One of the most significant advancements in military technology during the Civil War was the ironclad ship with revolving turret. 

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Highlights from the Museum: Revolutionizing Naval Technology during the Civil War

Abraham Lincoln had very little background in military strategy or training when he became president in 1861. Although he had been a captain in the Illinois State Militia during the Black Hawk War of 1832, Lincoln did not have the same in-depth military training of many Southern commanders. Nevertheless, over time Lincoln proved to be a capable and effective Commander in Chief during the nation’s most unsettling time.

One reason that Lincoln became such a great military strategist was his ability to see the value in emerging military technology. Lincoln was at the forefront of numerous technological advances in military warfare. One of the most significant advancements in military technology during the Civil War was from inventor and engineer John Ericsson, who created the designs for a new type of naval vessel for the United States: the ironclad ship with revolving turret. While many military strategists balked at the unconventional design, Lincoln saw the opportunity to capitalize on this new design and immediately set about commissioning these new ships.

The keel of the USS Monitor was laid in October of 1861 and was launched just months afterward. Commissioned in February of 1862 and captained by U.S. Naval Academy graduate Lt. John L. Worden, the USS Monitor ushered in a new era of maritime warfare and strategy. The Monitor’s first mission was to intercept the CSS Virginia, previously the USS Merrimack (which the U.S. Navy scuttled and Confederates later raised and re-commissioned), off Sewell’s Point in Virginia.

On March 8, 1862, the Virginia sank the USS Cumberland and forced the surrender of the Congress, which it subsequently sank later in the day, after Union soldiers fired on the Virginia. In response, and in an attempt to fortify the Union blockade and prevent further damage by the Virginia, the U.S. Navy deployed the Monitor. The next day would prove to be a seminal moment in naval warfare.

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The Battle of Hampton Roads occurred on the morning of March 9, 1862, and marked the first time in history that two ironclad ships engaged in naval combat. The Virginia opened fire on the Monitor first, and—after many hours—eventually landed a shot near the Monitor’s pilot house, incapacitating Captain Worden. In the aftermath, Lt. Samuel Greene assumed command of the Monitor, and, during the subsequent confusion, both ships retreated, effectively making the first battle between ironclad ships a draw.

After recovering from the wounds suffered during the Battle of Hampton Roads, Worden, now Commander, assumed command of the USS Montauk. Worden and the Montauk helped bolster the Union Blockade in South Carolina, participated in the bombardment of Fort McAllister in Georgia, sank the Rattlesnake, and in 1863 participated in the First Battle of Charleston Harbor.

Worden retired from Naval Service with the rank of Rear Admiral and left a naval legacy in the form of four ships commissioned in his honor.

In 1862, the USS Monitor sank in heavy seas off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, losing 20 of her crew. The CSS Virginia was destroyed on May 11, 1862, in an attempt to keep her from being captured by Union soldiers after the Union reclaimed Norfolk. The USS Montauk, famous for her role in the imprisonment of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, was decommissioned in 1865 in Philadelphia.

With the advent of the Monitor, naval warfare changed throughout the world, as armored ships became the norm. The Monitor was the inspiration for larger armored ships that ultimately led to the creation of the dreadnought class destroyers that completely revolutionized modern warfare at the beginning of the 20th century.

In the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, the exhibition Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War explores President Lincoln’s use of new technology during the Civil War. In that exhibition, organized by the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, you can see the USS Monitor’s signal lantern, the speaking trumpet used by Captain Worden during his command and an iron remnant of the CSS Virginia. Additionally, on display and part of the National Park Service’s permanent collection at Ford’s Theatre is the ship’s wheel from the USS Montauk. Visit before July 6, 2014, to view these amazing artifacts that shaped not only the history of United States Naval warfare, but that of the entire nation.

Patrick Milhoan is a veteran of the United States Navy and former Digital History Intern at Ford’s Theatre, working on the Remembering Lincoln digital collection. Patrick earned his B.A. in History from the Catholic University of America and is currently a graduate student in the school’s Library and Information Science program focusing on Cultural Heritage Information Management. 

Learn more about the exhibition in this interview with Curator Steven Wilson.