CSS Virginia, the former steam frigate Merrimack now an ironclad ram, sailed into Hampton Roads to attack the wooden-hulled Union warships blockading Norfolk. Commanded by Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, the Confederate vessel quickly sank the USS Cumberland and Congress, then damaged Minnesota. Despite a barrage of fire by these warships and shore batteries, Union shots bounced harmlessly off the ironclad's sloped armor. The next morning Virginia sortied to finish off the Minnesota. From nearby a new vessel appeared, which one observer described as “a gigantic cheese box,” seemingly with “no sails, no wheels, no smokestack, no guns.” The USS Monitor was on the scene to intercept the Confederate ironclad.
How had the Navy created its own ironclad? Union sympathizers reported the Confederates were rebuilding Merrimack with iron protection, so the U.S. Congress appropriated money to counter it. Three types won approval, the most unusual one designed by a Swedish-born New Yorker, John Ericsson. He proposed a low, armored hull with a revolving gun turret protected by iron 8 inches thick, and mounting two 11-inch cannon. Ericsson engineered his 900-ton ship to be a small target, with its cylindrical turret designed to deflect shot. As a final innovation, his was the only design without sails. The Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks formally accepted his proposal on 21 September 1861, and Ericsson contracted for its building.
Money mattered, however, and the unusual design alarmed Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. The Secretary demanded a condition: if Ericsson’s ship didn't perform well, he and its builders would have to refund its cost to the government. One partner balked at assuming this risk, but Ericsson pressed for its inclusion; he knew his ship would remain afloat. The contract was signed on 4 October for $275,000, but preliminary work allowed her keel to be laid just three weeks later. The ship’s turret was built separately, then shipped and reassembled.
Materials’ delays challenged the shipwrights, slowing progress by a few weeks. Launched on 30 January 1862, the ship was commissioned on 25 February, commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden, who led a crew of 48 officers and Sailors. Ericsson proposed the name "Monitor" both to admonish the Confederate government and to warn Great Britain of the danger of intervening in the sectional American war. The first Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavus V. Fox, approved it. The ship had its share of troubles: her steering gear failed, needing repair before she headed south on 6 March, to arrive in Hampton Roads two days later.
Monitor had arrived just in time to fight CSS Virginia to a standstill in history’s first all-ironclad naval battle. Here was an innovative design arriving at the crucial moment, equipped with new protection and propulsion, and flexible armament, all customized for the type of war the Navy waged. The Monitor been in service for 11 days, and went from contract to commissioning in just 17 weeks, a problem quickly solved. Today’s Navy and Marine Corps need just such "unusual" thinking to overcome their challenges in our quickly evolving world.
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