• John Ericsson Memorial

    John Ericsson

    National Memorial District of Columbia


The Ship

When the U.S.S. Monitor encountered the C.S.S. Virginia on that fateful day in March of 1862, Ericsson's financial backers technically owned her. The fact that the untested ship had been placed in immediate service spoke volumes about the confidence Ericsson's creditors had in his genius. Under the circumstances of Ericsson's contract, if the Monitor did not prove a success, all monies forwarded by the government were to be refunded. This could have led to the financiers' ruin. Yet these financial concerns did not matter to him. His motivation was the protection of the republic and what it stands for. He remarked, " I love this country, I love its people and its laws; and I would give my life for it just as soon as not." Here was his chance to redeem himself.


U.S.S. Monitor

The autumn of 1861 was a time of uncertainty for the United States. Now knee-deep with the Confederate states in a protracted conflict, which was projected to last but weeks, the government was looking for answers. A glimmer of hope was needed to counter the despair that early Confederate successes had spread throughout the streets of the nation's capital. That summer, defeat at the first Battle of Bull Run, near Manassas, Virginia, sent the Union army reeling, while Federal abandonment of the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, allowed the Confederacy to salvage a scuttled Federal ship, the U.S.S. Merrimack. This wooden vessel was refitted as an ironclad and renamed the C.S.S. Virginia. Conceivably, this vessel could have dominated the entire wooden fleet of the Union Navy, thus placing the Union blockade at risk. The United States government frantically looked for an antidote to the potential problem posed by the C.S.S. Virginia.

A call went out for blueprints for an ironclad vessel to fight under the Stars and Stripes. John Ericsson was basically persona non grata to the United States government at the time. The Princeton affair had kept the brooding Ericsson out of government circles since the mid-1840s. Interestingly, he already had a blueprint for an ironclad ship. The design was created a full eight years before the C.S.S. Virginia would see the light of day. In 1854, he had submitted this plan to Napoleon III, yet the French emperor declined Ericsson's vision of an armored floating battery. It was not until Ericsson's friend and fellow engineer, C.S. Bushnell, saw Ericsson's ship design and urged him to submit his plan, that his fortunes turned for the better. With the backing of Bushnell, along with powerful New York iron magnates, Ericsson's design caught the interest of the government.

Ericsson entered into a meeting with the Department of the Navy Board, and gave a demonstration of the merits of his floating battery. The image of the confident engineer selling his ship to the Board, arms waving, voice rising, and above all, convincing, must have rivaled the greatest selling act ever conducted on Madison Avenue. "Gentlemen," he confidently remarked at the end of the meeting, "after what I have said, I consider it to be your duty to the country to give me an order to build the vessel before I leave this room." The government listened. Unfortunately for him, even after their tacit approval, the general opinion toward Ericsson and his work, remained one of suspicion, due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the Princeton.

Despite the risks involved, Ericsson pressed ahead with his plans for the first ironclad for the United States Navy. Upon its completion, he officially christened the vessel with the statement,

The impregnable and aggressive character of this structure will admonish the the leaders of the Southern Rebellion that the batteries on the banks of their rivers will no longer present barriers to the entrance of the Union forces. The iron-clad intruder will thus prove a severe monitor to those leaders...The Monitor is mine.

On March 9, 1862, Ericsson's brainchild, the new Yankee ironclad likened in appearance to a "cheesebox on a raft" thanks to its low silhouette and revolving two-gun turret, finally had a chance to prove itself. The new Confederate ironclad was at work. The C.S.S. Virginia, after wreaking havoc on the Union blockading vessels at Hampton Roads a day earlier, approached the U.S.S. Minnesota, marooned in the water, at the mercy of the Confederate ironclad. Ericsson's Monitor immediately dashed out from behind the wooden vessel to defind it. For four hours, the Monitor and the Virginia dueled; neither vessel was damaged beyond repair. However the Virginia finally retired, checked, but not beaten. Acting commander of the Virginia, Lt Catesby Jones, remarked on the formidable Monitor, by stating that he could "do the enemy about as much damage by snapping my fingers at him every two minutes and a half." The shot from the Virginia harmlessly bounced off the eight-inch thick armor of the Monitor's turret. The Monitor proved its mettle in combat, and the United States government ordered another 56 ships of that class.

Despite the Monitor's success in protecting the remnant of the Union wooden fleet, Ericsson was upset. Prior to the battle, he requested 12-inch guns and 30 pound charges of gunpowder for his Monitor. The government, fearing another Princeton incident, would allow only an 11-inch gun with a 15-pound charge. One can imagine this man, whose reputation was cast into the dustbin by the Department of the Navy, taking out his wrath on officials of the federal government. A proud man, Ericsson vented against government meddling, "If they kept off at a distance of 200 yards and held her gun exactly level, the 30-pound charges would have gone clear through." Tests undertaken after the battle proved Ericsson's declaration correct. The Virginia would not have lived to see another day, had Ericsson gotten his way.