Call for an Ironclad header

The Call for an Ironclad

 Illustration of the anaconda plan
 Click here for a larger view of the
"anaconda plan".

Soon after the American Civil War began in 1861, both the North and the South realized how important the seas were to the war effort. The South needed lines of trade with other countries to compensate for their lack of industrial facilities. Knowing this, President Lincoln declared there would be a blockade of the Southern states. This plan, known as the "Anaconda Plan," was meant to choke the South into submission.

After the secession of Virginia, the Union withdrew their forces northward after trying to destroy any materials or facilities that would benefit the Confederacy. Gosport, a naval shipyard located in Portsmouth, Va., was just such a facility. At the time of secession, Gosport had a large complement of ships awaiting repair. There was no time to evacuate all the ships, so the port and ships were burned. However, after the Union troops left, the townspeople managed to salvage the shipyard, including the hull of a wooden warship known as USS Merrimack.

uss merrimack
 USS Merrimack was destroyed when the Norfolk Navy Yard (Gosport) was burned. Although, the Merrimack was renamed the CSS Virginia by the Confederacy, people today continue to refer to it as the "Merrimac." (Courtesy U.S. Naval Heritage Center) 

With the blockade effectively cutting the Confederacy off from the outside world, the concept of converting the burned hull of the Merrimack into an ironclad came to life. Under the design of John Mercer Brooke, John Luke Porter and William Price Williamson, the ship was salvaged and gradually converted into an ironclad ship renamed CSS Virginia.

As news of the construction of Virginia made its way north, the Union knew that with their aging wooden fleet, they would be in a predicament if they did not have an ironclad of their own. As concern mounted, there was increasing pressure on Congress and the Navy to confront the threat. In response, Congress passed a bill on Aug. 7, 1861, directing the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, to appoint a board to investigate plans for ironclads and to appropriate $1.5 million for their construction.

The "Ironclad Board" immediately began to solicit proposals. They ran ads in the major northern newspapers asking inventors to submit their intent to offer a proposal by Aug. 15. The ad in part said,


...for the construction of one or more iron-clad steam vessels of war, either of iron or of wood and iron combined, for sea or river service, to be not less than ten nor over sixteen feet draught of water; to carry an armament of from eighty to one hundred and twenty tons weight, with provisions and stores for from one hundred and sixty five to three hundred persons, according to armament, for sixty days, with coal for eight days. The smaller draughts of water, compatible with other requisites, will be preferred. The vessel to be rigged with two masts, with wire rope standing rigging, to navigate at sea.

A general description and drawings of the vessel, armor and machinery, such as the work can be executed from, will be required.

The offer must state the cost and the time for completing the whole exclusive of armament and stores of all kinds, the rate of speed proposed, and must be accompanied by a guarantee for the proper execution of the contract, if awarded.

Persons who intend to offer are requested to inform the department of their intention before the 15th of August, instant, and to have their propositions presented within twenty-five days from this date.

Cornelius S. Bushnell, an old friend of Gideon Welles, was instrumental in helping to pass the bill in Congress for the construction of ironclads. Being a successful businessman, he also saw the opportunity to benefit from government contracts, so he promoted a ship design by Samuel H. Pook for an ironclad named Galena. Bushnell presented the Galena design to the board and worked closely with Welles to secure approval for its construction.

With no engineering background, Bushnell was unable to convince the board that the design could carry the heavy iron bars as proposed in addition to the armament. Bushnell sought advice from C. H. DeLameter, who in turn suggested that he talk to John Ericsson. Ericsson did the calculations and told Bushnell that the Galena would easily carry the extra weight. However, before Bushnell left, Ericsson decided to show him his own ironclad design for an "impregnable battery," which he had developed in 1854 as a proposal to Napoleon III. Ericsson assured Bushnell that the ship could be built in just 90 days.

Bushnell was extremely impressed with the design of the ship and convinced Ericsson to let him take the drawings and a crude cardboard model of the ship to show Secretary Welles, who was visiting in nearby Connecticut. Welles also impressed with Ericsson’s engineering, encouraged Bushnell to secure backing and to take the plans to the Ironclad Board in Washington. As a testament to Bushnell’s extraordinary energy and influence, he was quickly able to secure financial support and a meeting with President Lincoln.

Charles H. Davis, Courtesy Library of Congress
 Charles H. Davis. (Courtesy Library of Congress) 

President Lincoln admitted that he didn't know much about boat building, but he was impressed with the simplicity of the plan and Bushnell and his associates’ enthusiasm and earnestness. Lincoln could not influence the board's decision, but he agreed to meet Bushnell at the Navy Department the following morning.

At 11:00 AM the next day, Lincoln watched as Bushnell presented the design. Although most of the board was impressed, others ridiculed the plans. At the end of the meeting, the board asked President Lincoln for his opinion. He replied, "All I have to say is what the girl said when she put her foot in the stocking, 'It strikes me there’s something in it.'" Nevertheless, the board was not convinced and asked Bushnell to return after they had some time to discuss the plan.

Bushnell returned the next day and met with the entire board. He once again explained the design and its merits. Leaving the meeting, he felt confident that the plan would be approved. However, later that afternoon, he learned that some of the board was afraid that Ericsson would have another failure, as he did with the Princeton. In order to convince the board of the plan’s worthiness, Bushnell decided that Ericsson must plead the case. But Bushnell knew that Ericsson would not be agreeable if he knew that the board had turned down his plan. Therefore, Bushnell decided to white wash the truth, just a little. He told Ericsson that everyone had loved the plan except for one, Commander Charles H. Davis. Bushnell said that Davis wanted a few explanations that he was unable to give, so Secretary Welles wanted Ericsson to come to Washington to explain the few points to the entire board. Ericsson agreed.

When Ericsson arrived at the Navy Department, the board was shocked to see Ericsson after they had denied his plan. Ericsson was equally shocked to learn that his plan had been dismissed. Not satisfied with just a negative answer, Ericsson demanded to know why they had rejected him. Each time a negative criticism was made, Ericsson countered with vigor and fervor to dismiss their fears until finally the board sanctioned his plan. Ericsson immediately left Washington and departed for New York to begin construction of his ironclad.


USS Merrimack
USS Merrimack, (Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center)

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The Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel

In Hampton Roads, Va. on I-664, "The Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel" is located less than a mile from the site where iron first met iron in the battle of the ironclads.

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USS Virginia

CSS Virginia. (Courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center

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clipping of an ad for armored warships

August 9, 1862, clipping from an unidentified newspaper of the ad ran by the Navy Department soliciting designs for armored warships. (Courtesy Jeff Johnston)

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watercolor of the galena

Watercolor by Oscar Parkes, depicting the Galena as she appeared in mid-1862, while serving on the James River in Virginia. (Courtesy of U.S. Naval Historical Center)

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sketch of the monitor by ericsson

Drawing of John Ericsson's early concept for a "impregnable battery and revolving cupola" that the engineer presented to Emperor Napoleon III in 1854. Click here for a larger image. (Monitor Collection, NOAA)

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To download plans for a paper model of the USS Monitor visit:

clipping of an ad for armored warships

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