USS Monitor

Union navy ironclad warship. Famous for the Battle of Hampton Roads. Lost in 1862 during a storm taking 16 sailors with her.
by Matthew Anderson

Year Built


Year Sank



220 ft (67.1 m)

Difficulty Level


USS Monitor

Wreck Location

The remains of the USS Monitor lie in two different locations. Many of the ships components are being restored and are on display at the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia. The main wreck itself lies 16 miles southwest of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in the NOAA designated Monitor Naitonal Marine Sanctuary, lying upside down, tilted at an angle to starboard. The wreck is supported by an artificial concrete foundation, put in place to help recover the Monitor's engine, her turret and to keep the wreck from collapsing in a devastating fashion into a pile of rusted iron. The wreck is in bad shape, having been eroded by time and weather and having been badly damaged during World War II by depth charges, being mistaken for a German U-Boat by patrol craft. She lies 220 feet below the ocean surface. Technical diving is usually practiced on the wreck mostly due to the fragile and historically significant nature of the Monitor. The Monitor has been the subject of several naval salvage and repair dives since the discovery of the wreck in 1971. An assortment of large fish and marine growth call the wreck of the Monitor home. As of 2017 there are plans in the works to possibly increase the boundaries of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary to include two nearby recently documented and discovered historically significant shipwrecks in order to protect the "new" wrecks from salvage and looting. Diving on the Monitor may be restricted not only because of its fragile and historic nature but because it is also a designated U.S. Navy gravesite for 16 sailors, of which only two bodies were ever recovered during the turret recovery expedition in 2002.

USS Monitor wreck sonar image. (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration)

1974 photomosaic of the USS Monitor wreck showing the turret prior to the 2002 recovery.

~ GPS Shipwreck Location ~
Latitude:   35° 0' 6.0012" N      Longitude:   -75° 24' 23.0004" W


The USS Monitor is one of the most famous ships ever constructed. Her design was extremely unorthodox and revolutionary creating a lot of controversy within the United States government at the time of her conception. A work of desperation against the threat of the nearly invincible Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, she was the brainchild of eccentric Sweedish-American inventor John Ericsson, reluctantly working with the United States despite deep personal issues with the government over past embarassments and monetary issues. The innovations of the USS Monitor would go on to affect every warship constructed between 1862 to 1944 when USS Missouri, the last battleship ever completed, finished her outfitting.

On February 8, 1861, following the self declared secessions of the American states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana, the now seperated states all agreed to be united into a new nation known as the Confederate States of America. For the several past decades, continuous issues between the northeastern and southeastern United States had been mounting over differences in opinion, representation, difference in economy and disagreement over the opinion of slavery. April 12, 1861 marked the beginning of what would come to be known as the American Civil War, given the United States and almost every other sovereign nation did not recognize the sovereignty of the Confederacy. That day, Confederate forces attacked and seiged the Union controlled Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. Despite having held on longer than most states, Virginia and North Carolina ultimately decided along with Arkansas and Tennessee to secede from the United States and join the Confederacy in the months following the siege on Fort Sumter.

The HMS Warrior was the world's first iron hulled warship.

Maritime wise, the Confederacy was being placed in a chokehold by the Union Navy. On April 19, 1861, an executive order by President Abraham Lincoln of the United States declared a blockade of every Confederate port by the Union Navy. This became known as the Anaconda Plan. The blockading left the Confederate States in desperation. A new weapon of war was needed to break the status quot and free Southern harbors. Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Stephen Mallory, proposed an ironclad be used. Up to this point, most navies of the world had used wooden ships and very few of these had been steam powered up until the revolutionary introduction of the propeller in the 1830s and 1840s. However, the French and the British had been constructing ships built or covered by thick iron plating. Warships such as the French ironclad La Gloire and the British steam frigate HMS Warrior. Convinced an ironclad would be the near invincible weapon the Confederacy needed, Mallory ordered an ironclad to be constructed for the Confederate Navy.

The Confederate States however was not a nation of heavy industry or great wealth. Unlike the United States which had abandoned slavery and had put all of its economic focus on the industrial revolution, the Confederate States relied almost entirely off its cotton trade with Europe and a slave labor force to man the many plantations. The Confederate States had very few if any shipyards or navy yards capable of building a new and very expensive ironclad warship. The salvation came in the form of the captured Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia and the scuttled hull of the Union steam frigate USS Merrimac. Despite the Union having tried to burn the ship to a crisp, surveys found most of the hull, the boilers and steam engine to be perfectly intact. This lucky discovery had Mallory order the ruined frigate to be put into dry dock and rebuilt as an ironclad.

The she devil of the Confederacy, CSS Virginia.

Merrimac's hull was cut down close to the top of the propeller and any repairs needed to be made to the engine and boilers were carried out. Following this, a new deck was added along with an oval shaped iron casemate. The casemate was narrow and thin at the top and broad at the bottom, giving it a 33 degree slope. The frame was made of two inches of solid oak and armored with two further inches of iron railroad ties. The forward, aft, starboard and port sides of the casemate were heavily armed with Dahlgreen guns. A new single smokestack was built protruding through the casemate. A set of lifeboats were provided on both sides of the casemate. A last minute addition ordered by Mallory was a large iron ram fastened to the bow. The waterline was now at the main deck itself. The entire hull would be underwater with only the funnel, guns, and casemate being above water. She was renamed and commissioned into the Confederate Navy as the ironclad CSS Virginia, named after the great state and commonwealth of her conception.

Word of the Virginia soon reached Washington D.C. causing great panic and worry among American politicians including the cabinet of President Lincoln. Some even worried the Virginia would travel up the Potomac River and attack Washington D.C. itself forcing the nation's capitol to surrender. Lincoln immeidately ordered that the Union Navy respond with its own ironclad. Unlike the Confederacy, the United States being a wealthy and extremely industrious nation could afford to build a dedicated ironclad to any design thought necessary. Congress approved a budget and the Union Ironclad program was born. Many designs were drafted and proposed to the ironclad board. One late and unexpected submission came from Swedish born inventor John Ericsson. Ericsson originally wanted nothing to do with the project. He was angry at the Navy over past issues including a gun explosion aboard the USS Princeton which had been blamed on him. After enough convincing and persuasion from Lincoln, Ericsson relented and got involved in the project first as a consultant. After reviewing the design proposals of others, Ericsson decided to submit plans of his own.

He proposed an unothodox ship that abandoned the use of masts alltogether, was a ship with an exceptionally narrow draft, powered only by a single propeller, had no dedicated smokestack and the only prominent features above the waterline would be a pilothouse and a cylindrical rotating house storing two large guns, able to rotate in any direction. This would in time come to be called a turret. The armament in the turret would consist of two Dahlgreen guns. Furthermore, the hull was mostly rectangular in shape, save for the sharp curves forward and aft and was made completely of iron. Like the Virginia, almost the entire hull would be underwater. Ericsson's design, despite being rejected by the board, impressed Lincoln. He made the board reconsider and accept Ericsson's design. Impressively, most of the design work had been done in a matter of weeks.

The design of the USS Monitor.

By Ericsson's suggestion, the new warship was to be named the USS Monitor. Construction began in late 1861 at the Brooklyn Naval Yard in New York City. Many discreditors believed the "new fangled" contraption Ericsson had designed would never float. However, on January 30, 1862, the discreditors were proven wrong when the USS Monitor was launched into the East River and floated perfectly among the cheers of hundreds of spectators. Throughout February, Monitor embarked on sea trials up and down the East River. The ship had many teething problems including engine ventillation problems and steering issues. One on occasion, Monitor crashed into a dock on the East River which necessitated the pilothouse be fitted with a larger steering helm. After many problems and modifications, Monitor was comissioned on February 25, 1862 into the United States Navy. Lieutenant Jon Worden was chosen as her Captain and commander.

USS Monitor, the at the time underappreciated and overly mocked hope of the United States Navy.

Virginia was almost finished with construction and threatened the Union forces at Fort Monroe, the Union's greatest stronghold at the Hampton Roads. Monitor began heading towards Fort Monroe from New York City on March 6. On the way, Monitor encountered rough seas. Captain Woren had removed the seal between the turret and hull, which Ericsson had put in place, leading to water flooding the ship. Monitor's engines began producing toxic fumes leading to everyone evacuating the ironclad onto the top decks. The tug Seth Low towed Monitor to sheltered waters where several hours she had to be repaired and the engines restarted.

Monitor finally arrived at Hampton Roads at 9:00 PM on March 8, 1862 to a scene of fantastic destruction. The frigate USS Cumberland was sunk having taken with her many of her crew and the frigate USS Congress was aground in flames. The crew of the Monitor witnessed the Congress explode catastrophically once the fire had reached her magazine. The steam frigate Minnesota was run hard aground and partially damaged. The crew of the Monitor found out the Virginia had left Gosport earlier that day and had single handedly destroyed two of the three frigates. Her iron armor had made Virginia unstoppable to any union gun or cannon fire. Minnesota's crew, having witnessed the full carnage of the Virginia earlier that day, didn't believe the Monitor could pose a threat to the she devil of the Confederacy. Monitor, as ordered, anchored and kept guard over Fort Monroe and the USS Minnesota throughout the night.

The first battle between ironclad warships in history. USS Monitor and CSS Virginia have at each other guns fully ablaze in the Battle of Hampton Roads.

On the morning of March 9, the Union forces looked out across the Hampton Roads as the smoke from Virginia's smokestack filled the horizon instilling mass fear. Monitor and her crew, about to face their foe for the first time, readied themselves for combat. Captain Franklin Buchanan aboard the Virginia expected to destroy the Minnesota, which he had been unable to do the day before, his ship being damaged by the ramming of the CumberlandVirginia's ram had been ripped free of her bow and was now lying at the bottom of Hampton Roads with the Union frigate. Upon reaching the grounded Minnesota, the crew of the Virginia was greeted by what they percieved as a "cheesebox on a raft". In reality, this was the Monitor and she was armed and ready for combat. Virginia opened fire onto Monitor and Minnesota. The first return fire being delivered by the Minnesota broadside to Virginia. The cannonfire did not penetrate the Monitor's armored deck. Her turret pointed at Virginia, the Monitor opened return fire with its two Dahlgreen guns, but like the Virginia, could not penetrate her foe's armor.

The two ironclads fought viciously for six hours with no victor in sight. In Hampton, Norfolk, Newport News and Portsmouth, local residents and soldiers turned out to watch the first ironclad duel in history. Neither ironclad had prepared the correct ammunition for an ironclad duel. The worst damages that came were dents on Monitor's hull and turret as well as dents in Virginia's casemate, a destroyed life boat and a holed out smokestack. At last, Captain Buchanan had found a weak spot within Monitor's design. The pilothouse. He ordered fire at the object. A shell from Virginia hit Monitor's pilothouse exploding. Captain Worden was blinded by the blast, his eyes recieving paint and iron splinters. As he was being carried to safety, Captain Worden ordered the Monitor not give up fight and do whatever it must to protect the grounded MinnesotaMonitor then proceeded to sail into shallower water to assist the MInnesota.

Virginia was badly damaged and her wooden hull leaking from the conflict. Furthermore, the tide had fallen enough that she could not risk going after the Monitor, lest she be grounded herself. Virginia, using the deep draft hull of the Merrimack was a sister ship to the Minnesota and would be stuck hard aground in the exact same fashion should she try and pursue the shallow drafted Monitor. Captain Buchanan declared Confederate victory over the battle, having previously destroyed the Cumberland and Congress as well as having in his opinion causing the Monitor to retreat and turned Virginia to head back to the Elizabeth River on the Confederate side of Hampton Roads. Monitor's crew became convinced they had damaged the Virginia enough that she was retreating and declared a Union victory. To this day, there is no clear victor to the Battle of Hampton Roads and the conflict is often considered a tactical draw.

The last ever engagement of the USS Monitor at the Battle of Drewry's Bluff on May 15, 1862.

In the days following the battle, the two ironclad crews better prepared themselves for a rematch. Virginia was repaired and fitted with a new ram as well as proper ammunition. Virginia would often come out into the Roads to taunt the Monitor into battle, but under strict orders to remain at defensive post to Fort Monroe and not engage unless attacked first, Monitor did not respond, much to the frustration of both sides. On April 11, 1862, the Virginia and CSS Jamestown had captured three civilian US flagged vessels, but even this refused to spark retalliation from the Union Navy. As the month passed, the Union ironclads USS Galena and USRC E.A. Stevens joined the MonitorVirginia would venture out once more in hopes of attacking the Union fleet shelling Confederate forces in Norfolk, but by the time she had mobilized, the Union ships had returned to the protection of the Union ironclads and the impenitrable Fort Monroe. On May 11, 1862, following the capture of Norfolk, Virginia was blown up and scuttled by her crew on the Elizabeth River, with only her crew and battle flag surviving. The same flag was hoisted up on Drewry's Bluff during the Battle of Drewry's Bluff where the USS Monitor and a fleet of fellow Union warships attempted to head up river and support General George McClellan's intended land invasion of Richmond. Both campaigns failed. The crew of the Virginia had been manning shore batteries on the bluff which had hit the Monitor successfully and cheered when their old foe was forced to retreat.

Monitor was hailed across the United States as a heroic vessel and was even honored by a visit from President Lincoln himself while she was in Washington D.C. for a refit in October 1862. Captain Worden came to visit the ship as well, still in recovery. At this point in time, John Bankhead was the commander of the Monitor. During the refit, Monitor's armor was increased, her hull cleaned, boilers and engine serviced and she was at last given a true funnel. Rope and stanchions were placed around the perimeter of her hull to make Monitor safer to walk upon in rough weather and prevent crew members from falling overboard. She returned to service on October 26, 1862. By this point, other ships were designed by Ericsson using the exact same design characteristics of the Monitor such as the USS Passaic. The Monitor was now warshipe type of her very own called a "monitor type warship" after herself. This class was later divided further into River Monitors, Coastal Monitors and Ocean Going Monitors. The Passaic-class Monitors became the first dedicated class of Monitors to be constructed.

The end of the USS Monitor on New Year's Eve 1862.

In December 1862, the Monitor was ordered to be mobilized for an attack on Beaufort, North Carolina along with fellow coastal monitors USS Passaic and USS Montauk. She was placed under tow of the paddle steamer warship USS Rhode Island. On December 31, rough weather off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina soon began overwhelming the Monitor. Water began flooding the ship through openings on her deck as wave after wave crashed over the small warship. The towline suddenly snapped separating the two ships. Rhode Island's crew immediately dispatched liferafts. Monitor's crew convinced the ship would not survive the ordeal, began abandoning the vessel after Commander Bankhead's orders at 11:30 PM and headed for the liferafts of the Rhode Island or any other floating salvation nearby. As the Rhode Island's crew prepared to rescue remaining officers atop the Monitor's turret wielding a red signal lantern, the ship suddenly went under taking the 16 remaining men aboard with her. The red lantern's vanishing light became the symbol of the Monitor's tragic loss. None of the crew aboard either vessel was reprimanded or court martialled for the sinking. As years turned to decades and into centuries, many believed the Monitor would never be found.

Monitor did leave a lasting legacy. The Union navy built scores of monitors for use against the Confederacy and most provided themselves to be very successful warships. In later years, the USS Roanoke, a steam frigate which was sister ship to the CSS Virginia, was ironically rebuilt and reclassified as one of the few ocean going monitors the United States ever operated in the Civil War. The Union monitor USS Weehawken became the only Civil War monitor to capture a Confederate warship when she forced the Confederate ironclad CSS Atlanta to surrender on June 17, 1863. Weehawken later sank in a storm similar to the Monitor. Monitors became used in the largest naval battles of the Civil War such as the Siege of Fort Sumter and the Battle of Mobile Bay. Over time, the guns and armor as well as superstructure of the monitors were heavily upgraded into more modern appearing warships. The United States Navy continued using monitors through the Spanish American War and through World War I (though none saw combat overseas in this conflict) until the final monitors were disposed in the early 1920s. The type did make a short comeback during the Vietnam War in the form of river monitors being converted from old World War II landing craft. Other nations such as Russia and the United Kingdom also began building monitors and using them. Only one monitor type warship remains in active service to this day. The monitor Parnaíba of the Brazillian Navy. The monitor later graduated into a much larger heavier armed warship that replaced the old "Ship of the Line" in the world's navies. This was known as the Battleship and continued to be the "Capitol Ship" for the world's navies until the dominance of the Aircraft Carrier became apparent.

The recovery of the USS Monitor's turret in 2002. The turret is now undergoing stablizing and restoration for eventual display at the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia and can be viewed by the public.

During World War II, the British invented ASDIC, the first form of sonar used by the Allies, detected many sunken objects of the American coastline in the hunt for German submarines sinking Allied shipping off the coast of the United States during Operation Drumbeat. Unfortunately, many targets thought to have been U-Boats were in reality shipwrecks and were destroyed or badly damaged in the depth charging that followed. One of these unknown to all was the wreck of the USS Monitor. By 1971, the Monitor was gone but she was still not forgotten. In 1973, an expedition was mounted by a coalition led by Duke University to find her. Something was found but it looked strange. Close attention to the detail of the sonar findings and realized they had indeed found the USS Monitor, lying upside down, partially destroyed and corroded laying on top of her detached turret. In the years that followed, the wreck was documented and salvaged by NOAA and US Navy personnel. By the mid-1980s, the wreck was found to be collapsing in on itself and plans were launched to recover the anchor, propeller, steam engine and finally the turret. As of 2017, all of the aforementioned have been recovered off the seabed, the engine and turret still undergoing treatment and partial restoration for eventual display. During the recovery efforts, the wreck itself was given a concrete foundation to lie on so as to slow the rate of decay and keep the ship intact for a longer period of time. There are currently no plans in place to raise the ship itself. In order to protect the wreck from salvage, NOAA designated a five mile radius circle around the wreck as the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary on January 30, 1975. This is the first National Marine Sanctuary ever dedicated by NOAA and continues to be enforced to this day.

To date, the wreck of Monitor's opponent, the Virginia, has not been rediscovered. Her wrecksite was known but was destroyed after looters and salvagers all but picked it clean between 1868 and 1875. Many including Clive Cussler have gone out to see if anything of her wooden hull remains but so far nothing has been found. Due to the silty and coal dust clouded water of the Elizabeth River as well as constant reconstruction and partial dredging of the river, many say Virginia wont be found. Thankfully, pieces of her including a Dahlgreen Gun and her prop shaft survive to this day in preservation.


The Monitor is a very captivating story to me. I had to look up much of the info while writing this page as I wanted it to be a fitting representation of the warship and her history. Monitor is the only living relic of the Battle of Hampton Roads and is the grandfather to famous battleships such as the USS Arizona, USS MissouriYamato and Bismarck who all owe their use of turrets to Ericsson's inventiveness in 1861.

This article is dedicated to my father, Ken Anderson, who has inspired my love of history and is a great Civil War history buff in his own right. The son of a professional welder and shipbuilder, Dad grew up on the shores of Hampton Roads where the Monitor and Virginia fought centuries ago and was the first person to tell me the story of the duelling ironclads. We even went as far as to visit the remnants of Monitor together in Newport News, Virginia. Here's to you Dad! I love you and respect you very much.


1 Comment & Rating

anonymous by Daniel Ahl on 1/28/2018
Map was rated 5 stars by reviewer.

this helped me, thx

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