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Construction Begins | The Pressure is On | Sea Trials | Orders Arrive

The Pressure is On

One hundred days was a short time in which to construct this new vessel, however, Commodore Joseph Smith had been counting each one down. The engine, already under construction before the contract was signed, was one of the first systems to be successfully tested on the vessel. By late December of 1861, the engine had been installed inside the hull of the ship and had successfully been tested.

Commodore Joseph Smith became the second Chief of the Bureau of Navy Yards and Docks in 1846 and served as Chief for 23 years through the Civil War. Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center
 Commodore Joseph Smith became the second Chief of the Bureau of Navy Yards and Docks in 1846 and served as Chief for 23 years through the Civil War. (Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center) 

Construction was moving along, but clearly not fast enough to satisfy Smith. Under pressure to deliver an ironclad vessel to Hampton Roads before the Merrimack could be completed, Smith was clearly anxious. His communications to Ericsson and Chief Engineer Alban C. Stimers, which had been friendly yet formal through most of the construction, became terser. On January 14, Smith sent just a single sentence to Ericsson: "The time for the completion of the shot-proof battery according to the stipulations of your contract, expired on the 12th instant."

The following day, Smith sent an equally brief communication to Lieutenant John L. Worden, who had recently been released by the Confederates in a prisoner exchange. In fragile health because of his captivity, he nonetheless had been tapped for a special assignment. Smith’s letter read: "I enclose a copy of the contract with Captain J. Ericsson, 95 Franklin Street, New York, for an ironclad battery, for your information and government as commander of said battery." The vessel may not have been completed, nor had she been named, but she had a commanding officer.

On Jan. 20, Ericsson wrote a letter to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavus Vasa Fox submitting his request for the new ironclad ship to be called Monitor.

The Last Days before Launch
By January 24, 1862, the guns were still not on board and John Worden indicated that while he would be able to sight them within the turret, it would take three or four days to do so properly. The first gun arrived on the 25th and Smith was reassured that the launch of the Monitor would take place on the 29th of January if the weather and tide cooperated.

Ultimately, the launch occurred on January 30. Only a shell of the turret was on board—one quarter of the plates—nor was all the coal or stores on board. So the vessel floated high, but more importantly than that to most observers was the fact that she floated at all. Both Stimers and Ericsson sent telegrams to Smith informing him of the successful launch. The New York Times reported on the 31st: "Yesterday morning, the Ericsson battery was launched from the ship-yard of Mr. T.F. ROWLAND, Greenpoint. L.I. Notwithstanding the prognostication of many that she would break her back or else swamp, she was launched successfully."

The remainder of the turret was brought on board on the 31st and the work on the battery was an around-the-clock venture. A private communication from Ericsson to Smith reveals a vulnerability in the imperious Swede not normally seen. He admitted to Smith that he was worried about the amount of freeboard the new ship would expose. He had calculated eighteen inches of freeboard, but admitted to Smith that "I do not see how we ever can get down so deep as not to show 21 inches of vessel out of the water." Stimers was not concerned, however, and with the distribution of coal and ordnance, the vessel did display the eighteen inches that Ericsson had predicted. Smith added to Ericsson’s stress by thanking him for his letter, and adding "She is much needed now."

Testing the Turret
The most defining feature of the newly named Monitor was her rotating gun turret, which was first put into operation on February 17, 1862. Both Alban Stimers and John Flack Winslow sent their observations to Smith, with Stimers reporting that the turret turned at two and a half revolutions per minute under twenty-five pounds of steam.

On February 25, 1862, Lieutenant John Worden made the first entry in his new vessel’s logbook. It read:

Remarks 25th February 1862

Comes in with fine weather
At 3 o clock P.M.
Received crew from Receiving Ship
North Carolina
Vessel put in commission
by Capt. Almy

This day ends with
clear cold weather

The US Navy had taken provisional possession of Ericsson’s Monitor. A volunteer crew, culled from the men awaiting assignment on board the receiving ship North Carolina, stepped on board their new home that same day.


Interior of USS Passaic’s gun turret

Interior of USS Passaic’s gun turret. The Passaic was a later class of monitor-type ships that were built with modifications from Ericsson’s original Monitor. (Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Command)

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monitor's launch

The launching of the USS Monitor on January 30, 1862 from Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, N.Y. Harpers’ Weekly, September 1862. (Monitor Collection, NOAA)

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Plan view through the midship section of the hull and turret showing the turret gear and midship’s bulkhead. Monitor Collection, NOAA

Plan view through the midship section of the hull and turret showing the turret gear and midship’s bulkhead. (Monitor Collection, NOAA

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