Images of USS Monitor, Civil War Ironclad

John Ericsson, Inventor of The Monitor

John Ericsson, designer of the USS Monitor
The U.S. Navy Reluctantly Accepted Ericsson's Innovative Design John Ericsson, designer of the USS Monitor. Getty Images

The USS Monitor Battled the CSS Virginia in 1862

The age of ironclad warships dawned during the American Civil War, when the Union's USS Monitor and the Confederacy's CSS Virginia clashed in March 1862.

These images show how the unusual warships made history.

President Lincoln took the idea of Ericsson's armored warship seriously, and construction began on the USS Monitor in late 1861.

John Ericsson, who had been born in Sweden in 1803, was known as a highly innovative inventor, though his designs were often met with skepticism.

When the Navy became interested in obtaining an armored warship, Ericsson submitted a design, which was startling: a revolving armored turret was placed on a flat deck. It didn't look like any ship afloat, and there were serious questions about the practicality of the design.

After a meeting at which he was shown a model of the proposed boat, President Abraham Lincoln, who was often fascinated by new technology, gave his approval in September 1861.

The Navy gave Ericsson a contract to build the ship, and construction soon began at an ironworks in Brooklyn, New York.

Ericsson had to rush the construction, and some features he would have liked to have included had to be set aside. Nearly everything on the ship was designed by Ericsson, who was busily designing parts at his drawing table as the work progressed.

Amazingly, the entire ship, which was mostly made of iron, was nearly finished within 100 days.

The Monitor's Design Was Startling

Ericsson's innovative plan for the Monitor included a revolving gun turret.
A Revolving Turret Changed Centuries of Naval Tradition Ericsson's innovative plan for the Monitor included a revolving gun turret. Getty Images

For centuries, warships maneuvered in the water to bring their guns to bear on an enemy. The Monitor's revolving turret meant the ship's guns could fire in any direction.

The most startling innovation in Ericsson's plan for the Monitor was the inclusion of a revolving gun turret.

A steam engine on the ship powered the turret, which could spin to allow its two heavy guns to fire in any direction. It was an innovation that shattered centuries of naval strategy and tradition.

Another novel feature of the Monitor was that much of the ship was actually below the waterline, which meant that only the turret and the low flat deck presented themselves as targets for enemy guns.

While the low profile made sense for defensive reasons, it also created a number of very serious problems. The ship would not handle well in open water, as waves could swamp the low deck.

And for sailors serving on the Monitor, life was an ordeal. The ship was very difficult to ventilate. And thanks to its construction of iron, the interior was very cold in cold weather, and in hot weather it was like an oven.

The ship was also cramped, even by Navy standards. It was 172 feet long and 41 feet wide. About 60 officers and men served as the ship's crew, in very tight quarters.

The U.S. Navy had been building steam-powered ships for some time when the Monitor was designed, but naval contracts still required ships to use sail if for some reason the steam engines failed.

And the contract to build the Monitor, which was signed in October 1861, contained a clause which Ericsson ignored and the Navy never insisted upon: it required the builder to "furnish masts, spars, sails, and rigging of sufficient dimensions to drive the vessel at the rate of six knots per hour in a fair breeze of wind."

The USS Merrimac Was Converted to the CSS Virginia

A lithograph depicting the devastating attack on the USS Cumberland by the CSS Virginia.
The Attack By the Confederate Ironclad Made Wooden Warships Obsolete A lithograph depicting the devastating attack on the USS Cumberland by the CSS Virginia. Library of Congress

An abandoned Union warship converted into an ironclad by the Confederacy was lethal to wooden warships.

When Virginia seceded from the Union in the spring of 1861, the navy yard at Norfolk, Virginia was abandoned by federal troops. A number of ships, including the USS Merrimac, were scuttled, purposely sunk so as not to be of any value to the Confederates.

The Merrimac, though badly damaged, was raised and its steam engines were restored to operating condition. The ship was then transformed into an armored fortress carrying heavy guns.

The plans for the Merrimac were known in the North, and a dispatch in the New York Times on October 25, 1861 gave considerable details of her rebuilding:

"At the Portsmouth navy-yard the steamer Merrimac is being fitted out by the rebels, who hope much from her future achievements. She will carry a battery of twelve 32-pound rifled cannon, and her bow will be armed with a steel plough, projecting six feet under water. The steamer is iron-clad throughout, and her decks are protected by a covering of railroad iron, in the form of an arch, which it is hoped will be proof against shot and shell."

The CSS Virginia Attacked the Union Fleet at Hampton Roads

On the morning of March 8, 1862, the Virginia steamed from its mooring and began to attack the Union fleet anchored off Hampton Roads, Virginia.

As the Virginia fired its cannons at the USS Congress, the Union ship fired a full broadside in return. To the amazement of onlookers, the solid shot from the Congress hit the Virginia and bounced off without causing major damage.

The Virginia then fired a full broadside into the Congress, causing heavy casualties. The Congress caught fire. Its decks were covered with dead and wounded sailors.

Instead of sending a boarding party aboard the Congress, which would have been traditional, the Virginia steamed ahead to attack the USS Cumberland.

The Virginia blasted the Cumberland with cannon shot, and then was able to tear a hole in the side of the wooden warship with the iron ram that was fastened to the bow of the Virginia.

As sailors abandoned ship, the Cumberland began to sink.

Before returning to its moorings, the Virginia attacked the Congress again, and also fired its guns at the USS Minnesota. As dusk approached, the Virginia steamed back toward the Confederate side of the harbor, under the protection of Confederate shore batteries.

The age of the wooden warship was over.

The Historic Clash of Ironclads

A Currier and Ives print depicting the Monitor battling the Virginia.
Artists Depicted the First Engagement Between Ironclad Warships A Currier and Ives print depicting the Monitor battling the Virginia (which was identified by its previous name, the Merrimac in the print's caption). Library of Congress

No photographs were taken of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia, though many artists later created images of the scene.

As CSS Virginia was destroying Union warships on March 8, 1862, USS Monitor was coming to the end of a difficult sea voyage. It had been towed southward from Brooklyn to join the American fleet stationed at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The trip was nearly a calamity. On two occasions the Monitor came close to flooding and sinking along the New Jersey coast. The ship was simply not designed for operating in the open ocean.

The Monitor arrived at Hampton Roads on the night of March 8, 1862, and by the next morning it was ready for battle.

The Virginia Attacked the Union Fleet Again

On the morning of March 9, 1862 the Virginia again steamed out from Norfolk, intent on finishing its destructive work of the day before. The USS Minnesota, a large frigate which had run aground while trying to escape the Virginia on the previous day, was to be the first target.

When the Virginia was still a mile away it lobbed a shell which struck the Minnesota. The Monitor then began to steam forward to protect the Minnesota.

Observers on the shore, noting that the Monitor appeared much smaller than the Virginia, were worried that the Monitor would not be able to stand up to the cannons of the Confederate ship.

The first shot from the Virginia aimed at the Monitor missed completely. The officers and gunners of the Confederate ship immediately realized a serious problem: the Monitor, designed to ride low in the water, did not present much of a target.

The two ironclads steamed toward each other, and began firing their heavy guns at close range. The armor plating on both ships held up well, and the Monitor and Virginia battled for four hours, essentially reaching a stalemate. Neither ship could disable the other.

The Battle Between the Monitor and the Virginia Was Intense

A print depicting the ferocity of the Battle of Hampton Roads.
The Two Ironclads Pounded Each Other for Four Hours A print depicting the ferocity of the Battle of Hampton Roads, fought between the Monitor and the Virginia. Library of Congress

Though the Monitor and the Virginia were built along very different designs, they were evenly matched when they met in combat at Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The battle between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia lasted for about four hours. The two ships battered each other, but neither one could score a decisive blow.

For the men aboard the ships, the battle must have been a very strange experience. Few people aboard either ship could see what was happening. And when the solid cannonballs struck the armor plating of the ships, men inside were thrown off their feet.

Yet despite the violence unleashed by the guns, the crews were well-protected. The most serious injury aboard either ship was to the commander of the Monitor, Lieutenant John Worden, who was blinded temporarily and sustained facial burns when a shell exploded on the deck of the Monitor while he was looking out the small window of the pilot house (which was located forward of the ship's turret).

The Ironclads Were Damaged, But Both Survived the Battle

By most accounts, the Monitor and the Virginia were both struck about 20 times by shells fired by the other ship.

Both ships sustained damage, but neither one was put out of action. The battle was essentially a draw.

And as might be expected, both sides claimed victory. The Virginia had destroyed Union ships on the previous day, killing and wounding hundreds of sailors. So the Confederates could claim a victory in that sense.

Yet on the day of the fight with the Monitor, the Virginia had been thwarted in its mission to destroy the Minnesota and the rest of the Union fleet. So the Monitor had succeeded in its purpose, and in the North the actions by its crew were celebrated as a great victory.

CSS Virginia Was Destroyed

Lithograph showing the destruction of the C.S.S. Virginia.
The Retreating Confederates Burned CSS Virginia Lithograph showing the destruction of the C.S.S. Virginia (which was generally identified by northern publications with by its former name). Library of Congress

For the second time in its life, USS Merrimac, which had been rebuilt as CSS Virginia, was set afire by troops abandoning a shipyard.

Two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, Union troops entered Norfolk, Virginia. The retreating Confederates couldn't save CSS Virginia.

The ship was too ungainly to survive in the open ocean, even if it could have sailed past the Union blockade vessels. And the draft of the ship (its depth in the water) was too deep for it to sail farther up the James River. The ship had nowhere to go.

The Confederates removed the guns and anything else of value from the ship, and then set it on fire. Charges stowed on the ship exploded, completely destroying it.

Captain Jeffers On the Deck of the Battle-Damaged Monitor

Capt. William Nicholson Jeffers, in a photograph which shows battle damage to the Monitor's turret.
Dents From Cannonballs Marked the Turret of the Monitor Capt. William Nicholson Jeffers, in a photograph which shows battle damage to the Monitor's turret. Library of Congress

Following the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Monitor remained in Virginia, sporting the marks of the cannon duel it had fought with the Virginia.

During the summer of 1862 the Monitor remained in Virginia, plying the waters around Norfolk and Hampton Roads. At one point it sailed up the James River to bombard Confederate positions.

As the Monitor's commander, Lieutenant John Worden, had been wounded during the fight with the CSS Virginia, a new commander, Captain William Nicholson Jeffers was assigned to the ship.

Jeffers was known as a scientifically-minded naval officer, and had written several books on subjects such as naval gunnery and navigation. In this photograph, captured on a glass negative by photographer James F. Gibson in 1862, he relaxes on the deck of the Monitor.

Note the large dent to the right of Jeffers, a result of a cannonball fired by CSS Virginia.

Crewmen On the Deck of the Monitor

Sailors of the Monitor relaxing on its deck, summer 1862.
Service On the Monitor Often Meant Working in Cramped and Smoky Conditions Sailors of the Monitor relaxing on its deck, summer 1862. Library of Congress

The crew appreciated time spent on the deck, as conditions inside the ship could be brutal.

The crewmen of the Monitor took pride in their posting, and they were all volunteers for duty aboard the ironclad.

Following the Battle of Hampton Roads, and the destruction of the Virginia by retreating Confederates, the Monitor mostly stayed near Fortress Monroe. A number of visitors came aboard to see the innovative new ship, including President Abraham Lincoln, who paid two inspection visits to the ship in May 1862.

Photographer James F. Gibson also visited the Monitor, and took this photograph of crewmen relaxing on the deck.

Visible on the turret is an opening of a gun port, and also some dents which would be the result of cannonballs fired from the Virginia. The gun port opening reveals the exceptional thickness of the armor protecting the guns and gunners in the turret.

The Monitor Sank in Rough Seas

Depiction of the sinking of the Monitor off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
The Monitor's Design Made It Ill-Suited to the Open Ocean Depiction of the sinking of the Monitor off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Library of Congress

The Monitor was being towed southward, past Cape Hatteras, when it foundered and sank in rough seas in the early hours of December 31, 1862.

A known problem with the Monitor's design was that the ship was difficult to handle in rough water. It nearly sank twice while being towed from Brooklyn to Virginia in early March 1862.

And while being towed to a new deployment in the South, it ran into rough weather off the coast of North Carolina in late December 1862. As the ship struggled, a rescue boat from the USS Rhode Island managed to get close enough to rescue most of the crew.

The Monitor took on water, and it disappeared beneath the waves in the early hours of December 31, 1862. Four officers and 12 men went down with the Monitor.

Though the Monitor's career was brief, other ships, also called Monitors, were built and pressed into service throughout the Civil War.

Other Ironclads Called Monitors Were Built

An improved Monitor, the U.S.S. Passaic, photographed to show battle damage to its turret.
Improvements On the Monitor's Original Design Were Rushed Into Production An improved Monitor, the U.S.S. Passaic, photographed to show battle damage to its turret. Library of Congress

While the Monitor had some design flaws, it proved its worth, and dozens of other Monitors were built and put into service during the Civil War.

The Monitor's action against the Virginia was considered a great success in the North, and other ships, also called Monitors, were put into production.

John Ericsson improved upon the original design and the first batch of new Monitors included the U.S.S. Passaic.

The ships of the Passaic class had a number of engineering improvements, such as a better ventilation system. The pilot house was also moved to the top of the turret, so the commander of the ship could better communicate with the gunnery crews in the turret.

The new monitors were assigned to duty along the southern coast, and saw diverse action. They proved reliable, and their massive firepower made them effective weapons.

A Monitor With Two Turrets

The U.S.S. Onondaga, a Monitor built in 1864 with two turrets.
The Addition of an Extra Turret Pointed to Future Developments USS Onondaga, a Monitor built in 1864 with two turrets, photographed at Aiken's Landing, Virginia during the Civil War. Library of Congress

USS Onondaga, a model of Monitor launched late in the Civil War, never played a major combat role, but the addition of an extra turret foreshadowed later developments in battleship design.

A model of Monitor launched in 1864, USS Onondaga, featured a second turret.

Deployed to Virginia, the Onondaga saw action in the James River.

Its design seemed to point the way toward future innovations.

Following the war, the Onondaga was sold by the U.S. Navy back to the shipyard that built it, and the ship was eventually sold to France. It served in the French Navy for decades, as a patrol boat providing coastal defense. Surprisingly, it remained in service until 1903.

The Turret of the Monitor Was Raised

The turret of the U.S.S. Monitor being raised from the ocean floor in 2002.
In 2002 the Turret of the Monitor Was Raised From the Seabed The turret of USS Monitor being raised from the ocean floor in 2002. Getty Images

The wreck of the Monitor was located in the 1970s, and in 2002 the U.S. Navy succeeded in raising the turret from the sea floor.

USS Monitor sank in 220 feet of water at the end of 1862, and the precise location of the wreck was confirmed in April 1974. Items from the ship, including its red signal lantern, were recovered by divers in the late 1970s.

The site of the wreck had been designated a National Marine Sanctuary by the federal government in the 1980s. In 1986 the ship's anchor, which had been raised from the wreck and restored, was shown to the public. The anchor is now permanently displayed at the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

In 1998 an expedition to the wreck site conducted an extensive research survey, and also succeeded in raising the ship's cast iron propeller.

Complicated dives in 2001 raised more artifacts, including a working thermometer from the engine room. In July 2001 the Monitor's steam engine, which weighs 30 tons, was successfully lifted from the wreck.

In July 2002 divers found human bones inside the Monitor's gun turret, and the remains of sailors who died in its sinking were transferred to the U.S. military for possible identification.

After years of effort, the Navy was unable to identify the two sailors. A military funeral for the two sailors was held at Arlington National Cemetery on March 8, 2013.

The Monitor's turret was raised from the ocean on August 5, 2002. It was placed on a barge and transferred to the Mariner's Museum.

Items recovered from the Monitor, including the turret and the steam engine, are undergoing a conservation process which will take many years. Marine growth and corrosion are being removed by soaking the artifacts in chemical baths, a time-consuming process.

For more information, visit the U.S.S. Monitor Center at the Mariner's Museum. The Monitor Center Blog is particularly interesting and features timely postings.

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McNamara, Robert. "Images of USS Monitor, Civil War Ironclad." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, McNamara, Robert. (2020, August 26). Images of USS Monitor, Civil War Ironclad. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Images of USS Monitor, Civil War Ironclad." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).