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Friday, December 13, 2013

(John Ericsson)

In 1862, the technology of naval warfare was about to take a giant leap forward. At the outbreak of the Civil War just a year earlier, the Confederate States found themselves without a Navy. The Union Navy had already blockaded all ports, which prohibited southern merchant ships from delivering cotton and other products to customers in Europe. The funds from those exports, desperately needed to support the war, were unavailable.

The Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, knew that he could never match the U.S. Navy in ships or officers, so he developed an alternative strategy. He would build a small fleet of “ironclad vessels” that would sink the enemy’s wooden ships and break the blockade. He planned for them to be invincible as shells would simply bounce off their sides. Mallory’s first such ship would be the Merrimac which was a wooden ship abandoned by the Union Army when they evacuated Norfolk at the start of the war. Workers began bolting heavy metal plates on the sides of the Merrimac’s hull.

At the same time, fears grew in Washington. Intelligence knew of Mallory’s plan and envisioned his iron monster destroying ship after ship. The Assistant Secretary of the Union Navy said, “Who is to prevent the Merrimac from dropping anchor in the Potomac and throwing her hundred pound shells into the city or battering down the walls of the Capital itself.” Of even more concern was that the blockade of southern ports, a major part of the strategy to win the war, might be broken.

Only one man came to mind that could design a ship to combat the Merrimac. He was John Ericsson - an eccentric, arrogant, vain, but brilliant engineer. The Navy hated Ericsson; and he hated the Navy. In 1845, one of Ericsson’s experimental weapons exploded during a demonstration and killed the U.S. Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy. Nevertheless, Ericsson billed the Navy for the weapon. They refused to pay him. The feud continued for the next sixteen years. Ericsson rejected the Navy’s new pleas for help . . . unless President Lincoln personally assured him that he would be paid. Lincoln agreed and Ericsson went to work.

Ericsson’s ship would not be iron platted - it would be made entirely made of metal! The Navy thought he was mad, and that it would sink as soon as it was launched. Ericsson wrote to Lincoln saying, “The sea will ride over her, and she shall live in it like a duck.” His vessel was constructed on a ramp in New York City’s East River. John Ericsson supervised every detail. He had 47 newly patented inventions on board. He named his new ship the Monitor, and it was built in just 101 days.

On the day of the launch, the Monitor entered the water but did not sink. Her debut was not without problems though. The crew found her to be difficult to navigate; they had trouble just getting the ship out of the harbor and down the river. The Monitor was terribly slow and water leaked through at several places; and ventilators worked poorly permitting fumes to sicken the crew. Still, the Monitor trudged southward toward her meeting with the Confederate ironclad.

On March 8th, the just completed Merrimac, which was renamed the Virginia, and came out to attack the Union blockade fleet. It headed for the U.S.S. Cumberland (the most powerful ship in the fleet). The Cumberland returned fire but its cannon balls bounced off the Virginia. The Confederate ironclad rammed her and sank the Union ship. The Virginia then turned on the U.S.S. Congress and set it on fire. The U.S.S. Minnesota tried to escape but ran aground.

Into the battle a strange ship appeared. It was hard to see exactly what it was. There was one very large gun turret sticking up out of the water but little else that could determined. The Virginia at long last had encountered the Monitor. The two ships fired at each other with little consequence. After a short time, the Monitor pulled away to resupply its ammunition. The Confederates thought that they had won the battle. The captain of the Virginia, Catesby Jones, withdrew intending to return the next morning to finish off the immobilized Minnesota.

That night the Monitor returned and anchored right next to the Minnesota, preparing to defend the grounded ship. After sunrise, the Virginia returned. Its crew was surprised to see the Monitor still on the scene. The two ironclads resumed their battle. They fired at each other for four and a half hours hull to hull; continuously colliding together. Finally, the Virginia withdrew and returned to Norfolk.

These two famous ships would never meet again. In May, Union troops approached Norfolk and the Confederates blew up the Virginia rather than having it fall into enemy hands. Ten months later, the Monitor was lost in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The episode was over but the story continued on. The North busily built a fleet of ironclads, still under the watchful eye of John Ericsson. The South was unable to keep pace, lacking materials and funds. The Union blockade held for two more years until the end of the war.

The story of the great battle of iron ships spread. Government leaders around the world knew that their once mighty fleets were now useless. Naval warfare had moved into a new age and there was no going back to wood and sails.

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