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  • Letters from the MonitorThe Civil War Correspondence of Jacob Nicklis, U.S. Navy
  • Jonathan W. White (bio) and Christopher J. Chappell (bio)

On October 13, 1862, Jacob Nicklis, a twenty-one-year-old tailor’s son from Buffalo, New York, reenlisted in the U.S. Navy for a one-year term as an ordinary seaman. Nine days later, he traveled to the New York Navy Yard, from which point he headed southward for Washington, D.C. On November 7, he joined the crew of the USS Monitor, then docked at the Washington Navy Yard for repairs. Nicklis, who stood five feet, seven and a half inches tall, with gray eyes, light hair, and a ruddy complexion, was not exactly pleased with the prospect of serving on this famous vessel. He had five years’ experience aboard other ships, having served in the Navy since he was sixteen years old. Upon first seeing the Monitor, he expressed some disappointment “on account of her accomodations,” which, he wrote, “are very poor.”1 [End Page 436]

By the time Nicklis first boarded the Monitor, the ship had already gained an international reputation. Indeed, the ship stands out as one of the most important weapons in American military history. Her designer, Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson, prided himself on creating a machine that would revolutionize the way warfare was conducted. The vessel was a model of ingenuity. Her engineer, Isaac Newton, estimated that it had fifty “patentable inventions.”2 When President Lincoln saw a proposal for Ericsson’s design, he remarked: “All I can say is what the girl said when she put her foot into the stocking. It strikes me there’s something in it.”3

The Monitor’s deck, which was at water level, hid most of the ship’s crew space below the sea. The only crew spaces above the waterline were the turret and the pilot house. The revolving turret—the most famous part of the ship—was twenty-one feet in diameter and protected by eight-inch thick iron plating. Inside the turret were two eleven-inch Dahlgren guns. The turret rotated 360 degrees, permitting the “Ericsson battery” to fire in almost any direction. Other notable features included Ericsson’s steam-powered screw propeller and the first below-the-waterline flushing toilet. Construction of the Monitor began in New York in the fall of 1861; several firms in New York City, Albany, Greenpoint, and Schenectady subcontracted to build parts and machinery; the turret plates were rolled in Baltimore. In just 118 days, the ship was completed. On March 6, 1862, she departed the Brooklyn Navy Yard for Hampton Roads, Virginia. Her mission was to sink the Confederate ironclad Virginia (formerly the Merrimack) at her moorings before she could be completed.4 Unfortunately, the Monitor arrived in Hampton Roads a few days too late.

On March 8, 1862, the Virginia steamed north from Norfolk into the waters of Hampton Roads, where the James and Elizabeth Rivers meet the Chesapeake Bay. The Virginia sank the Cumberland, a Union blockading vessel, and then attacked the Congress, which surrendered and was set afire by the Confederates. Next the Virginia set its sights on the Minnesota, but with nightfall approaching and the tides receding, its captain, Flag Officer Franklin [End Page 437] Buchanan, decided to wait until morning to finish his work. By that evening, however, the Monitor had reached Hampton Roads. Curious onlookers would soon see what this “Cheese Box on a Raft” could do.5

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This circa 1921 Evans copy of an engraving by J. O. Davidson offers a largely accurate depiction of the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, including how close the Monitor and Virginia got to each other during the fight (Courtesy of the National Archives).

On March 9 the Virginia encountered the Monitor. The two ironclads battled each other for four hours before breaking off the engagement. While the fight ended in a stalemate, each side claimed victory, saying its opponent had disengaged first.6 Union soldiers on the shoreline cheered the Monitor’s success. “If it had not been for the Erricson [sic],” wrote Lt. William Monegan of...


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