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The USS Monitor

The USS Monitor has been called the most famous ship in American history. Built in approximately 100 days at the Continental Ironworks in New York, the Monitor was a technological feat.

Line engraving, published in Harper's Weekly, 1862, depicting the ship Ready for Action after her pilothouse was modified with angled armor plating around its sides.
Line engraving, published in "Harper's Weekly", 1862, depicting the ship "Ready for Action" after her pilothouse was modified with angled armor plating around its sides. (Credit: Photo ID NH-58859, U.S. NHC)
The USS Monitor was a radical departure from traditional warship designs. It was fully steam powered with no sails or masts, and was constructed almost completely out of iron, including its bottom. In a time when naval power traditionally consisted of wooden tall ships with gun ports, the Monitor was a unique design.

It had a very low profile that housed the engineering compartments, crew's and officer's quarters, and galley all below the waterline. Only about 18 inches of the hull was visible above the water. When the Monitor sunk off of Cape Hatteras shortly after midnight on December 31, 1862, it remained there undiscovered for over 100 years.

The Monitor and Virginia
The Monitor and Virginia. (Credit: Photo ID NH-58859, U.S. NHC)
The Monitor is remembered from the Battle of Hampton Roads, as she was deployed to offset the threat that the Virginia posed to the Federal fleet. Earlier that day the Virginia had engaged the Federal fleet, destroying the wooden frigates Cumberland and Congress. The Minnesota had been damaged and stranded before the Virginia retired to sheltered anchorage near Norfolk. When the Virginia steamed out to finish off the Minnesota early on the morning of March 9, she was met by the Monitor.

In the ensuing four-hour battle, the two vessels frequently bombarded each other at pointblank range with no substantial damage to either vessel. In reality, the battle was a virtual draw with neither vessel inflicting serious damage to the other. The Monitor was successful in protecting the stranded Minnesota from destruction, while the Virginia prevented the Monitor from advancing up the James River toward Richmond.

Crewmembers cooking on deck.
Crewmembers cooking on deck. (Credit: Library of Congress)
The Captain of the Monitor, John Lorimer Worden, the a previous Prisoner of War. William Frederick Keeler was the naval paymaster, and the regular letters he wrote to his wife have helped to give invaluable insights into what it was like being on ironclad ships during that period, and are considered an excellent primary source of information on the Monitor. Siah Carter was an African American slave who took refuge aboard the ship while working a job as a coal heaver and a cook.

Sinking of the Monitor
Sinking of the Monitor. (Credit: Library of Congress)
The USS Monitor sank in a gale off the coast of North Carolina when its low-riding hull started to take on water from the large swells that were generated by the storm. One of the tow lines snapped leaving the Monitor bucking and causing a large gap in the seal under the turret through which even more water began to pour. The crew worked for several hours to try to pump water out of the ship, but as the water levels rose, the coal became wet. He ordered to cut the engines to transfer all power to the bilge pumps, throw out the anchor to try to stabilize the ship, and raise a red lantern on the turret to signal the Rhode Island that they were in distress.

Once the water level reached the furnaces, the captain realized that there was no hope. Sixteen crewmen lost their lives, most from being swept overboard while attempting to reach the lifeboats.

Red Lantern recovered from the Monitor.
Red Lantern recovered from the Monitor. (Credit: Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum)
In letters to his wife, Paymaster William Keeler described the mounting fear of the officers and crew as the vessel took on water and waves broke over the top of the turret, completely submerging the deck. The rescued crewmen stood on the deck of the Rhode Island watching the red lantern that was hanging from the Monitor’s turret as it disappeared behind a wave only to reappear again to the cheers of the frightened crewmen. Finally the lantern disappeared for the last time. Wrote Keeler, “The Monitor is no more. What the fire of the enemy failed to do, the elements have accomplished.”

The shipwreck is now protected by the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. Since its discovery in 1973, numerous expeditions have been conduted to Monitor and preserve this important submerged cultural resource.


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