Stories from the Shipyard: USS Monadnock

By Mike Manning – Chair – Friends of the Boston Harborwalk

In terms of name recognition, the USS Monadnock is a lesser known vessel but represents a significant first at the Boston Navy Yard (in Charlestown).  The Monadnock, named after the Abenaki word for “isolated mountain”, was launched on March 23rd, 1863 and commissioned on October 4th, 1864.  She was the first ironclad built in the Boston Navy Yard – but not the first ironclad built in Boston.  That honor goes to the USS Nahant built a year earlier in South Boston.

Designed by John Lenthall of the US Navy’s Design Bureau of Construction and Repair, the Monadnock was one of four Miantonomoh-class monitors commissioned by the US Navy during the Civil War.  These warships were named after the chief of the Narragansett – a native American tribe of New England.  These were the only ironclads built in US Navy shipyards and not at privately-owned shipyards.

After the pivotal and industry-transforming battle of ironclads at Hampton Roads, Virginia in March 1862, shipyards were scrambling to build these new state-of-the-art warships.  The Monadnock and her sister ships were constructed with wooden framing and hull, sheathed with 12- to 14-inch thick wooden planks, and armored with multiple layers of one-inch thick wrought-iron plates.  Whereas previous models of ironclads were built with single turrets, this class of monitors had two – each turret housing two 15-inch caliber Dalgren cannon.  The redundant propulsion system, designed to improve reliability and speed, powered each monitor with twin 1,400 horsepower coal-fired steam engines.  These engines were built by John Ericsson, the designer and builder of the US Navy’s first ironclad, the USS Monitor.

After commissioning, the Monadnock steamed to her home base at Port Norfolk, Virginia as the port had been re-captured by Union forces in May 1862.  In mid-December, she was assigned to the North Atlantic Blocking Squadron and steamed towards Fort Fisher – just south of Wilmington, North Carolina.  The squadron consisted of a wide array of nearly 60 Union warships.

With Port Norfolk in Union hands, the port of Wilmington had become one of the most strategic ports for the Confederacy.  British smuggling vessels called “blockage runners” brought shipments of munitions, armaments, clothing, textiles, and foodstuffs and were exchanged for cotton and tobacco.  These vessels coming from British colonies, such as Bermuda or the Bahamas, were forced to avoid the Union naval blockade barring entry to all major southern ports.

On Christmas Eve, 1864, the Monadnock and other squadron vessels began shelling the fort.  Unfortunately, the gunfire was ineffective as most shells flew harmlessly over the fort and landed in the Cape Fear River.  A landing of Union troops was equally unsuccessful.  A second bombardment began on January13th, 1865 and continued without interruption for two days.  At this point, most of the fort’s main cannon had been silenced.  In a coordinated effort, Union forces landed at multiple points around the fort.  In what may have been the largest amphibious assault by Union forces to that date, nearly 10,000 marines and troops came ashore, seized the fort, and accepted its surrender on the evening of the 15th.  Fort Fisher’s surrender in effect closed the port of Wilmington, the last port available to the Confederacy, for the remainder of the war.  The South was now cut off from all global trade – its lifeline from the beginning of the conflict.

After her successful mission at Fort Fisher, the Monadnock was transferred to the South Atlantic Blocking Squadron and steamed to Charleston, South Carolina.  The city surrendered a month after her arrival.  Once the city was secured by Union forces, she took part in the final assault on the Confederate capital – Richmond, Virginia, which surrendered on April 3rd, 1865.  In less than a year’s service, the Monadnock had fought in three significant land-sea battles culminating in the capture of the heart of the Confederacy.

After her service in the Civil War, the Monadnock left Philadelphia on October 5th with the USS Vanderbilt, USS Tuscarora, and USS Powhatan.  This was an incredible voyage since the ships’ top speed was a paltry 10 knots.  After stopping at various South America ports-of-call, the Monadnock maneuvered through the Strait of Magellan in March 1866 and continued northward to Valparaiso, Chile and finally Acapulco, Mexico.  She arrived at her final destination, San Francisco, in early June 1866.

After her relatively short service life, the Monadnock was decommissioned on June 30th.  She remained at the Mare Island Navy Yard, just north of San Francisco, and was regrettably allowed to deteriorate at her pier for the next eight years.  At this point, she was beyond repair.  The vessel’s wooden framing and hull, not her layers of armor plating, set in motion her eventual demise.  In 1874, the Monadnock was broken up just ten years after her initial commissioning.

However, on paper, the Monadnock remained on the active naval vessel register.  A new vessel, of the same name, began to take shape at a shipyard in Vallejo, California, under the guise of “repairs” to the original vessel of 1863.  The Navy Department evaded the Congressional refusal to order new ships by claiming that the Civil War-era ship was being repaired while building a new monitor of the same name.  This subterfuge lasted throughout the building of the “new” Monadnock.  She was launched in 1883 but languished through multiple construction starts and stops.  This “new” Monadnock was eventually commissioned in 1896 and saw service in the Spanish-American War.

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