John Ericsson and the USS Monitor

Photos of the John Ericsson Memorial in Washington DC

Most of the statuary around Washington DC is either abstract in its meaning (lions in front of museums); or specific to some famous politician (Lincoln, for example); or general to an event (Korean war memorial with a platoon of infantry patrolling).

But the John Ericsson is like all of these rolled into one - beauty symbols, war symbols, a bust of Ericsson himself, and strangely, no direct reference to his most famous creation, the 'ironclad' ship USS Monitor, which played a significant role in defeating the Southern states during the fight between the Union and Confederacy.

John Ericsson Memorial

Biography of John Ericsson

John Ericsson (1803 - 1889) was from Sweden, and trained as a mechanical engineer. He moved to England in 1826 with a plan for a "heat engine" that used birch trees as fuel for powering the engine. However, in England the main source of burning material is coal, and Ericsson's prototype heat engine failed to function effectively with coal. He then devised several other inventions that either failed or only succeeded in a minor way, and the costs eventually placed Ericsson into debtors prison.

After getting out of prison, Ericsson devised a plan for a twin-screw propeller for ships, but there was little interest in this from English maritime which was firmly invested in single-screw technology. Receiving strong encouragement from a visiting American sea captain named John Stockton who saw the potential in Ericsson's design, the inventor soon had a commission for a steamship design and in 1839 had moved to New York City.

[Below] Sculpted by John Earle Fraser (1876 - 1953)
John Ericsson portrait

Stockton's influence paved the way for Ericsson to gain an important US Navy contract for a warship design. The resulting craft, the USS Princeton, was the fastest and most advanced warship of its time (1843) using a rotating circular pedestal for its main 12-inch gun, an innovation that Ericsson developed further, eventually being the main visible device aboard the later USS Monitor.

But it was with the launch of the Princeton that Ericsson's relationship with Stockton turned to conflict, as Stockton used his influence and outright deception to claim authorship for much of Ericsson's design, a situation that took many years to fully reveal Stockton's deceit.

USS Monitor

Ericsson's chief fame is for this craft, an armored ship that was designed in direct response to the confederate craft the CSS Virginia (formerly the USA ship USS Merrimac), which had nearly single-handedly defeated the Union navy blockade of Hampton Roads, Virginia. Left unchecked, the potential for the CSS Virginia(and other Confederate craft built like her) to annohilate the Union Navy entirely.

The Union's response was to build Ericsson's USS Monitor. Using a rotating single turret housing twin 11-inch Dahlgren guns, the rest of the craft was barely above the water, creating a difficult target, and is often considered a semi-submersible ship, a precursor to fully functioning submarines. The ship was built in Brooklyn, New York, and launched there January 30, 1862.

[Below] The USS MONITOR in 1862 (National Archives Photograph)

Deck of the USS Monitor after fight with CSS Virginia

Ericsson is credited as devising the principal means by which the Union Navy was able to stave off the technological advances of the otherwise seriously under-funded and relatively small Confederate navy, and to thus continue the coastal blockade that slowly strangled the Southern states from engaging in much needed international commerce.

Below: Battle of the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor. Click to enlarge.

Monitor vs the Merrimac aka CSS Virginia

Ericsson later developed the designs for innovative torpedoes and a solar-powered engine, also called an "hot air engine" and a "sun engine" for the Centennial Exhibit of 1877.

[Below] Vintage artwork of the USS Monitor at sea. The turret is reversed to avoid oncoming waves. The Monitor actually foundered in bad weather off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, USA, drowning 16 men of its 62-man crew. It was rediscovered in 1973 at an undersea wreck site on the Atlantic floor, and has been slowly recovered piece-by-piece since 1998, with the recovery of the gun turret in 2002 being the largest item brought to the surface thus far. Some remains are on exhibit at the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

USS Monitor heavy seas

After his death in 1889, his remains were carried by the US warship USS Baltimore to Stockholm for burial in Filipstad, Sweden, where he was born in the area called Varmland. The statue and Memorial to Ericsson in Washington DC was paid for by Congress and by public subscription, mainly through the Scandinavian community of the United States which claimed Ericsson as one of its most famous members. The Memorial planning began in 1916, and the finished monument was unveiled in 1926.

Further reading: The National Maritime Museum has many images and info about the USS Monitor.

John Ericsson Memorial DC

James Earle Fraser Sculpture


[Below: The USS Onondago, a twin-turret monitor. Click to enlarge.

USS Onondago ironclad Monitor Ship

[Below: Aboard the deck of the USS Passaic, a USS Monitor copy, in 1864. Click to enlarge.]

USS Passaic Monitor class Civial War ship


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Original Page Wednesday, July 16, 2008 | Updated May 2016