DeKay, James T. Monitor: The Story of the Legendary Civil War Ironclad and the Man Whose Invention Changed the Course of History. New York: Walker, 1997. Print.
Of all the naval ships that have ever sailed, few have achieved the immortal fame possessed by the USS Monitor. Though it was only in commission for 10 months and though it only saw one major battle, its fame was forever insured by its role in the American Civil War at the Battle of Hampton Roads. In his book, Monitor: The Story of the Legendary Civil War Ironclad and the Man Whose Invention Changed the Course of History, James deKay dedicated his thesis to recounting the history of the Monitor, from its initial conception and design to its ultimate destruction off the coasts of North Carolina. James Tertius deKay is a naval historian. He received his B.A. from Trinity College in 1951. Although there is little information regarding deKay’s background in naval history, his book is credible enough in that deKay provides a comprehensive bibliography, citing the sources he used for each chapter.
DeKay begins Monitor with a brief biography of the Monitor’s inventor: John Ericsson. Ericsson (1803-1889), was born in Sweden and showed an interest in engineering at a young age. In 1826, Ericsson moved to London where he became interested in shipbuilding. He recognized the advantages of ironclad warships and aimed to create an impenetrable ironclad that would satisfy what he called a “sub-aquatic system of naval warfare”. In 1839, Ericsson moved to New York to continue his work. In 1853, Ericsson finalized the designs of what would eventually become the Monitor. Special to Ericsson’s design was its turret, which could rotate 360° and fire in any direction, and the fact that, with the exception of the turret, most of the vessel was to be underwater and safe from enemy fire. However, no one would give Ericsson’s design much credence and it was set aside for almost 10 years. A need for the Monitor would not come until 1861. The Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia housed the USS Merrimac, one of the Union’s most powerful warships. When several Southern states seceded, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles began to worry about the fate of the Merrimac should Virginia secede as well. As deKay points out, “Virginia was still nominally loyal to the Union, but just how long it might remain so was a matter of nervous conjecture among the leaders in Washington.” (p. 35). He made plans for the Merrimac to be moved to safer waters, but on April 15, 1861 Virginia seceded and the Merrimac still had not left Norfolk. Union officers could do nothing but set fire to the entire yard and retreat in defeat. Three months after the destruction of the Merrimac, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephan Mallory saw a need for ironclads and ordered that the damaged, but still fixable Merrimac be modified into an ironclad warship. “They could simply iron-plate the damaged but easily repaired hull that was already in dry dock.” (p. 57). Meanwhile, Welles was trying to get a similar ironclad project started in the Union. Welles recognized that an ironclad was needed to counter the soon-to-be resurrected Merrimac as well as to operate in Hampton Roads, a key link in the Union blockade of the Confederacy. Welles had to convince Congress, so he turned to his friend Cornelius Bushnell, a business owner with a significant amount of persuasion skills and political clout. Within a matter of weeks, Bushnell managed to get an ironclad bill passed in Congress and an Ironclad Board consisting of three naval officers was established to review design proposals.
Bushnell soon began to look for ironclad designs for the Union. Having no experience in engineering, he was referred by a friend to a Swedish engineer with experience in shipbuilding. This engineer happened to be John Ericsson. On September 19,…