A look back at the Monitor

Today’s U.S. Navy is state-of-the-art.

It is made up of hundreds of heavily armored ships that do everything from carrying planes to firing missiles to delivering troops into battle.

In August 1861, the U.S. Navy had a quite different look. Wooden ships patrolled the waters off the Confederate coast, trying to stop the flow of supplies. It was on the 29th of that month that John Ericsson suggested to Abraham Lincoln that construction should begin on the United State’s first ironclad battleship. The construction would cost the then-huge sum of almost $275,000.

The result: Jan. 30, 1862, the USS Monitor, Adam to the modern Navy, was officially launched into the East River.If nothing else could be said for the ship, it was quite a sight to behold. The entire craft sat low, looking almost like the sole of a shoe floating in the water, except for a large, round gun turret. That turret, which sat in the middle of the ship, was revolutionary. In addition to its strong metallic armor, the turret could be rotated to fire at an enemy in any direction.

About a month after its launch, the Monitor sailed for Hampton Roads, Virginia, a vital area for the Confederacy. On March 9, 1862, at the mouth of the James River, the Monitor met the CSS Virginia in what is arguably the most famous battle in American naval warfare.

The Virginia was the Confederate ironclad ship. It had already easily defeated several Union wooden ships when it was met by the Monitor. The ensuing battle could be described as nothing less than unusual.

The Virginia was larger and had more guns than the Monitor. However, without a rotating turret, her crew was forced to use established tactics of maneuvering alongside the opposing ship before firing its guns.

The Monitor, while outgunned, could shoot at the Virginia from any angle. Also the smaller of the two, it was continually able to maneuver out of range of the Virginia’s heavy firepower.

The result of these opposite tactics was an odd sort of dance. But the men inside the ships soon began to realize another aspect of this ironclad fight. The munitions of the era were not strong enough to penetrate the ship’s armor. Therefore, while shots were finding their targets, no real damage was done.

For more than three hours the two ships pounded away at each other, fighting to a draw. As the Virginia finally retreated up the river, the only thing that was known for sure was that a new era in naval warfare had begun.

The Monitor‘s presence in the Civil War was short lived. Dec. 31, 1862, the boat was being towed in the treacherous waters off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. A severe storm blew up and, less than a year after its launch, the Monitor sank to the bottom of the ocean, taking 16 crewmen with it.

The ship would lay undisturbed on the ocean floor until March 8, 1974, when it was discovered by a team of Duke University researchers.

Several research expeditions have taken place since the discovery. The latest, a recovery operation, is the one in which USF’s Bill Dent is participating.

It is the Monitor‘s most famous feature, the rotating turret, for which the current expedition has been launched.