Naval resources at the start of the Civil War could be considered neglected in the North and undeveloped in the South. Naval upkeep had not been a national priority since the War of 1812, and the Civil War began with the Union sporting a relatively lackluster fleet. Once southern states began seceding, they had to either capture vessels from the North or commandeer commercial ships; they didn’t have the infrastructure, capital or time to build a robust naval force. Still, the South did pose a significant threat, and the North responded with plans to build.
In 1861, the Union’s “Ironclad Board” asked for proposals for ironclad warships. A Swedish-American engineer named John Ericsson submitted plans for a “radical” steam turreted sub-aquatic ship, which the board hesitantly agreed to build only after persuasion from President Lincoln and other naval officials. In the interest of speed, Ericsson farmed out work on the ship to multiple contractors. In January 1862, the U.S.S. Monitor* launched.
Despite mechanical difficulties due in part to foul weather, the Monitor truly entered the fleet on March 9, 1862 at Hampton Roads, Virginia, by engaging the C.S.S. Virginia in the course of protecting a stranded Union ship, the Minnesota. The Monitor remained at Norfolk and Hampton Roads through October, when it was finally spared for much needed repairs. In December, as she was being towed toward her next engagement at Charleston, South Carolina the Monitor was caught in a large storm off the North Carolina coast. After taking on more water than she could manage, she sunk 25 miles south of Cape Hatteras. It was December 31, 1862.
The Monitor’s exact location was unknown until August 27, 1973, when the wreck was discovered. Scientists, after positively identifying the wreck, followed up with several investigative projects in 1974, 1976, 1977 and 1979. Investigating the remains of the U.S.S. Monitor, a final report on 1979 site testing in the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary describes these efforts, from video documentation, to on-site excavation and other types of data collection. We now have that digitized report in our digital collections, and it’s replete with drawings of artifacts, explanations of the methods used for reconnaissance, and photographs of the underwater site. You can also learn about ongoing conservation and research efforts from the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum.
Complementing this report is a painstaking assemblage of “surviving engineering drawings” of the Monitor. This document, Drawings of the U.S.S. Monitor, a catalog and technical analysis by Capt. Ernest W. Peterkin, contains 207 historic of the Monitor held personally by the author as well as by cultural heritage institutions around the globe. John Ericsson, the engineer who designed the Monitor for the Ironclad Board, stated that he had first considered a “sub-aquatic system of naval warfare” as early as 1826 (qtd. in Peterkin, p. 36). The book contains early conceptual sketches from that period as well as much more detailed schematics of Monitor components from the 1860s and later. Many of Ericsson’s papers were destroyed after his death by his own request. However plans and sketches of his that survived, as well as those of the other draftsmen, are assembled by Peterkin to represent a fascinating wholesale view of the vessel’s design. We’re pleased to present a digitized version of Drawings, which has already gained us some kind feedback from the model shipbuilding community.
While Civil War-era ships or shipwrecks may not be your bailiwick, I suggest browsing through both of these documents. They are easy to read and interesting to view, giving a quick sense of a momentous and ongoing project pivotal to US history.
* After the U.S.S Monitor, the term “monitor” became the name for a specific type of ship, of which there were many. Merriam-Webster describes a monitor as “a small modern warship with shallow draft for coastal bombardment.”