Negotiations for the building of the “monitor.”

In 1877, at the request of ex-Secretary Gideon Welles, C. S. Bushnell, of New Haven, one of the associate owners of the Monitor, embodied, in a letter to the former, his recollections of the negotiations which led to the building of that vessel. That letter immediately following, and letters of comment by Captain Ericsson and ex-Secretary Welles, have been sent to the editors for publication, by the Reverend Samuel C. Bushnell, son of the builder:

Dear Sir: Some time since, during a short conversation in regard to the little first Monitor, you expressed a desire to learn from me some of the unwritten details of her history; particularly, how the plan of the boat came to be presented to the Government and the manner in which the contract for her construction was secured.

You doubtless remember handing me in August, 1861,1 at Willard's Hotel in Washington, D. C., the draft of a bill which you desired Congress should pass, in reference to obtaining some kind of iron-clad vessels to meet the formidable preparations the Rebels were making at Norfolk, Mobile, and New Orleans. At that time you stated that you had already called the attention of Congress to this matter, but without effect.

I presented this bill to the Honorable James E. English, member of Congress from my district, who fortunately was on the Naval Committee and untiringly urged the matter on their attention. The chairman of the committee, A. H. Rice, of Massachusetts, 2 also cooperated most heartily, so that in about thirty days,3 it I remember correctly, the bill passed both Houses, and was immediately signed by President Lincoln. The bill required all plans of iron-clad vessels to be submitted to a board of naval officers appointed by yourself. The board consisted of Admirals Smith and Paulding and Captain Davis, who examined hundreds of plans, good and bad, and among others that of a plated iron gunboat called the Galena, contrived by Samuel H. Pook, now a constructor in the Navy Department. The partial protection of iron bars proposed for her seemed so burdensome that many naval officers warned me against the possibility of the Galena's being able to carry the additional weight of her armament.

C. H. Delalmater, of New York, advised me to consult with the engineer, Captain John Ericsson, on the matter. This I proceeded at once to do, and on supplying him with the data necessary for his calculations promptly gained the answer, “ She will easily carry the load you propose, and. stand a 6-inch shot — if fired from a respectable distance.” At the close of this interview, Captain Ericsson asked if I had time just then to examine the plan of a floating battery absolutely impregnable to the heaviest shot or shell. I replied that the problem had been occupying me for the last three months, and that, considering the time required for construction, the Galena was the best result that Thad been able to attain. He then placed before me the plan of the Monitor, explained how quickly and powerfully she could be built, and exhibited with characteristic pride a medal and letter of thanks received from Napoleon III. For it appears that Ericsson had invented the battery when France and Russia were at war, and out of hostility to Russia had presented it to France, hoping thereby to aid the defeat of Sweden's hereditary foe. The invention, however, came too late to be of service, and was preserved for another issue.

You no doubt remember my delight with the plan of the Monitor when first Captain Ericsson intrusted it to my care; how I followed you to Hartford and astounded you by saying that the country was safe because I had found a battery which would make us master of the situation so far as the ocean was concerned. You were much pleased, and urged me to lose no time in presenting the plan to the Naval Board at Washington. I secured at once the cooperation of wise and able associates in the person of the late Honorable John A. Griswold of [Troy] N. Y., and John F. Winslow of Troy, both of them friends of Governor Seward and large manufacturers of iron plates, etc. Governor Seward furnished us with a strong letter of introduction to President Lincoln, who was at once greatly pleased with the simplicity of the plan and agreed to accompany us to the Navy Department at 11 A. M. the following day, and aid us as best he could. He was on hand promptly at 11 o'clock--the day before you returned from Hartford. Captain Fox, together with a part of the Naval Board, was present.4 All were surprised at the novelty of the plan. Some advised trying it; others ridiculed it. Tie conference was finally closed for that day by Mr. Lincoln's remarking, “All I have to say is what the girl said when she put her foot into the stocking, “It strikes me there's something in it.” ” The following day Admiral Smith convened the whole board, when I presented as best I could the plan and its merits, carefully noting the [749] remarks of each member of the board. I then went to my hotel quite sanguine of success, but only to be disappointed on the following day. For during the hours following the last session, I found that the air had been thick with croakings that the department was about to father another Ericsson failure. Never was I more active than now in the effort to prove that Ericsson had never made a failure; that, on the contrary, he had built for the Government the first steam war-propeller ever made; that the bursting of the gun was no fault of his, but of the shell, which had not been made strong enough to prevent its flattening up with the pressure of the explosion behind it, making the bursting of the gun unavoidable; that his caloric principle was a triumphant success, but that no metal had yet been found to utilize it on a large scale. I succeeded at length in getting Admirals Smith and Paulding to promise to sign a report advising the building of one trial battery, provided Captain Davis would join with them. On going to him, I was informed that I might “ take the little thing home and worship it, as it would not be idolatry, because it was made in the image of nothing in the heaven above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth.” One thing only yet remained which it was possible to do: this was to get Ericsson to come to Washington and plead the case himself. This I was sure would win the case, and so informed you, for Ericsson is a full electric battery in himself. You at once promised to have a meeting in your room if I could succeed in inducing him to come. This was exceedingly doubtful, for so badly had he been treated and so unmercifully maligned in regard to the Princeton that he had repeatedly declared that he would never set foot in Washington again.

Nevertheless I appeared at his house the next morning precisely at 9 o'clock, and heard his sharp greeting: “ Well! How is it? ” “ Glorious,” said I. “ Go on, go on,” said he with much impatience. “ What did they say?” “Admiral Smith says it is worthy of the genius of an Ericsson.” The pride fairly gleamed in his eyes. “ But Paulding-what did he say of it?” He said, “It's just the thing to clear the ‘Rebs’ out of Charleston with. ” “How about Davis?” he inquired, as I appeared to hesitate a moment. “Oh, Davis,” said I, “he wanted two or three explanations in detail which I couldn't give him, and so Secretary Welles proposed that I should come and get you to come to Washington and explain these few points to the entire board in his room to-morrow.” “ Well, I'll go — I'll go to-night.”

From that moment I knew that the success of the affair was assured. You remember how he thrilled every person present in your room with his vivid description of what the little boat would be and what she could do; and that in ninety days time she could be built, although the Rebels had already been four months or more on the Merrimac with all the appliances of the Norfolk Navy Yard to help them.

You asked him how much it would cost to complete her. “ Two hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars,” he said. Then you promptly turned to the members of the board, and one by one asked them if they would recommend that a contract be entered into, for her construction, with Captain Ericsson and his associates. Each one answered, “ Yes, by all means.” Then you told Captain Ericsson to start her immediately. On the next day in New York a large portion of every article used in her construction was ordered, and a contract at once entered into between Captain Ericsson and his associates and T. F. Rowland, at Green Point, for the expeditious construction of the most formidable vessel ever made. It was arranged that after a few days I should procure a formal documentary contract from the Naval Board to be signed and executed by the Secretary of the Navy, Captain John Ericsson and associates.

I regret that this part of the matter has been misunderstood, as though you had made terms heavier or the risk greater than you ought. The simple fact was that after we had entered upon the work of construction, and before the formal contract had been awarded, a great clamor arose, much of it due to interested parties, to the effect that the battery would prove a failure and disgrace the members of the board for their action in recommending it. For their own protection, therefore, and out of their superabundant caution they insisted on inserting in the contract a clause requiring us to guarantee the complete success of the battery, so that, in case she proved a failure, the Government might be refunded the amounts advanced to us from time to time during her construction. To Captain Ericsson and myself, this was never an embarrassment; but to Mr. Winslow, as indeed to Mr. Griswold also, it appeared that the board had asked too much. But I know that the noble old Admiral Smith never intended that we should suffer, and among the many fortunate things for which the. nation had occasion to be grateful — such as the providential selection as President in those dark days of the immortal Lincoln and his wisely chosen Cabinet — was. the appointment of Admiral Smith to the charge of the navy yards, who always seemed to sleep with one eye open, so constant was his watchfulness and so eager his. desire that the entire navy should be always in readiness to do its part in the overthrow of the rebellion.

I am confident that no native-born child of this country will ever forget the proud son of Sweden who could sit in his own house and contrive the three thousand different parts that go to make up the complete hull of the steam-battery Dictator, so that when the mechanics came to put the parts together not a single alteration in any particular was required to be made. What the little first Monitor and the subsequent larger ones achieved is a part of history. ...

Very respectfully, C. S. Bushnell.

The date of the following letter from Captain Ericsson to the son of Mr. C. S. Bushnell indicates that the above letter was submitted to Captain Ericsson before it was sent to Ex-Secretary Welles:

New York, March 2d, 1877.
Ericsson F. Bushnell, Esq., New Haven.
my Dear Sir: I have read with much pleasure your father's statement to Mr. Welles concerning the construction of the original Monitor. I do not think any changes or additions are needed, the main facts being well stated. ... Yours very truly,

Ex-Secretary Welles, under date of Hartford, 19th March, 1877, addressed the following letter to Mr. C. S. Bushnell:

my Dear Sir: I received on the 16th inst. your interesting communication without date-relative to the construction of the Monitor. Many of the incidents narrated by you I remember, although more than fifteen years have gone by since they transpired. Some errors, not very essential and caused by lapse of years, occur — Sedgwick, not Rice, was chairman of the Naval Committee; Griswold resided in Troy, not New York, and subsequently represented the Troy District in Congress, etc., etc.

I well remember asking you to put in writing the facts in your possession concerning the construction of the Monitor. Some statements of General Butler, Wendell Phillips, and others, to disparage the Navy Department, pervert the truth and deny us all credit, led Admiral Smith, in the autumn of 1868 to address to me a communication reciting the facts, for he said, when we were gone, those of us who took the responsibility and would have incurred the disgrace had Ericsson's invention proved a failure, would be ignored and history misstated. As you were more intimate with the case at its inception, were the first to bring it to the attention of the department, it seemed to me proper that your recollection and knowledge of the transaction should be reduced to writing. I am greatly obliged to you for the full and satisfactory manner in which you have complied with my request. Next, after Ericsson himself, you are entitled to bringing his invention to the knowledge of the department. I would not knowingly do injustice to any one, and I am well aware that the official in civil life, and who in administering the [750] government directs movements by which naval and military men acquire renown, is often by the passing multitude little thought of and scarcely known; but the truth should not be suppressed.

The civilians of the Navy Department who adopted and pursued through ridicule and assault the Monitor experiment, Butler and others would slight and defame. In the histories of the war, the Navy Department, which originated, planned, and carried forward the naval achievements from Hatteras to New Orleans, and finally Fort Fisher, is scarcely known or mentioned. The heroes who fought the battles and periled their lives to carry into effect the plans which the department devised have deservedly honorable remembrance-but the originators and movers are little known. I remember, my dear sir, your earnest efforts in the early days of the war and the comfort they gave me.

Captain Ericsson's version of the visit to Washington, as given in Colonel William C. Church's paper on John Ericsson in The Century magazine for April, 1879, is as follows:

With his previous experience of the waste of time and patience required to accomplish anything at Washington, Captain Ericsson, who is not, it must be said, like the man Moses, “ exceeding meek,” would not himself go to the capital to secure attention to his ideas. There were associated with him three men of practical experience, great energy and wealth, who had become interested in the Monitor and were determined that it should have a trial. One of these was Mr. C. S. Bushnell, of Connecticut. He went to Washington, but failed in the attempt to persuade the iron-clad board that the designer of the Princeton was worthy of a hearing. Nothing remained except to induce Ericsson to visit Washington in person and plead his own cause with that rude but forcible eloquence which has seldom failed him in an emergency. To move him was only less difficult than to convince the Navy Department without him. At last a subterfuge was adopted. Ericsson was given to understand that Mr. Bushnell's reception at Washington had been satisfactory and that nothing remained but for him to go on and complete the details of a contract for one of his vessels. Presenting himself before the board, what was his astonishment to find that he was not only an unexpected but apparently an unwelcome visitor! It was evident that the board were asking themselves what could have brought him there. He was not left long in doubt as to the meaning of this reception. To his indignation, as well as his astonishment, he was informed that the plan of a vessel submitted by him had already been rejected. The first impulse was to withdraw at once. Mastering his anger, however, he stopped to inquire the reason for the determination of the board. The vessel had not sufficient stability, Commodore Smith exclaimed; in fact, it would upset and place her crew in the inconvenient and undesirable position of submarine divers. Now, if there is anything which especially distinguishes the Monitor, with its low free-board, it is the peculiarity which it has in common with the raft it resembles — its inability to upset. In a most earnest and lucid argument, Captain Ericsson proceeded to explain this. Perceiving that his explanation had its effect, and his blood being well warmed by this time, he ended by declaring to the board with great earnestness: “ Gentlemen, 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.” Withdrawing to one corner, the board consulted together and invited Captain Ericsson to call again at 1 o'clock. Promptly at the hour named he appeared at the Navy Department. In the board-room he found Commodore Paulding alone. The commodore received him in the most friendly manner, invited him into his private office, and asked that he would repeat the explanation of the morning as to the stability of the vessel. Between the two interviews, Ericsson had found time to make at his hotel a diagram presenting the question of stability in a form easily understood. With this diagram, he repeated his previous demonstration. Commodore (afterward Admiral) Paulding was thoroughly convinced, and with frankness which did him great credit said: “Sir, I have learnt more about the stability of a vessel from what you have now said than all I knew before.” This interview ended with a request to call again at 3 o'clock. Calling at 3, Ericsson was at once invited to pass into the room of secretary Welles. Here, without farther parley, the secretary informed him that the board now reported favorably upon his plan of a vessel, and wished him to return to New York and commence work upon it at once. The contract would be sent on for signature. Before this contract was received, the keel-plates for the first Monitor had passed through the rolling-mill.


Union soldier's Candlestick.

End of Volume I.

1 Mr. Bushnell's recollection of the dates is inexact. The bill (Senate, 36) was introduced July 19th, in the Senate, by Mr. Grimes of Iowa, “at the instance of the Department.” (Congressional Globe, 1st Session, 37th Congress, pp. 205, 344). It became a law August 3d.-editors.

2 As Mr. Welles points out in his letter (see below), this was an error of Mr. Bushnell's. The chairman of the Naval Committee was Charles B. Sedgwick. of Syracuse, New York. Mr. Rice came second on the committee.--editors.

3 The time was actually fifteen days.-editors.

4 Several naval officers were also present unofficially.-


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