Monday, November 19, 2012

Extant US Civil War Monitors

The recovery of key parts of USS Monitor goes to show that although a ship may have sunk, it still materially exists in some form or fashion. As such it is interesting to note that there are six Civil War-era, monitor-type ships of the US Navy still in existence, albeit at the bottom of the sea. One of these is nearly intact and almost completely preserved in mud. With the exception of Monitor, all sank in relatively shallow waters.

Wreck of Monitor taken in 1975


Monitor was the prototype of her type of ship. Constructed in Brooklyn, New York, Monitor was commissioned on 25 February 1862. The ship made her way down to Hampton Roads where she engaged the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia. After the historic Battle of Hampton Roads, the ship continued operations around the James River area. On 31 December 1862, Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras while under tow.

In subsequent years Monitor was the object of various searches to find her. In the 1950s diver and treasure hunter Robert F. Marx claimed to have found the ship but it turned out to be another Civil War wreck, USS Oriental. Others proposed plans to raise the ship (if and when it was rediscovered) using pontoons. [reference]

Monitor was finally discovered in August 1973, 30 kilometers southeast of Cape Hatteras. The ship was upside-down and the turret displaced, partially sticking out under the hull. The condition of the ship was such that some speculated the wreck may have been depth-charged during World War Two, when it was mistaken for a German submarine.

Wreck of the Monitor.

Subsequent visits to the wreck retrieved a number of artifacts including the anchor and the ship's distress lantern. Although the wreck was protected, researchers noted rapid deterioration. Bimetallic construction accelerated corrosion and the propeller skeg collapsed, possibly caused by a fishing boat anchor snagging it. The damaged shaft further accelerated deterioration of the wreck as a whole. Interest in raising the ship was quelled by a cost estimated to be around $50 million. [reference]

It was finally decided to recover the most significant parts of the ship and to stabilize the rest of the wreck. In 1998 the propeller and shaft was recovered and in 2001 the pioneering steam engine was salvaged. In 2002 the turret and guns were raised. All of the items were taken to Mariner's Museum in Virginia for conservation. It is uncertain if any part of the armored belt around the deck of the ship will be retrieved.

Recovered turret of Monitor


Patapsco is a Passaic-class monitor, built in Wilmington, Delaware and commissioned on 27 September 1862. She was involved in the Battle of Charleston Harbor in 1863 then operated largely along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. On 14 January 1865 she struck a mine (then called a torpedo) in Charleston harbor and sank in the main channel. 

The wreck was sold for salvage in 1870 to the Monitor Wrecking Company. Patapsco had been pilfered prior to that time, but the ship was largely blasted apart in 1870 and key pieces  hauled out of the sea. Salvage work continued on the wreck until at least 1873, and during this phase a salvor named Benjamin Mallifert reported that much of the deck had previously been removed and the turret partially overturned. Mallifert removed much of the machinery and a large section of the turret about 10 feet by 5 feet in size. It is unknown if additional salvage work or looting was done after 1873. 

Remains of Patapsco.
Clive Cussler reported finding the wreck with a magnetometer in 1981. The University of South Carolina funded by the Department of Defense surveyed the wreck in 2001. They did a great job and here is their findings report verbatim.

"The forward most area, or southeast end, is the bow of the wreck, and has a section of hull protruding approximately a meter (3 ft) from the bottom along the port side. This area of the hull was the chain locker.  Moving aft from this point, several 15-inch cannonballs were found slightly exposed in the sediments. The beams in this area of the wreck are the remains of the berth deck. They are comprised of iron beams 1.3 cm (1/2 in) thick and 1.2 m (48 in) high. These would have originally supported the wooden flooring for the berth deck. Moving through this area was like trying to do underwater hurdling—but rather than jumping, cautiously climbing over one floor and landing in the cavity between two of them, and then proceeding this way until reaching the dredge pipe amidships. Bottom sediment and disarticulated iron structure filled in the cavities here and there and covered the hold deck below the berth deck. Along the southwestern edge of this area was an exposed pipe, which was interpreted as a ventilation tube based on the plans. Along the northeastern periphery of this area was a pile of disarticulated iron components that raised a couple of meters (6 ft) or so into the water column. Based on the ship’s plan, the dredge pipe spans the area where the machinery to turn the turret was located. Where the dredge pipe pierces the port side of the hull, there is a substantial section of hull that curves down into the sediments. Just aft of this area, a large, twisted piece of metal plating protruded about 2 m (6 ft) in the water column. This might be related to a portion of the turret compartment bulkhead. From this point on, the archaeologists encountered various disarticulated iron components, mostly small in nature including a small section of framing. This area of the wreck is where a coal bunker was located, so this piece may relate to the bulkhead fabric. Time limited further investigation of the wreck beyond this point to determine if the propeller or any integral stern structure existed.

As mentioned above, the wreck lies with its bow facing out to sea while the stern points in to the harbor. This corresponds with the last actions of the ironclad as it floated stern-first to Charleston on the flood tide and then reaching the Confederate obstructions steamed back towards Cummings Point, while clearing torpedoes. Upon striking the torpedo, the ironclad sank rapidly to the bottom with no turning or twisting motion. The identification of the berth deck confirms that the south end is the bow of Patapsco, and the area beyond the dredge pipe as the stern, emptied of the machinery and boilers which were salvaged in the 1870s. From a profile view, there are portions of the hull plating that extend above the berth deck, primarily along the port side, and it is estimated that approximately 1.6-1.9 m (5-6 ft) from the keel to the extant hull plating of the wreck exists in the forward area of the ironclad. Direct observations in the stern area of the wreck was limited, but based on the plans, it is estimated that approximately 0.3-0.6 m (1-2 ft) of depth exists from the keel to extant hull, although in some areas there are sections of the port hull plating extending beyond the bottom. Salvage operations by Benjamin Maillefert and the Monitor Wrecking Company were thorough in recovering the main iron components of the wreck—turret, boilers, machinery, armor belt, and hull decks and plates, leaving little behind. Besides the remaining ship’s structure, a couple of 15-inch cannonballs, no personal artifacts were observed in the wreckage. Despite the severe nature of the salvage operations, the remains of Patapsco offer a rare glimpse at the main offensive weapon used by the Union navy to enforce the blockade and to challenge the Confederate gauntlet at Charleston Harbor." [reference]

A sonar contact of the wreck of Patapsco.


Weehawken is a Passaic-class monitor built in Jersey City, New Jersey and commissioned on 18 January 1863. The ship operated largely around Charleston, South Carolina and was actively involved in the Battle of Charleston Harbor. She also engaged the Confederate ironclad CSS Atlanta and helped capture her.

Weehawken was fitted with a large raft that was intended to sweep mines (called torpedoes) in Charleston Harbor. The raft had a large notch that fit to the bow of the monitor, but it was very unwieldy. As such the raft was eventually cut loose and drifted to a backwater area of Morris Island. Confederates who found the odd looking raft called it "The Devil".

Weehawken's anti-torpedo raft.

On 6 December 1863, while sitting at anchor outside the harbor, Weehawken began taking on water through open ports during a gale. Because monitors had little reserve buoyancy, the ship rapidly sank. It was speculated that Weehawken had taken on a large load of ammunition forward, which lowered the freeboard such that water was able to wash down open hatches.

As with Patapsco, Weehawken was sold for salvage around 1870. Benjamin Mallifert's operation hauled away at least 130 tons of metal from the wreck. [reference] Clive Cussler reported finding the wreck in 1981 and said the ship was badly broken up. It is likely the condition of Weehawken is similar to that of Patapsco.

Of note is the fate of Weehawken's anti-mine raft, The Devil. Cussler reported seeing the remains of the raft in a marsh somewhere on or around Morris Island. The University of South Carolina also investigated the raft and Dr. Lee Newsom, of Penn State, reported taking wood samples for further analysis. The results of the analysis are not known. 

Remains of the Weehawken's anti-torpedo raft on Morris Island. [credit]


Tecumseh is a Canonicus-class monitor, built in Jersey City, New Jersey and commissioned on 19 April 1864. The ship operated around the James River then joined the Gulf Blockading Squadron. On 5 August 1864, Tecumseh led a van of monitors into Mobile Bay during the Battle of Mobile Bay. The ship hit a submerged mine (then called torpedoes), capsized and rapidly sank. 

In 1873, Tecumseh was sold for salvage to James E. Slaughter of Mobile. Slaughter announced he was going to blast the wreck apart (similar to what was done with Weehawken and Patapsco), but an outcry from the families of Tecumseh's crew forced the navy to take back ownership of the ship. 
USS_Tecumseh.gif USS Tecumseh
Infograph of Tecumseh published by Mobile Press Register.
Over the years the ship settled into the soft mud of the harbor and is almost entirely covered. In February 1967 the wreck was examined by the Smithsonian Institution, during which the ship's anchor and some chinaware was removed. Ownership of Tecumseh was given to the General Services Administration in 1974 and it was around this time a feasibility study to raise the ship was conducted. It was determined at the time a cost of $10 million to raise and restore the ship. A subsequent study in 1997 determined a cost of $80 million. [reference]

In 1993 East Carolina University conducted another survey and found the ship covered in a calcareous crust with very little surface deterioration. [reference] However it has been reported looters managed to make their way into the wreck through an opening in the hull and a number of items were stolen. 

Aside from the looting, Tecumseh is considered to be the best preserved Civil War monitor in existence. The ship is completely intact and contains an estimated 50,000 artifacts.
Gong from the engine room of Tecumseh, located at the  Hampton Roads Naval Museum.


Chickasaw is a Milwaukee-class, double-turreted river monitor, built in Carondelet, Illinois and commissioned on 14 May 1864. Chickasaw operated primarily on the Mississippi river then joined the Gulf Blockading Squadron for the Battle of Mobile Bay. The ship was laid up at the end of the war and was then sold in New Orleans on 12 September 1874 for $8,350. Eight years later the ship was converted into a train ferry and renamed Gouldsboro. The ship was heavily modified and in 1910 the hull was essentially replaced. [reference]

Gouldsboro continued to operate as a railroad ferry until World War Two, when a bridge was constructed along the ship's route. In 1942 a plan was formulated to hand over Gouldsboro to a museum, but the War Department asked for the ship to be kept in working condition for potential service in the future. [reference]

Photograph of the railway ferry Gouldsboro (formerly the Chickasaw) in 1938. [credit]
Gouldsboro was sold for dismantling in 1944. But in 2004 the Montgomery Advertiser reported the remains of the ship were found near New Orleans. [reference] The ship was found sunk in the Mississippi River by the Army Corps of Engineers, working to stabilize a section of the riverbank. Rock was added around the wreck to keep it from moving. [reference]

Regarding the historic fabric of Chickasaw remaining in the wreck, archaeologist John Exnicios said "The propeller shaft is the only thing that looks like it did under (the designer, James) Eads". [reference]


Oneota is a Canonicus-class monitor, built in Cincinnati, Ohio and launched on 21 May 1864. The ship was not completed until after the war and, in order to help pay for Reconstruction costs, the US government resold Oneota back to her builder along with sister ship Catawba. The builder, Alexander Swift & Co. then illegally sold both ships to the Peruvian government. At the time, the United States had a treaty agreement with Spain that forbade the sale of such ships to Peru. Nevertheless, the sale went through and Oneota and Catawba made the long trip around Cape Horn, where they joined the Peruvian navy on 2 April 1868. Oneota was renamed Manco Capac and Catawba became Atahualpa.

Both ships were active in the War of the Pacific, between Peru, Chile, and Bolivia. On 7 June 1880, Manco Capac was scuttled just off the harbor of Arica, Peru (now in Chile) to avoid capture by Chilean forces.
Still from the documentary "Manco Cápac, la última Estela", purportedly showing the wreck of the Manco Capac (formerly Oneota). [credit]
The wreck was discovered in 1960 sitting in 15.7 meters of water, three miles west of the mouth of the San Jose river. The University of Taracapa surveyed the wreck and created a documentary about the ship titled Manco Cápac, la última Estela. Navsource states that the hull is very corroded although the bow is in good condition. The turret and guns are destroyed and the university indicated the wreck had been looted in the past.

Infograph of the Manco Capac (formerly the Oneota)

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