USS Monitor

The efforts by the Confederates to construct an ironclad in Hampton Roads were well known to the Federal authorities. Throughout the summer of 1861, newspaper reporters as well as the general public visited the Gosport Yard to observe the work on the Virginia. Newspapers throughout the South carried regular updates on the progress of the conversion. Similar stories were also reported in Northern papers. As the work proceeded, it became evident to the North that if the Confederacy succeeded in launching an armored vessel, there was not a Union ship that could challenge her.

John Ericsson John Ericsson It was the need to offset this potential Confederate naval superiority that moved the United States Navy Department to appoint an Ironclad Board of naval officers to seek and evaluate plans for the construction of ironclad vessels for Federal service. On August 3, 1861, Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles published an announcement calling on designers to submit plans for ironclad warships to the Navy Department. This was not the first time that the United States had toyed with the idea of building ironclad vessels. Since the late 1840s, the navy had considered plans for designing and testing ironclads. In 1842, Robert L. Stevens won a contract to construct a floating iron battery for the navy. However, the Stevens battery was never completed.

The first successful launching of ironclad vessels for United States service occurred during the summer of 1861, not under the direction of the navy, but rather the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps. The War Department ordered the building of ironclad gunboats on the Mississippi under the direction of Samuel Pook and James Eads. These ironclad river steamers known as "Pook Turtles" or "Eads' Gunboats" would be used throughout the war on the western rivers. Still, the command of the Union Navy remained conservative and cautious in approaching iron shipbuilding.

Following Welles's call for plans, a number of designers presented proposals to the Ironclad Board for consideration. Among the designers who submitted proposals was Cornelius Bushnell. Bushnell controlled several railroads in Connecticut, and now ventured to enter the world of naval architecture. With the help of naval constructor Samuel Pook, Bushnell developed a plan for an ironclad steamer. Bushnell's ship, to be called the Galena, was a conventional ship with armor constructed of iron bars laying over iron rails. To verify the seaworthiness of his ship, Bushnell sought out the advice of the renowned engineer John Ericsson. According to Bushnell, after Ericsson had confirmed that the Galena's design was sound, Ericsson produced a model of an "impregnable iron battery" that he had proposed to French Emperor Napoleon III in 1854. The model showed a ship with an almost submerged hull and a single revolving turret fixed to the deck containing a single cannon. Though Napoleon had not accepted the plan, Ericsson emphasized to Bushnell that the battery's design was viable and that the ship could be built very quickly.

Bushnell was so impressed with Ericsson's model that he took it to Secretary Welles, who agreed that the design had "extraordinary and valuable features" and that it should be submitted to the Ironclad Board for consideration. Bushnell presented Ericsson's model to the Board, but it was rejected as too outlandish for consideration. Bushnell then persuaded Ericsson himself to appear before the Board to defend the design.

Ericsson's defense of his design was obviously successful. When the Ironclad Board submitted its final report to Secretary Welles, Ericsson's was one of three designs recommended for approval. The contract offered to Ericsson was in the amount of $275,000, but it stipulated that the ship must be completed in one hundred days, and that it must prove successful in every way or payment would be withheld.

We're in a race to conserve history! Follow along as artifacts are uncovered and more facts are learned about the Monitor and the men who served aboard!

From the heart breaking accounts of life aboard the ironclads to thrilling descriptions of the battles recounted by those who witnessed them you're sure to learn something new!