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Circle of Iron
The USS Monitor, March 9, 1862
USS Monitor was the first
ironclad warship commissioned by the United States Navy. She is
most famous for her participation in the first-ever naval battle
between two ironclad warships, the Battle of Hampton Roads on
March 9, 1862 during the American Civil War, in which Monitor
fought the ironclad CSS Virginia of the Confederate States Navy.
Designed by the Swedish
engineer John Ericsson, the USS Monitor was described as a "cheesebox
on a raft," consisting of a heavy round revolving iron gun
turret on the deck, housing two large (11 inch) Dahlgren guns,
paired side by side. The original design of the ship used a system
of heavy metal shutters to protect the gun ports while reloading.
However, the operation of the shutters proved to be so cumbersome
that the crews operating the guns adopted the procedure of simply
rotating the turret away from potential hostile fire to reload
the guns. Further, the inertia of the rotating turret proved to
be so great, that a system for stopping turret to fire the guns
was only implemented on later models of ships in the Monitor class.
The crew of the USS Monitor solved the turret inertia problem
by firing the guns on the fly while the turret rotated past the
target. While this procedure resulted in a substantial loss of
accuracy, given the close range at which the USS Monitor operated,
the loss of accuracy was not critical.
The armored deck was
barely above the waterline. Aside from a small boxy pilothouse,
a detachable smokestack and a few fittings, the bulk of the ship
was below the waterline to prevent damage from cannon fire. The
turret comprised 8 bolted together layers of 1" plate with
an additional ninth plate inside to act as a sound shield. A steam
donkey engine turned the turret. The heavily armored deck extended
beyond the waterproof hull which was only 5/8" thick. Thus
the vulnerable parts of the ship were completely protected. Monitor's
hull was built at the Continental Iron Works in the Greenpoint
section of Brooklyn, New York, and the ship was launched there
on January 30, 1862.
At the Battle of Hampton
Roads Virginia attacked the Union blockading squadron in Hampton
Roads, Virginia, on March 8, 1862, destroying USS Cumberland and
Congress and forcing Minnesota aground before withdrawing. That
night, Monitor, under command of Lt. John L. Worden, arrived under
tow from Brooklyn. When Virginia returned the next day, March
9, 1862, to finish off Minnesota and the rest of the U.S. fleet,
Monitor sailed forth to stop her. The ironclads fought for about
four hours, neither one sinking or seriously damaging the other.
Tactically, the battle was a draw--neither ironclad did significant
damage to the other. However, it was a strategic victory for Monitor.
Virginia's mission was to break the Union blockade; that mission
failed; Monitor's mission was to defend the U.S. fleet, which
it did. The Virginia did however occupy the 'battlefield' after
the strategic retreat of the USS Monitor, after the captain was
hit in the eyes with gunpowder. The two ironclads never again
fought each other, although Virginia occasionally steamed out
to Hampton Roads in an unanswered challenge to the Monitor.
While the design of Monitor
was well-suited for river combat, her low freeboard and heavy
turret made her highly unseaworthy in rough waters. This feature
probably led to the early loss of the original Monitor, which
foundered during a heavy storm. Swamped by high waves while under
tow by Rhode Island, she sank on December 31, 1862 in the Atlantic
Ocean off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. 16 of 62 crewmen were
lost in the storm.