This day in history: Cheesebox on a Raft

The USS Monitor is history in walking distance

~Miller Bowe, Staff Writer~

On Jan. 30, 1862, the USS Monitor was launched. It was the first of its kind in the navy- an ironclad warship with a rotating turret. 

About five weeks later it would face off with the CSS Virginia– a Confederate ironclad–  at the Battle of Hampton Roads. Although the Battle of Hampton Roads represented an enormous change in the history of naval warfare, the Monitor itself did not stay on the waters for long– it sunk on New Years Eve of 1862, a victim not of Confederate guns but of the harsh conditions off the shores of Hatteras Island. 

Living in Hampton Roads, the famous ‘clash of ironclads’ looms large. As students at Christopher Newport University, we are lucky enough to be within walking distance of the Mariner’s Museum and its USS Monitor Center, where numerous artifacts from the Monitor are preserved and on display. The Monitor Center is also conserving the Monitor’s famous rotating turret.

To better understand the significance of the Monitor, I had the privilege of interviewing John V. Quarstein, a distinguished historian and author and the Director Emeritus of the USS Monitor Center at the Mariner’s Museum.

The Monitor was designed by John Ericsson, a Swedish-American inventor who had previously gained fame as the inventor of the screw propeller. According to Quarstein, the design for the Monitor was originally developed for Louis-Napoleon of France, but was rejected and shelved.

During the Civil War, the Ironclad Board was formed to examine proposals for ironclad warships. After showing his design to a businessman named Cornelius Bushnell, Ericsson brought the Monitor before the board, who were skeptical. 

“Ericsson launched into a half-hour soliloquy describing the powers of his ship,” Quarstein said. His passion for his invention clearly helped: he was awarded a contract to build the Monitor with a deadline of 100 days.

On March 8, 1862, the day before the Battle of Hampton Roads, the CSS Virginia was wreaking havoc on the Union’s navy: it sank two wooden warships, damaged two others, sank two transports and captured another and was only paused by the tide.

According to Quarstein, this preface to the clash of ironclads showed how important of a technological development the switch from wood to iron was. “When the Virginia rammed and sank the Cumberland, it was the moment where we proved the power of iron over wood– what can stop this super ship?”

Enter the Monitor.

The Monitor was an unusual looking ship, and only the topmost part of her iron hull and her rotating turret peeked above the water. “It looked like a tin can on a shingle! A cheesebox on a raft!” Quarstein said.

Both the Monitor and the Virginia faced problems. The Virginia had difficulty maneuvering, a problem only exacerbated by its engine troubles. The Monitor’s rotating turret offered limited visibility, which made it difficult to aim.

“[The Monitor] fires forty-one shots, and she hits the Virginia twenty times, so you gotta realize sometimes the ships virtually touch,” Quarstein said. “That’s pretty bad marksmanship if you ask me, and it’s because you can’t see out of the turret.”

The Monitor was not only significant as a marvel of new technology: the process by which it was constructed was also significant. It was manufactured using interchangeable parts at multiple factories in different parts of the Union. As an example, Quarstein discussed the Monitor’s rotating turret.

“The armor plate for the turret is made in Baltimore, the turret is put together in Staten Island, and it was so heavy–120 tons– they had to take it back apart to move it to Greenpoint.”

“It’s a symbol of the industrial revolution really exploding on the American scene,” Quarstein said. 

While the Monitor was an important development, it still was hardly a perfect design. It was cramped and stiflingly hot.

“Imagine being in a black-painted iron object in the James River in August. They record temperatures– in the turret 110, the galley 140, the engine room 136,” Quarstein said.

Despite these troubles, the Monitor was still an important milestone in the history of naval warfare. “The Monitor was not the best ship, it was an experimental ship, but it was at the right place at the right time and actually started a whole evolution of iron and steel ship designs,” Quarstein said.

Even at the time, Quarstein says, people knew that the Battle of Hampton Roads was significant. Thousands of people watched as it played out.

“There are about 15,000 Union soldiers, there are about 10,000 Confederate soldiers, then there’s the population of Portsmouth and Norfolk, and everyone gets an oyster skiff or whatever boat to try and see what is happening because they do know, even though the ships are clouded in black powder smoke, they know they are witnessing a change in history.”

All too often, history feels removed from the present. We are lucky, then, to live in an area so steeped in it: right now, you could walk to the Mariner’s Museum and see the Ironclad Revolution exhibit, and see the conservation lab where the Monitor’s turret is being restored day by day. Although the Monitor was an experiment, it was a successful one: it changed naval warfare forever and served as the starting point for every ship to come after it. Even the ships that are built today in the Newport News Shipyard show the influence of the Monitor.

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