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Live broadcast from the steamship Portland

During the American Civil War, the Confederacy attempted to redress an imbalance in firepower and resources by investing in technology. One element of this program involved the protection of Confederate warships with iron plating. When Union naval officials learned that Southern shipwrights had converted the scuttled steam frigate USS Merrimack into the ironclad CSS Virginia they feared that this powerful vessel might be able to break the Union blockade at Norfolk, and bombard Fort Monroe or even steam up the Potomac River and threaten Washington, D.C. By mid-1861, the North desperately needed ships to counter the Confederate ironclad, and on August 3, 1861 Congress authorized a board of naval officers to inquire into the construction of armored vessels. One of the most unconventional ship designs proposed to the United States Navy was by John Ericsson, and his vessel featured the shallowest draft and shortest estimated completion time of all the other projected models. Ericsson's design, however, met with great skepticism. The vessel would have an extremely low freeboard, turret-mounted guns, laminated iron plates, and relied completely on steam power. The ship's quick construction time, however, was the key factor in the Navy's decision to build from Ericsson's design (Roberts 1999; Roberts 2002).

The remains of the captain's quarters near the bow of the Monitor
The remains of the captain's quarters near the bow of the Monitor. (Photo: Doug Kesling/NURC-UNCW)

Named the USS Monitor, John Ericsson's vessel illustrated the industrial growth of the United States during the 19th century. The ship was built by teams of inventors, mechanics, and engineers, and though these individuals were intimately associated with technological change, they were generally self-taught and worked without the benefit of a strong theoretical background. The 172 ft long Monitor, completed by February 1862, featured a revolving iron turret that was 22 ft in diameter, 9 ft high, and weighing 140 tons. On March 6, after completing its sea trials, the new vessel was towed from Brooklyn, New York to join the blockading squadron off Virginia (House of Representatives Subcommittee 1998; Still 1988).

On March 9, 1862, the Monitor engaged the CSS Virginia in the historic Battle of Hampton Roads. While the skirmish itself was a draw and neither vessel was seriously damaged, the Monitor played a significant role in maintaining Union control over this key Southern port. More important, the battle caused American naval strategists to question their reliance on wooden warships. In addition, the revolving turret and protective armor belt, made famous by the Monitor, became standard features on latter generations of battleships.

NOAA diver documents the shipwreck.
NOAA diver documents the shipwreck. (Photo: Doug Kesling/NURC-UNCW)

On December 31, 1862, nature not cannon fire overpowered the Monitor. While being towed to Charleston, South Carolina by the USS Rhode Island, the Monitor sank during a large storm off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina (House of Representatives Subcommittee 1998).

The USS Monitor's wreck site was discovered in 1973 about 16 miles off Cape Hatteras in approximately 235 ft of water. The Monitor's wreck site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. One year later, Congress designated the wreck site as America's first National Marine Sanctuary. Today, the one-nautical-mile in diameter Sanctuary boundary serves to protect the vessel's remains and associated artifacts (House of Representatives Subcommittee 1998; National Marine Sanctuary Program 2005).

The Monitor s turret breaks the waters surface on August 5, 2002.
The Monitor's turret breaks the waters surface on August 5, 2002. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program has diligently worked over the years to study the Monitor's remains and promote public awareness of the vessel's significance. Surveys by archaeologists and United States Navy divers in the 1990s concluded that the vessel was rapidly degrading. In recent years, key elements of the Monitor, including its turret, engine and propeller, have been recovered from the site and conserved at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. In October 2004, The Mariners' Museum and NOAA began construction of the USS Monitor Center in Newport News. This structure will eventually house the ironclad's artifacts and associated exhibitions. (House of Representatives Subcommittee 1998; National Marine Sanctuary Program 2005).

Additional Resources and Links

Monitor National Marine Sanctuary
The Mariners Museumlink leaves government web site
Monitor's 150th Anniversary

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