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The Miracle That Saved The Union
The Union desperately needed an extraordinary warship to counter the ironclad the Confederates were building
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
It was obvious that something very special was needed to confront the ironclad that the Confederacy was furiously building if the Union was to be saved. Yet it took a personal visit of Abraham Lincoln to the somnolent offices of the Navy Department to force the issue, and by then it was so late that the Navy Department had to have a miracle. In short, the contractor would have to build, in a hundred days, a kind of ship that had never been built before, and build it in a desperate race against time.
To sign a contract calling for a miracle in a hundred days was all very well, but there had to be a miracle man to do it. There was probably only one man in the world who could. He was John Ericsson, the great inventor.
Whether Ericsson would was another matter. He had become decidedly unenthusiastic about doing business with governments. Napoleon III had turned down his plans for a ship with a movable turret—what Ericsson called a monitor. The British Admiralty had refused him payment for his unique screw propeller on the ground that a rival inventor had already patented one. Ericsson’s screw propeller had been demonstrated on a vessel built in England in 1839 and named after his friend Captain Robert F. Stockton of the United States Navy. And it was at Stockton’s urging that Ericsson subsequently came to the United States and put one of his propellers on the u.s.s. Princeton , the first warship in the world to have one. Unfortunately, during a demonstration firing, the Princeton ’s big twelve-inch experimental gun exploded, killing Secretary of State Able P. Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas W. Gilmer, and four other persons. Stockton, the skipper of the Princeton , turned on his friend Ericsson and made him the scapegoat of the tragedy. In consequence Ericsson vowed never again to deal with Washington, and Stockton continuously opposed the inventor’s enterprises. His would be the hidden voice of a widespread navy coterie in 1861 that was against any such nonsense as what was variously called “Ericsson’s Folly,” a stupid “cheesebox on a raft,” a silly “tin can on a shingle.”
That first summer of the Civil War was an especially fretful one for Navy Department officials in Washington. Lincoln had proclaimed a blockade of all southern ports, but the Navy was seriously hampered by the lack of ships to carry out his order. Worse, after Union forces abandoned the Norfolk Navy Yard, word quickly reached the Capitol that the Confederates, with surprising ingenuity, were building themselves an ironclad ship there. Inasmuch as an armor-piercing shell had yet to be created—there had been no need for one until then—such a vessel was virtually impregnable and could wreak havoc among wooden fighting ships. And the Navy Yard, near the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, was in a strategic position to stymie Union campaigns in Virginia; it controlled the James River approach to Richmond, the Potomac River approach to Washington, and the port of Baltimore as well. An ironclad ship let loose in the bay was obviously a serious threat to the prosecution of the war.
The newfangled ship all covered with iron plates being built by the Confederates was the powerful steam frigate Merrimack , burned and scuttled by Union forces when they evacuated Norfolk. The rebels had raised her and were busy refitting her into an ironclad ram that they rechristened the Virginia . (The vessel’s name has nevertheless come down in history in the Union version, minus the k .) The Confederates were improvising what looked like a floating barn roof with ports for ten guns. The hull was being cut down to the water line, a long iron-plated superstructure was to be placed on top, and a four-foot cast-iron prow affixed to her bow.
Lincoln had appointed Hiram Paulding, an aged hero of the War of 1812, to “put the Navy afloat.” Paulding naturally called into consultation the chief of the Bureau of Construction for the Navy, old John Lenthal. Lenthal would have no truck with such nonsense, remarking that building ironclads “was not his trade” he remained silent thereafter.
At last Gideon Welles, the Secretary of the Navy, sent a message to the special session of Congress meeting on the Fourth of July, 1861, suggesting that a special board be appointed to investigate the feasibility of building one or more ironclad steamers or floating batteries. Congress complied, authorizing the expenditure of $1,500,000 for construction if the board reported favorably.
Then the contractors entered the picture like hawks. The iron interests went to work. Cornelius Bushnell, president of the New Haven, Hartford and Stonington Railroad, one of the foremost of the lobbyists, persuaded the chairman of the Naval Committee to get behind the Ironclad Bill and push it through the House. The Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen R. Mallory, had already issued orders on July 11 “to proceed with all possible despatch” with the Merrimac ’s rebuilding; it was obvious to all that time was essential.