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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 party of the first part organized to accomplish the impossible. They had to mobilize capital, planners, manufacturers, and shipbuilders into a close-knit, fast-working team. The nerve center would be Ericsson’s room on Franklin Street. Griswold, tycoon of Bessemer-process iron, would handle the finances, making all payments. Rowland would build the hull. The revolving turret, the truly unusual feature of the whole project, would be fabricated, appropriately, at the Novelty Iron Works of New York. Machinery, boiler, and turret-turning apparatus would be made in the DeLamater Iron Works. The iron plates would be rolled out by the Albany Iron Works in Troy. The gunport shields fon the turret were to be made by Charles D. Delaney in Buffalo.
Winslow would be the expediter for materials shipped out of Albany. “One hundred days, and they are short ones, are few enough to do all that is to be done,” he declared. He wanted the hull-plate specifications immediately because “the making of slabs is the longest part of the operation.” On October 12, only eight days after the contract was signed in Washington, Winslow wrote Ericsson: “I am now able to say that every bar of angle iron is now made and ready to go on board of Monday’s steamer and be in New York on Tuesday morning. On Tuesday another lot will follow and so on daily until the entire order for hull plates is completed. We shall drive them through energetically … until you will cry HOLD ! in mercy.”
Meanwhile Rowland had readied the Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint. Its many buildings sprawled over a large city block from the East River inland. He built a ship house over the building ways large enough to accommodate Monitor ’s 172-foot-long, 41-foot-wide armored raft and the supporting hull proper.
Rowland made a model of the ship, showing how the armored raft considerably projected over the 124-foot by 34-foot iron hull that supported it. By fitting patterns on the model he determined the exact size of the armor plates needed. He numbered these in sequence so that when the fabricated ones arrived from Troy they could be accurately put together without time-wasting refitting. By October 19 he had submitted his estimate for the woodwork—oak beams, white pine, and oakum, 7,000 spikes, bolts two feet long, millwork, and carpenters’ labor, all totalling $11,287 net.
On October 25 Rowland laid the keel. And at long last he also received a formal contract from Ericsson and his associates. By its terms he promised to do the work “in a thorough and workmanlike manner, and to the entire satisfaction of Captain Ericsson, in the shortest possible space of time” and “to launch said battery safely and at his own risk and cost….” Ericsson in turn promised to furnish all the material, pay for the ship house, and pay for constructing the hull at the rate of 7½ cents for each pound of iron used. The furnaces of the Continental Iron Works were fired up.
Ericsson was a demon. He planned and drew and superintended incessantly. Daily he took the ferry over to the shipyard. He climbed all over the building ways, observing everything with a keen and critical eye. In the early morning and late evening he drafted the hundreds of detailed plans at his office. The blueprints flowed directly from him to the various shops, and as soon as the material arrived, each piece was manufactured immediately. If it wasn’t right, he was there to adjust it. He made his designs of the utmost possible simplicity in order to speed up the work. “The magnitude of the work I have to do,” he said, “exceeds anything I have ever before undertaken.”
Commodore Smith was right on top of him. Before the keel was laid, Smith was already worrying about the ventilation, writing on his lined blue notepaper that “sailors do not fancy living under water without breathing in sunshine occasionally.” And what’s more, he didn’t like the plan for the rudder. Ericsson wrote back consolingly: “I beg you to rest tranquil as to the result; success cannot fail to crown the undertaking.” But when, the day after the keel was laid, Smith wanted to know how a man five feet eight inches tall could stand in a five-foothigh pilothouse, Ericsson’s reply was not altogether satisfactory: “It is an unpleasant task continually to contradict the opinions you express.”
At the DeLamater Iron Works, Cornelius DeLamater went about manufacturing the machinery for the turret-turning device and the main propulsion plant, the boilers and the propeller. “The motive engine,” said Ericsson, “is somewhat peculiar, consisting of only one steam cylinder with pistons at opposite ends, a steam tight partition being introduced in the middle. The propeller shaft has only one crank and one crank pin.”
Even if it did get made right, and in time, who was going to be smart enough to operate it on board ship? Ericsson was worried about this. He wanted an engineer named Alban C. Stimers, who he thought was the only one in the country for the job. By an odd chance, Stimers had been chief engineer of the Merrimac two years before. Ericsson asked for him, and Commodore Smith wrote that Stimers would be there in a week. By then it was November.