March 8–9, 2021, marks the 159th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, also known as the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack. This battle is significant as the first fight between two ironclad warships, USS Monitor and CSS Virginia. Today’s post comes from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.
NARA’s Cartographic Branch recently completed more than 8,880 item descriptions for one of its highly referenced naval series, Construction and Design Drawings of Guns, Related Machinery and Parts, 1862-1921, which includes plans for the gun carriages housed within USS Monitor’s turret.
The USS Monitor’s revolving turret was a mechanical marvel, the first in the world to be mounted on a ship. It fired nearly 360 degrees around the ship, with its sole blind spot being where the ship’s pilot house sat on the deck. The turret housed two 11-inch Dahlgren guns resting on specially designed gun carriages, and it was the carriages that made the Monitor’s revolving turret possible.
The carriage sides were made of two iron brackets with wooden cores, and the fore and aft ends consisted of an iron plate secured to the sides with angled iron, screws, and rivets, as you can see in the gun carriage template above.
The carriages were designed to roll back and forth on iron rails attached to the floor of the turret.
The Dahlgren guns mounted in the turret were 13 feet long, while the turret had an interior diameter of 20 feet. Controlling the significant recoil of the guns was a priority, since otherwise the guns would hit the back of the turret after firing. To solve this problem the Swedish-born engineer and inventor John Ericsson designed a friction braking mechanism, controlled by a large brass wheel that could tighten or loosen the braking assembly.
According to the The USS Monitor Center at The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia, “One sailor wrote that during the initial test firing, the brake assemblies were accidentally loosened rather than tightened. When the guns fired each slammed into the rear wall of the turret leaving clear dents. Finding these dents on the shipwreck added archaeological evidence to support this account.”
The actual battle between the two ironclads was indecisive: despite fighting for several hours, neither was able to inflict significant damage on the other.
The Monitor foundered off Cape Hatteras during a storm on December 31, 1862. The wreck was rediscovered in 1973, and her gun turret, guns, gun carriages, and other parts of the ship were recovered in 2001–2002 through a joint effort between the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Artifacts from the Monitor are housed at the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Virginia, a few miles from the site of her battle with CSS Virginia. Visitors to the museum can also see the original turret and other artifacts in the Batten Conservation Laboratory, where it is undergoing treatment in a large tank of water to prevent further corrosion of the metal.