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The Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor
“A thrilling re-creation of an epic moment in naval history…”
The small, ungainly iron ship may have saved the union. Then in a vicious winter storm, it plunged into the depths of the Atlantic, seemingly lost forever. But 140 years later, after a 50-year search-and-recovery mission, its ponderous iron turret reemerged, dripping, from a rusting grave, returning priceless bits of history.
In Ironclad, journalist Paul Clancy weaves three great sea adventures into a single mesmerizing tale of life and death. Naval heroism, the cold heart of battle, a killing storm, deep-water salvage, flesh-and-blood history—Ironclad has it all.
“Paul Clancy’s masterful investigation into the recovery of the Monitor is a thrilling re-creation, making for a satisfying story of men—and women—on the high seas.”
–Peter Nichols, author, A Voyage for Madmen and Evolution’s Captain
“Ironclad is solid history written in riveting, heart-pounding prose.”
–John B. Hightower, President & CEO, The Mariner’s Museum
“Ironclad is a fascinating glimpse into our nation’s history—an engrossing story of heroism, human ingenuity, and intrigue wrapped in a great adventure.”
–Kevin F. McMurray, author, Deep Descent and Dark Descent
“Get ready for two terrific true yarns—past and present—knitted into one masterfully told tale of a Civil War ironclad.”
–The Ensign Magazine
Photos from the Cover
DOWN THROUGH the deep ocean we dive, silver fish pulsing around us, cobalt blue sliding toward gray as light fades. It is surprisingly serene here in the cockpit of a bubble-faced submersible, with soft, confident voices burbling over my earphones – except that my heart is racing. We are about to drop in on one of the most intriguing shipwrecks of all time, the plucky, improbable ironclad that on a cool dawn one hundred and forty years ago saved the day and, just possibly, the United States of America.
Lights from the sub illuminate yellowtails and amberjacks as we plunge through the depths. 150, 180, 200 feet, white letters superimposed on a small monitor inform us. It feels as though we’re falling through limitless space, but suddenly the flat, sandy bottom zooms up at us like the view through a camera lens. The sub’s captain eases our vessel forward with toggle-switch commands and we lope across a desert-like bottom. Slowly, slowly, out of the gloom, a dark shape creeps into focus.
“We’ve got the wreck in sight,” the captain purrs into his headset to the mother ship above. “We’re at the stern, coming right up on the turret.”
“Beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” exclaims the historian from his aft observation chamber, an edge of excitement in his voice “This is something you’ve heard about all your life,” he exclaims. “And here it is, right before your eyes, the USS Monitor.”
The historic Civil War ironclad with revolving turret is lying where she came to rest almost ten months after her fierce battle with the CSS Virginia, the menacing metamorphosis of the once-proud federal ship Merrimack.
The souls entombed in the Monitor – those few who were not swept overboard in the tumultuous Atlantic but went down with the ship – have made the wreck hallowed ground. They could not have imagined in the last seconds of their lives that divers from another century, breathing mixed gases, wearing video cameras on their helmets, sustained by warm water coursing through their dive suits – not to mention scientists and writers in battery-powered submersible vehicles equipped with carbon dioxide scrubbers – would one day pay them a visit and perhaps carry their bones to a final resting place.
We’ve crept directly up to the turret, that signature feature of the ship that allowed Yankee gunners to bedevil their Confederate counterparts, firing at will from almost any angle. It looks even stranger now than it must have in 1862; it lies upside-down, with a segment of the turret jutting out from under a massive armor belt. The tough iron shield that protected the ship from enemy fire landed on top of the turret as both crashed to the bottom. Because our vision is distorted by the sub’s five-inch-thick acrylic sphere, the wreck looks smaller than it is. Thousands of small fish, deep vermilion in the sub’s xenon arc lights, flow in and out of the crevice formed by belt and turret. A coral fan, waving in the current, clings to the side of the turret.
We hover within feet of the iron cylinder, almost touching it. A laser beam that aims a sonar pulse plays on the hoary surface, gauging its distance. The turret is heavily encrusted with sea life, but in a couple of places red splotches have bled through. Could they be dents where cannon balls clanged against its armor and sent sailors reeling?
Gauges on the little screen read 17.5 degrees Celsius, salinity as 36.24 parts per thousand. The current is half a knot from the southwest, nudging us slightly off course. Re-oxygenated air whooshes into the cockpit. A sonar pinger sounds. The sub skipper toggles the joystick, the thrusters hum and we begin a slow tour of the rest of the hulking wreck, flying over it as though in a spaceship.
The Monitor and this buglike intruder are old acquaintances, going back to 1977 when observers paid their first visits in person. Aside from the turret, the Monitor looks every bit as disintegrated as fourteen decades under the deep ocean could make her, with powerful currents and salt constantly tearing at her and corroding her once-thick iron skin. Much of the hull near the bow is gone; encrustations make her look more like a reef than a warship. “The wreck is literally falling apart before our very eyes,” says the historian.
At the stern is a gaping crater where the steam engine used to be; forward of that is the berth deck – the strange, and eventually terrifying, sub-aquatic quarters where the crew lived – and then the wardroom, or what’s left of it. Someday, underwater archaeologists will sift through these spaces for belongings that the sailors left behind in their rush to save themselves. We glide right over the bow and swing around to the port side, noting the hole that was once the anchor well, and move on to the captain’s stateroom with private head. “That’s where the important decisions were made,” says my droll tour guide.
Another burst of our thrusters and we’re back near the turret. All the while, the sub’s video camera records the scene. This is important because tomorrow divers will descend on this sprawling piece of history and change it forever. Some 160 U.S. Navy divers will undertake one of the most extensive underwater excavations in history. Day and night, they’ll drop down to the wreck, removing tons of coal and iron rubble, expecting to recover precious artifacts and perhaps human remains. Saturation divers, living at pressure for weeks at a time, will saw and blast through pieces of the ship’s armor. If they can pull it off – and it’s not certain they will, given the constraints of time and funding and the unpredictability of the sea – they’ll retrieve one of the great icons of United States naval history: the Monitor’s revolving gun turret.
There are those in the archaeological community who would prefer to leave the wreck as it is, granting it whatever dignity nature accords. But there is a selfish side to that argument because only the experts, only the scientists and deep-water specialists, would be able to see it. If the turret can be recovered, perhaps millions of visitors will have that chance. The big question is: Can they do it?
It is hard to believe that vital parts of this celebrated ship could be saved from the ravages of the sea. It is by now a massive lump of collapsing iron. And the turret, the biggest prize of all, is a potentially lethal, 200-ton wrecking ball. In the back of every project participant’s mind is the prospect of calamity. And then there is this: one day, on the gas plasma screens of their computers, relayed from a weather satellite, they may see images that sailors of another century could only imagine – the telltale signs of a storm gathering strength and heading this way.
Slowly, slowly we rise to the surface. Tomorrow the dives begin.
Nothing in the Heavens Above
FEW BELIEVED the peculiar vessel slipping down the ways would float, much less take on the Confederacy’s dreaded new warship. Perhaps that was why hundreds of spectators, including ship captains and naval officials and their wives, braved the cold, stormy weather to be at Continental Ironworks in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, New York, on January 30, 1862: they thought the preposterous flatiron of a ship would surely “dive into the depths of the river altogether,” as one publication put it.
There was no such doubt about the competition. The former Union frigate Merrimack, now raised from the deep and cloaked in iron, struck terror in northern hearts. So ominous was the ship’s rebirth on the banks of the Elizabeth River – near Norfolk, Virginia – that President Lincoln’s appointees feared she would not only rip through the Union blockade in Hampton Roads but lay waste to northern cities.
Could this squat, top-heavy steam battery, so studded with bolts and rivets that she looked like a barnacle-encrusted whale, possibly be the North’s champion? Why, she was no ship at all, her critics scoffed – not a fitting command for an officer, nor a stable platform for guns. And so low in the water, how could she acquit herself in battle? Or even get to the battle in the first place?
The spectators could not have guessed that they stood at a turning point in naval history.
Only the previous August the Navy Department had invited plans and proposals for building armored vessels. Seventeen were submitted and three approved, among them this most unorthodox “sub-aquatic system of naval warfare.” The vessel was an unlikely marriage of technology and necessity, the serendipitous creation of a brilliantly eccentric engineer. John Ericsson, born in Sweden in 1803, was a dreamer of “caloric” engines driven by superheated air, and maestro of dozens of inventions, among them an evaporator, a depth finder and an improved steam locomotive. The locomotive, “Novelty,” had set a land speed record in 1829, covering a mile in fifty-three seconds. His Flying Devil, a propeller-driven tug, was impressive but deemed too radical, and so were his ideas for propeller-driven warships.
After being persuaded to emigrate to America, Ericsson was awarded a contract to build a steam-powered, screw-propelled ship for the Navy. Launched in 1843, the USS Princeton was the first such warship in American naval history, but it also marred Ericsson’s reputation. In a demonstration cruise, with President John Tyler, members of his cabinet and congressional leaders on board, one of its guns exploded, killing the secretaries of state and Navy. Even though the inventor had nothing to do with the guns, his career with the government seemed over. Undaunted, he turned to the French with an audacious plan. “Ericsson’s Impregnable Battery and Revolving Cupola,” an ironclad warship with living quarters below the waterline and a turret on deck, was considered but ultimately rejected by Napoleon III.
But as Lincoln’s woefully thin navy struggled to find an answer to the South’s ironclad, New York industrialist Cornelius Bushnell took a liking to Ericsson. When he asked for Ericsson’s impressions of plans for other ironclads, the inventor said they were fine as far as they went. Even though he wanted no further dealings with the Navy, Ericsson could not resist producing his model of the radical, half-submerged vessel. Bushnell was so impressed that he immediately lined up investors. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, desperate to counter the South’s menacing threat, was intrigued enough to arrange a meeting with Lincoln.
The president gave an oblique endorsement. “All I have to say is what the girl said when she put her foot in the stocking. ‘It strikes me there’s something in it.’ ”
But the decision was not his to make. It belonged to the Navy Department’s three-member Ironclad Board, which had a clear mandate to find iron-armored alternatives but was composed of senior naval officers who were steeped in, if not downright wedded to, traditional designs.
“We are somewhat apprehensive that her properties for sea are not such as a seagoing vessel should possess,” the board pronounced. One member said the design resembled “nothing in the heavens above or the earth below or the waters under the earth.” Despite its reservations, however, the board left the door slightly ajar, and Bushnell deftly led Ericsson through it. He told the inventor that the board had some minor questions for him and squired him to Washington to meet with the three members. The thin-skinned Ericsson, unaware of the board’s cool reception, made an inspired presentation that turned its doubting members around. So full of misgivings were they, however, that their $275,000 contract offer was contingent on performance. Full payment would not be made until the ship proved itself in battle.
Ericsson and his investors ignored the insult and plunged ahead with the project even before the final contract was signed. Besides Bushnell, the other investors were John Griswold, principal partner in Rensselaer Iron Company, and John Winslow, co-owner of Albany Iron Works. The four men, who called themselves “Battery Associates,” put up $10,000 each. All their receipts, for items ranging from screw bolts to iron sheets, referred to the “Ericsson Steam Floating Battery.” On October 4, 1861, Ericsson was given instructions to have the vessel “ready for sea in one hundred days.” He promised to build it in ninety – only a slight exaggeration. In a letter to James Gordon Bennett, editor of the New York Herald, he said that even as the Navy was drawing up the contract, “the iron which now forms the keel plate of the Monitor was drawn through the rolling mill.”
The keel was laid on October 25. In a dazzling feat of contracting and subcontracting – the turret, engines and hull were built separately – the ship was in the water ninety-three days later.
The government wanted to test the ironclad and send it directly to Hampton Roads and then, according to a memoir by Secretary Welles, “proceed up Elizabeth river to the Navy Yard at Norfolk, place herself opposite the dry-dock, and with her heavy guns destroy both the dock and the ‘Merrimac.’ ”
But news from a Union spy changed everything. Mary Louvestre, a Portsmouth slave, passed through Confederate lines at great risk to her life to bring news that the Confederate ironclad was nearly complete. Welles said she “took from the bosom of her dress” a letter from a Navy Yard mechanic confirming the news. So much for destroying the enemy ship at the dock; she would have to be dealt with in open combat.
Ericsson dubbed his warship the Monitor so all would know that she was capable of taking charge. The “impregnable and aggressive character” of the vessel would “admonish” Southern leaders about their vulnerability. She would also admonish Great Britain, which at the time was sympathetic to the Confederacy, to mind its own business. But critics had quite another name, “Ericsson’s Folly,” and they proclaimed that she would not even float.
The Monitor was more submarine than ship, with only thirteen inches of heavily armed freeboard when trimmed for battle. Aside from the small forward pilothouse, the only prominent feature was a strange-looking cylinder that enemies would at their peril mistake for a water tower – its revolving gun turret. The Ironclad Board could not resist one caveat: Ericsson’ s contract called for a vessel that would not only proceed under steam but also be able to make six knots under sail. True to form, Ericsson ignored the requirement. After all, since the government was withholding payment until the vessel proved itself, he and his backers technically still owned it.
The turret, rising nine feet off the deck and wrapped with eight one-inch-thick iron plates, could pivot completely around, allowing the crew to aim and fire two eleven-inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannons almost at will. Never mind squaring off with another ship in broadside formation. Swivel the turret, raise the heavy iron port stoppers that covered the gun ports, run the guns out and fire. If it worked, it would represent a huge tactical advantage. Doubters notwithstanding, it could make all other naval ships in the world obsolete. Perhaps that’s what the Navy men all privately feared.
The ship was built in two sections, with upper and lower hulls. The upper hull, with armored deck and sides, covered the lower hull like the top of a hatbox. The five-foot overlap, extending below the waterline, was oak and pine plated with five layers of iron to make a robust armor belt. The lower hull, protected by a much thinner iron skin but completely submerged, housed all the ship’s vital spaces – its crew quarters, its stores and its engines. It had all manner of clever machinery: a low-slung steam engine that drove a four-bladed propeller and smaller, separate donkey engines to revolve the turret. The engines pulled fresh air into the living quarters and created a draft for the furnaces. By one estimate, the strange-looking vessel housed forty patentable inventions. Ericsson seemed to have thought of everything, including what were apparently the world’s first underwater flushing toilets.
She was small for a warship: 173 feet long and 41 feet, 6 inches in beam, with a draft of 10 feet, 6 inches and a weight of 987 tons. If that seems hefty, consider that the Merrimack, before being converted, had been more than four times as heavy and now was covered with at least one thousand tons of iron.
One thing the Monitor was not – and Ericsson never pretended otherwise – was seaworthy, and in this regard the Ironclad Board was right. She was designed for river and harbor defense. Her squared-off bottom, shallow draft, single-chine hull and top-heavy deck with 120-ton turret, made her exceptionally vulnerable to rough seas. The Navy knew that if the vessel was to move about on the open sea she would have to be towed. But she was not, Ericsson knew, going to the bottom of the East River.
While rescue boats stood ready to pull survivors from the water if the ship sank, the imperious inventor, his chief engineer and a few associates stood defiantly at the bow for the ride down the rails. With barely a splash, the iron ship entered the water and floated within inches of the inventor’s designed waterline.
For Union officials the launch could not have happened at a more critical time. No sooner had Navy officials congratulated the builder on launching the radically original vessel than they attempted to push him further. “Hurry her for sea,” they pleaded in a telegram, “as the Merrimack is nearly ready at Norfolk and we wish to send her there.”
Hurrying a ship, especially an experimental one, is fraught with peril. For one thing, the ship needed a crew of sailors who were willing to face a previously untested kind of life at sea. The Monitor was no sailing vessel but a floating factory whose sailors were to live and work in a dark and gloomy underwater world, breathing air constantly refreshed by pumps. Except for port lights on deck, gun slits and sight holes in the turret and a grating on top, there was nothing to bring natural light into living or fighting spaces.
As if to compensate for its claustrophobic interior, Ericsson fitted out small staterooms at his own expense, with black walnut berths, drawers and closets, lace and damask curtains and gilt-framed mirrors. William Keeler, the ship’s paymaster, wrote to his wife that his stateroom came equipped with “slop jar, tumbler, water pitcher, soap dish &c &c, all of nice white ware with ‘Monitor’ on each in gilt letters.”
After seeing his “iron home” for the first time on February 12, Keeler assured his dear Anna, to whom he wrote nearly every day, that he would be in no more danger from rebel guns than if he were sitting with her at home. “There isn’t even danger enough to give us any glory.”
He was wrong, but Keeler was seeing a glimpse of the future. Sailors’ lives were soon to change forever. Instead of scrambling to the yards to change sails, they’d heap coal onto the fire grates. Instead of facing an enemy along a gun line, they’d peer through vertical slits in thick armor. As one enlisted man would put it in a letter to his father, “There is not much sailorizing to do.”
All of this was perhaps far from the minds of the crew in the early weeks of 1862 when they assembled at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the Monitor was transferred after twenty days of post-launch fitting out. They were advised of the peculiarities of the vessel and the dangers of their mission, but they volunteered. All of them. They were mostly new to Navy ranks and likely to receive no more training than what they were soon to learn at sea; many of them, fresh off the streets of New York, were recent arrivals from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Denmark and Austria. The accents on board were thick enough to pierce with a marlin spike.
More than a few of the crew were tough and scrappy, ready for a fight or a drink or both. Life aboard would be cramped and monotonous, but a sight better than they had known in the city’s slums. Some would become deserters, some brawlers and drunkards, but many, when the time came, would step forward in the face of death.
About the Author
Paul Clancy has been a journalist for over forty years, part of the time in Washington where he covered the comedy of errors there and wrote two biographies: Just A Country Lawyer, about Watergate Chairman Sam Ervin; and Tip, about House Speaker Thomas P. O’Neil. He worked for The Washington Star, where he was editor of the Fairfax County edition and Virginia feature writer. When the Star folded in 1981, Clancy founded a weekly newspaper, The Reston Connection, which expanded into a small chain of Fairfax County weeklies that survives today.
In 1993, Clancy moved to Norfolk and became editor of Calypso Log, the magazine of the Cousteau Society. He wrote extensively for the magazine, from coral reefs in the Florida Keys to crushing poverty in Haiti. He traveled with Jacques Cousteau to Madagascar and wrote about conditions there. In the mid-nineties Clancy went to work for The Virginian-Pilot, covering water-related issues – sailing adventures, diving, sunken treasure and sunken ships, to mention a few. His coverage of the excavation of the turret of the ironclad ship Monitor led to his writing Ironclad: The Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss, and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor.
In 2007, he began writing Our Stories, a weekly column on local history for the newspaper. He touched on the history of just about everything, from the first settlement at Jamestown to the last burlesque house in Norfolk, from naval heroes to prize fighters. Recently, History Press published Hampton Roads Chronicles, a collection of these columns. He has also written Historic Hampton Roads: Where America Began.
Paul Clancy works and lives in Norfolk Virginia. He is a runner and an avid sailor.
Ironclad will be available in December in print on Amazon and other booksellers, and epub at Kindle, Nook and iBooks.