Monitors–A Blast From the Past

USS Amphitrite at anchor. Note the low freeboard.

This should be a story about American Civil War ships, and in a way it is. If there is an enduring naval image from that conflict it is the arrival of the Monitor off Hampton Roads the night of March 8, 1862 to save the Union fleet from destruction. Or maybe it is Admiral Dupont’s over-matched flotilla of Passaic-class ships taking on the massed guns of Charleston’s defenses. Perhaps it is the Tecumseh turning turtle as she struck a mine entering Mobile Bay.

Despite the rapid decrepitude that spread through the U.S. Navy after the end of that conflict, the spirit of the monitor continued. Though the Congress undid and sold off many of its solid wartime investments, some ships remained in reserve. Many, built with unseasoned wood, rotted away. A few, such as the sloop Trenton served admirably until her destruction in the great storm in Apia harbor in 1889. The double-end gunboat Monocacy served with distinction in China until 1903. But for the most part, the navy added little and mostly disintegrated into irrelevance until its rebirth in the late 1880’s.

USS Terror in illustration

But there was this business about the monitors. Donald Canney in his Old Steam Navy: Ironclads 1812-1885 recounted the scandal around the “rebuilding” of the Monadnock class double-turreted ships as well as the huge Puritan in the 1870’s. Though intended to be reconstruction and modernization of the old wooden-hulled ironclads, shipyards up and down the east coast and in California got a piece of the action. The reconstruction turned into scrapping the old ships and building new iron-hulled monitors that took more than a decade. What emerged was six ships with iron-hulls, Civil War era engines, and some decent guns. All these ships played a role in the Spanish American War.

The four Miantanomoh class monitors–Miantanomoh, Monadnock, Terror and Amphitrite all entered service between 1891-96. They were the smallest of the ships at just under 4,000 tons. Their engines were virtually antiques and their freeboard was barely above the water. They were hard to target, but could hardly fire their main armament while under way. They mounted four fairly modern 10-inch guns in two turrets.

The Puritan was the largest of the squat, homely ships, weighing in at about 6,000 tons, or about the same size as the martyred USS Maine, or ACR-2 USS Texas. Commissioned in 1896, Puritan mounted four pretty modern 12-inch guns. Also had a higher freeboard than the Miantanomohs.

This is such a great photo of the Monterey settling in to “fighting trim.” Note, this picture is taken in San Francisco Bay not in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Photo from John D. Alden’s priceless American Steel Navy

The Monterey at 4,100 tons was built in San Francisco and served on the West Coast. She had a double-bottom, and could fill it with seawater to submerge to “fighting trim” with its decks actually under water. Authorized by Congress to meet strict specifications, the planned four 12-inch gun armament exceeded the contracted displacement, and settled on two 12-inch guns in the bow turret and two 10-inch guns in the stern turret.

Amphitrite, Terror, Miantanomoh and Puritan all served in the Caribbean during the 1898 war. They made their way to sea and performed important bombardment missions. Monterey and Monadnock made their way across the Pacific to the Philippines where they joined Commodore Dewey’s fleet. Even the moth-balled Civil War era Canonicus class monitors were activated to perform harbor defense with their ancient smoothbore guns.

If you’ve hung in this long, thanks. Matt Lawson of Brown Water Navy has added the monitors to his 1/1250 range, and I happy to say I’ve added them to my collection. They’re kind of uninteresting as far as ships go, but the models are beautifully uninteresting. Puritan is solid and good sized. Monterey is odd with it’s pair of mis-matched turrets. The Miantanomohs are small but quite nice.

The smaller monitors can be ordered as a four pack, which I did. They are cheaper that way and cheap is always good. Because of their lack of hull thickness they are pretty fragile and require some care in the fine detail plastic, which is pretty brittle. In trying to cut the mold mark off one of the ships I also accidentally removed the bridge and various other bits, so care is required. Still some great stuff.

More than you want to know about the Spanish American War era monitors.