October 16, 2004

Monitors in a vacuum

Last night on the History Channel I watched a show that touched on the famous battle between the ironclads Monitor and the Merrimac.

For some reason (ok, it's my limited imagination, satisfied?), I never thought of the Monitor as anything but a one-off, a unique design that fit the circumstances of the moment. I knew that because of the low freeboard - only 12" above the surface of the water - the original Monitor sank during an attempt to navigate the open ocean. What I didn't know was that because of the success of the original Monitor, six further classes of that type of warship were built by the US.

The nine ships of the Canonicus class displaced 2,100 tons and were supposed to have a top speed of 8 knots, though they never quite reached it. Armament consisted of two 15-inch Dahlgren guns mounted in a revolving armored turret, and ship's crew was 100 officers and men. Like all monitors, they were designed for river and close coastal work.

From this nice site about Civil War Monitors:

Five of these nine ships saw action during the Civil War. The Canonicus operated in the James River, then in blockade service, and in attacks on Fort Fisher: the Saugus saw extensive service in the James River and in the assault on Wilmington; the Tecumseh operated in the James River, then in the Gulf of Mexico. It was mined in Mobile Bay on 5 August 1864 and sunk almost immediately; the Manhattan operated also in the Gulf of Mexico, including attacks on Mobile Bay; the Mahopac participated in the attacks on Charleston and Wilmington, and also operated in the James and Appomattox Rivers. The Wyandotte, the Ajax, the Catawaba and the Oneota were never commissioned.

Peru later bought two of the US ironclads, which participated (rather ineffectually) in their war against Chile.

There are some fine photographs here of various classes of monitors, showing the variations and evolution that they underwent during their run. If for no other reason, they are remarkable for transforming modern naval warfare from the classic "steer the entire boat to aim a broadside" into the flexible tactics allowed by turretted arms used ever since.

The last of the type, the USS Cheyenne, was decommissioned in 1937.

Posted by Ted at October 16, 2004 06:57 AM
Category: History

Some call the duel between the Monitor and the Merrimac a draw.

But the Merrimac's purpose was to break the Union naval blockade. After the so-called inconclusive duel, the Merrimac retreated to its home port, and the blockade remained.

While neither ship destroyed the other, I've often wondered how anyone could call it a draw or inconclusive.

Posted by: The Commissar at October 17, 2004 08:11 PM

Good point on the question of "draw vs victory"; maybe a bias for the under-dog or credit for innovation by the confederates. The results are obvious as we view the battle from here, but the romantic notion of "Johhny Reb" is one that does not readily fade.

I was stunned to read that the last of the class was decommissioned in 1937. I will search for photos and information; thanks for the research.


Posted by: Dan Patterson at October 18, 2004 08:26 AM
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