Peninsular Campaign later that year. On December 31, 1862, while being towed by the USS Rhode Island to Beaufort, North Carolina, the Monitor was swamped by high seas and sank off Cape Hatteras, taking four officers and twelve crewmen with her. Despite its loss, the Monitor became a prototype for many other similar vessels during the Civil War, both on rivers and in the open sea (Ericsson modified his original design to make the ships better able to withstand heavy seas). Monitor-type ships were also built by other nations, including Sweden and Great Britain. The last monitor-type ship was decommissioned by the U.S. Navy in 1937, but the class was reactivated for use on the rivers of South Vietnm from 1966 to 1970.


Historic Naval Ships Association
The Mariners' Museum
The Naval Historical Center

See Also

Civil War
Gideon Welles
John Ericsson
President Abraham Lincoln

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Ships of the United States Navy, A-Z

This page was last updated on 12/31/2018.