A Cheesebox on a Raft

Lieutenant John L. Worden reported satisfactory progress on construction of an unnamed vessel slated to become the first Federal ironclad warship. The vessel had been under construction since September 1861 at Long Island, New York. Swedish inventor John Ericsson had pledged to build the ship in just 90 days at a cost of only $275,000. The Federal Naval Ironclad Board, hoping to develop a craft that could challenge the Confederate ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (also under construction), enthusiastically approved the plan and even gave Ericsson an extra 10 days to complete it.

Worden, still recovering from several months of Confederate captivity as a prisoner of war, received a message from Joseph Smith of the Ironclad Board on January 11: “I have only time to say I have named you for the command of the battery under contract with Captain Ericsson, now nearly ready at New York. This vessel is an experiment. I believe you are the right sort of officer to put in command of her.”

Worden responded that he was “induced to believe that she might prove a success.” Five days later, Worden arrived at New York and reported to Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles: “… I have this day reported for duty for the command of the U.S.S. Steamer, building for Capt. Ericsson.”

The U.S.S. Monitor | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The ship was revolutionary in that she contained 47 patentable inventions. The 172-foot-long vessel was encased in nine layers of iron and operated like a floating raft, with most of the body below the waterline. An inch of iron plating protected the wooden deck, with more iron on the sides to protect against rams and fire.

Topping the deck was a nine-foot-high revolving turret, protected by eight layers of one-inch iron plating. The turret, 20 feet in diameter, housed two cannon that could be fired in any direction. When Ericsson could not get 12-inch guns for the turret, he borrowed two 11-inchers from other ships in the harbor.

Another of Ericsson’s innovations was the engine, which connected to a crankshaft and turned the four-bladed propeller. Capable of reaching a speed of six knots, the smokestack venting the exhaust could be removed during combat.

On January 30, Ericsson launched the vessel from the Greenpoint Shipyard on Long Island. Although Ericsson missed his completion deadline, he still built the warship in 101 days, a timeframe that many thought impossible. In fact, Ericsson completed work on his ship before Confederates completed the C.S.S. Virginia, even though they had a three-month head start.

The warship steamed down the East River in Manhattan on her maiden voyage with a draft of 11 feet, just as Ericsson had predicted. Thousands of onlookers cheered at the strange vessel, with some comparing her to a “cheesebox on a raft.” Ericsson suggested that she be named the Monitor, as “one who admonishes and corrects wrongdoers.”

Worden recruited 57 volunteers to serve as crewmen aboard the U.S.S. Monitor, whose launch would change the course of naval history.


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