The Day Greenpoint Wrote a Chapter in American History

USS Monitor
Monitor on the James River, Virginia, 1862 Officers on deck (left to right): Robinson W. Hands, Louis N. Stodder, Albert B. Campbell (seated), William Flye (with binoculars). Note dents in turret from cannon fire. (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)

On January 30, 1862 the most important event that ever happened locally occurred. Greenpoint wrote its name in the history book when a ship was launched here that not only changed naval warfare forever, but also helped the Union win the Civil War and end slavery. That ship, the first ironclad ship in the United States Navy, The U.S.S. Monitor, was built locally at the Continental Iron Works on Quay Street and West Street.

The construction of the Monitor was something of a miracle in itself. Its builder, Swedish John Ericsson had previously been falsely blamed by The United States Navy for a tragic incident. In 1844 Ericsson was the mastermind of the construction of a revolutionary warship, the Princeton, which featured futuristic innovations: steam engines below the waterline; a screw propeller instead of paddle wheels and new methods of mounting, aiming and firing guns. Ericsson’s sponsor in building the Princeton was an unscrupulous United States Navy officer, Captain John Stockton who wrongly took credit for designing the ship that was rightfully Ericsson’s. Stockton did in fact design one part of the ship, a huge gun, which exploded on the ship’s maiden voyage, killing numerous Washington big-wigs. Amazingly, Stockton pinned the blame on Ericsson who was blackballed and told he would never build another ship for the Navy.

USS Monitor engaging CSS Virginia, 9 March 1862. Louis Prang & Co.; lithograph signed "Jo Davidson" via Library of Congress
USS Monitor engaging CSS Virginia, 9 March 1862. Louis Prang & Co.; lithograph signed “Jo Davidson” via Library of Congress

The Navy, however, in 1861 was desperate for ironclad ships after learning the Confederacy was building one, which could break the Union blockade of the South and possibly win the war. Ericsson had a revolutionary design for an ironclad ship, but it was so unconventional few Naval decision makers supported its construction. Abraham Lincoln himself backed the construction of Ericsson’s ship, which was approved for construction on the condition that it had to be built in a hundred days, a seemingly impossible deadline.

Ericsson had a genius idea to meet the tight deadline. He subcontracted out various parts of the ship and they were assembled locally, amazingly meeting the tight deadline. Still, many people doubted that the heavy iron ship would actually float, so strange and revolutionary was its design. They said it looked like a “cheese box on a raft” because much of the ship lay below the waterline. On a cold and blustery Late January morning in 1862, many locals came out to see the launch of the strange ship. Many Greenpointers had placed bets against the ship’s floating, certain that the heavy ship would sink after hitting the water. At ten minutes before ten the braces that held the ship on the slipway were knocked off and the craft began its slow descent into the East River. The Stars and Stripes fluttered from a flagpole on the ship’s deck as a few men stood on the stern of her hull with a dingy nearby should the doubters warnings prove correct and the ship begin to sink. When the ship hit the water it floated, and a huge cheer went up from the two hundred or so people assembled on the bank. They waved handkerchiefs and hats as jubilation swept the spectators, even those who lost bets on the ship.

The ship floated down to the Brooklyn Navy Yard where it was fitted with guns and then towed to Hampton Roads, Virginia to meet the Confederate Ironclad Virginia, which had destroyed many Union wooden ships in battle the day previous. On March 9th, 1862 The Monitor fought the rebel ship to a standstill and stopped the Virginia from attacking any more Union ships, saving the blockade. Ericsson went from pariah to hero, vindicating his name.

For years, January 30th was celebrated locally with ceremonies and speeches. Today Greenpoint honors the Monitor and its designer Ericsson with a street, a Middle School and a monument in McGolrick Park. There is also a plan to build a museum to the famous ship along the East River near the site of its launch. But on the day the funny looking ship hit the water people had no idea of the huge effect the strange craft would have on history.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a Brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over 20years and is the author of a book on the history of the area, "Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past."

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