Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Pelham and the Civil War Ironclad USS Monitor

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On March 9, 1862, an oddly-shaped craft floated into Hampton Roads Bay where the James River meets the Chesapeake Bay near Newport News and Hampton, Virginia. It looked, some said, like a "tin can on a shingle". It was the Union Navy's newest secret weapon, hastily constructed in New York to meet the threat of the dangerous Confederate ironclad known as the CSS Virginia -- an ironclad constructed from the Union steam frigate Merrimack after that ship was scuttled when Union troops abandoned the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia at the outset of the Civil War. The tin can on a shingle was named USS Monitor. History credits Captain John Ericsson with designing and "superintending" the construction of the Union ironclad.


The day before, Captain Franklin Buchanan of the Virginia had sailed his ironclad into Hampton Roads Bay to attack the wooden Union ships blockading the harbor. The little ironclad ran the USS Congress aground and destroyed it. It rammed the USS Cumberland and sank it. The remaining Union ships watched helplessly as their shot bounced harmlessly off the seemingly invunerable ship until they had to withdraw from engagement.

The following day, March 9, Confederate Lieutenant Catesby Jones captained the Virginia as it prowled the waters of the Bay. Unbeknownst to Lt. Jones, the tin can on a shingle had hustled down the coast from New York during a stormy and precarious voyage. The Captain of the Union ironclad was Lieutenant John L. Worden. According to a report on the voyage and subsequent battle from the Chief Engineer of the Monitor dated March 9, 1862, the Monitor showed its mettle on the "stormy passage" and "proved . . . to be the finest seaboat I was ever in". See Letter from Chief Engineer Stimers, USS Monitor, to Captain John Ericsson, Giving an Account of the Engagement, Mar. 9, 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 7, p. 25 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office 1898).

The First Battle Between Ironclads

The Monitor met the Virginia in the Bay where the ships fought history's first battle between ironclads. The engagement was significant. The Virginia had been built to break the Union's blockade of southern port cities. The Union Navy developed the Monitor specifically to destroy the Virginia.

For more than three hours the two ironclads battled each other at close range, but neither was able to best the other. Official reports of the engagement show how the new ironclad technology withstood the old technology of shot and shell. The report of the Chief Engineer of the Union ironclad Monitor stated in part:

"[W]e fought the Merrimack for more more than three hours this forenoon and sent her back to Norfolk in a sinking condition. Ironclad against ironclad. We maneuvered about the bay here and went at each other with mutual fierceness. I consider that both ships were well fought. We were struck 22 times -- pilot house twice, turret 9 times, side armor 8 times, deck 3 times. The only vulnerable point was the pilot house. One of [the] great logs (9 by 12 inches thick) is broken in two. The shot struck just outside of where the captain had his eye, and it has disabled him by destroying his left eye and temporarily blinding the other. The log is not quite in two, but is broken and pressed inward . . . . She tried to run us down and sink us, as she did the Cumberland yesterday, but she got the worst of it. Her bow passed over our deck and our sharp upper edged side cut through the light iron shoe upon her stern and well into her oak. She will not try that again. She gave us a tremendous thump, but did not injure us in the least. . . .

"You are very correct in your estimate of the effect of shot upon the man on the inside of the turret when it struck near him. Three men were knocked down, of whom I was one; the other two had to be carried below, but I was not disabled at all and the others recovered before the battle was over. . . ." Id.

The Connection to Pelham, NY

Nearly every schoolchild knows the story of the battle between the irconclads on March 9, 1862. But, what does this seminal event in military history have to do with Pelham, New York?

Pelham Manor resident George Huntington Reynolds, it turns out, played a critically important role in the design and construction of the steam engine that powered the Monitor. According to one account:

"While [John] Ericsson was rushing work on the Monitor he was also trying to complete an engine of his own device. The Government was pushing him to the extent of the speed limit in getting the Monitor under steam. He finished the boat in time, but not the engine. His friend Reynolds had one of his own engines at the Delemater [Iron] Works and finally induced Ericsson to permit the Monitor to be equipped with it. This was done, and the Monitor proceeded on her way to victory. If Ericsson had held out, as he stubbornly did for a long time, the Monitor would not have reached Hampton Roads in time to interrupt the leisurely destructiveness of the Merrimac; nor, perhaps, to have prevented her from bombarding Northern coast cities. Ericsson deserves the greater credit -- he built the Monitor; but George Reynolds should be remembered at the same time, for it was an engine of his invention that he himself put into the little insides of the Monitor which gave her the life impulse that enabled her to be on the job at a critical time in the history of the United States."

Source: Credit For The Monitor - Part is Claimed for George Reynolds, Engine Builder, N.Y. Times, Aug. 6, 1924, p. 12. See also Credit For Monitor - Others Besides Ericsson Who Should Be Remembered, N.Y. Times, Aug. 22, 1924, p. 12; To The Editor of The New York Times, N.Y. Times, Aug. 22, 1924, p. 12; [Obituary of] G. O. Reynolds Jr., Insurance Man, 71, N.Y. Times, Jun. 4, 1956, p. 29 ("He was the son of the late George Osmar and Mable Winchester Reynolds of Pelham Manor, N. Y. His grandfather, George Huntington Reynolds, was one of the heads of the engineering staff of John Ericsson, building of the Monitor.").

George H. Reynolds lived with his family in Pelham Manor for many years. He served as President of the local school board for eight years and built a palatial home in the Manor that no longer stands. He was one of the nation's preeminent mechanical engineers and was involved in many projects that are stories in and of themselves. He moved to Connecticut during the 1880s, but various of his children and grandchildren remained in Pelham and surrounding areas for many years.

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