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Chapter 6: the Monitor class of vessels.

The reader is probably already informed that the raising of the hull of the old frigate Merrimac, at Norfolk, and placing an iron casemate upon it, created a very general alarm among the people of the North, and brought into prominence the grave question as to how that vessel could be successfully met or destroyed. The destruction of the sailing vessels Congress and Cumberland intensified the alarm, and at the same time afforded painful instances of the impotency of sailing frigates, armed with small smooth-bore guns, when an adversary plated with iron, though improvised and imperfectly constructed, so readily effected their destruction.

A vessel designed by Captain John Ericsson, named the Monitor, was built in great haste for the purpose of meeting the Merrimac. Her construction gave rise to that of a class known as ‘monitors,’ seven of which were sent to Port Royal, as soon as they could be built and equipped, for the purpose of operating against Charleston. At the time they were supposed to be if not invulnerable under the fire of the guns then in use in the forts defending Charleston, at least less liable to destruction. In relation to the effective working of their batteries no doubt existed, or was expressed by any one.

As these vessels have had their day and will pass out of the knowledge of the reader in coming years, it seems worth while to give a particular description of them. [112]

Afloat, in appearance they were not inaptly likened to a cheese-box on a plank. The hull itself, even if freed from the overhang, could not as a model have any pretension to speed. The dimensions of the Passaic, the first vessel built of the improved class, were as follows: Apparent length of vessel, 200 feet; beam, 45 feet. This was sustained by an iron hull with nearly a flat floor, 16 feet shorter at the bow, and 25 feet shorter at the stern than the deck measurement, and on a cross section at the turret, 37 feet 8 inches wide. The usual draught was something over 11 feet, and displacement 844 tons. The thickness of the mass of wood firmly bolted together that surrounded the hull proper was 5 feet and was plated externally with five 1-inch iron plates.

The turret had a thickness of eleven 1-inch plates, with a height of 9 feet, and an interior diameter of 20 feet. It was designed to revolve at will by suitable machinery; had iron beams on top to support a light iron cover, and was surmounted by a small cylindrical tower (pilot-house) composed of eight 1-inch plates, some 7 feet in height and 8 feet in diameter. Within this pilot-house was the wheel, and in battle, the commanding officer, the pilot, and the helmsman. It was capped by a circular plate of iron 1 1/2 inch thick. Small circular holes were originally cut through for vision, and afterward, as a necessity, they were chiselled out to give an angle to the view. The plates of the turret and of the pilot-house were held together by numerous bolts, with the heads on the outside and a nut within. The blow of a very heavy projectile would make the nuts fly with great force within the turret, and the rebound of the plates would then at times withdraw the bolts entirely, but more frequently they would stand out like the ‘quills upon the fretful porcupine.’

The hatchway over the windlass-room, another forward of [113] the turret, and a third over the engine-room, were covered with iron plates and calked on going to sea, and on going into action were put on, leaving no egress from below except through the turret. For ventilation, six holes of 8 inches diameter were cut through the deck forward and four aft, and ventilating pipes 4 feet high were fitted with gaskets to keep out the water; beneath were bull's-eyes that could be screwed up below to exclude the water when the pipes were taken off.

Forward of the hull proper, in the ‘overhang,’ was what was known as the ‘anchor-well,’ a cylinder into which a four-armed anchor could be hove up by means of a windlass in a small apartment called the ‘windlass-room’ in the bow, the chain passing in through a hawsehole less than two feet above the ordinary water level. The anchor-well had a removable plate over it, as also had what was known as a ‘propeller-well,’ some fifteen feet from the stern. The turret was nearly, if not quite, on the centre of the vessel, and the smoke-stack, made of eight 1-inch plates to a height of 6 feet above the deck, and then of the usual height with the ordinary thickness of iron, was 12 feet farther aft. The deck itself was of heavy wood and covered with two 1/2-inch plates of iron. When ready for sea and properly trimmed, the bow would usually be 2 1/2 feet, and the stern a foot less above the water level. With a perfectly clean bottom, a speed somewhat in excess of seven knots was attainable. Lying in the warm salt water of Southern ports soon caused the bottom to foul in the most extraordinary manner, and reduced the attainable speed to less than four knots.

The armament intended was two Xv-inch guns, but owing to inability to obtain them in time, one of that calibre was given and one Xi-inch gun, fitted with a ‘yoke,’ as before [114] Described. Instead of this gun the Patapsco and Lehigh had 150 pounder Parrott rifles.

It is apparent to the reader that it would require only a foot or so of water in the hold to sink this vessel, and this danger was augmented by the insufficient water-way, which was the trough within the keel, having a chord of 16 inches, and a depth of 3 3/4 inches, in the form of a lunette. When the vessel was nearly on an even keel this was a very insufficient conduit from the fore body of the vessel to the powerful centrifugal pumps placed in the after body, as we shall presently see in the sinking of the Weehawken.

In a heavy sea the monitors were surprisingly easy in their movements. This was obtained at the cost of great strain on the fastenings of the ‘overhang.’ When the engines were stopped the vessel, quite unlike ordinary ones, would sheer one way or the other, and no amount of watching could prevent this. As we have already seen, the gun machinery had not that reliability that it was supposed to possess. When under a fair steam-pressure they steered very well.

In May, 1863, in answer to the requirement of the Navy Department, all of the officers commanding monitors near Charleston (five in number) submitted their opinion in relation to the qualities of that class, which the Department did not think worth while to give to the public in its ‘Report on Armored Vessels,’ 1864, made under a Congressional resolution. It might be supposed that this letter had been inadvertently passed over, had it not been that on page 603 Captain Ericsson comments upon one of its paragraphs. Captains Drayton and Worden subsequently saw the letter, and concurred in its contents. It has never been published, and for lack of space is not now given. The closing paragraphs are as follows:

In relation to the qualities of the vessels, we would remark that they have been exaggerated [115] into vessels capable of keeping the seas and making long voyages alone. Some of us have been in heavy gales in them, and, indeed, from the amount of water in them, have had grave apprehensions of their loss.

Possessing the advantage of a secure harbor and choosing their time of exit, these vessels can, in our opinion, greatly harass a blockading force, making it necessary for wooden vessels to withdraw to such distances from the entrance of the harbors, especially after night, as would make the blockade very ineffective against the entrance of steamers.

The average time required to load, point, and fire the Xv-inch gun does not vary much from seven minutes. It must be remembered that this controls the fire of the lighter piece, or if that be fired oftener, it retards further the slow firing of the heavier gun. We regard a small calibre with a larger proportional charge of powder as desirable, at least when used against brick or stone.

It is necessary to add that the opinion was expressed by the same officers that the monitors could not ride securely to their anchors within the bar off Charleston. This grew out of the fact that several of the vessels had dragged in very moderate weather and not strong tides within Edisto inlet. This opinion, however, was found erroneous; the force of a heavy sea was expended in a great measure on the bar, and the monitors continued within it off Charleston for some twenty months. Heavy moorings, with buoys attached, were put down for them, which ensured their safety so far as dragging was concerned.

Another fitment, however, was necessary to enable monitors to be habitable in that locality. This was the placement of high coamings around the hatchways, so as to allow the battle-plates to be left off, except when going into action, or [116] when a heavy gale set in from seaward. Without this arrangement it would have been absolutely impossible to exist on board of them, as the water was usually swashing over the decks. Admiral Dahlgren did not exaggerate when he said ‘no one can form an idea of the atmosphere of these vessels’ after being closed up and in action for a few hours in a hot climate.

The New Ironsides fairly fulfilled reasonable expectations; she had all the speed necessary for the purposes of her construction; was not an indifferent sea boat; presented in broadside seven Xi-inch shell guns and one 200-pounder rifle. Her battery had rapidity of fire and great precision and usefulness within its range. When in shallow water, like all flat-floored vessels, she steered badly and became unmanageable, if obliged to slow down or to stop the enginery. The armor plating was four and a half inches in thickness, and stood fairly the fire from all the batteries to which she was exposed at all times. Before going into action her deck was covered with sand-bags, and the iron bulkheads of four inches in thickness at her ends were reinforced with sand-bags.

The Keokuk proved to be a hopeless failure under the fire to which she was subjected, and would not have withstood projectiles of ordinary size at any distance at which her battery could have been used effectively. The contract calls for ‘one iron-clad, shot-proof, steam battery on Whitney's plan, the vessel to be wholly of iron. Length, 159 feet; beam, 39 feet; depth of hold, 3 1/2 feet, and draught; 8 feet. The said vessel shall have capacity and stability safely to carry and work a battery of two Xi-inch guns, . . the vessel and the two turrets and the pilot-house to be shot-proof against ordnance used in the naval service of the United States.’ The ‘turrets,’ as they were called, were [117] two oval casemates. The above comprises all that the contract calls for, so far as invulnerability is concerned, and no mention is made of her in this regard, or of her qualities in the report on ‘Armored Vessels,’ 1864. So far as memory serves, the ‘armor-plating,’ as it was called, was one and a half or two inches thick, and an inner skin of perhaps three-fourths of an inch. Her role was short, and she would not have proved a success anywhere, whether against forts or ships.

By April 13th all of the monitors had been sent to Port Royal for repairs, and as fast as finished were sent to North Edisto, the inland waters of which were contiguous, and actually afforded a better base for menacing or taking Charleston than Morris or Sullivan's Island. Had both of these islands been in possession of the National forces, Charleston would certainly have been a sealed port, but so far as its attack from a land force was concerned, even then an approach from Stono and North Edisto would have been more practicable, considering the support derivable from guns afloat. The admiral had reason to suppose that at any day the monitor force, with the exception of two vessels, would be ordered to the Mississippi, and so it was held in expectancy.

Definite information was obtained of the approaching readiness of the ram Atlanta to leave Savannah, with the intention of sweeping the coast of the weak vessels that for the most part maintained the blockade. The vessel was reputed strong. Timely provision was made to meet her by sending the monitors Weehawken, Captain John Rodgers commanding, and Nahant, Commander John Downes, to Wassaw Sound, from whence she was expected to come out.

The admiral had the satisfaction of reporting to the Department on June 17th the capture of the Atlanta on that [118] day. At early dawn she was discovered coming down Wilmington River, accompanied by a propeller and a side-wheel steamer. The Weehawken and Nahant slipped their cables and steamed outward for the northeast end of Wassaw Island; the ram and hers consorts steamed down rapidly, apparently thinking them in retreat. After preparations were completed and broad daylight had come, at 4.30 the Weehawken and Nahant turned and stood up to meet their adversary. At a distance of a mile and a half the Atlanta fired a rifle shell, which passed over the stern of the Weehawken and struck near the Nahant.. She then laid across the channel and awaited an attack. At a distance of about three hundred yards the Weehawken opened fire, and after an engagement of fifteen minutes, at 5.30 A. M., having fired but five shots, the Atlanta hauled down her flag. The Nahant had not the opportunity of delivering a single shot, although close aboard and ready to support her consort.

The Atlanta had gone aground after the action was over. A rising tide soon enabled her to be got afloat and sent with a prize crew to Port Royal. Four shots had struck her. A Xv-inch cored shot had struck the casemate at an angle of about fifty degrees with the keel, broken in the armor and wood backing, covered the deck with splinters, and from the concussion and debris prostrated 40 men. Another of the same size struck the top of the pilot-house, knocking it off, wounding the pilots, and stunning the men at the wheel. An Xi-inch solid shot struck the edge of the overhang, breaking the plating; the fourth, supposed to be of the same size, struck a port-stopper in the centre, breaking it in two, and driving many of the fragments into the casemate. The crew was composed of 21 officers and a complement of 121 enlisted men, 16 of whom were wounded. The captured officers estimated her speed at ten knots, and regarded the [119]

Confederate ironclad Atlanta, captured in Wassaw Sound, June 17, 1863.

[120] Atlanta as the strongest ironclad of the Confederates, and quite a match for the two monitors.

Confident and enthusiastic friends on board of the two steamers that had come from Savannah to witness the triumph of the Atlanta, saw instead, their pride and their hope in the possession of the enemy. They certainly had not long to wait, and, however painful the suspense, it was of short duration.

The armament of the Atlanta was two Vii-inch and two VI: 4/10-inch rifled guns, two of which could be pivoted either on broadside or ahead and astern. Length of vessel, 204 feet; extreme breadth, 41 feet; draught, 16 feet. A more detailed description will be found in the volume of Professor Soley. The superstructure was built on a staunch new steamer known as the Fingal, with excellent enginery. The plating was four inches in thickness, composed of two plates, but of little tenacity, as it shattered almost like cast-iron.

Chronometers and other nautical instruments found on board disclosed the fact that the builders intended the vessel for sea purposes, and the boldness of her commander indicated the belief that she was far superior to any of the rams in Charleston Harbor.

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