The Miracle That Saved The Union


The turret was meanwhile shaping up at the Novelty Iron Works, directly across Manhattan from DeLamater’s plant. It was a monstrous thing, twenty feet in diameter, nine feet high, and with sides eight inches thick, made of eight layers of plate. It was shotproof. The job required an industrial plant capable of the heaviest kind of work. The ironworks’ title, sounding more like a ladies’ notion store, hardly suggested anything more substantial than a safety pin. Yet it was a massive iron foundry. Its main building was 206 feet long and 80 feet wide, housing four cupola furnaces and six drying ovens. The world’s largest steam cylinder, for the Fall River Line’s Metropolis , had been built there. (The cylinder was so big that twenty-two people had once sat down to lunch in it.)

Smith wanted to know from Ericsson “more than the specifications state, your plan of putting the turret together.” It was hard enough as it was without the commodore’s nagging. They were having a tough time making room in the turret for the crew and especially for the recoil of the eleveninch guns. “I must insist,” said Smith, “on the guns having the full length of recoil.” Engineer Stimers, now on the scene, said the guns would have to be shortened at least eighteen inches to work in the turret. No, said Smith. The eleven-inch Dahlgren guns “are the guns I intended for it and none others are to be had.” The great gunmaker Admiral John Dahlgren reported from the gun factory in Washington that if eighteen inches were cut off the guns, they would lose 50 per cent of their effectiveness. So Novelty Iron Works forged ahead, building the tracks in the turret for the two gun carriages. While all this was going on in New York, Delaney, in Buffalo, made the gunport shields for the turret so that they would swing, pendulumlike, to close the ports when the guns were retracted into the turret for loading, thus protecting the crew.

By now it was November 18, and Smith wrote tartly: “I received the copies of the Scientific American and regret to see a description of the vessel in print before she shall have been tested.” Obviously, the Confederate government would now be alerted to the urgency for launching the rebuilt Merrimac .

By Thanksgiving the government made its first payment—a draft on the Navy Agent in New York for $37,5oo. In the meanwhile banker Griswold had been making weekly cash payments to all the subcontractors for work performed to date.

During December the work moved on steadily, with much less bickering from Washington and a payment of fifty thousand dollars more. The Secretary of the Navy, in his annual report on December 2, said the Ironclad Board had “displayed great practical wisdom” in this new branch of naval architecture. But Smith was not relaxing one bit. He sent a terse warning to Ericsson on December 5 to “push up the work … only thirty-nine days left.” A week later he feared that the beams under the battery were too small.

At the Continental Iron Works, Rowland’s men bolted on the side and deck armor amid rumors that spies had gotten into the shipyard and were passing along a flow of information to Richmond.

Christmas came and went. On December 30, in his Manhattan shops, Cornelius DeLamater turned on the steam to test the forty-inch cylinder. The slide valves opened and admitted steam, and the great piston moved full stroke and back again. The Monitor ’s engineering plant was all right. It was loaded in sections onto barges and lightered around the Battery, up the East River to the Continental Iron Works. DeLamater’s men followed and began installing it. There was barely room for the boilers, cylinder, and large steam pipes in the eleven feet six inches between bottom and deck.

January of 1862 was the critical month. The contract time would expire; she would have to be launched. Yet the gun problem had not yet been solved. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the Monitor would have to be fitted out, was having strike trouble. New Year’s Day started out with a fierce gale that tore the North Carolina , then training the Monitor ’s crew, away from her pier in the Navy Yard and bashed her stern in.

It was a cold winter. To the touch, iron had the sticky feeling of quickfreezing. The first week of the new-year was hardly out before drifting ice filled up the East River, blocked the Brooklyn waterfront, and backed up into Bushwick Creek bordering on the Continental Iron Works. Three days before launching, outside work in shipyards had to be suspended on account of stormy weather.