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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
The Ironclad Board finished its meetings on September 16. Its formal report turned down fourteen of the seventeen proposals. McKay’s proposal was rejected because his ship was too slow. Renwick’s eighteen-knot giant cost too much; it would eat up the entire appropriation. But the Galena was still in the running, as was an ironclad called New Ironsides . And John Ericsson’s proposal, entered last, was listed first on the tabulation of the seventeen.
However, when Smith reconvened the board the next day, Davis prevailed and Ericsson’s plan was rejected. It seemed that there would be no Monitor .
Lobbyist Bushnell thereupon got to work on the members of the board individually. As a result Paulding and Smith promised they would vote approval if Bushnell could get Davis to go along with them. So Bushnell tackled Davis, a hard nut to crack. Davis was still adamant and told Bushnell that he “might take the little model home and worship it, as it would not be idolatry, because it was made in the image of nothing in heaven above, or the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.” There was only one thing left for Bushnell to do. That was to bring Ericsson to Washington to confront Davis in person. Accordingly Bushnell went off to New York, and Commodore Smith helped out by writing to Ericsson that there “seemed to be some deficiencies in the specifications,” that “some changes may be suggested,” and that “a guarantee would be required.”
Convinced by Bushnell that Davis merely wanted a few points about his plan clarified, Ericsson took a train for Washington and on meeting Davis declared: “I have come down at the suggestion of Captain Bushnell, to explain about the plan of the Monitor .”
“What,” queried Davis, “the little plan Bushnell had here Tuesday; Why, we rejected it in toto .”
“Rejected it! What for …?”
“For want of stability. …”
“Stability,” exclaimed the amazed Ericsson. “No craft that ever floated was more stable than she would be; that is one of her great merits.”
Davis, softening, answered: “Prove it … and we will recommend it at once.”
“I will go to my hotel and prepare the proof … and meet your Board at the Secretary’s room at 1 o’clock.”
In a two-hour presentation Ericsson proved the stability was satisfactory beyond a doubt. After he withdrew, the board deliberated for two more hours, at the end of which they notified Gideon Welles that they were satisfied. Welles called Ericsson to his office late that afternoon and in a five-minute interview told him to get started immediately. The contract could be signed later. Ericsson rushed back to New York to get to work.
Griswold and Winslow now began looking for someone to build the Monitor. They got on a ferry in lower Manhattan and crossed the East River to the heart of the Greenpoint shipbuilding industry. At a plant named the Continental Iron Works they met bearded, thirty-year-old Thomas Fitch Rowland, the proprietor. Griswold and Winslow asked him how much a pound he would charge to make an iron ship for them. Temporizing, Rowland asked what they thought, and they said 4½ cents a pound would be just right. Rowland was experienced in making big things, having once manufactured a quarter-mile iron pipe 7½ feet in diameter for the Croton aqueduct. He was not about to accept a first offer, and it was not until the next day that the deal was agreed upon at 7½ cents a pound.
On October 4 the government contract with Ericsson and his associates was drawn up and signed. It said: “It is further agreed between the said parties that said vessel and equipment in all respects shall be completed and ready for sea in one hundred days from the date of this indenture.” In addition, a “small-print” clause stated that if the vessel—“an Iron-Clad-Shot-Proof Steam Battery of iron and wood”—was not a success, the party of the first part would have to refund to the government all moneys received.
On the day the contract was signed, Bushnell drove home to Commodore Smith what a good bargain he was getting. “The whole vessel with her equipment,” he said, “will cost no more than to maintain one regiment in the field 12 months … should [it] prove what we warrant it, will it not be of infinitely more service than 100 regiments?”
Bargain or not, time was still the crucial factor: the Merrimac , being constructed in Norfolk, already had her hull, boilers, and engines completed, though the iron sheathing for her sloping deckhouse was not yet ready.