Battle of the Ironclads CSS Virginia & USS Monitor "Naval Warfare Revolutionzied

Bill Federer

In 1769, Scotsman James Watts invented the steam engine.

In 1787, American John Fitch invented a steamboat, but it was too expensive for practical use.

In 1806, Robert Fulton invented the first successful steamboat, with a circular wooden paddlewheel.

In 1836, John Ericsson invented and patented a screw propeller, which significantly improved steamship propulsion and was less vulnerable in battle as compared to paddlewheels.

In 1839, the U.S. Navy Captain Robert Stockson invited Ericsson to come to America to design the sloop USS Princeton, with new steam driven twin screw propellers and smokestacks.

Launched in 1843, the USS Princeton won speed trials over steam paddleboats, making it the fastest steamer afloat.

Unfortunately, during a demonstration in 1844, a faulty cannon exploded, killing the Secretary of the Navy and the Secretary of State, though President John Tyler was safe below deck.

In 1845, nine years after the Battle of the Alamo, Stockton sailed the USS Princeton to Galveston with President James Polk's offer to annex Texas.

Fort Stockton, Texas, is named for him.

Stockton is most remembered for sailing a fleet in 1846 to California, on by his flagship USS Congress. He captured the state and sent word by land back to Washington, D.C., carried by Kit Carson.

John Ericsson continued making naval innovations:

  • a boilerless hot air caloric engine,

  • the first submarine boat,

  • the first self-propelled torpedo, and

  • the first torpedo boat.

He presented a design for an iron-clad armored battleship to France's Napoleon III in 1854, but he did not pursue it.

Using a steam-powered screw propeller, the frigate USS Merrimack was launched in 1855 in Boston Navy Yard.

It also had masts and sails to conserve on coal which was needed to burn and make steam.

It named after the Merrimack River that flows through New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

The USS Merrimack sailed to:

  • Southampton, England;

  • Brest, northwestern France;

  • Lisbon, Portugal; and

  • Toulon, and southern France.

In 1857, it sailed around Cape Horn, South America, and cruised the Pacific coast of South and Central America.

In 1860, USS Merrimack was decommissioned for repairs in Norfolk, Virginia.

When the Civil War started, a Union naval office tried to get the USS Merrimack out of the Norfolk harbor, but sunken ships blocked the way.

To prevent capture, it was partially burned and sunk.

The Confederate Navy, desperate for ships, salvaged the USS Merrimack from the water and repaired it, transforming it into an "ironclad," with its hull and deck covered with iron plates, and 14 gun ports with iron shutters.

The Confederate navy renamed it the CSS Virginia, though many still referred to it as Merrimack.

The Union Navy was blockading the James River as it entered Chesapeake Bay, thus cutting off Virginia's largest cities, Richmond and Norfolk, from international trade.

On the morning of March 8, 1862, the Battle of Hampton Roads began.

The Confederate iron-plated CSS Virginia attacked, destroying numerous vessels, including two Union boats, USS Congress and USS Cumberland, and running a third aground in shallow water, the USS Minnesota.

The next day, the CSS Virginia sailed out to continue its attacks but during the night, the Union the ironclad, USS Monitor, had sailed into the waters of Hampton Roads.

The USS Monitor was designed by John Ericsson, who had presented plans for it to the U.S. Navy in 1861 based on the dimensions of a Swedish lumber raft.

It had a revolving gun turret designed by American inventor Theodore Timby.

Dedicating a memorial to John Ericsson, President Calvin Coolidge stated, May 29, 1926:

"The Confederate ironclad ... Merrimac began a work of destruction among 16 Federal vessels, carrying 298 guns ....

When the ironclad Merrimac went out on the morning of MARCH 9 to complete its work of destruction it was at once surprised and challenged by this new and extraordinary naval innovation ...

After a battle lasting four hours in which the Monitor suffered no material damage ... the Merrimac ... badly crippled, withdrew, never to venture out again ...

The London Times stated that the day before this battle England had 149 first-class warships.

The day after she had but two, and they were iron-plated only amidships. Naval warfare had been revolutionized."

Coolidge continued his dedication speech to the 5,000 people assembled at the John Ericsson Memorial, one block south of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, May 29, 1926:

"We assemble here today to do reverence to the memory of a great son of Sweden ... John Ericsson ...

We honor him most of all because we can truly say he was a great American."

With Sweden's Crown Prince Gustav Adolf in attendance at the dedication, President Coolidge described Ericsson's home country:

"Sweden is a country where existence has not been easy. Lying up under the Arctic Circle ...

At an early period they were converted to the Christian faith and their natural independence made them early responsive to the Protestant Reformation, in which their most famous king, Gustavus Adolphus, 'The Lion of the North,' was one of the most militant figures in the movement for a greater religious freedom ...

It was under this great leader that plans were first matured to establish a colony in this country for purpose of trade and in order that the native, as was set out in the charter, might be

'made more civilized and taught morality and the Christian religion ... besides the further propagation of the Holy Gospel' ...

While it was under a new charter that a Swedish colony finally reached the Delaware in 1638, they never lost sight of their original purpose, but among other requests kept calling on the mother country for ministers, Bibles, and Psalm books ..."

Coolidge described the Swedes further:

"Forty-one clergymen came to America prior to 1779.

One of the historians of this early settlement asserts that these colonists laid the basis for a religious structure, built the first flour mills, the first ships, the first brickyards, and made the first roads, while they introduced horticulture and scientific forestry into this Delaware region ...

The building of nearly 2,000 churches and nearly as many schools stands to their credit ...

Always as soon as they have provided shelter for themselves they have turned to build places of religious worship and founded institutions of higher learning with the original purpose of training clergymen and teachers ...

Reverence for religion which is the foundation of moral power."

Calvin Coolidge spoke further on the subject of Swedes:

"Though few in number during the period of our Revolutionary War, they supported the Colonial cause and it has been said that King Gustavus III, writing to a friend, declared

'If I were not King I would proceed to America and offer my sword of behalf of the brave Colonies' ...

Such is the background and greatness of the Swedish people in the country of their origin and in America that gave to the world John Ericsson."

When offered payment for designing the Monitor, John Ericsson, who "had a particular horror of slavery," replied to a U.S. Senator in 1882:

"Nothing could induce me to accept any remuneration from the United States for the Monitor ... It was my contribution to the glorious Union cause ... which freed 4,000,000 bondsmen."

In Battery Park, New York City, a bronze portrait of John Ericsson was dedicated in 1893, and a statue in 1903, with the plaque:

"The City of New York erects this statue to the memory of a citizen whose genius has contributed to the greatness of the Republic and the progress of the world ... JOHN ERICSSON was born in Langsbanshyttan, Sweden, July 31, 1803, died in New York, March 8, 1889."

Considered one of the greatest mechanical engineers in history, a monument was dedicated to him in Nybroviken, Stockholm.

The United States issued a postage stamp honoring John Ericsson in 1926.

A memorial erected to John Ericsson and the Monitor in McGolrick Park, Brooklyn, NY, in 1939:

"Erected by the people of the State of New York to commemorate the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimac, March 9, 1862, and in memory of the men of the Monitor and its designer John Ericsson."

President Coolidge concluded his tribute to John Ericsson:

"This great mechanical genius wrote to President Lincoln offering to 'construct a vessel for the destruction of the hostile fleet in Norfolk and for scouring southern rivers and inlets of all craft protected by southern batteries.'"

John Ericsson explained to President Lincoln:

"Attachment to the Union alone impels me to offer my services at this frightful crisis -my life if need be - in the great cause which Providence has caused you to defend."

Ericsson stated:

"I love this country. I love its people and its laws, and I would give my life for it."