The Miracle That Saved The Union

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On August 3 Congress approved the bill and authorized the Secretary of the Navy to appoint a board of “three skilful officers” to look into the matter. Four days later the Navy Department, now moving at unprecedented speed, in a “public appeal to the mechanical ingenuity of our country” issued an advertisement for ironclad steam vessels. The Navy would “receive offers from parties who are able to execute work of this kind.” Persons who intended to offer must be quick about it and let the Ironclad Board know in a week—by August 15 precisely. And in less than a month they must have before the board the detailed plans, proposed speed, cost, and building time.

The iron interests and the ship-builders of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia were in a frenzy of activity. By the deadline sixteen companies had submitted proposals to the Ironclad Board. E. S. Renwick of New York proposed a 6,250-ton giant, 400 feet long, that would speed along at a phenomenal 18 knots and cost $1,500,000. Donald McKay, famed builder of the world’s fastest clipper ships, wanted to spend $1,000,000 on his version and take nine months doing it. Cornelius Bushnell submitted plans for still another ship, the Galena .

John Ericsson was not among the sixteen entrants. One day, however, when Bushnell returned to Willard’s Hotel, where he was staying in Washington, he ran into Cornelius DeLamater, a well-known and highly respected machinist. DeLamater was a friend of Ericsson’s; indeed, the two had become close associates soon after first meeting in 1839, when Ericsson arrived in the United States. DeLamater’s father had bought into, and eventually took over entirely, an ironworks foundry in lower Manhattan, and Ericsson in 1844 had taken up quarters nearby, at 95 Franklin Street.

Bushnell told DeLamater about the plans for the Galena that he had submitted to the board; DeLamater suggested that it would be a good idea to check them with Ericsson. Bushnell agreed and took a train to New York.

When Ann, the elderly maid, opened the door at 95 Franklin Street, Bushnell found Ericsson sitting on a revolving piano stool in a combined bedroom-workroom. Bushnell offered to show him the Galena plans. Ericsson consented, and the next day, when Bushnell returned, the inventor assured him that they were all right and asked if Bushnell, by the way, would like to see some old plans and a pasteboard model he had of a floating battery, a turreted ironclad with two big guns mounted in a revolving roundhouse. Opening up a dusty box, Ericsson laid open the plans shown to Napoleon in in 1858. Bushnell was impressed, so much so that he took them then and there and rushed off to show them to Gideon Welles, who was visiting in Hartford. The Secretary was equally impressed. He advised Bushnell to take the plans to Washington in a hurry and get them before the Ironclad Board before it concluded its deliberations.

As soon as Bushnell got back to Washington, he looked up two business associates, John A. Griswold, president of the Troy City Bank, and John F. Winslow, a Troy iron-plate manufacturer. Bushnell offered them a quarter interest each in the floating battery if he was awarded the contract. Unable to impress Commodore Joseph Smith of the Naval Board, he got a letter of introduction from Secretary of State William H. Seward to Lincoln, the one man in Washington who could get things done. The three businessmen presented their case to the President, who said: “I don’t know much about boats but … I will meet you tomorrow at 11 a.m. in Commodore Smith’s office and we will talk it over.”

The members of the Ironclad Board were Commodores Smith and Hiram Paulding, both born in George Washington’s time, and Commander Charles H. Davis. They all had a reputation for being extremely cautious and critical. Paulding had already confided to his wife that “ironclads will be more tedious than I thought.” Nevertheless he would be inextricably involved in the fortunes of the Monitor—as Ericsson later officially named his vessel—not only as a member of the Ironclad Board but later as commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where it would be his duty to outfit her and send her off to do battle. Smith, who would have more to do with the Monitor than anybody else, was chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks. His reputation for safeguarding the interests of the Navy was such that it was said he always “seemed to sleep with one eye open.” Although Smith admired Ericsson, the validity of the plan for a floating battery would have to be very convincingly demonstrated. Davis, the junior member, was dead set against it. With his skill at debate he would be a dangerous opponent. These, then, were the men Bushnell’s party would have to persuade.

At the appointed time the President turned up in Smith’s office. So did Gustavus Vasa Fox, the dynamic new —and first—Assistant Secretary of the Navy, lobbyist Bushnell, banker Griswold, iron man Winslow, Commodore Paulding, and Commander Davis. Nearly everybody admitted Ericsson’s plan was novel. But Davis thought it was silly and ridiculed it. Smith was noncommittal. Lincoln listened for an hour and then in closing the meeting remarked: “All I can say is what the girl said when she put her foot in the stocking: ‘I think there’s something in it.’” Thus Ericsson’s Floating Battery became the seventeenth entry.