Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Last Civil War Monitor

By Elijah Palmer
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

The Jamestown Exposition in 1907 was filled with many sights to see. From the vendors selling souvenirs along the "War Path" to the Baby Incubator Exhibit to the popular "Merrimac-Monitor" building, guests had many options to fill their visit. But a significant focus of the exposition was on the modern fleet that had been built up under the guidance of Teddy Roosevelt. Indeed, it was from Hampton Roads that the Great White Fleet would begin their grand round-the-world tour. Several of these ships were anchored off Sewells Point, showcasing the Navy's modernity. Yet one Navy vessel was in stark contrast to the new white ships surrounding it. The odd one out was the last remaining Civil War monitor, USS Canonicus
USS Canonicus at the Jamestown Exposition in 1907. Note the many naval vessels in the background (Library of Congress photo)
Over 40 years old by that point, USS Canonicus had seen better days, but was an approximate example of Ericsson's invention that had made history on March 9, 1862 in the waters of Hampton Roads. In fact, some souvenir photographs claimed that this was one in the same craft, both forgetting history and pointedly ignoring the bold white letters displayed on Canonicus' side (perhaps this was simply for profit as the pictures were from an angle that hides the lettering). But to confuse this monitor with the original one was shortchanging Canonicus' own exploits. 

Built in Boston as the first in her class, USS Canonicus was sent to join the James River Flotilla in the spring of 1864. The crew of the ironclad spent over six months patrolling and engaging Confederate defenses with their dual 15-inch Dahlgren guns, often coordinating with sister ships such as the ill-fated USS Tecumseh. In December 1864, Canonicus was sent to join the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron as it prepared to assault Fort Fisher in North Carolina. 

During the first attack on Fort Fisher (December 24-25, 1864), Canonicus fired nearly 150 shots, receiving only a handful in return from the Confederate defenders. The attempt to capture this formidable fort failed, largely due to poor coordination between the Army and naval forces, as well as overconfidence in the effectiveness and accuracy of the shore bombardment. 
The second assault on the fort started on January 13, 1865. The naval part of this attack was a massive armada of over 40 ships on the firing line, with over a dozen more in reserve. While all ships were moved in closer to achieve better accuracy, Canonicus and three other monitors were positioned nearest to the fort. The gun crews on Canonicus fired nearly 300 shells during the three days of battle, with most being expended on the 13th. However, due to its proximity to the Confederate batteries, the monitor was hit nearly 40 times. While no significant damage or casualties occurred, the ship's flag was shot down twice. Both times, Quartermaster Daniel Stevens replaced the colors under the heavy fire from Fort Fisher's guns. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for these actions. 
An illustration from 1907 showing Stevens' actions. The caption is a bit confusing, but perhaps should read "For the third time the flag was raised" as Stevens only replaced it twice, but it was originally raised for battle. 
Near the end of the war, Canonicus and a handful of other ships were sent to Cuba in search of the feared oceangoing Confederate ironclad ram CSS Stonewall. However by the time the ships arrived, the Confederate vessel had been surrendered to the Cuban government as the war had ended. Serving off and on until the late 1870s, the monitor was put into reserve until its last moment to shine at the Jamestown Exposition came in 1907. Canonicus, the last remaining Civil War monitor, was scrapped in 1908, finally closing that chapter of naval history.
The monitor shown sandwiched between the "ABCD ship" Dolphin and Admiral Dewey's flagship Olympia in this 1898 poster hanging in the museum's gallery. (photo by HRNM educator Joseph Miechle)

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