The twisted origins of the first Japanese Ironclad
The “ship with five lives”
Kotetsu was quite unique as being an ironclad changing at least five or six times names and flags during her 20-years long career. She was planned for the Confederate navy under cover, first laid down as the Egyptian ship “Sphinx”, then during construction as the Danish “Stærkodder” to fight Prussia, transferred after completion to the Condeferacy as USS Stonewall, making a single sortie before the capitulation, being purchased by the Cuban Spanish fleet, then to the US Navy, and resold to a Japanese Faction in the Boshin War, the Tokugawa Shogunate. From 1871 she became IJN Azuma, the first Imperial Japanese ironclad, a flag under which she served until 1888.
CSS Sphinx/Stonewall (1863-65)
Soon after the start of the American Civil War, the Confederate Navy planned to either convert and acquire ironclads ships they knew could break the Union blockade created since the start of hostilities. The ex Union Frigate Merrimack was being converted, and at the same time, a commission was sent in Europe to order one or several ironclad vessels.
In June 1863 John Slidell, Confederate commissioner to France asked Emperor Napoleon III in a private audience if it would be possible to build an ironclad in France. However this, for a recognized belligerent was illegal under French law. Slidell and his agent James D. Bulloch however would find simpathy from the Emperor of France, which had the time had many personal and business connections in Souther States. They were confident he would be able to circumvent these laws. Eventually Negociations succeeded with Arman Bros. Yards in Bordeaux (SW France), with the official sanction of Emperor Napoleon III. The ironclad ram was built for the Confederate Navy, but under cover of a sell to Egypt at first as “Sphinx”. Napoleon made clear their destination would remain a secret.
View of the Sphinx in construction in Bordeaux, forward forecastle turret.
In July 1863, Bulloch signed a contract with Lucien Arman at the head of the Bordeaux-based yard, a French shipbuilder which was recommended due to its personal ties with Napoleon III. The initial plan was even to build not a single, but a pair of ironclad rams, each capable of breaking the blockade. To avoid suspicion, their guns were manufactured separately without informations about their destination. Both vessels were initially named “Cheops” and “Sphinx”, spreading rumors about a sell to the Egyptian Civilian Navy as trade and transport teamers, on which nobody enquired.
View of the Sphinx in construction in Bordeaux: The ram bow and forward gun port.
However in 1863 the white house made an official warning not to sell any armaments to the Confederacy under threats of ending displomatic relations. In fact, the Arman shipyard clerk betrayed his boss for personal divergences, and went straight into the U.S. Minister’s office in Paris with a wallet containing documents proving clearly Arman’s intention to arm the vessels, and that he was in contact with Confederate agents. It was not long before the US attaché, under orders fro the White House, rushed into Napoleon III’s office and had the French government blocking the sale. Arman however had a ackup plan. Rather than Egypt, now that the ships were known to be armed, he declared having new owners and that contracts had been signed both by Denmark and Prussia as the Second Schleswig War was looming. Cheops even had a document attesting she was to be sold to Prussia as Prinz Adalbert, and Sphinx to Denmark as “Stærkodder”, on 31 March 1864.
Launch of Sphinx in 1864
So the armoured ram steamer, already laid down in 1863 was now planned to be under cover of a sale to Denmark, by the time hard-pressed by Prussia for territorial concessions (which would end with the Second Schleswig War in 1864). This became the official version and credible cover, allowing the Yard to proceed with the construction without alarming more Union delegates in France. The true project however later was no longer to resell the vessel to the Confederacy. Arman really hoped a sell to Denmark. There was no undervover resell prospect not agreement between the Confederacy and Denmark, which really needed the ship.
The “Stærkodder”, as named from 31 March 1864, was eventually launched on 21 June 1864, completed in January 1865 and presented to Denmark. Danish sailors arrived in Bordeaux before her commission. She was completed and awaited commission, departing with this Danish crew from Bordeaux, for her shakedown cruise, on 21 June 1864. The crew tested her seaworthiness and performances. Meanwhile final negotiations for transfer were conducted between the Danish Naval Ministry and Arman.
The final price caused issues, the Danish Government notably asking compensation from the company for delays (as the war was now in full swing with Prussia), and problems reported during early trials. This led to and eventual completed breakdown of negociations on 30 October. This did not prevented nevertheless HDMS Stærkodder to be en route for Copenhagen, from 25 October. The Danish government refused to relinquish her, despite their apparent refusal, claiming confusion in regards to the negotiations and she indeed arrived in Copenhagen, on 10 November.
The ship as completed with her Danish crew
However the war ended on 30 October 1864 (This infortunate ship was a few days late in two wars as we will see). There, she was anchored in the Orlogsværftet dockyard in January 1865, pending her fate. It should be noted that SMS Prinz Adalbert was delivered effectively to Prussia and active until 1878. She will be seen in a standalone post, as noticealbly different.
However the position of Denmark at that stage was that they were not concerned by the non-belligence stance adopted by major powers, ship-builders like France or UK. The Danish Navy had a ship no longer needed as the war just ended, and authorities felt free to transfer her ownership via a newly signed contract to the Confederacy, whuich already had delegates in Stocckholm, hoping for precisely that decision. On 6 January 1865, she was renamed CSS Stonewall after the famous Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, and the flag was hoisted under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Jefferson Page.
However, the crew being still Danish (it was quite difficult to muster a confederate crew on site), she was still commanded by a Danish captain. This did not prevented her departure, after coaling, in order to cross the Atlantic. At that stage, although the situation was desperate in the south, but there was still time to attempt an offensive against the blockade. Thus, her short confederate career started (see later).
Design of Stonewall/Kotetsu
CSS Stonewall in 1865
Hull and construction details
Compared to France’s early ironclads, Stonewall was rather small. She was an ironclad ram, with a few heavy guns, but her ram was a primarly weapon alongside artillery. She displaced 1,390 long tons (1,410 t) for a lenght of 186 ft 9 in (56.9 m) overall, a beam of 32 ft 6 in (9.9 m) and draft of 14 ft 3 in (4.3 m).
Therefore her most distinctive feature was a promiment ram bow, protruding way well forward of her hull, perhaps seven meters (300 feets) from her forward forecastle deck. It was well reinforced too, with an upper thick reinforced iron piece, thick and large iron socket, and upper bow piece. The rest of the ship was merely wooden but the forecastle was protected by vertical iron plating 5.5 in (140 mm) thick, as the bow (2 or 4 in).
The deck plan, showing her gun arrangement
Her general silhouette was one of a brig, and she was rigged as such with a three square sails foremast, bowsprit and focsails, and aft mainmast with two squares and a trapezoid boom sail. The helm was located on the aft forecastle deck. She had an aft ovale platform for a traversing gun, while her single, tall funnel and access to her engine room was in the center. She carried also five service boats all in davits, two either side and one at the poop. As for the crew she carried 135 officers and sailors. The deck view shows also her “rectangle” shape, quite bulky, which made her poorly steerable and sluggish at the helm.
She had a waterline belt with 4.5 in (114 mm) plating backed by teak, the aft turret had 5.5 in (140 mm) walls, all in wrought iron. Her protective design scheme was intended to withstand 15-inch (381 mm) guns hits. Her armored belt extended 2.12 meters (6 ft 11 in) below the waterline, backed by 15 inches teak. Above it was 12 centimeters (4.7 in) amidships, tapering to 9 cm (3.5 in) towards the bow and stern. The was an upper strake of armor, 76 mm (3 in). The turret amidships was fitted with 4-inch (102 mm) plating.
Stonewall/Kōtetsu was propelled by 2 shafts direct-acting steam engines (HSE). These Mazeline horizontal two-cylinder single-expansion steam engines were mated to two Mazeline tubular coal-burning boilers, developing a total of 1,200 PS (1,184 ihp). Top speed as designed was 10.5 knots (19.4 km/h; 12.1 mph), but she reached a maximum speed of 10.8 knots (20.0 km/h; 12.4 mph) during her sea trials on 9 October 1864. Range was estimated to be 3,000 nmi (5,600 km; 3,500 mi). Coal consumption is not known with precision but she carried a a full load of 227 t (223 long tons) of coal.
Although this varied considerably during their career, both ships initially designed for the Confederacy were to carry a single Vickers 300 pdr (10 in (254 mm)) rifled muzzle-loading (RML) gun located in the bow turret, in a pivot mount. The latter was peculiar with its five bow ports. It is quite different from a regular Coles type turret, more a rotating platform for the gun and various ports to fire from. She also had two Vickers Armstrong 70 pdr (6.4 in (163 mm)) RML guns positioned in the oval fixed turret abaft the mainmast, one pivot mount on each broadside firing through two gun ports. This was modified later both by the Japanese and Prussians.
Waterline belt 4.5 in (114 mm), Turrets 5.5 in (140 mm)
1x 300 pdr/10 in, 2x 70pdr/ 6.4 in RML
The very short Career of CSS Stonewall
Stonewall (USNI archives)
After the sell to the Confederacy, from 6 January under Lieutenant Thomas Jefferson Page she was to cross the Atlantic, but Heavy weather in the nort sea forced her soon after departure to take refuge at Elsinore (eastern Denmark). She was at sea again when the weather subsided, heading south, for the French coast. There, she was load supplies, ammunition and gather more crewmen. Her commission as CSS Stonewall was completed at sea, Thomas Jefferson Page now assuming full command of the ship. Her Danish Captain and crew were left behind.
Soon, Stonewall appeared to be a bad seabot in heavy weather, rolling heavily and notoriously unstable. Encountering foul weather in the Bay of Biscay, she had her rudders damaged. Sje was heading to the island of Madeira to gather coal for the final crossing, in Portugal, but instead she headed for Ferrol in Spain. This unfortunate accident had her stuck in drydock for months long repairs. This provided time for the Union to be notified of her clocation and prepare a small squadron to intercept her.
In February-March 1965 the Union Navy sent indeed the Frigate USS Niagara and the steam sloop USS Sacramento. They stayed at sea, keeping a look on Stonewall, now anchored off Coruña, with still repairs left. At last on 24 March, Captain Page decided to put to sea and prepared to engage the Union vessels. The latter, unarmored, declined to fight, allowing Stonewall to steamed for Lisbon and take coal for her crossing. CSS Stonewall eventually reached Nassau in the Bahamas on 6 May, the re-coal and sailed to Havana in Cuba. There, she received a courier announcing the war had ended on the 11th.
USoon afterwards, union ships arrived at Havana (15 May). They created a “security curtain” this month, constantly reinforced notably by the monitors USS Monadnock and Canonicus, largely up to the task of dealing with her. Captain Page decided that honour commanded instead of the Union, to turn his ship over to the Spanish Captain General of Cuba. The latter, on behalf of the Spanish government managed acquisition negociations, and accepted to pay $16,000 to pay for the crew’s wages, the ship being “leased” to the Armada in Cuba.
Eventually, the US Government negociated with the Spanish Governor, in order to have the ship turned over to their representatives, in return for a reimbursement of the same amount. The sum was delivered on 2 November, thus CSS Stonewall was examined while the crew was take into custody or proposed to stay aboard and man their vessel. Captain Page was discharged. The commission soon saw she needed some repairs before leaving Cuba. When done, she was escorted by USS Rhode Island and Hornet and departed Havana on 15 November for the Washington Navy Yard (24 November).
However as she proceed during the night of the 22-23 in the Chesapeake Bay she failed to spot and coal schooner off Smith Island, which was rammed and sank by accident. Fortunately no lives were lost, but this was her only “kill”, albeit in peacetime and accidental. Since the USN had no immediate projects to press her into service, she was paid off and laid up at the Washington Navy Yard.
Kōtetsu With the Shogunate (1868)
kotetsu flying Japanese colors
USS Stonewall (presumably holding her name) was still in suplus storage, decommissioned, when Japanese delegates arrived in the USA for a purchase commission. They seeked to acquire surplus vessels of the Union and captured confederate vessels, on behalf of the Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, which direct ancestor was no other than Tokugawa Ieyasu, the “Japanese Napoleon”, and unifier of the country in the Sengoku Jidai period (1600).
At the time, tensions between the Emperor Meiji, which councellors were favourable to the rapod modernization of the country, and the Shogunate factions, to restore traditional value and resist change. They were in power since the 1840s.
The Tokugawa shogunate however declined during the Bakumatsu era, from 1853, until overthrown by supporters of the Imperial Court (Meiji Restoration, which started in 1868) and the Empire of Japan established while Tokugawa loyalists continued to fight in what became the Boshin War, and “Republic of Ezo”. But in 1867, the Tokugawa shogunate was till ruling the country and seeked to acquire modern ships fro the West. After examining several surplus vessels, Ono Tomogoro while in the Washington Navy Yard in May 1867 was advised by the US delegate there to choose the former Stonewall, expecting to return the recent taspayer’s expense for this ship to Spain. Ono made a formal offer to the government for the purchase, which was concluded to $400,000.
Kotetsu (甲鉄艦 ‘kōtetsukan’) in the Shogun TW fall of the samurai expansion.
On 5 August, she was officially handed over, with the personal Shogunate flag hoisted. She was simply renamed Kōtetsu, which meant “ironclad”, and she became the very first ship of the type ever commissioned by Japan. She was refitted and prepared for the long crossing (probably started in September or October) with a US captain and crew taking her for a delivery, making many stops in between during this winter’s months journey. When she arrived in Shinagawa harbor on 22 January 1868, the Boshin War between the shogunate and pro-Imperial forces just started.
It seems she was also rearmed while in the US: One of the two 70-pounder guns was removed, a pair of Armstrong 6-pounder guns was added as well as four 4-pounder field guns, and a Gatling gun.
Trouble started immediately: Since the while house took a neutral stance in this war, they considered all weapons deliveries should be stopped, which included the Kōtetsu to the Shogunate. Indeed, she carried a Japanese flag but an American crew, making if for a very uneasy situation. US Resident-Minister Robert B. Van Valkenburg decided that she needed to be returned to the American flag and sail back to the US. Negociations were harsh, but eventually Kōtetsu took part into the war, hoisting a new flag for a new owner, being delivered to the new Meiji government in early March 1869.
Kōtetsu in the Boshin war (1869)
Naval Battle of Hakodate, 1869.
Tokugawa admiral Enomoto Takeaki at the head of what left of the Shogunate Navy refused to surrender after the fall of Edo Castle. He escaped to Hakodate (Hokkaido) in the north with which the few ships remaining, and a few French military advisers led by Jules Brunet (which inspired the figure in the movie “the last samurai”).
The Tokugawa fleet comprised eight unarmoured steam warships, and still this made the strongest naval force in Japan. On 27 January 1869, the foundation of the Republic of Ezo, with Enomoto as president angered the Meiji government which dispatched its own, newly formed Imperial Japanese Navy headed by the flagship IJN Kōtetsu and a bunch of unarmoured steamers seized in various feudal domains, loyal to the Emperor. On 25 March 1869, Kōtetsu distinguished herself at the Battle of Miyako Bay, repulsing a surprise night boarding by the Kaiten’s crew (Ezo flagship). Acquired the past yeat to the US, she had a Gatling gun, whih decidely showed its worth in this event.
Kōtetsu later supported with her guns the invasion of Hokkaidō and took part in many naval engagements, culminating in the Naval Battle of Hakodate Bay. There, she led a battle line comprising the IJN Kasuga, Hiryū, Teibō No.1, Yōshun, Mōshun (and three more steamers), under command of admiral Masuda Toranosuke (flagship Kōtetsu), decisively defeating the Shogunate’s fleet, 5 steamers strong (Kaiten, Banryū, Chiyoda, Chōgei, Kanrin Maru, Mikaho) under command of admiral Arai Ikunosuke. The Imperial ironclad proved imperveous to their fire and decisively crippled the Kaiyō Maru and Kanrin Maru, turning the tables.
Fourth and last career as the IJN Azuma (1871-1888)
Engraving of the Azuma
Following the war in August 1870, IJN Kōtetsu was gradually side-lined. It appeared her timber rotted quickly and she presented many structural problems. She became a third-class warship from 15 November 1871, renamed for the last time, now IJN Azuma from 7 December. In January 1873 an inspection reported her general poor state, and a small refit tried to remedy her problems. IJN Azuma was assigned as a moored guardship in Nagasaki, protecting the port during the Saga rebellion in February 1874. She was refitted enough to be part of the Taiwan Expedition in May 1874.
On 19 August 1877, she was caught in a typhoon, and ran aground at Kagoshima. Later refloated she was repaired at the Yokosuka Naval Arsenal and was ready to take part in the Satsuma Rebellion later, as guardship in the Seto Inland Sea. Her fate after this is not known, apparently she became a TS and depot vessel. Eventually she was stricken on 28 January 1888, sold for scrap on 12 December 1889, with her armor plating recycled into electric generators in the Asakusa Thermal Power Station of Tokyo in 1895, still in existence.
Ballard C. B., Vice-Admiral G. A. The Influence of the Sea on the Political History of Japan.
Jentschura, Hansgeorg; Dieter Jung, Peter Mickel. Warships of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 1869–1945.
Onodera Eikō, Boshin Nanboku Senso to Tohoku Seiken. Sendai: Kita no Sha, 2004.
Canney, Donald L. (2015). The Confederate Steam Navy 1861–1865. Atglen, Schiffer Publishing
Case, Lynn M. & Spencer, Warren F. (1970). The United States and France: Civil War Diplomacy.
Greene, Jack & Massignani, Alessandro (1998). Ironclads at War: The Origin and Development of the Armored Warship, 1854–1891.
Lengerer, Hans (2020). “The Kanghwa Affair and Treaty: A Contribution to the Pre-History of the Chinese–Japanese War of 1894–1895”.
Scharf, J. Thomas (1977). History of the Confederate States Navy From its Organization to the Surrender of its Last Vessel
Silverstone, Paul H. (2006). Civil War Navies 1855–1883. The U.S. Navy Warship Series
Stepesen, Robert Steen (1968). Vore Panserskibe [Our Armoured Vessels]. Marinehistorisk Selskabs skrift
Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1860–1905. Conway Maritime Press.
After suffering against Confederate use of the torpedo, the Union decided to create a ship using the same weapon. This resulted in the creation of a very original vessel, at first called the USS Stromboli, and soon renamed Spuyten Duyvil. It became in essence the first United States Navy torpedo boat, to the meaning a “torpedo” had at the time: An explosive charge brought on target by a spar, not an autonomous device.
Context: The successful confederate use of “torpedoes”
Outside the sneaky “coal torpedo” invented by Confederate Captain Thomas E. Coutenay to damage Union ships boilers, the “fixed ones” were mines, and the “active” torpedoes were spar ones, brought to bear by a ship. E. C. Singer, private engineer in charge of the “secret project” branch of the Confederate States of America created a simple explosive device using like a pistol, a trigger mechanism, adapted from a rifle lock. This spring-loaded trigger was actioned by using a long cord along the spar, which carried the device until it reached the enemy ship’s flank.
The carrier vessel was generally an ad-hoc fast and small steamer, which was to be rammed on target, embedding the barbed torpedo into the hull before backing off, the trigger cord being longer than the spar for safety. Others were just exploded on contact, with great risks to the sailors that manned the vessel. There were also proto-mines, also called “torpedo” such as those designed by General Gabriel J. Rains (director of the Confederate Torpedo Bureau) which wrote a manual, the “torpedo book”, for the fabrication and use of land mines and water mines.
The most successful “fixed torpedo”, arguably, was the “frame torpedo”, which capitalized on earlier works, dating back to the war of 1813, from David Bushnell, Robert Fulton, and Samuel Colt. After Rains, the other brainchild of the mine offensive was Confederate Navy Commander Matthew F. Maury, creator of electric underwater mines using a shore-activated waterproof cable. His device used three 400-pound, 15-inch artillery shells, cast with thin upper surfaces, and using a gunpowder fuse made dissolved in alcohol, screwed into an opening at the shell’s nose. The enemy vessel’s hull would then pressure it, crushing a thin copper protect cap leading to an explosive combination of chemicals to activate, and then ignite the fuse and blowing up 27 pounds of gunpowder.
Rains perfected the mixture, with 50% potassium chlorate, 30% sulphuret of antimony, 20% pulverized glass. These live shells were mounted to timbers, attached to large wooden frames anchored in rows to the bottom of the waterway with heavy stones. This system did not took tides and motion in account, but was raised or lowered by simply modifying the amount of weight. They were placed in harbors and across rivers and bays and found success at several occasions, sinking in all some 27 Union vessels and crippling many others. The most dramatic and spectacular was the rapid sinking of the ironclad USS Tecumseh at the Battle of Mobile Bay, which late made Admiral David Farragut famously say: “Damn the torpedoes! Four bells. Captain, go ahead!”.
One such and probably most famous use was in April 1864, when the Confederate torpedo boat CSS Squib badly damaged USS Minnesota. Before that, in 1863, the Confederates created their own dedicate spare-torpedo boat, the famous CSS David. Her first use was on the night of October 5, 1863, commanded by Lieutenant William T. Glassell, CSN, detonating gher “infernal engine” on the flank of the casemate ironclad steamer USS New Ironsides. She would also attack USS Memphis in the North Edisto River and on April 18, 1864 ried to sink the screw frigate USS Wabash. Her fate is uncertain, but she certainly impressed the Union. Later, the Confederate would go even further in furtivity, by creating their first true, all-metal submerged spar torpedo boat, the infamous HL Hunley which managed to sink the USS Housatonic on February, 17, 1864.
Design of the Stromboli
All this, and rumors for more agressive uses urged the Union to consider either an answer, which could only be done by having extra lookouts by night in particular, by default of having to armor all blockading vessels. But the Union naval officers were willing to test the spar torpedo vessel idea by themselves. Stromboli was designed by Chief Engineer of the Union Navy, Captain William W. Wood.
The Stromboli was constructed of timber. The deck, sides around the water line however were covered with 1 inch (25 mm). The upper section, above water, was turle-shaped, with a 1/4 ratio (84 ft 2 in or 25.65 m long, 20 ft 8 in or 6.30 m in beam). The bow was pointy, with an opening system (see later) and the stern, rounded, but not symmetrical, as the forward part was a bit beamer, with finer lines aft.
To not give any valuable targets to the enemy, the deck was bare, with little superstructures. There was a funnel aft, and a pilothouse placed just a little ahead of the middle of the vessel, 5 ft (1.5 m) in diameter outside. It was 2 ft 8 in (810 mm) above the deck and surrounded by no less than twelve layers of iron plates 1 in (25 mm) each in thickness for a total weight of 25,000 lb (11,000 kg). This was perhaps the first conning tower. The lowe hull was deep to accomodate the machinery aft and complex torpeod reloading system forward, with little space in between. Although there was little freeboard, the Stromboli was a semi-surbmerged type design, to present as little target to the enemy when immerged, and designed for riverine warfare, with a flat-bottom and relatively shallow draft or just 20 ft 8 in (2.29 m).
Propulsion relied on a single four-bladed screw. The steam engine was constructed at Mystic, CT, by Mallory and Co. This simple screan steamer, one cyclinder, provided enough power to steam at 9 knots or 9 miles per hour (up to 14 km/h) down to 5 knots (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph) when fully immersed to the gunwale, of even down to 4 miles per hour (6 km/h). The steam engine was chosen because of its smooth assembly, making it noiseless, curcial for noght operations. The Stromboli carried 160 tons of coal, enough for eight days.
Pumps were installed, used for filling and emptying compartments and manage the the degree of immersion. It rested on two Andrews’s centrifugal pumps “No. 6.” situated ahead of the pilothouse; They were each driven by a small oscillating engine. Their crankshaft was coupled directly to the pump’s shaft. One of these, on the port side, had its suction pipes able to draw from the reservoir or tank forward, where the torpedo loading system was placed. Her draft, fully loaded, was down to 7 ft 5½ in (2.27 m), and increased by pumping to 9 ft 1 in (2.8 m) for attack. She displaced 207 tons in this conditions, much less in reality, pumped dry and unloaded, probably around 120-130 tons.
The Torpedo System
The main and most impressive feature of the ship was of course its torpedo dispenser and reloading system. The term “torpedo” of course referred at the time to all possible explosive water devices. Today it would have been divided between depht charges, mines, and the proper self-driving “topedoes”. At the time, this was nothing more than a mine, with a retarded fuse and, brought at the end of a spar on the target.
This simple spar deliver system was managed by a torpedo-laying machinery designed by Captain Wood. It was constructed by the Clute Brothers, Schenectady, NY. This system weighted 10 tons, for only 2½ tons for her propelling engines. One of the key systems was the lower part bow composed of two iron flaps. Each hinged at the top to fire, and otherwise, kept down in place by chains attached on their lower edges through a pair of hawsepipes.
The chains were further secured to an iron rod passing into the vessel through stuffing-boxes tat the end of the hawsepipes lef over guide pulleys an drive by a hand winch. This was the “torpedo port” of the design, well before was invented the torpedo tubes. Behind the port was a tube enclosed in its own compartment, the sluice valve, and a bulkhead to be waterproof and separate of the reload mechanism.
The sluice valve slides vertically, raised and lowered thanks to a manually handled screw. When the sluice valve is opened, it admits water into an iron reservoir 6 ft 2 in (1.9 m) long, 4 ft (1.2 m) deep, and about 2 ft 3 in or 3 ft (690 to 910 mm) wide. On top of it was a manhole fitted with a hinged cover, fastened to be removed and replaced with ease. In the lower part of this tank, a suction pipe was connected to one of the Andrews’s pumps. At the other end was a gunmetal sphere 18 in (460 mm) in diameter held by two flanges to create a ball-and-socket joint.
The proper torpedo tube went through this gunmetal sphere to project the torpedoes. That projecting tube was 20 ft (6.1 m) long, 5 in (127 mm) in diameter externally, 3 in (76 mm) internally, manufactured by Morris, Tasker and Co. in Philadelphia. Each torpedo ends with a knob, button-shaped projection, so when placed in the casin, the knob is clipped by fingers carried at the end of a tubular rod, slidinh through the main tube, helding it in place until fired.
Within the spherical joint, there was a guide tube with some elevation upon side trunnions supported by bearings in vertical guides, though a a guide pulley on top of the bearing guide, trough a rocking-shaft arm placed close to the floor. It was done by a chain aft to the piston rod, in an horizontal steam cylinder fitted with slide valve, through which the steam is admitted or released driving up and back the piston, activating the chains and this the guide tube elevation.
The machinery projection/withdrawing system used two chain drums diven by a Root Company (NY) rotary engine. On is placed in the tank at the bow, used for hauling in the tube. It is also stopped by a block moved transversely along the drum while the chain is going through regular coils, a transversal motion managed by a screwed spindle gearing into a spur wheel. Hauling out of the torpedo carrier had another chain arrangement. The drums could be connected by clutches, using levers. The tube could be run in and aout at a rate of 8-12 double strokes per minute.
The reloading sequence starts with firing the torpedo, by opening the two bow flaps, rasing the sluice, projecting the tube, and the torpedo is thrust from the case at the end of the tube using a tubular rod. Once detached, the main tube is withdrawn (see the torpedo part later). The sluice is then closed, the tank is pumped dry by the centrifugal pump, the manhole is opened and accessed to use the torpedo holder. The process last for four seconds, but the reloading of the tprpedo by chains is a longer process. The total reloading time on average, is three minutes.
USS Stromboli’s “Torpedoes” contained 400 lb (180 kg) of black powder, but the real detonator contained 60 lb (27 kg) of fine powder known as the one contained in Union Ordnance No. 7. “obstruction shells”. They each an air filled space managed around the powder to allow free expansion of gases. When released from the holder, they rise until coming against the bottom of the vessel and floats nearly upright while point downwards. Within the torpedo case a tube ended by a percussion fuse is ingiting the powder.
A ball is falling upon the percussion fuse, by a sliding pin placed beneath it which went through the torpedo case with a cord attached to the eye of the pin, regulated according to the desire detonation distance, on average 20 ft (6 m). When the tube is drawn back the cord is tightened, releasing the ball to the percussion fuse; which detonate the fne powder, and by extention, the rest of the charge; The explosion, under the ship’s belly, was supposed to break it’s back…
Author’s illustration of USS Spuyten Duyvil
84 x 20 x 7 ft (25,65 x 6.3 x 2.29 m).
207 t. standard, 210 t. FL
1 shaft steam osc. engine, 1 boiler ?KW
Top speed 5 kts (9 mph, 14 kph)
Unknown but 160 tons coal
1 spar torpedo
Pilothouse: 12 in (300 mm), Hull: 5 in (130 mm), Deck: 3 in (76 mm)
Construction and career
When ordered in mid-1864, task was to find a suitable constructor. Samuel M. Pook at New Haven, Connecticut, was eventually chosen by Wood, which supervised her construction step by step. Ccontract for her construction was dated 1 June 1864. Construction started probably in July, however launch is generally attributed by default to September, but there are no confirmed records for both her launching and commission. Period records indicate that she was completed in just three months, and her first tests started in November, suggesting tests started before even she was considered “completed” in the conventional manner.
It is likely she was able to perform sea trials already in November, just one month after launch. Granted, her fitting out did not required a lot. The most complicated part was of course to get her complicated torpedo reload system to work properly and the crew to train enough on it to be ready for action.
On 19 November 1864, she was renamed “Spuyten Duyvil” after the Bronx neighborhood. On 25 November 1864, she made its first successful “torpedo” launches. Later that month, Commodore Charles Stewart Boggs took command. She was to be towed by Picket Boat No. 6, plus the steam tug “John T. Jenkins” to Hampton Roads in Virginia. She stopped in on 2 December while Boggs turned both Spuyten and the picket boat to Commodore T. A. Dornin. Both vessels were now placed under the care of First Assistant Engineer John L. Lay, for the remainder of their trip. They arrived both in Norfolk on 5 December, prepped for thei final leg of their mission.
Spuyten Duyvil was ordered up the James River on the 14th, in order to help the Union controlling this river and support General Ulysses S. Grant’s offensive on Richmond. She presented herself off Akin’s Landing, on 15 December 1864, to enter the upper James river just below the Confederate obstructions, trying to blast them up. This went on for monthes on end.
During the night of 23/24 January 1865, the Confederacy’s James River Squadron a resolute assault on the Union squadron composed of various steamers, mostly unarmoured, an episode known as the Battle of Trent’s Reach. USS Spuyten Duyvil supported the monitor USS Onondaga, the centerpiece of the Union fleet.
General Robert E. Lee eventually evacuated Richmond, so Spuyten Duyvil was able to blast the remaining obstructions in the river, until then protected by Confederate batteries, now evacuated. This make it possible latter for President Abraham Lincoln to steam up the James river up to Malvern and after its carrier ship ran aground, he was rowed to safety close to Richmond. Her demolition role did not stopped with the end of the war, in April. Exactly like after WWI and WW2 she played a mine-clearing role for a solid year afterwards James.
When her mission ended, she returned to the New York Navy Yard, placed in ordinary (reduced crew), in 1866. Technically decommissioned, but she went on being used for more experiments, gradually improved for the remainder of the 1860s and 1870s, until was written off from the Navy list only in 1880.
❢ Note: Technical explanations were shortened and simplified. They are far more expanded in the original texts, now in open source and associated with the blueprints, found at the Naval History and Heritage Command website.
The USS Monitor is not only an icon of the American civil war, a symbol of the industrial north, but it also defined a genre, a type that found use until recent times. The USN still deployed monitors to combat the Viet-cong in the Mekong deltas and its numerous tributaries a hundred years later (☍ see page). But in 1862, the USS Monitor was very much a “secret weapon” designed to counter another (The former USS Merrimack, transformed into the CSS Virginia). The whole blockade of the southern economy depended on it. Off Hampton roads on 8 March 1862, both would fight a largely indecisive duel, the first in history for ironclads. The rest of her career was short, as she was lost at sea during a storm, on 31 December 1862 (off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina), the weight of her contribution could not be underestimated.
USS Ozark (M7), former Arkansas renamed by 1909. The last classic USN Monitor.
The marriage of heavy guns in a turret and a shallow-draft armored hull represented such a technological step for the time, that it was fully embraced by the Union to counter possible threats of more confederate ironclads, to the point that no less than nearly fifty more were ordered, and most completed before the war ended: USS Roanoke, USS Onondaga, the Passaic class (ten ships), Miantonomoh class (four), USS Dictator, USS Puritan, the Canonicus class (five), and four more in construction by 1865, but also 24 Shallow draught monitors of the Milwaukee & Casco class built 1864-65. The US also exported the concept far and wide, as it was adopted by many other nations as well, sometimes combined into other concepts like the ram, or influencing the late 1870s central breastwork monitors, ancestors of the pre-dreadnoughts; So popular were monitors that they were still listed in the USN in 1917 (Arkansas-class, 1900), others were built by the Royal Navy to deal with the flanders front, or the Italians on the Isonzo front, and still saw action in WW2 (Like the HMS Roberts, discarded in 1965).
Ideas in the air
French floating battery Devastation in Crimea
Before the USS Monitor was conceptualized, there were already several ideas looming in the air among engineers interested by ballistics and steel alike. Armour protection was relatively new in 1850 but uring the Crimean war, the mixed-protected (sandwiched teak wood and specially treated steel) French armoured batteries deployed showed encouraging signs for believers that ships can defeat traditional fortifications. Processes were further worked out until the Gloire was out in 1859, just prompting the British Admiralty to go further with the Warrior class. So in April 1860, when Charleston harbor was shelled, sea-going armoured ironclads were already a thing in Europe, but just.
The science of ballistics reflected the trust made in new projectiles: Until 1860, the standard artillery shot was the cannonball. Its path was unpredicted, causing engagements to be almost point-blank. In Crimea however, the “shell” itself did not changed, but ideas about a practical rifled breech loading weapon was born as well, as reshaping the spherical shell into a cylindro-conoidal form. In 1855, industrialist William Armstrong was awarded a contract to produced a new rifled artillery piece at the Elswick Ordnance Company and Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.
This too, was known in 1860, although only a few British guns had been imported, the immense majority of artillery still relying on smoothbore muzzle-loaders, at any caliber. The armies still trusted the venerable “Napoleon” 6 or 12-pdr, but rifles with the minie bullets started to equip sharpshooter units.
The other revolution in the air was the gun turret. In the 1850s, guns were placed in batteries, guns were placed on rolling cradles with elevation but little traverse, if any. The entire ships manoeuvered to put their guns to the correct bearing. This defined manoeuvers and the type of ranged battles since the XVIth century, and was still a thing in 1860. But durung the Crimean war, designs for a rotating gun turret were first drafted by Captain Cowper Phipps Coles, which had the idea to construct a raft with ‘cupolas’ protecting guns. His experimental raft was to named “Lady Nancy” and the idea was to use it to shell the Russian town of Taganrog (Black Sea). His “Lady Nancy” was indeed built and proved its worth. Back in homeland, Coles patented his rotating turret.
More crucially, The British Admiralty ordered in 1859 such system to be installed onboard the ironclad floating battery HMS Trusty for trials in 1861. His idea to allow the greatest possible all round arc of fire as low in the water as possible were really instrumental to understand the personal engagement of John Ericsson in the whole process. Later, the British Navy laid down HMS Captain, the first ocean-going turret ships.
Genesis of the design
The need for iron plating was first trigerred by the Paixhans gun, put to great use, notably at Sinope against the Turks in the 1820s. Combined with better steam propulsion, it was possible in the 1850s to built armored ships that would not be stuck immobile by their own wieght. Developments in gun technology meant in 1850 that no wooden protection could withstand a modern shell and in 1854 already, the USN tested these iead with the steam-powered Stevens Battery, which work was much delayed while its own design Robert Stevens died in 1856. Without pressing need for this ship at the time, work never resumed and the battery was left unfinished. But in Europe, it progressed well after the Crimean war.
Enters John Ericsson
Swedish-borne engineer, John Ericsson (born July 31, 1803) was instrumental in this history. The extraordinary skills of the two Ericsson brothers were discovered by Baltzar von Platen (1766–1829), architect of Göta Canal, which hired them with success to solve many technical issues as ‘cadets of mechanics’ of the Swedish Royal Navy. John was just 14 at that stage. At 17 he started a military career, with the Jämtland Ranger Regiment, as Second Lieutenant and Lieutenant. While in the far north he constructed a heat engine, which worked very well. Advised to do so by his superiors and friends, he moved in Britain to perfect his engineering skills, and worked on steam propulsion, and early railway applications. His first prototype in 1826 was not a success however as it was designed to burn birchwood, which did worked well in Britain.
He invented several other mechanisms with bellows to increase the oxygen supply and in 1829 associated with John Braithwaite (1797–1870) for the Rainhill railway Trials on the Liverpool-Manchester Railway but lost the competition to George and Robert Stephenson with their “Rocket”. New prototypes were more successful, using a blower for ‘Induced Draught’ as shown on new railway tests. However they were able to quell the Argyll Rooms fire in 1830, working for five hours straight. One was purchased by Sir John Ross for his Arctic expedition. Ericsson patented notably a surface condenser working with recovered fresh water at sea, avoiding to use saltwater. He also patented a pressure-activated fathometer, but his commercial failures and development costs had him eventually jaied for debts. Both this and a failed marriage pushed him to move to the US, but not before he attempted to sell to the admiralty his patented Propeller design. This also failed, and through one custmer of his design, American captain Robert Stockton he was persuaded to move to the US.
He moved to New York in 1839 and Stockton co,nvinced him to oversee the development of a new class of frigate. The arrangement was a classic one with the trader and the engineer, but it did not fare well with Ericsson which soon felt betrayed as Erisckson revendicated paternity of the designs. Nevertheless, he designed a sloop that eventually became USS Princeton for the USN (1843). The ship was revolutionary, with twin screw propellers, a collapsible funnel, and mouting a 12-inch muzzle-loading gun place on a revolving pedestal (with an innovative recoil system). Not yet a turret, but already with full traverse. Unfortunately, during a firing demonstration of her gun, the breech ruptured, killing Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Walker Gilmer, while Stockton tried to pass the blame on Ericsson and refusing payment.
Early proposal draft by Ericsson. Note this was ideal, but not realistic even for the Industrial Union: The cupola was apparently a very large casting, and the turtle back hull (also on USS galena) was destined to make cannonball and shells bounce, extending far underwater where water itself protected the ship’s underbelly. Also interesting is the turret resting in a needle axis, planted in a solid keel, ideas that went into the final design.
Nevertheless, he also associated with industrialist Cornelius H. DeLamater (1821–1889) and together they created the “Iron Witch” first iron steamboat, then the ship Ericsson, and in the 1880s, a submarine, a self-propelled torpedo, and a torpedo boat. In between, Ericsson wanted to propose the USN a new type of ship, and claimed to have sent the French Emperor Napoléon III a proposal for a monitor-type design already in September 1854 (this was never confirmed). Until the, Eriscsson lived on his patents on the Hot air engine, and built the “caloric ship” powered by the 4th Ericsson engine in 1852. His invention made him wealthy as this was a safer, boilerless design, more practical and compact for many applications. He would go on until the 1880s with others, more advanced engines including a solar one.
The war breaks out, Merrimack is being converted
USS Merrimack plan in 1855
The Union Navy, previously rebuffed by Ericsson’s quick temper and the souvenir of the gun explosion on USS Princeton changed its attitude towards ironclads as the war broke out, when learning the Confederates were converting the captured USS Merrimack, into an ironclad at Norfolk in Virginia.
There were knowlegeable engineers indeed in the less industrialized southern states, and strong connection with Europe, Britain and France. Whereas the Union soon set in motion their blockade to cripple the Confederacy trade, create and arms embargo and collapse its economy, some like Lt. John Mercer Brooke though to convert the burn down USS Merrimack into an ironclad, as they were made in Europe, in order to break the blockade.
USS Merrimack was a large, very capable 84 m long 3,200 tonnes frigate with two decks and 40 guns, built in 1854-56. Burnt and sunk in dock on 20 April 1861 after seeing little service since February 1860s, she was large enough for such endeavour and her steamplant was still intact as well as her artillery. Spies in Virginia knew this was an ironclad due to preparation mades with mixed iron plates. John Mercer Brooke wanted a composite armor sloped very close to the waterline in order to deflect any incoming shells. it was made of 4 inches (102 mm) of iron armor, backed by 24 inches (610 mm) of wood. The battery was reduced compared to the original, made to match the few portholes along the armoured casemate: Two 7-inch (178 mm) Brooke rifles, two 6.4-inch (160 mm) Brooke rifles, six 9-inch (229 mm) Dahlgren smoothbores and on the deck, two 12-pounder (5 kg) howitzers. CSS Virginia would be commissioned on 17 February 1862.
css virginia 1862
The United States Congress recommended in August 1861 that armored ships be built for the American Navy, and soon, this encounter a regained interests for Ericsson previous designs. He was met again by representatives of the USN and asked to submit his own design as quickly as possible. Completion of the project was made more urgent by the fear of a deployment to Hampton Roads of the Confederate ironclad Virginia. In theory the latter was impregnable and would have sunk all blockading Union ships as well as bomber Union cities along the coast. Northern newspapers were well aware of the race, and published regular updates on the supposed Confederates progress, which further the Union Navy to complete the Monitor. Ericsson was not alone to (later) answer the call of the Congress, with a appropriated $1.5 million on 3 August 1861: Cornelius Scranton Bushnell also presented his own design.
After Congress appropriated fund to built one or more armored steamships, a board was created to evaluate the proposed designs. The Union Navy advertised it seeked “iron-clad steam vessels of war” on 7 August. Welles appointed three senior officers to the Board on the 8th,consideringmostly delays and costs. At first, Ericsson made no submission to the board. Instead he teamed with Cornelius Bushnell, well known sponsor of the proposal, later to be known as the armored sloop USS Galena. The board required from Bushnell the boat would float despite the armor, and was advised by Cornelius H. DeLamater to seek out help from Ericsson.
A meeting took place on 9-10 September, time for Ericsson to evaluate the design. Ericsson at the end showed Bushnell a model of his own design (his 1854 armored raft he “proposed” to the French Emperor). Bushnell did not approve the boldness of the design but recopignised the merit of it and obtained permission for Eriscson to show his model to Welles. After this, the latter recomended he showed it to the board. Upon review hpwever the latter was skeptical over her seaworthiness (which proved right, see later). They rejected the proposal of this completely iron laden “cheseebox on a raft”.
President Lincoln himself however examined the design and overruled them. Ericsson gave guarantees to the board his ship would float by stating (“The sea shall ride over her and she shall live in it like a duck”), and on 15 September, after final deliberations over cost and delay (Ericsson’s were both smaller like the Galena) the board accepted his proposal, to the dismay of Bushnell, although his armored sloop will be also approved and built). The Ironclad Board evaluated 17 different designs in all (notably William Norris’s 90-ton steam ironclad gunboat, and up to Edward S. Renwick’s 6,520-ton ironclad), recommending three on 16 September in the procurement act, including Ericsson’s and Bushnell’s.
USS Monitor seemed the most innovative with her low freeboard, shallow-draft iron hull, total dependence on steam power, and revolving turret instead of a battery. The latter was riskier, it was the only of such proposals, something not even tested by the European navies at the time. But what took the cake was Ericsson’s assurance of delivery within 100 days. It overcame all the risks involved.
Design of USS Monitor
The design was essentially ready since 1860, time to gather all technical informations about the turret’s Coles design and revolving bearing’s intricate designs, steam power, and armor construction around the wooden hull. The keel of USS Monitor was laid down soon after the board’s choice, on 25 October 1861, at Continental Iron Works, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, New York. She was launched on 30 January, and commission on 25 February 1862 (instead of the planned March 6, 1862 in accordance to the 100 days delivery as promised), an amazing achievement for the time, or for any ironclad.
This was largely due to Gideon Welles pushing hard across the board: Indeed near-completion of the CSS Virginia was known in the North by February 1862, through Mary Louvestre of Norfolk, freed slave using to be housekeeper of the Confederate engineers working on Merrimack revealed it to competent authorities, with intel from a Union sympathizer working in the Navy Yard. Louvestre met Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles in person, the latter raising the alarm and further pressed completion of the Monitor. From there, Lincoln’s hard-working Secretary of the Navy took charge personally of the completion.
Hull of the Monitor
The basic idea was to present the smallest target possible, hoping shells landing too short would just bounce over the water, and those close enough, be slowed down enough to not penetrate. The basic hull shape was of a raft, with very little actual vertical surface to protect. Ericsson was not concerned by cannonballs landing on deck, as they would merely bouncing. Muzzle velocity was quite low at the time for the average Naval gun. Under the “raft” that was a rectangle with ogival ends as seen from above, symmetrical to steam both directions (although with aft rudder only), there was a smaller immerged hull with sloped sides and ends in order to manage sandbanks and shallow draft rivers like the Mississippi. This lower hull was much smaller, and contained in one space the machinery and coal supply for it. This difference between the much larger raft and lower hull gave her great stability, perfect for accurate firing in calm, to moderately rough seas. In short, the combination of a shallow-draught “raft” and smaller lower hull was typical of the Mississippi steamers of the time.
USS Monitor was for the time completely unheard of, bonkers and brillant. In almost every respect, dubbed by the press and critics as “Ericsson’s folly” or famously, “cheesebox on a raft”, “Yankee cheesebox”, its large cylindrical gun turret amidships was probably its most outstanding innovation. Apart this one, the raft deck was bare, apart a small armored pilot house towards the bow, surrounded with sloped sides. It housed a single pilot, but prevented the guns to be fired straight forward. Ericsson’s primary goal was to present the enemy the smallest possible target to gunfire. The hull was only 179 feet (54.6 m) long overall -gunboat size- 41 feet 6 inches (12.6 m) in beal, with gave her a favourable ratio, and maximum draft of just 10 feet 6 inches (3.2 m), allowing riverine operations. She displaced however 776 tons burthen due to the armor, 987 long tons (1,003 t) fully loaded. Despite having just two guns she still carried 49 officers and ratings.
Section of the belt armor showing the iron plating sandwich and wooden backing. In this interesting early draft, the original gun position is also shown. Due to the recoil and turret’s size it was impractical.
With an armored deck just 18 inches (46 cm) above the waterline, a cannonball had a very small target to hit. The deck was created out of two layers of 1⁄2-inch (13 mm) each, in wrought iron armor, the best tech at the time for iron casting, to boiler grade. If seemingly weak, it was largely enough for bouncing projectile, parabolic fire did not existed at the time for ships, and USS Monitor was not intended to duel with siege mortars… The armoured belt ran all along the “raft” made of 3-5 layers of 1-inch (25 mm) each iron plates. They were backed by 30 inches (762 mm) of pine and oak.
A 3-plates layer extended for 60-inch (1,524 mm) in height and the two innermost plates stopped mid-way down. Ericsson original plan was to use five combined 1-inch plates, or a single outer 4-inch (100 mm) plate backed by three 3/4-inch (19 mm) plates. However the metal industry at the time was unable to roll that type of very thick plate quicky enough. The two innermost plates were riveted, the outer plates bolted to the former. There was a ninth plate 3/4 inch (19 mm) thick but 15 inches (381 mm) wide bolted over the butt joints of the innermost plate. The very exposed, small pilot house forward was protected by 9 inches of armour (229 mm) with well sloped sides all around. Apart glass portholes in the deck for natural light, covered by iron plates there was no other way to have the lower hull provided with lighting.
Interior replica showing the Dalghren guns and turret cutaway
After the battle of Hampton Roads some Navy officials criticise the raft design as too easy to boarding by Confederates. On 27 April 1862 Lt.Cdr O.C. Badger advised the Assistant Inspector of Ordnance of a water sprayer from the boiler, through hoses and pipes to repel boarders. Hot water pipes arranged to scald assailants were envisioned but never installed apparently, before the disapperance of USS Monitor.
Various design features: Sections, Powerplant, accomodations, deck plans, auxiliary machinery and sounding system.
Aft section cutaway, showing the powerplant, rudder, shaft, gears and propeller as well as the front section and anchor lifting system.
Boilers more detailed
Steam engine overview (section)
Inside the lower hull, there was a single-cylinder horizontal vibrating-lever steam engine designed by Ericsson (which had quite a long experience as we saw). It had a bore of 36 inches (914 mm), stroke of 22 inches (559 mm). It drove a single 9-foot (2.7 m) propeller, mated on a nine inches diameter shaft. Steam was generated by two horizontal fire-tube boilers at a working presure of 40 psi (276 kPa, 3 kgf/cm2). This enabled the anemic (but standard at the time) 320-indicated-horsepower (240 kW), for a top speed of 8 knots (15 km/h; 9.2 mph), at least as planned. This was still good for a steamship at the time, but range was diminished by the absence of sail. Ericsson brished this consideration as she was more of a coastal “interceptor”, to catch the Virginia off Hampton roads.
On sea trials, USS Monitors reached 1–2 knots (1.9–3.7 km/h; 1.2–2.3 mph) lower than expected, or 6 knots (11 km/h; 6.9 mph). For range, 100 long tons (100 t) of coal were carried, enough for an estimated 500 nm. Ventilation was procured via two centrifugal blowers near the stern powered each by a 6 hp steam engine. One fan circulated air throughout the ship for the crew, the other was decicated to feed the boilers, a forced draught. Leather belts also connected the blowers to their engines, stretching when wet which disabled both the fans and boilers, as shown later. The pumps were also steam-operated and so if the latter was too low, they would fail. This was in essence what happened when the Monitor sank. It seems there was no manual backup, as Ericsson was overly confident on his steam engine.
Monitor’s turret was 20 feet (6.1 m) in diameter, 9 ft (2.7 m) high. She barely accomodated the two Dahlgren cannons, which practically hit the other side after recoil. The walls were constructed of 8 inches (20 cm) of armor but reached 11 inches (290 mm) at the front, around the gun ports. The ensemble weighed approximately 160 long tons, and this made her top heavy, but the rounded shape helped deflecting cannon shot, and were proved impregnable. There was no spall lining however. She rolled on her bearing thanks to the use of two steam-powered donkey engines, using a set of gears. Full rotation was performed in 22.5 seconds, as noted in tests reports of 9 February 1862.
Her motion was difficult to control also, as the steam engines were to be reversed if the turret overshot and had to turn the other way, which took time. So much, that in that case, the gunnery officer ordered another full rotation instead. The gun ports provided the only sight of the target, and were obscured by the guns and smoke. They were shut were not in use with heavy iron port stoppers, swing down. The rotation mechanisme used an iron spindle, jacked up using a wedge, before the turret could rotate, which was 9 inches (23 cm) in diameter. This prevented the turret from sliding sideways, and in normal travel condition, it was disconnected and the turret rested on her deck brass ring, forming a watertight seal (but leaked heavily as it appeared due to heat differences).
The gap between the turret and deck was not immune to debris and shell fragments either. A large enough shard could enter it, jamming the mechanism. That’s what happened for several Passaic-class monitors with the same turret design at the Battle of Charleston Harbor (April 1863). Also, Direct hits on the turret could eventually bend the spindle, causing another jamming. It was accessed from below or via the hoist to lift powder and shot. Another issue on that matter is that the turret needed to rotate to face starboard to line up the entry hatch ans proceed to the reload. The turret’s roof was light, easy to remove to change the guns, and provide a welcome aeration and ventilation. It was not bolted, only held by gravity.
Monitor’s turret section
Monitor’s turret section
Monitor’s turret shutters
Turret base and axial needle
The initial armament as planned was a pair of 15-inch (380 mm) smoothbore Dahlgren gun, casted for her. However the ship was ready sooner, and due to the need to have her operational, she received two 11-inch (280 mm) instead of the same type, weighing still 16,000 pounds each. They used a 15 Ibs (6.8 kgs) propellant charge marked for targets “distant”, “near”, and “ordinary”. These fired a 136-pound (61.7 kg) round shot/shell to a max range of 3,650 yards (3,340 m) at the maximal elevation of +15°. However in practice during her duel, she fired at point-blank.
Dahlgren guns base section
Dahlgren guns cradle design
Old author’s illustration for USS Monitor
⚙ USS Monitor’s specifications
54.6 x 12.6 x 3.2 m (179 x 41 x 10 feets)
987 tons standard, 776 tons Fully Loaded
1 shaft VLSE, 2 HFT boilers, 320 ihp (240 Kw).
6 knots (11 km/h)
2× 11-in (280 mm) Dahlgren SB
Belt 3-5 in, decks 1 in, turret 8 in, pilot house 9 in
Construction of USS Monitor
HD original drawing of the Monitor
The Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Commodore Joseph Smith, sent Ericsson his formal notice of proposal acceptance on 21 September 1861. On the 26th, Ericsson signed a contract with Bushnell, John F. Winslow and John A. Griswold which in which they would equally share profits or losses incurred to the construction of the ironclad. They were ready to start afterwards, but a major delay was caused by the government itself, which did not signed any actual contract yet; Some were still not convinced and Welles had to add a clause of “complete success” of the ship, otherwide a refund would be provided. This draconian provision was hard pill to swallow to his partners, and the Navy rejected this modification of contract, finally signed on 4 October, so 15 days after, and a final agreed price of $275,000, paid in installments along construction phases.
Preliminary work was ready since a while, Ericsson’s consortium already in discussions with Thomas F. Rowland (Continental Iron Works, Bushwick Inlet, now Greenpoint, Brooklyn), and they signed a final contract on 25 October for the hull, which keel was laid that day. The turret was built at the Novelty Iron Works, Manhattan. After being assembled and tested, it was disassembled and shipped to Bushwick to be mated on the hull. The steam engines and machinery were built at DeLamater Iron Works nearby, in Manhattan. Chief Engineer Alban C. Stimers was appointed Superintendent while construction. His advices were precious as he was a former officer onboard USS Merrimack now in confederate hands. New formally assigned to the crew, he still became inspector during USS Monitor’s maiden voyage and the battle of Hampton Roads as well.
Construction was plagued by short delays, starting with the delivery of iron and money at times, but the progress was still good and the hundred days allotted expired on 12 January, as the ship was not yet completed. The Navy, which new what was at hand, did not to penalized the consortium. The name “Monitor” was proposed by Ericsson on 20 January 1862, approved by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox. The new ship was to “correct the wrongdoers” (the Confederacy). When the ship was launched, Ericsson in defiance of those arguaung she would never float, was standing on her deck on 30 January 1862. There was a ceremony, and this was done under the cheers of the massive crowd of Newyorkers, which interest was flamed by the press all along. She was commissioned rather quickly, on 25 February, as her fittings were quick, but she already made initial sea trials on 19 February.
Launch, 30 January 1862
Valve and fan engines problems were soon identified, and she was towed the next day to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Once fixed, USS Monitor was ordered to proceed right away to Hampton Roads, on 26 February. Her departure was delayed as she waited for ammunition. She departed on 27 February, entering the East River and left New York. Underway her captain found her however “unsteerable”. She had to be towed back to the navy yard for modifications. Ericsson found the steering gear was improperly installed. It was proposed to realign the rudder, causing a 24h delay, but Ericsson preferred adding an extra set of pulleys, which was quick. This was a success as shown by the 4 March trials, as well a gunnery trials. Gunnery officer Stimers however failed to understand Ericsson’s complex recoil mechanism, loosening them so much they hit the back of the turret twice.
All in all, the revolutionary Monitor was created with no less than forty patented inventions and the “boom time” of the Civil War allowed Ericsson to have his concept multiplied by the Navy, and could have made a fortune. But instead, he just U.S. government all his patent rights as a personal “contribution to the glorious Union cause”. After all, he was Swedish-born and like many foreigners, wanted to show his patriotic fervor, but financially, this was not that judicious.
Detail of her first crew
Officers on deck, posed by her armored gun turret, while the ship was in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862
USS Monitor’s crew volunteered rapidly, with ten officers and 39 enlisted men. There was a commander, Lieutenant John Lorimer Worden, an executive officer, Lieutenant Samuel Greene and third Assistant Engineer Robinson W. Hands, four engineers, one medical officer, two masters and a paymaster assembled by Worden. There were Line officers, responsible for the vessel’s handling and artillery, and separate engineering officers. The turret housed gunnery officers Greene and Stodder, which supervised loading and firing, with eight men under them in the crowded turret. Worden’s report (27 January 1862) stated that the turret, still could house as much as 17 men and 2 officers.
Living quarters for senior officers comprised eight separate well-furnished cabins with table and chair, oil lamp, shelves and drawers, canvas floor and rug. Suspended goat-skin mats were provided for the rest of the crew. Small skylights practiced in the deck above provided lighting, all covered by an iron hatch during battle so the ship became so dark as force the use of oil lamps. The officer’s wardroom was placed forward of the berth deck, used as mess, well furnished. Ericsson paid for all costs of these personally.
Many details about the crew were found in the recovered items in the wreck, giving an insight on everyday life onboard and cluses about the personal crew’s life. The correspondence of George S. Geer “The Monitor Chronicles” were preserved on land however, also providing many details, as a sailor’s experience onboard, offering more insight about the many issuies and incidents onboard. They are now at the Mariners’ Museum in Virginia. Louis N. Stodder, a survivors and last man to abandon Monitor also gave precious clues about the ship’s demise.
Officers posing in front of the turret after refit, showing the added roof top protection and command CT.
USS Monitor in service
Early service, Fort Monroe
On 6 March 1862 at last, USS Monitor was declared ready for operational service and sailed out of New York for Fort Monroe in Virginia. To spare her coal, she was towed by an ocean-going tug, USS Seth Low. She was escorted also by the gunboats USS Currituck and Sachem. Captain Worden had serious doubts about the seal between the turret and hull and not following Ericsson’s advice her wedged the turret un fixed, up position, stuffing oakum and sail fabric into the gap.
During the windy noght, water washed away the oakum and soaked the fabric, so it was literraly raining under the turret. The hawsepipe, hatches, ventilation pipes, and funnels (two small ones) also leaked. The belts for the ventilation and boiler fans also loosened and fell off, almost stopping steaming and creating a toxic atmosphere in the engine room. Eventually the crew had to be evacuated on deck as ordered by First Assistant Engineer Isaac Newton. The most afflicted were handed over the top of the turret and laying there to recover. Newton and Stimers meanwhile tried to reactivate frantically the blowers, until they succumbed and were taken above. One brave fireman holed the fan box and drain the water in order to restart the fan.
Mishaps were not over yet as later Later the wheel ropes which controlled the rudder jammed, just when the ship was going into rough seas. In danger of foundering, Worden signaled the tug to help her keeping course, and she was towed to calmer waters, cose to shore laying there to restore full power. The following day, 8 March, before noon, she rounded Cape Charles, entering Chesapeake Bay and arriving in sight of Hampton Roads at around 9 PM. It was well after the first Battle of Hampton Roads, where Virginia made a carnage, engaging first the USS Cumberland, left crippled, burning, and rammed. After what she sank in shallow waters. USS Congress’s captain was so afraid he order his frigate into shallower water to be beached right away and later under heavy fire, surrendered.
The Virginia’s scare
Days before the battle, a telegraph cable was sent from Fortress Monroe overlooking Hampton Roads to Washington about the estimated arrival of the CSS Virginia, spotted en route. It was feared she would also bombard New York or ascend the Potomac River and attack Washington itself. President Lincoln held an emergency war council with Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Wells and other senior naval officers. Stanton knew about USS Monitor’s issues and only two guns, and was appealed by the prospect of loosing her at the first engagement.
Admiral Dahlgren however reassured the audience that the confederate ironclad was too massive to approach Washington and that USS Monitor was more than capable to challenge her effectively. Lincoln sent many warning telegrams afterwards to governors and mayors of coastal states which tried to evacuate their most previous assets and have shore batteries ready when possible. Stanton approved an officer’s plan to sent sixty canal boats loaded with stone and gravel to block the Potomac. However Welles convinced not to do it; and at least to wait confirmation CSS Virginia would enter the Potomac.
The battle of Hampton roads (8 March 1862)
Battle of Cape Hatteras
On this 8 March 1862 CSS Virginia (Commander Franklin Buchanan, chief engineer H. Ashton Ramsay) also scared the steam frigate USS Minnesota, which ran aground while attempting to engage her, remaining stranded. However when sighting the Monitor, CSS Viriginia was not Unscathed: Her port side anchor was lost, bow leaked with a mushed port side half by a lucky shot and she had many punctures and superficial damage from all the bouncing projectiles from USS Cumberland, Congress, and shore-based Union batteries. She lost her smokestack had two broadside cannons out of commission, many armor plates disjointed or loosened and her two cutters blow away plus her deck’s 12-pdr anti-boarding howitzers. She also had her deck stanchions, railings and flagstaffs destroyed. Captain Buchanan was injured and later relieved of command by Catesby ap Roger Jones. He ordered an attack on the stranded USS Minnesota but the ironclad had now a 22-foot draft due to leakages and a too slow speed to manoeuver. The idea was to retire to her supply fleet during the night repair and return the following morning to finish the job.
At 9:00 pm, at last, USS Monitor arrived on site, spotting the smoke of two ships burning, and the smokestack of CSS Virginia. Captain Worden initial ordered were to anchor alongside USS Roanoke and report to John Marston, briefed of the situation and then protect USS Minnesota, stranded. At midnight USS Monitor arrived alongside USS Minnesota and the crew just waited. The next morning, at 6:00 am CSS Virginia arrived with her support fleet (CSS Jamestown, Patrick Henry and Teaser) rounding Sewell’s Point and soon on sight of USS Minnesota and other blockaders, at slow speed due to the shoals and heavy fog. She only arrive at gun distance around 8:00 am, as the folg lifted.
In USS Monitor, Worden was looking out from the pilot house, the whole crew in battle order. Greene took command of the turret. Samuel Howard (Acting Master of USS Minnesota) was onboard due to his familiarity with Hampton Roads preculiarities, as pilot. Quarter Master Peter Williams steered the ship during the battle (later to be given the Medal of Honor), communicating via the speaking tube between the pilothouse and turret was out of order so commands were relayed from Worden to Greene. CSS Virginia at first concentrated on USS Minnesota from a mile but making few hits. Greene sent Keeler to the pilot house and request to open fire asap, Worden insisting upon “to take sure aim and not waste a shot.”
USS Monitor 1862
Merrimack and Monitor
Combat of giants
USS Monitor made a surprise appearance, emerging from behind Minnesota to interpose in front of the latter and protect it fromm CSS Virigina. At 8:45 am order was given to order fire, point blank, on the Confederate vessel. Then started the famous “ironclads dance” as they harmlessly fired on each others without any consequence, turning close to one another. USS Monitor fired solid shot at an appaealing rate of a volley every eight minutes, Virginia fired shells, a bit faster due to having more guns to bear. This “dance” went on for about four hours. It ended at 12:15 pm as the range opened gradually to several miles. Virginia’s weak engines and inferior agility, and Monitor’s turret meant she could aim at leisure while Virginia was lumebering out to try to present her broadside. She difficult to maneuver in the shallows and made a 180° turn in 30 minutes.
USS Monitor’s turret started to malfunction when the first shells bounced on her, turned with difficulties or even stopping at times. Alas, the crew simply let the turret continuously turn, firing their guns “on the fly” when finding the right spot. Direct hits on the turret causing bolts to shear off, ricocheting inside and making wounds, while the deafening impact noise, ringing the turret like an enclose bell, stunned the crew, causing nose and ear bleeding.
After four hours, neither ship took the advantage. It ws a time where armour was clearly superior to gunnery. Towards the end, CSS Virginia’s captain lost patienced and attempted to ram but the nimbler and faster Monitor dodged the manoeuver and only had a glancing blow making no no damage. That collision however further torned down Virginia’s bow, already in poor shape after her ramming of USS Cumberland. The little damage made by Monitor on Virginian were latter attributed to the protection of the latter, but also the guns firing with reduced charges as adviced by Commander John Dahlgren, the gun’s designer and manufacturer. The latter however had no clues about defeating iron plates, which was brand new. Stodder, at the wheel and controlling the turre was knocked him clear by an impact as he layed on the side. He was later recover and relieved by Stimers.
The two ships also collided five times from several accounts. At 11:00 am already, USS Monitor’s ready round ammunition (inside the turret) were exhausted and the gun port covers were jammed shut to resupply and repair the damaged hatch. At some point Captain Worden climbed through the gun port for a better look and spotted Virginia, seeing Monitor distancing for her resupply, turned her attention to USS Minnesota, making her ablaze as well as skinging the tugboat Dragon. Worden ordered back to battle as sson as possible. Towards 12:00 Worden wanted to try destroying the Confederate ship’s tern, but this was prevented by Lieutenant Wood on board Virginia, furing a 7-inch Brooke gun at USS Monitor’s pilothouse. As a result, Worden was made blind by the impact and shell fragments, gunpowder residue. He ordered to escape to the shallows and she drifted idly for about twenty minutes, Samuel Greene eventually taking command, undecided about the action, unti he ordered to return to the fight.
CSS Virginia tried to follow USS Monitor and as expected, ran aground. After seeing the poor results of her artillery, order was given by Jones to stop firing, as a waste of ammunition. She later managed to free herself and break away, towards Norfolk for repairs. It was assumed Monitor withdrawn and the battle was won. Greene let this happen, not chasing her. He stuck to orders to stay with USS Minnesota, which was later criticized by some.
Aftermath of the battle
Soty of the confederate state, USS Monitor
Accounts were made on both ships and reports written. USS Monitor was struck twenty-two times, including nine to the turret, two hits to the pilothouse. She fired forty-one shots in all. Virginia took ninety-seven indentations but this was the sum of Monitor and other ships, plus coastal batteries. Damage was still insignificant, apart the bow of Virginia. Commander Jones estimated USS Monitor could have sunk them if hit at the waterline. On the strategic level, this battle was considered the most definitive naval battle of the Civil War.
Although a draw, with Virginia taking slightly more damage but the Union suffering more losses from the previous battle, the Confederates were quick to announce a victory. USS Monitor defended USS Minnesota as ordered and repelled Virginia, enabling the rest of the Union blockading force to stay and resulme the blockade and conversely the Confederate vessel was unable to break it, so making this battle a strategic victory for the Union. Historically of course it marked a turning point in naval warfare. This was the first fight between ironclad, a brand new type of ship that would dominate the seven seas until 1945.
“Monitor fever” in the North led to the construction of improved designs and about 60 ironclads were built and unleashed on the south, especially to win several river engagement and ultimately shell to oblivion several significant cities, largely contributing to the final victory.
Immediately after the battle, Stimers sent a congratulation telegram to Ericsson, for “saving the day” with his design. When USS weighed anchor she was greeted by a fleet of enthusiastic small boats while a massive crowd of equally extatic spectators gained momentum on shore. The crew, as soon as they disembarked were greeted with cheers for their assumed victory over Virginia. Assistant Secretary Fox was an observer that day from USS Minnesota, and came aboard Monitor to tell the officers “Well gentlemen, you don’t look as though you just went through one of the greatest naval conflicts on record”. A blinded Worden carried out as well as other wounded sailors, still under the cheers to Fort Monroe and then an hospital in Washington.
Stimers and Newton assessed, then repaired battle damage as soon as possible. They repaired the pilot house and its slopes to 30° and readjust disjointed plates, hammering some back into shape. Mrs. Worden also personally brought news of her husband during that time, to the relief of officers working on the Monitor. Her would eventually recover his eyesight. President Lincoln personally visited Worden. He later spent the summer home in New York but was unconscious for three months, later brought back to command USS Montauk, a brand new monitor, until the rest of the war.
The Confederates also cheered as CSS Virginia came along the banks of the Elizabeth River, a huge crowd gathered, cheering and waving flags, handkerchiefs and throwing hats. Virginia indeed also managed to captured the ensign of Congress during the previous battle amonf floating debris. The Confederate government promoted Buchanan to Admiral and congratulated the crew. Soon, both government made plans of course for new Ironclads. It was much easier for the industrial north, but the south had to improvize, using notably railway traverses. The Union Navy chartered the converted sidewheeler USS Vanderbilt, reinforcing her bow to be used as naval ram nd stationed permalently at Hampton Roads.
11 April 1862: 3rd battle of Hampton Roads
Engraving of the battle
On 11 April, CSS Virginia indeed steamed into Hampton Roads, Sewell’s Point (southeast edge) to try to lure USS Monitor into battle again, fired a few shots at very long range while her opponent returned fire but remained near Fort Monroe, under the added protection of its batteries. She was in position to ram Virginia if approaching, but it never happened. The Confederateplan was to board USS Monitor to capture her, hoping to bring her back under Confederate control using the the James River Squadron. The latter prepared three captured merchant ships, brigs Mand a schooner, hoisting “Union-side down” to taunt USS Monitor, but this failed and Viriginia eventually departed away.
The plan was to attack USS Monitor with the James River Squadron, landing a party aboard, and either her had in tow or disabling her turret using heavy hammers, covering the pilothouse with a wet sail, while throwing combustibles down the ventilation and smoke openings. There was an ultimate encounter between the vessel, on 8 May, CSS Virginia sailing towards Monitor, which with four other Federal ships shelling the Confederate batteries at Sewell’s Point. Upon seeing the approaching Virginia, they were signalled to retire slowly to Fort Monroe, to lure her out into the Roads, but she did not followed. Instead she anchored off Sewell’s Point. When Norfolk fell on 11 May 1862, however, the Confederate troops were ordered to burn down and destroy CSS Virginia.
Battle of Drewry’s Bluff (12 May 1862)
After the loss of CSS Virginia, USS Monitor supported the General McClellan’s campaign against Richmond. By that time she was under command of Thomas O. Selfridge, later relieved by Lieutenant William Nicholson Jeffers (15 May 1862). USS Monitor was the centerpiece of a flotilla under command of Admiral John Rodgers, aboard the other Union armoured ship, the Bushnell’s USS Galena, and three other gunboats. They steamed up the James River, dealing on the way with Confederate batteries at Drewry’s Bluff, until they were silenced.
Meanwhile, this was cooridnated with McClellan’s push on land, towards Richmond. It was scheduled that the flotilla would present there and bombard the city into surrender. They arrived within 8 miles (13 km) of the Confederate capital but were barred to go further as the Confederate had sunken seeral vessels and other debris across the river. Once stopped, they were dealt by Fort Darling’s batteries, which were waiting for them. Also the Confederate had placed several other heavy guns unde corver on the shores and sharpshooters were also positioned along the banks.
The fort controlled the west bank of the James River, placed atop of a bluff towering 200 ft (61 m) above which gave them excellent visibility and parabolic fire potentially deadly for the weakly protected USS Monitor. The latter could not bring her guns to bear, having a too short elevation. She soon had to fall back to be able fire at a greater distance, loosing accuracy. Gunboats however dealt with the fort. USS Monitor received a few hits, but with little damage, and was mostly spared by Confederate officers which preferred to focus on USS Galena and the other gunboats. They all took quite a punishment, with some casualties, in a four-hour artillery duel. In the end, it was ordered to the flotilla to retire, unable to silence the fort. In fact, the fort deter any approach via the Jamanese river until the end of the war. Richmond was evecuated and captured by land.
After the battle at Drewry’s Bluff, USS Monitor stayed as a vigil on the James River, providing support when needed, and teaming with USS Galena and other gunboats. They still provided support to McClellan along the river and this included a bombardment of Harrison’s Landing in August 1862. In between inactivity and hot weather crippled the crew’s morale. Some crew members were transferred to Hampton Roads and there was a turnover of officers. Commander Thomas H. Stevens, Jr was in command on 15 August. By the end of the month, USS Monitor was back to Hampton Roads, dropping anchor close to the wreck of USS Cumberland, at Newport News Point. She was then to blockade the James River, waiting for the newly constructed Virginia II.
USS Monitor’s overhaul
Model after refit
In September 1862, Captain John P. Bankhead took command, sent to Hampton Roads, but upon arrival, he was reported engines problems, later conformed by a board of survey. They recommended a full overhaul and on 30 September she was towed to the Washington Navy Yard, starting on 3 October. Upon arrival she became a premier tourist attraction in NYC, as the crowd was soon allowed on board. During the overhaul, various officials als payed her a visit. Lincoln also came to an official visit, with the whole crew present and Captain Worden. Soon after the crew was in action again onboard USS King Philip for the six weeks during which her bottom was scraped clean, engines and boilers were cleaned and scraped anew.
USS Monitor was repainted and every detail fixed, improvements made like the turret top iron shield and a 30-foot (9 m) smokestack over the smoke outlet and tall fresh air vents for a better ventilation. The berth deck was enlarged, but also made lower. Cranes were added and living condition improved. A new independent blower for the boilers was also installed, drawing air from and through the pilothouse. Stanchions were installed around the freeboard, roped along, making it safer to walk around in rough seas. ISS Monitor was out on 26 October and started sea trials afterwards, in November she was ready for service.
Final mission and sinking
USS Monitor at sea in heavy weather
On 24 December 1862 she was ordered to Beaufort, North Carolina, teaming with the brand new monitors USS Passaic and Montauk to support an army expedition to Wilmington, and blockading Charleston. It came about Chritsmas and sispleased the crew, some thinking she was not ready for the open sea voyage. Christmas was celebrated while she stopped at Hampton Roads. In provate, officers however worried about their ship to be unseaworthy in rough waters. The Captain John P. Bankhead under orders trie to reassure them, but probably thinking too that sailing out by in this season was not good business. USS Monitor departed again on 31 December but under tow to spare coal, by USS Rhode Island, just as a heavy storm developed off Cape Hatteras.
Soon the storm became intense and large waves started splashing over the deck, entering by the pilot house. The crew rigged the wheel atop the turret and helmsman Francis Butts evacuated his post. Flooding via all vents and ports continued while the ship started rolling badly. Son also she started rocking heavily in larger waves, crashing and ploughing heavily, shaking in the process. Leaks appeared soon, and Captain ordered all hands to try to fix them as they appeared. But itsoon appeared as an uphill battle.
Frank Leslie’s scenes and portraits of the Civil War, loss of uss monitor
The Worthington pumps momentarily stemmed the flood, but a squall shook the ship, and larger waves came crashing so only making matters worse. Eventually the Worthington pumps were overwhelmed and the engine room was soon flooded beyond safe level. Bankhead signaled her tug USS Rhode Island she needed help, hoisting the red lantern, and ordered the anchor dropped, to stop rolling and pitching; But this had little effect. Frm the tug, rescue boats tried to get close and a towline was cut, volunteers were called on deck. Stodder, John Stocking, James Fenwick climbed down from the turret, but swept overboard and drowned. Stodder however installed safety lines around the deck and cut the 13 in (33 cm) towline with his hatchet. At 11:30 pm, Captain Bankhead ordered engineers to shut the machinery, divert all steam to the large Adams centrifugal steam pump. However this was not sufficient due to the reduced steam output from wet coal. The steam pumps failed and now hand pumps and a bucket brigade were ordered, but too late;
Greene and Stodder were the last to abandon ship with Bankhead, the last surviving to abandon ship. The official report at the Navy Department would praise their heroic sacrifice. The frantic rescue effort paid off, as Forty-seven were saved, but still, USS Monitor sank 16 miles SE off Cape Hatteras, carrying with her sixteen men, notably four officers remaining in the turret. They were picked up onboard USS Rhode Island. The Navy, which ordered this mission without knowing about the deteriorating weather did not created a board of inquiry and closed the affair as a common sea fortune in wartime.
Nevertheless a controversy would later emerged, not in small part because of Ericsson accusing the crew of drunkenness. Stodder defended the crew, accusing him in return to “covers up defects by blaming those that are now dead”, and pointing out the unseaworthiness of the ship and sea conditions. He also pointed out the the overhang between the upper and lower hulls came loose and even partially separated, which was corroborated by other shipmates.
Recovery and preservation
2000s salvage operations: The turret is pulled out of water by the “spider” system.
The Navy sent an “underwater locator” in August 1949 south of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to try to locate her wreck. She was eventually found under 310 feet (94.5 m) of water but investigation was marred by local powerful currents. Ret. Rear Admiral Edward Ellsberg proposed external pontoons to raise her wreck in 1951. Later in 1955, Robert F. Marx claimed the wreck had drifted into shallow water north of the lighthouse and that he had dived on the wreck.
The Duke University associated to the National Geographic Society and National Science Foundation financed an expedition in August 1973 using a modern towed sonar system. On 27 August she was at last located, after 111 years, and a camera was soon down to photograph her, but images appared too fuzzy. Another was lost. The sonar images eventualy told the ship was upside down. The discovery was announced on 8 March 1974 and another expedition was mounted to confirm it and sent the submersible Alcoa Sea Probe, making a video confrming the find.
They showed the wreck was disintegrating and since she had been formally abandoned in 1953, private divers or salvage companies could pillage her. In order to preserve the wreck, a 0.5-nautical-mile (0.93 km; 0.58 mi) was designated as the “Monitor National Marine Sanctuary” the first in fact, on 30 January 1975. Soon it was designated a National Historic Landmark on 23 June 1986. The recovery costs were deemed impossible in the 1970s. but in 1995, the NOAA divers tried to raise her propeller, but failed due to the stormy season. NOAA soon developed a plan to recover the most significant parts of the ship: Engine, propeller, guns, and turret for 20 million dollars and over four years.
The propeller was lifted on 8 June 1998, but work wa smade in difficult conditions and the 1999 dive season was a comprehensive study for better planning. In 2000 installed bags of grout, the engine recovery system framework for the next seaons in 2001, trying to recover the steam engine and condenser, on 16 and 19 July. Saturation diving was used and in 2002 the 120 ton turret was recovered using a large, eight-legged lifting frame, from 26 July to 5 August 2002. A skeleton was discovered in it. Remains of other sailors were transferred to the Accounting Command (JPAC) at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii for identification. Some were identified and on 8 March 2013 buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. The propeller is now on display in the Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum. Conservation of the rest is ongoing and the Dahlgren guns were removed in September 2004. The red signal lantern was also recovered. Northrop Grumman Shipyard also constructed a full-scale static replica, placed on the grounds of the Mariners’ Museum. The 150th anniversary of her loss prompted several events on 29 December 2012.
Anderson, Bern (1989). By Sea and by River: The Naval History of the Civil War. Da Capo Press.
Ballard, G. A., Admiral (1980). The Black Battlefleet. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-87021-924-5. 261 pages.
Baxter, James Phinney, 3rd (1968). The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship, Archon Books
Bennett, Lieutenant, U.S. Navy, Frank M. (1900). The Monitor and the Navy under steam. Houghton, Mifflin
Broadwater, John D. (2012). USS Monitor: A Historic Ship Completes Its Final Voyage. Texas A&M University Press.
Canney, Donald L. (1993). The Old Steam Navy. Vol. 2: The Ironclads, 1842–1885. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press.
Clancy, Paul (2013). Ironclad; The Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss, and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor. Koehler Books
Chesneau, Roger; Kolesnik, Eugene M., eds. (1979). Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1860–1905.
Davis, William C. (1975). Duel Between the First Ironclads (Book club ed.). Doubleday.
‘USS Monitor Can Be Raised,’ Says Top Underwater Salvaging Expert”. The Harvard Crimson.
Dinsmore, David A; Broadwater, John D. (1999). “1998 NOAA Research Expedition to the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary”.
Field, Ron (2011). Confederate Ironclad vs Union Ironclad: Hampton Roads. Osprey Publishing.
Gentile, Gary (1993). Ironclad Legacy: Battles of the Uss Monitor. Gary Gentile Productions.
Holloway, Anna (2013). The Last Voyage of the USS Monitor (PDF). The Mariner’s Museum.
Holzer, Harold; Mulligan, Tim (2006). The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. Fordham University Press.
Konstam, Angus (2002). Hampton Roads 1862: First Clash of the Ironclads. Osprey Publishing.
Konstam, Angus (25 January 2002). Union Monitor 1861–65. Osprey Publishing.
Mariners’ Museum. “Last Voyage of the Monitor: December 24th – Forward”.
Nelson, James L. (2009). Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack.
Park, Carl D. (2007). Ironclad Down: The USS Merrimack-CSS Virginia from Construction to Destruction.
Quarstein, John V. (1999). The Battle of the Ironclads. Arcadia Publishing.
Quarstein, John V. (2006). A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron Over Wood
Quarstein, John V. (2010). The Monitor Boys: The Crew of the Union’s First Ironclad..
Quarstein, John V. (2012). The CSS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender. The History Press.
Rawson, Edward K.; Woods, Robert H. (1897). Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion.
Roberts, William H. (2002). Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization.
Still, William N. (1988). Hill, Dina B. (ed.). Ironclad Captains: The Commanding Officers of the U. S. S. Monitor.
Thompson, Stephen C. (1990). “The Design and Construction of the USS Monitor”. Warship International.
Thulesius, Olav (2007). The Man who Made the Monitor: A Biography of John Ericsson, Naval Engineer.
Brooke, John Mercer (2002). Ironclads and Big Guns of the Confederacy: The Journal and Letters of John M. Brooke.
Bushnell, Cornelius Scranton; Ericsson, John; Welles, Gideon (1899). The original United States warship “Monitor”.
Dahlgren, Madeleine Vinton (1882). Memoir of John A. Dahlgren, Rear-admiral United States Navy. J. R. Osgood.
Green (USN), Lieutenant Samuel Dana (1862). “An Eye-Witness Account of the Battle Between the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia”
Rawson, Edward K., Superintendent Naval War Records; Woods, Robert H. (1898).
Welles, Gideon (1911). Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson.
Worden, John Lorimer; Greene, Samuel Dana; Ramsay, H. Ashton; Watson, Eugene Winslow (1912). The Monitor and the Merrimac
Bennett, Frank Marion; Weir, Robert (1896). The Steam Navy of the United States. Warren & Company
Mokin, Arthur (1991). Ironclad: the Monitor and the Merrimack. Presidio Press.
Peterkin, Ernest W. (1985). Drawings of the U.S.S. Monitor: A Catalog and Technical Analysis. NOAA
Sheridan, Robert E. (2004). Iron from the Deep: The Discovery and Recovery of the USS Monitor.
Snow, Richard (2016). Iron Dawn: The Monitor, the Merrimack, and the Civil War Sea Battle that Changed History.
Still, William N., Jr. (1988). Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads
Still, William N., Jr. (1988). Monitor Builders: A Historical Study of the Principal Firms and Individuals Involved in the Construction of USS Monitor.
Welles, Gideon (1911). Thaddeus Welles (ed.). Diary of Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy Under Lincoln and Johnson. Houghton Mifflin Company.
The USS New ironsides was the sole true sea going ironclad of the entire Secession war, and the first of the united states.
As soon as the Union admiralty had clues about a new confederate ironclad, future CSS Virginia, requirements for a new ironclad, and perhaps more to come, were issued. In fact, many designs were submitted, and three were retained. The first was the most revolutionary and cutting-edge technological marvel: The Monitor. The other was the rail-covered USS Galena, with a turtleback hull to deflect gun shots, and eventually, USS New Ironsides, a sea-going ironclad.
Of course the surname which became popular was inspired by her first namesake : The “old” versus the “new” ironsides, as the first, historical frigate was affectionately called “old ironsides”. And the “new” ironsides was truly iron-armoured contrary to the 1797 frigate.
USS New Ironsides with full rigging as completed in 1862.
This ship was more an American version of the French “Gloire” rather than inspired by the HMS Warrior. It was short, wide, possessed a wooden hull covered with iron plating and coppered below waterline, three masts and a single artillery deck with side Dalghren guns. Armour was complete, extending from the entire length of the hull, from one meter below waterline to the upper gallery. The hull was flat-bottomed, with a rectangular ram, there was a single funnel. Merrick & Sons made the design proposals, but construction took place at William Cramp and Sons as sub-contractor, in NYC.
Just after the battle of Hampton roads, the original planned armament of sixteen 9in Dalghren guns was changed to fourteen 11in Dalghren guns and two 8in Parrot rifles. Later on, two chase 50-pounders, and several 60-pounder guns (5in) were added on the upper deck.
The ship was launched in may 1862 and commissioned in august. Shortly after commission she sailed for Hampton roads, joining the blockade under Rear Admiral Goldsborough‘s command. Some steering and gun recoil problems occurred after trials, never really solved until September when she returned from Philadelphia Yard to Hampton roads to resume blockading operations, assisted by USS Monitor and Galena, the two other “ironclads” of the Union.
This routine went on until the night on 5 October 1863, when CSS David successfully “torpedoed” her. Badly damaged, she was decommissioned for extensive repairs and complete reconstruction, re-commissioned in august 1864. She had no masts nor rigging (see the illustration) notably, and spent her late career chasing blockade runners, shelling forts and patrolling, up to the end of the war. Decommissioned and moored at League island (Philadelphia) she accidentally took fire, which destroyed her completely by December 1866.
The confederacy, always trying to wage a potent naval warfare with its limited resources, tried several spar torpedo vessels and rams, notably to deal with blockading ships. These anchored targets were perfect ones, beeing unable to built steam fast enough to sail out of harm…
If only the attacking ship was fast and stealthy enough, and can protect itself if discovered, it could reach any ship just in time for delivering the fatal blow… This tactic generated many special-purpose ships, and the David was one of these, probably one of the most interesting one. With its cigar-shape it looked like a submarine, but it wasn’t.
Born on the drawing board of an unknown southern engineer, it was built as a private venture by T Stoney of Charleston, with in mind the sinking of the most formidable ship the Union has dispatched, ironclad USS New Ironsides.
Design of the CSS David
The David was basically a cigar-shaped wooden, metal covered semi-submerged spar torpedo vessel. For weight distribution, the boiler was in the center, the exhaust beeing a tall and narrow funnel, the only protruding structure of this unusual ship, with a single hatch. The crew was limited to three men and an officer.
The ship was small and cramped, in order to navigate in the shallow waters of the Mississippi and the bay of Charleston. Despite the fact its was entirely metal cladded, the david was unarmoured. The water itself formed, once submerged, the best natural protection available. At this time, US naval guns had a limited range and were only capable of direct fire.
The CSS David was built in record time, carrying a 70 pound explosive charge attached to a five to six meters pole. It was design to operate on moonless nights, under calm weather, burning anthracite coal making almost no smoke.
Her first mission came in the night of october, 5, 1863, under Lieutenant William T. Glassell command, attempting to sink the New ironsides.
Despite beeing discovered by a watch onboard the USN ship, the David sucessfully plunged ahead and stroke its starboard quarter, but the ensuring high water column ran back on the CSN ship, and its boiler took fire. As the David was disabled and seemed doomed, and all the New ironsides (which survived with only four casualties) crew pouring small arms fire on it, all the crew but one managed to get away swimming – Two of them would be captured afterwards.
The remaining pilot, and an engineer, which returned on board, somewhat managed to steam the torpedo ship out of range.
For the next four months, the David records are unclear, but the ship was thought to have beeing implied in several attacks, all unsuccesful. On march, 1864, an attack on USS Memphis turned short because the torpedo charge failed to explode.
In april, 18, the screw frigate USS Wabash was also targeted, but as the lookout prevented any ramming, both ships leaved action in a draw. The ultimate fate of the David lays unknown, the best guess beeing it was captured along with other Confederate ships, when Charleston fell in february 1865…
CSS Savannah was part of the larger Richmond-class, one of the two classes or casemate ironclad built by the confederate navy during the war. The Richmond class was conceived a genuine design for ships to be built locally with limited resources, but in sufficient numbers, not to turn the tide of the blockade, but protecting harbours and coastal waters. The casemate ironclads were a perfect response for this. Built above existing ships, razed and rebuilt, or brand new, they were armoured above the waterline by iron plates backed by large buffers of timber. Artillery was limited to three to four guns, some beeing smoothbore but most beeing rifled.
The Richmond class was drawed by CSN engineer John L. Porter to fill the requirements of the Confederacy Navy Department (CND) in late 1861, a policy of “home-built ironclads”; The CND ordered nearly 50 ironclads during the war, from which only half were effectively completed before the end of the hostilities. The Richmond class counted six ships, the Palmetto State, Chicora, North Carolina, Raleigh, Richmond and Savannah. They were the first, standardized, well-conceived ships for their limited goals, contrasting with former individual ironclads, much costier, both unsuccessful as blockade runners and too ambitious for harbour defence duties.
They were shallow water pontoons, with a U-bottom section keeled hull, and with its waterline protected by a knuckle of heavy timber. Protection was made of interlocked 21in timber frame, covered with two layers of 2in rolled iron plates, with a 35 degree slope. The narrow upper casemate bridge, and fore and aft lower bridges were covered by a single 2in armour plating, overlapping the timber knuckle.
The artillery comprised four guns, from which the two at casemate ends were able to fire from three portholes, and two broadside guns with shifted positions. This gave a good use of limited artillery and permitted the hull some extra stability, and saving weight. This solution was seen as perfectly fitted for the new CSN policies, allowing more ships to be built in a shorter time, saving cost and training and simplifying logistics. Another later class was built, sometimes called the Charleston or Nashville class, comprising also the CSS Tennessee. They were improved versions of the latter.
The CSS Savannah herself was built by H. F. Willink at Savannah, Georgia, laid down in april 1862, launched in february 1863 and commissioned june 30, 1863. Propulsion was assumed by a steam engine from Confederates Naval Iron Works at Columbus, propelling a single 10 feet screw. Speed was an average 6 knots. The crew comprised 150 sailors and 25 officers, along with ten marines. Armament was made of two fore and aft 7in and Brooke pivot rifles and two broadside 6.4in Brooke rifled guns.
A single 12pdr shield deck howitzer was also mounted. The pilot’s hatch was situated abaft the smokestack. The Savannah became the flagship of the Savannah squadron, comprising also several gunboats, under William W. Hunter and later Robert F. Pinkey command. She served well, guarding the Savannah harbour approaches until late 1864. In december, during USN gen. Sherman march to the sea, she fough valiantly, supporting defensive troops, later, the USN battery involved in the siege, then evacuation, exchanging broadsides with federal batteries before beeing burned by its crew to prevent its capture.
The CSS Fredericksburg was born in Richmond, between 1862 and 1863, and was the second Ironclad laid up in this town for the Confederate states navy. It was launched in mid-1963, and declared completed and ready for service in November, 30, 1863. However, it was unarmed at that time, and had to wait before beeing fitting out, which occurred in march 1864 at Drewry’s bluff and later put under command of Thomas R. Rootes, CSN.
The Fredericksburg was constructed from scratch for servicing into the James River. She was 2500 tons Burthen, 188 ft (57m) long, 40 ft 8 in (12,27m) wide and with a 9 ft 6 in (2.90m) draft, built of wood and protected by metal plates. A steam engine with two shafts propelled her to 5 knots (9 kph), and has a 4160 nautical miles range (over 7000 km), with a complement of 150 men and officers.
It was armed by one 11 in (280mm) smoothbore cannon, one 8 in (203mm) and two 6.4 in (160mm), all rifled, with eight available portholes, one at the front, one rear, and three per side. There were two protruding bridges, at both end of the roof of the casemate, which itself was highly sloped and slightly shorter than in many Confederate ironclads of the time.
The CSS Fredericksburg career was relatively short. Being armed so late, it was only operational within the James River fleet (Commodore John K. Mitchell), successfully passed Drewry’s Bluff obstructions and assisted the operation of the fleet until the end of the war.
On june, 21, 1864, she engaged the USS Onondaga at Trent’s Reach, at large distance, a duel which ended in a draw. In August 1864 she also shelled US positions along the James river.
Battle of Trent’s Reach
Other inconclusive encounters with the US James river squadron followed at Trent and Verina Reaches, until the beginning of 1865, a duel with the same opponent, this time assisted by the CSS Virginia and Richmond (battle of Trent’s Reach, 23-24 jan 1865), and shore artillery.
However, in april 1865, receiving the news that Richmond has fallen, she sailed above Drewry’s Bluff and was blewed up with several other CSN ships, to prevent her capture, the 4 of April.
USS Unadilla, lead ship of the ’90 days’ schooners
The “90 days schooners”.
Soon, during civil war, the best Union naval policy chosen was to blockade the entire condeferate coastline by all means necessary, notably to halt confederate trading, make an efficient embargo on weapons and ships, and prevent any intervention by European powers : This was the famous “Anaconda plan”.
Although the Union fleet was sizeable -it dwarfed the Confederate navy by any standards- the task of convering a sea area so immense was daunting for the admiralty. In a stopgap measure, most ships were stationed in front of of major coastal cities and river outlets and deltas, like the Mississippi, the Chesapeake bay entrance, where the first american ironclads, USS monitor and CSS Virginia famously duelled.
The admiralty, and above the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, devised specifications in 1861 for a light-draft vessel which could perform at sea and inshore, being built fastly and in large quantities (23 units) by many small private-owned shipbuilders. The engine natural choice seemed to be the recent design of two Russian gunboats engines by Benjamin F. Isherwood (then Navy’s chief engineer) at Novelty Iron Works in New York.
USS Unadilla under construction
But the hull design was drawn by Samuel H. Pook, probably based on 1860 USS Pocahontas. The design was immediately accepted and the contruction of the engines began even before the Congress signed the contract for all ships, between june and july. The four first gunboats were built in a record time, only 92-96 days, earning their nickname.
The first to be launched, in october 1861 was the USS Unadilla, giving this class its official name. All ships were named after indian tribes. These were the Aroostook, Cayuga, Chippewa, Chocura, Huron, Itasca, Kanawha, Katahdin, Kennebec, Kineo, Marblehead, Ottawa, Owasco, Pembina, Penobscot, Pinola, Sagamore, Sciota, Seneca, Tahoma, Unadilla, Winona and Wissahickon.
The Unadilla class Gunboats were launched between august and october 1861, and commissionned between september 1861 and february 1862. These were wooden ships, measuring 48.26 x 8.53 x 3.15m (158ft 4in x 28ft x 10ft 4in), with 691 tons of displacement (507 Tons burthen).
The hull was made of white oak (frames keels and keelson), locust and live oak for port stanchions. Assembly was performed with corrosion resistant copper bolts, and structural weaknesses were corrected by diagonal iron braces and the stems by iron strapping. However unseasoned timber would have not been uncommon as their service life expectancy was deemed to be short.
They had one screw propeller, two 30-in bore by 18 in stroke horizontal back-acting (RCR) engines (fitted with Sewell surface condensers), fed with two Martin boilers (vertical tubular type, 60psi on trials, with two furnaces each), which developed 400ihp in all, giving these ships a speed of 10-11 knots. The sailing rig was of a schooner type, versatile, easy to use with little manpower.
Complement was 78-114 depending of the armament. This last depended on the builder’s stores, mostly for small guns. The main typical armament comprised a main centerline full traversing 3.7in (93 mm) Parrot RML (Rifled Muzzle Loading), one 11in (280mm) smoothbore, and two 24 pounder howitzers.
The Original first four however, were equipped with one 11in Dahlgren SB, two 24-pdr SBs and two 20-pdr Parrot RMLs. The private contrators were all chosen along the Eastern seaboard (in respective order of the ship alphabetical order) NW Thompson, Gildersleeve, Webb & Bell, Curtis & Tilden, Paul Curtis, Hillman & Streaker, Goodspeed, Larrabee & Allen, G W Lawrence, J WDyer, G W Jackman, Westervelt, C Mallory, Thomas Stack, CP Carter, Abrahams, A & G T Sampson, Jacob Birley, Simonson, Thatcher, John English, C & R Poillon and John Lynn.
However, most of the engine were built by NY contractors, Novelty Iron Works, Morgan Iron Works and Allaire works. Cost varied from $90,000 to $103,500.
The Unadilla class gunboats were quickly posted in faction on all required blockade areas, revealing many ocean-going ships, corvettes and frigates of the Union for more useful duties. They will be in turn, backed by the Kansas class gunboats, and the Octorara, Sassacus and Mohongo side-wheels class gunboats, 55 purpose-built ships in all.
Appreciation of their performances were mixed. Some captains complains of them being poor sailors, rolling badly in bad weather, and suffering many breakdowns. After months at sea, the engine performance was degraded, and average speed fell to les than 8 knots. Plus their machinery was far heavier than expected, hence reducing their overall efficiency.
They were praised however in riverine operations, for their firepower and relatively shallow draught hull. They had a quite active history, besides their main duty of enforcing the blockade, providing gun support in many operations, including the battle of Port Royal (South Carolina, November 1861), were four were committed, gauging the Confederate local forces strength, and defeating two forts, leading to the eventual capture of the harbour.
Later on, in April 1862, no less than nine of these gunboats were enlisted in West Gulf Blockading Squadron’s David Farragut fleet to provide cover the the operations against New Orleans, then the most prosperous Confederate city. Three gunboats successfully remove the obstructing chain at the entrance of the Mississippi river and others silenced St Philips Fort and Fort Jackson. The expedition led to the surrendering of the city.
Next logical step was the city of Vicksburg. Some of these gunboats fought during the battle of Baton Rouge ending with the city’s capture. They soldiered during all the Vicksburg campaign, until the end of 1862. Last actions were the Battle of Mobile Bay (aug 1864), with Itasca, Sciota and Kennebec, and Fort Fisher, in 1864 and 1865.
Sciota was the only class casualty, struck a mine in Mobile bay waters on 14 march 1865. Although many gunboats were decommissioned and disarmed in 1865, many others managed to survive until 1869, serving with the Gulf Squadron, the North Atlantic squadron, and the Asiatic squadron (Aroostook and Unadilla), helping to clear the south-eastern China seas from piracy.
The USS Unadilla transported the new President of the USA, Andrew Johnson, for a stat visit to the king of Siam. All were sold to merchant companies, but their civil career rarely lasted until 1875-80 due to their rotting hulls caused by unseasoned timber
A turtleback Union Turret Ironclad Ram
The Union warship known as Keokuk was born USS Moodna, built on purpose as an experimental ironclad, with several innovative features. She was designed by engineer Charles W. Whitney for New York City’s J.S. Underhill Shipyards, 11th Street. She was named after the eponym city in Iowa and launched on 6 December 1862, with one of the shortest active life or any USN vessel to date.
The Keokuk was the first US warship to be almost entirely built of iron, as wood only apply to deck planking and to fill the armor cladding support. The hull comprised five iron box keelsons and the armor was made of 100 iron frames, one by four feets thick spaced 18in between centers, alternated with yellow pine slats.
The hull was then covered by 1/2 in armour plates, for a total side thickness of 5.75 in (156mm). The decks comprised integral iron cross beams with no transverse planking. Although the ship was quite wide, the bridge itself, due to the sloped sides, was narrow. The bow and stern section were water ballasts which could be flooded to lower the waterline and present the slopest angle to enemy fire -the water itself was seen as an excellent protection below the waterline.
USS Keokuk in construction (no source information) (cc)
The ship was 160ft x 36ft x 8ft6 (48.6 x 11 x 2.6m), with a 688 short tons dispacement. It was propelled by two shafts, actioned by two 2-cylinder 250hp steam engines, and could reach 9 knots at full speed. There were nine auxiliary steam engines for various electrical systems on board.
The armament comprised two eight-face turrets pierced by multiple ports, each with a single 11-in Dahlgren rifled guns, and the reinforced ram.
The USS Keokuk was accepted in service in march 1863, with Commander Alexander C. Rhind as commander and a crew of 92 officers and men. First assignation was the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
She was due to participate in the attack of Charleston. But en route, on march, 17, one of her propeller was fouled in an anchor buoy line, and she has to be repaired at Hampton roads. On the 26, she steamed to port Royal, then took part in laying buoys with USS Bibb, to guide the approaches to Charleston for Admiral Francis DuPont fleet of 11 ironclads.
The attack was postponed due to bad weather, and renewed on April, 7. But the operation was a near fiasco and few progresses were made due to torpedoes and other Southern obstructions, until the fleet was in reach of Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter. Then, other obstructions combined to a very high tide made the ships unmanageable, while being sitting ducks for the fort’s accurate fire.
The Keokuk, to avoid collision with the USS Nahant, almost ran aground at only 600 yards (550m) of Fort Sumter. For half an hour, she was pounded at point-blank range, hit ninety times, hopefully attracting the gunners attention while other ships could disengage. The underwater protection was quickly proven insufficient after been hit several times, and the ship was flooded. Eventually USS Keokuk was able to disengage and leave “completely riddled”, thanks to the skills of the pilot, Robert Small.
The crew managed to keep her afloat until the next day, when a breeze aggravated the flooding, and the ship listed and finally sank off Morris Island, slowly enough to be evacuated. 14 men of the crew were wounded, including Captain Rhind and the quartermaster Robert Anderson (later awarded the Medal of Honor). Gunnery Ensign Mackintosh was the only man to die later from his wounds.
USS Keokuk at sea, Courtesy of Dr. Oscar Parkes, London, England, 1936. United States Naval History and Heritage Command. (cc)
Later on, a federal survey concluded that the ship, filled with sand, was unable to be refloated and it was decided to left the wreck there. CSS officer P.G.T. Beauregard however mounted a salvage operation for retrieving the two precious Dahlgren guns. The operation led by civil engineer Adolphus W. LaCoste was performed at night, at low tide, under the protection of the CSS Palmetto State and Chicora. The guns were later mounted ashore and active until the end of the war.
The real first military submarine ever buit by an American was the “Turtle”, from David Bushnell, during the war of independance. Before him, Fulton’s Nautilus was often considered to be the first practical submarine, offered to Napoleon, which considered but rejected it after a fail trial. The British soon offered him to buy it, but this was dropped when the war ended with France. His 1808 design was left to the US embassy and forgotten until 1920. He went to the USN to start a new career.
Now, once more under dramatic circumstances, another engineer attempted to give the USN its first submarine. French engineer Brutus de Villeroi, came to america to propose its own design to the admiralty. Despite scepticism at first an no immediate need for such kind of ship, intelligece reports showing the Merrimack was reconstructed changed their opinion, and an order was placed in october 1861 to shipbuilders Neafie & Levy to translate his design into reality for immediate operational purposes, under De Villeroi supervision. Because of the initial pressure on the builders (the ship has to be finished within 40 days starting at 1 November 1861 from contract signature), some problems quickly occured.
This was a small vessel (30 ft – only 9m), made entirely of iron, with watertight ovale sections (6 ft wide by 8ft high, approx. 1.8 x 2.4m), and conic ends, pierced by a serie of small circular plates for light. It was steered by a tailfin at the rear, but the most unusual feature was its propulsion, made originally of sixteen hand-powered paddles. Air was provided by two tubes floating on the surface and connected to an internal pump.
However, the entire project was proven complex enough and conception dragged on for 180 days. The CSS Alligator was launched enventually on 1 May 1862. The crew was 12, including an officer, two divers, one helmsman and 8 oarsmen, each manning two paddles, thus requiring a narrow hull. The Union submersible was armed with two limpet mines, designed to be activated by the driver when placed under the target.
This boat was transferred to Philadelphia Navy Yard for fittings, and then recruit a crew. The official USN commission came on 13 june, under commander Samuel Eakins, a civilian ship captain. First action began immediately after, without trials, as the Fred Kopp tugged her to Hampton Roads, Virginia via Chesapeake bay.
Finally the ship joined her operational base at Norfolk and was given a tender during the mission, the sidewheel steamer Satellite, part of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. There Brutu’s boat was officially named the USS Alligator -after the most common Mississippi predator- where it was soon mandated to operate, reaching Hampton roads on 23 june 1862.
There, since the Merrimack was still not operational, several tasks were envisioned… This included blowing up obstructions near Fort Darling on the James River or the bridge across Swift Creek (Appomatox river), but neither had sufficient deep, as stated by naval commander in charge of the sector, John Rodgers. So after 25 june, she was moored at City Point on the James River, and another mission was devised : Sinking the Virginia II in case she was operational.
For this, the submarine was towed back to Hampton roads. Soo after, the 29, she was sent to Washington Navy Yard for testings, which proved unsatisfactory, according to the new naval commander, Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr. On his request, several changes were made, including a screw propeller connected to a man-handed crankshaft, which in turn dictated an enlargement of the hull. New specifications were 74 feets (14m) in lenght, and a weight of 2,74 tons (surface).
Speed was now 4 knots (7kph), compared to the 2 knots of the ancient paddle propulsion. By late 1862 the Alligator was back in service with a new crew for additional tests and exercizes. During one of these, on 19, March 1863, President Lincoln was observing.
The carrer of this unwanted submarine -with no apparent suitable task- took a new twist when Rear Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont thought to use it together with USS Sumter for attacking and capturing Charleston. However, the two ships encountered bad weather on 2 april near the cape hatteras, and USS Alligator was separated from USS Sumter, immediately drifting and sinking soon after. Fortunately nobody was on board, but this marked the inglorious end of the first USN submarine…