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Civil War Monitors

The monitor was dubbed by an observing person "a cheesebox on a raft" and that tells well their appearance. Of course the raft was of the general shape of the waterline of a ship. Imagine such a raft from six to ten feet deep and flat, top and bottom. On this was perched one or two round structures from fifteen to twenty feet high. Then visualize a regular ship extending below the top of this raft and firmly secured to the raft at all parts so that the raft rested on and was supported by the ship. Then, conceive that the edges of the raft was cut away inside the ship and only the edges left. These edges projected away from the ship proper everywhere. These edges were of from three to five feet of solid oaken beams running about and the outer surfaces of these wooden walls were of thick iron.

These metal faces together with the wooden beams were thick and strong enough to resist gunfire of the enemy, as guns were known at that time. At the bow and stern these edges or shelves projected far beyond the hull of the ship proper to protect the anchor chains forward and aft to protect the propeller . The bottom and top of this edge was flat, so that, when at sea the heavy waves would slap under the edges and give the ship a heavy strain and shock that was felt by all on board. Of course the top of this edge was also flat and on a level with the deck of the ship proper, so that a continuous deck reached to the edges of raft.

The raft was all for defense to protect the ship from assaults of the guns of the enemy. They were amply sufficient for safety from the guns of that day. Note that most of this armored edge was below water and only about two feet above the water aft and not more than five or six feet was out of the water forward. So the deck had a gradual slope from forward to aft, but this slope was so small for its length that it was not noticed. So, the deck was a flat raft with a wooden deck all its length.

The turret was for offence. Within this round cheesebox were the guns, two in number. The turret was of sheet iron, as this was before the days of armor plate, sheets laid one outside the other and rivetted -- also before the time of steel welding by modern methods where very heavy plates are welded together to make one complete unit. These iron plates were one outside the other to a thickness of a foot. These were amply thick to prevent the guns of Civil War times from penetrating and well they stood up against the hammering from ship and fort.

The two guns were mounted so as to revolve with the turret and the turret was aimed and not the guns, except for the up and down sights, which were of course adjusted from arrangements on each gun. As these guns were parallel, there were two holes in the turret beside each other and apart just the distance between the centers of the bores of the guns. As the guns were never turned by themselves, these holes in the turrets were only slightly wider than the muzzles of the guns. They were somewhat longer vertically to allow for a slight raising and lowering of the guns. These holes were fitted with revolving doors of heavy iron so they might be kept closed until the guns were to fire, when the doors were quickly opened and closed.

Of course these turrets were very heavy but still had to be turned on a center. This was done by having a vertical cylinder in the center of the turret and water under pressure was pumped into these cylinders, thus raising the whole affair, turret and guns, just enough so the weight of all was carried on this non-friction water. The steam turning mechanism did the rest, but the adjustment was crude from out present idea and it was difficult to stop the heavy turret at the exact point desired. However, distances were much less than of the present gunfire, so the aim was perhaps good enough to meet the requirements. The guns were, of course, loaded at the muzzle and the shot, powder, etc. was rammed into place in the gun. There was only one fixed place for this loading within the ship and below the deck line and each gun had to be drawn well within the turret and the turret swung around to this spot to receive the charges. This took a lot of time. After that, the turret must be swung back for firing and the gun run out of the turret as far as possible before firing. Of course these guns were of cast iron and were very big around and very short, according to our present methods. The Nantucket had in the one turret two fifteen inch guns, which means that the guns fired around cast iron balls fifteen inches in diameter. The turrets were just large enough to hold the two guns with the only chance of passing around the guns above and below the swelling breeches.

Above the turret was the conning tower. This was a small, heavily armored enclosure, the top just enough above the top of the turret for the captain to see what was going on. His feet were down amongst the guns. There was no outlet above this "fighting turret" as we called it, which recalls the Mobile Bay incident when the brave Captain Craven made way for the pilot to descent from the "fighting turret" first so he was saved and the Captain was just too late.

Within the hull proper was what is in all hulls of ships, machinery for propulsion and auxiliaries, magazines, crew quarters, officer quarters and the many other details. At sea and in action every opening to the deck was closed with heavy metal hatches, so everybody was bottled up under the raft. There was an opening to the top of the turret on one side, as this was the "bridge" from which the ship was navigated and directed on its way.

Of course there were from the beginning on these ships forced ventilation, fans drawing air down from special armored trunks leading well up into the air and forcing air everywhere, this air to finally escape through the top of the turret, which consisted of a heavy metal grating. Without this forced air draft, none could have lived long bottled up in this way. It was bad enough anyway, either in port or at sea, as enough air was not supplied at any time to keep men in proper health.

The anchor was hung suspended under the armored edge in the bow and was lowered by loosing a clutch and was hoisted by steam power. It was well protected by the armored front. The machinery was aft next the stern and was what was called in those days a "grasshopper engine" from the long arms opening and shutting like grasshopper legs. However, it did the work with little trouble, even moving this blunt sluggish craft along at a speed of six knots -- fast enough for what was a floating fort.

The quarters were large and as comfortable as possible for crew and officers -- a very large wardroom and large rooms for the officers and plenty of room for the hammocks of the crew. These monitors were very wide for their length giving ample room everywhere. Of course the main idea was to let the water do most of the protecting, leaving little to hit and those parts well protected by armor. Even the smoke pipe was heavily armored to a height of ten feet. The upper part of the smoke pipes suffered most and were frequently punctured, but the ten or so feet of armor at the bottom still allowed enough draft for the furnaces to keep up the small speed required. These craft were more or less like a porcupine, who fears no animal, and went their way irrespective of shot and shell. They were so far ahead of anything else in their day that they paid little attention to the enemy.

Commissioned on 25 February 1862, USS Monitor soon was underway for Hampton Roads, Virginia. It was to challenge the Confederate shore batteries that were threatening the Union naval blockade of Hampton Roads and Norfolk. The blockade was part of the Anaconda Plan, the Union military policy to cut Confederate states' supply lines to the outside world. Monitor arrived at Hampton Roads on 9 March, and was immediately sent into action against the Confederate ironclad Virginia , which had sunk two US Navy ships the previous day. A Confederate officer on CSS Patrick Henry, one of Virginia's paddle wheel consorts, described the Union challenger as "an immense shingle floating on the water with a gigantic cheese box rising from its center..." The battle ultimately turned out to be a draw - with both ships firing on each other at point-blank range but unable to inflict serious damage on the other. In the resulting stalemate, Monitor was successful in protecting the rest of the Union fleet lying off Fort Monroe, while Virginia delayed a further Union advance toward Norfolk. Following this historic action, Monitor remained in the Hampton Roads area and, in mid-1862 was actively employed along the James River in support of the Army's Peninsular Campaign.

In late December 1862, Monitor was ordered south for further operations. Caught in a storm off Cape Hatteras, she foundered on 31 December. Monitor's pumps and hand pumps were inadequate to keep her from sinking during stormy weather. The USS Monitor's construction had been rushed because the US Navy was too slow to embrace ironclads. In the end, Monitor sunk not from enemy fire but from faulty systems and design. Her wreck was discovered in 1974 and is now a marine sanctuary. Work is presently underway to recover major components of her structure and machinery, to be followed by extensive preservation efforts and ultimate museum exhibition. The Monitor's hull is deteriorating at an alarming rate.

USS Keokuk, a 677-ton ironclad, was built at New York City. Originally named Moodna (sometimes incorrectly spelled "Woodna"), she was renamed prior to her December 1862 launching, and was commissioned in early March 1863. Designed by C.W. Whitney, a colleague of John Ericsson (designer of the ironclad USS Monitor), the USS Keokuk represented a first step in the development of composite armor. Keokuk was built at Underhill Ironworks, New York, and launched 6 December 1862. The ship's armament consisted of two 11' Dahlgren guns placed in two non-rotating turrets. The guns were mounted on carriages that swivelled on circular tracks embedded in the wood deck within the turrets. Keokuk had a displacement of 677 tons, and was 159ft 6in long, 36ft beam, 8ft 6in draft. Keokuk arrived at Port Royal, South Carolina, later in that month to take up her duties with the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. On 7 April, she joined USS New Ironsides and seven monitors in an attack on Fort Sumter, centerpiece of the formidible defenses of Charleston, South Carolina. Under the fire of heavy Confederate guns for more than half an hour, Keokuk was struck by about ninety projectiles, many of which hit at or below her waterline. Her experimental armor, featuring alternating rows of wood and iron, was completely inadequate to protect her from this onslaught and she was "completely riddled". Though Keokuk was able to withdraw and anchor out of range, she sank on the morning of 8 April 1863, after about one month of commissioned service.

Passaic Class
USS Passaic, first of a ten-ship class (Passaic, Montauk, Catskill, Patapsco, Lehigh, Sangamon, Weehawken, Nantucket, and Camanche) of 1335-ton ironclad monitors, was built at Greenpoint, New York. They featured thicker hull plating, larger guns, better steering, and an improved pilot house design. The new monitors were larger than the original, measuring 200 feet by 45 feet in the beam. The hull, designed with more shiplike lines, in contrast to the original monitor's nearly flat bottom. The most noticeable change was to the pilot house, which was enlarged to six feet in diameter and mounted atop the turret. Commissioned in late November 1862, Passaic was detained at Washington, D.C., for repairs during much of December. After a difficult passage through the storm that sank USS Monitor, she reached Beaufort, North Carolina, on 1 January 1863 and later in the month moved on to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she joined the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. After more than a decade in reserve, Passaic recommissioned in November 1876. She was receiving ship at the Washington Navy Yard, D.C., in 1878-82, then was assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, during 1883-92. The now-elderly monitor was employed on Naval Militia service in Massachusetts and Georgia during much of the rest of the 1890s and recommissioned in May 1898 for Spanish-American War duty. After a brief tour in Florida waters, she was decommissioned for the last time in September 1898. USS Passaic was sold in October 1899.

Canonicus Class
USS Canonicus, name ship of a class of nine 2100-ton monitors, was built at Boston, Massachusetts. The Canonicus class was slightly longer the earlier monitors, measuring 225 feet in length, but slightly narrower than the Passaic. The Canonicus mouhnted a pair of massive fifteen inch smooth bore Dahlgrens. A total of nine Canonicus class monitors were built: Canonicus, Catawba, Mahoptac, Manayunk, Manhattan, Oneota, Saugus, Tecumseh and the Tippicanoe. Commissioned in April 1864, Canonicus served in the James River area of Virginia from May 1864 until late in the year, taking part in engagements with Confederate batteries on 21 June, 16 August and 5-6 December. Canonicus returned to commissioned status for Atlantic coast and Gulf of Mexico cruises from 1872 until 1877, when she was laid up for the last time. Though she saw no further active service, the old ironclad was towed to Hampton Roads, Virginia, in mid-1907 for exhibit during the Jamestown Exposition. The last survivor of the Navy's once-large fleet of Civil War monitors, she was sold for scrapping the next year.

Casco Class
A third class of monitor, the light draft monitors commonly called the Casco class, was also developed during the Civil War but proved to be largely unsuccessful. In 1861 Alban C. Stimers was assigned to work with John Ericsson on the construction of the ironclad turret ship Monitor. Chief Engineer Stimers continued an intimate association with the Navy's ironclad shipbuilding program for much of the rest of the Civil War. In 1862-63, Stimers again worked with Ericsson during the building of the next class of monitor-type ironclads, the Passaic class. Later in the year he was placed in charge of an ambitious project to construct twenty light-draft monitors for use in shallow inland waters. Unfortunately, the displacement calculations made for these ships were badly done. The launching of Chimo on 5 May 1864 revealed that the displacement of that Casco class monitor had been miscalculated; and that, as a result, she had too little freeboard to be seaworthy. The Navy attempted to correct this defect in other Casco-class monitors by making- various changes in the unfinished ships. But the Casco class turned out to be useless for their intended role and had to be extensively modified. Stimers had inadvertently demonstrated the inherent difficulty of successfully shepherding complex technological endeavors, something that has bedeviled "project managers" from his time to ours'. After the Casco class debacle, Stimers returned to the seagoing Navy.

Overall, the class was a tremendous failure. The Casco monitors had a draft of only six feet, and a freeboard of fifteen inches. They had internal ballast tanks, which could be flooded to lower the ship's silhouette when going into battle to a freeboard of less than three inches, but leaks and seepage of water in the vessels made them nearly useless. Though fifteen Casco class monitor were built, eight were eventually reconstructed to make them serviceable, and none saw action on the western rivers. On 24 June 1864, Secretary of the Navy Welles ordered the contractor for eight monitors to raise the deck 22 inches to give them sufficient freeboard for safe coastal operations. The cross section of the floor is flat, and the timber backing of the side armour comes down to the bottom, forming a rounded bilge. They are 223 ft. long over all, 44 ft. 3 in. beam over all, and only 8 ft. 6 in. deep from the top of the deck amidships. The hull is of iron surrounded with hard timber balks 5 ft. thick alongside the boilers and engines, and 3 ft. 8 in. thick amidships. The deck itself is well rounded, and formed entirely of large balks. The turret is 10 in. thick; its sides, being formed of ten thicknesses of 1 in. plates and three or four plates of iron, making up a thickness of 3 in., are carried around the hull, rising 15 in. above and falling 20 in. below the water-line. The ventilating pipes which supply air to the interior of the ship by means of the fan, are shown in the space between the skin of the ship and the timber covering, these pipes being placed well below the water-line. Valves are placed all along these lines of pipes to let in fresh air into each compartment. Such a vessel could not, from its light draught and want of stowage room for coal, be expected to go to sea, but it would no doubt prove a formidable harbor defense, mounting, as it does, two heavy guns.

Neosho Class
USS Neosho, first of a class of two 523-ton single-turret ironclad river monitors built at Carondelet, Missouri, was commissioned in May 1863. The first Neosho, a single-turreted, wooden-hulled, river monitor protected by iron plate armor, was laid down in mid 1862 by James B. Eads at his Union Iron Works, Carondelet, Mo.; launched 18 February 1863; commissioned at Cairo, IL. 13 May 1863, and completed 1 July 1863. Neosho and her sister Osage were 180 feet long, displacing 523 tons (old tonnage), and mounted a 4'6" gun. They were the first of Eads' river warships to employ the "turtleback" design which became his hallmark and were the only monitors to be propelled by stern wheels. Their shallow draft made them extremely useful in the riverine warfare to come. Much work remained for the Union Navy in order to hold the mighty Mississippi River system which it had so dearly won. Confederate cavalry raiders and flying batteries would appear at unexpected points along the Mississippi and its tributaries and attempt to sever Federal lines of supply and communication. Neosho and sister river warships tirelessly patrolled the Mississippi and its tributaries clearing riverbanks and levees of Southern raiders. USS Osage, a 523-ton Neosho class single-turret ironclad river monitor, was built at Carondelet, Missouri. Commissioned in July 1863, she operated in the Mississippi River area in 1863 and 1864, including participation in expeditions up Louisiana's Black and Ouachita Rivers in February-March 1864 and the Red River in March-May of that year.

Milwaukee Class
USS Milwaukee, name ship of class of four 1300-ton double-turret ironclad river monitors, was built at Carondelet, Missouri, for Civil War service in the Western Rivers area. USS Kickapoo, a 1300-ton Milwaukee class double-turret ironclad river monitor, was built at Carondelet, Missouri, and commissioned in July 1864. USS Winnebago, a 1300-ton Milwaukee class twin-turret ironclad river monitor, was built at Carondelet, Missouri. She was commissioned in April 1864 and served with the Mississippi Squadron during the next few months. She was briefly renamed Tornado in June-August 1869, but remained laid up until she was sold in September 1874,. Reportedly, she later became the Peruvian Navy's warship Manco Capac. USS Chickasaw, a 1300-ton Milwaukee class twin-turret ironclad river monitor built at Carondelet, Missouri, was commissioned in May 1864. USS Chickasaw was the last in line of the four monitors that covered Rear Admiral Farragut's fleet as it passed Fort Morgan during the Battle of Mobile Bay [5 August 1864], and was the only one whose performance that day was not flawed by tragedy or mechanical breakdowns. She was converted to a railroad ferry by her civilian owners and later given side-wheel propulsion. Under the name Gouldsboro, she was a fixture on the Mississippi at New Orleans for many decades. Following her replacement by a new railroad bridge, the old ship was broken up in 1944.

Onondaga Class
USS Onondaga, a 2592-ton twin-turret monitor, was built at Greenpoint, New York. Commissioned in March 1864, she spent her entire active career with the James River Flotilla covering the water approaches to Richmond, Virginia, during the Civil War's last year. While on the James, she was involved in several engagements in June, August and December 1864 and in January 1865. Onondaga was decommissioned at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in June 1865. In an arrangement approved by the Congress, she was sold back to her builder in March 1867 and immediately resold to France. The monitor subsequently had long service in the French Navy, retaining the name Onondaga. Onondaga, whose iron hull helped to make her the longest-lived of the larger American-built Civil War era monitors, was scrapped in about 1903-1904.

Monadnock Class
USS Monadnock, first of a two-ship class of 3295-ton twin-turret monitors, was built at the Boston Navy Yard. Commissioned in October 1864, she was sent to Norfolk, Virginia, to begin her Civil War service. In December 1864 and January 1865, she used her four fifteen-inch guns to support the two assaults that finally captured Fort Fisher, North Carolina. After special outfitting at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, in October 1865 Monadnock began a long voyage to California, the longest cruise that a monitor-type warship had yet undertaken. After calling at several South American ports and passing through the Strait of Magellan, she arrived at San Francisco in June 1866 and was soon thereafter decommissioned at the Mare Island Navy Yard.

Miantonomoh Class
USS Miantonomoh, a 3401-ton twin-turret monitor, was built at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, New York. Commissioned in September 1865, she served briefly with the North Atlantic Squadron along the U.S. east coast, then was inactive at the Washington Navy Yard, DC. Miantonomoh was decommissioned at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in July 1867, soon after returning to the US from Europe. USS Tonawanda, a 3400-ton twin-turret monitor built at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was commissioned in October 1865. She was laid up at the Washington Navy Yard, D.C., between late 1865 and October 1866, then became a training ship at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. In June 1869 she was renamed Amphitrite. The monitor's Naval Academy tour ended in 1872. She was broken up at the Wilmington, Delaware, in 1873-74 under the guise of being "rebuilt" into a modern monitor. The completely new monitor that replaced her was also named Amphitrite, but shared nothing but the name with the older ship.

Puritan Class
Puritan, a 4912-ton 351-foot long seagoing monitor, was under construction at Greenpoint, New York, between 1863 and 1865. Originally designed as a double-turreted ironclad monitor the plans were altered to the specifications of John Ericsson, Puritan's builder, following a long debate with the Navy; she was built with a single turret. Contracted 28 July 1862 to Ericsson, who in turn subcontracted the hull to Continental Iron Works of Greenpoint, N.Y. and the machinery to Allaire Works of New York, N.Y., she was launched 2 July 1864. However, due to delays in construction and the casting of the 15-inch smoothbores she was never completed, her construction being suspended in 1865. During the years following the war, Puritan along with several other monitors suffered extensive deterioration with their combat value likewise decreasing.

Ericsson opposed the multiple-turret concept, under the theory that the weight of a second turret would be better used in a single turret with better armor and larger guns. The multi-turret monitors were the work of other people. The construction of the USS Puritan was slowed by the question of one turret or two.

The USS Dictator, Ericsson's most advanced monitor, was a single-turret design. USS Dictator, a 4438-ton 312-foot long single-turret seagoing monitor built at New York City, was commissioned in November 1864. Construction problems with her powerplant kept her initial service relatively brief and inactive, and she was decommissioned in September 1865 at the League Island Navy Yard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Dictator was recommissioned in July 1869 for service with the North Atlantic Fleet, but was again laid up in June 1871. Her final period of commissioned service service lasted from January 1874 until June 1877 and was also spent in the Atlantic coast area. After six years "in ordinary" at League Island, USS Dictator was sold for scrapping in September 1883.

Kalamazoo Class
Four big monitors of the Kalamazoo class, laid down but never completed, were given such tongue-twisters as Passaconaway, Shackamaxon and Quinsigamond. This Navy design was a greatly enlarged version of the Miantonomoh class, with improved lines, 354'5" long, with a beam of 56'8" and a draft of 17'. The freeboard was projected to be 45 inches. The turrets would have been as in Dictator. The hull was wooden with iron structure to support the turrets, housing a total of 4 14" guns. There would have been pilothouses on the turrets, a hurricane deck, two tall funnels, and a tall ventilation shaft. The displacement is reported as 5,660 tons, though DANFS reports 6,160 tons for Kalamazoo alone. Kalamazoo, a double turreted monitor, was laid down in 1863 at New York Navy Yard. Work on the monitor was suspended 27 November 1865 and was never resumed. The unfinished ship was renamed Colossus 15 June 1869; without seeing any service she was broken up in 1884. Passaconaway started building at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Kittery, Maine, in November 1863. Her construction, and that of three sister ships, proceeded slowly during the Civil War, and she was neither launched nor completed. Her name was changed to Thunderer 15 June 1869, and again to Massachusetts 10 August 1869. Due to deteriorating timbers, she was condemmed under Act of Congress 5 August 1882, and broken up on the stocks in 1884. Quinsigamond, a double-turreted monitor, was laid down by the Boston Navy Yard in 1864, but work on her was suspended 30 November 1865. Renamed Hercules 15 June 1869, she was again renamed, Oregon, 10 August the same year. Built with improperly seasoned timber, and left exposed to rot, the ship, still on the stocks, was broken up in 1884.

Roanoke Class
USS Roanoke, a 4772-ton steam frigate built at the Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, was commissioned in May 1857, length 263'8 feet. In a project inspired by both the CSS Virginia [which had been built on the Roanoke's sister steam frigate, Merrimack], and the pioneer turret ship Monitor, Roanoke was taken in hand for conversion to a very large triple-turret ironclad. Between late March 1862 and June 1863, the steam frigate Roanoke was cut down to her gun deck and rebuilt as a triple-turret armored warship. The result was a surprisingly modern looking vessel, that anticipated many design features of 20th Century multi-turret warships. She kept her single funnel but landed her full ship rig, and in her new configuration was accepted by the Navy at New York Navy Yard on 16 April 1863. An ordnance report, dated 31 August 1863, listed her battery as follows: fore turret 1 15", 1 150-pounder; middle turret 1 15", 1 11"; after turret, 1 11", 1 150-pounder. It was originally expected that this work would produce a seagoing ironclad ram in minimal time, but problems with armor supply and fabrication slowed her conversion considerably. Commissioned in late June 1863 and sent to Hampton Roads, Virginia, to rejoin the blockade, her voyage southward convincingly demonstrated that she was unsuitable for fighting on the opean ocean. Sea trials indicated that her heavy turrets caused her to roll dangerously in a seaway, and that her hull was not sufficiently strong to bear their weight and the concussion of the continuous firing. Roanoke was therefore employed in the defenses of Hampton Roads. While her deep draft restricted her to the main shipping channels, her six heavy guns provided a final barrier in case the Confederate ironclads on the James River should break out. USS Roanoke was finally stricken from the Navy list in August 1882 and sold for scrapping in September 1883.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:40:35 ZULU