January 28, 1862, Brooklyn
Inside the Continental Shipyard, there was a flurry of activity. In two days, the U.S.S. Monitor would be launched for her maiden voyage. Carpenters, ship fitters, metal workers, sailors and officers were climbing all over the dark little craft, which was sitting in the early morning shadows in dry dock near the East River. She resembled a medieval instrument of torture, with sharp pieces of metal sticking out of her hull and the round turret sitting amidships, as if it were the block for a colossal guillotine, waiting for the executioner to appear. In a short while, she was going to be transferred to the Brooklyn Navy Yard for final touches and the launching ceremony.
Inside the Drafting Office, John Ericsson and Captain John Worden were going over the final plans with Lead Draftsman, Charles McCord. McCord was pointing out some questions he had about the weight of the cannons.
“I must go along with the Navy Department on this, Mister Ericsson, sir. If we were to put 12-inch Dahlgrens in that turret, she would surely go under. We must install 11-inchers for the safety of the craft.”
Ericsson looked fatigued and unusually disheveled. He had been fighting the Navy’s Supply Office to get building supplies delivered, even though the Navy was behind on payments, and now he had to refit cannons on his craft. He knew he had to make it look as though he was doing everything he could to defeat the Southern monster, even if his real plan was to come to a standoff. However, he had heard some good news from Washington. The Senate had refused to pass the bill, which would have allowed an increase in the amount of gunpowder permitted for firing all naval cannons. Ironically, this bill was passed following the disaster of the U.S.S. Princeton, of which Ericsson was well aware. Thus, even if the cannons were 12-inch Dahlgrens, Ericsson knew they would probably not have the firepower needed to penetrate the metal hull of the Virginia.
“All right, we’ll convert those guns as best we can. If we don’t start working faster, then we won’t make the deadline. And if we don’t make the deadline . . .” Ericsson was unable to complete the sentence before the two other men broke in.
“We don’t get the money!” they said, in unison, and then began to laugh.
The newspapers in the Union States were all talking about the impossible task ahead of these men, and the epithet of “Ericsson’s Folly” seemed to make the men work that much harder. They all knew this ship was a first in many more ways than just its outer design. There were 40 unique patents used on the Monitor, and some journalists, more sympathetic to the cause, often featured this in their stories, contrasting the originality of her construction with the lack of ingenuity in the construction of the Virginia. In fact, most journalists refused to call the Confederate ship by her proper name. They insisted upon calling it the Merrimack, in order to insult the Rebels in Norfolk.
“Where is Lieutenant Greene? I haven’t seen him all morning,” said Ericsson. He knew the young Executive Officer had been acting strangely ever since they returned from Christmas leave in Maryland. The young man was in love, and John knew what that felt like. As you work, there is a gnawing deep inside your heart, which tells you all such martial pursuits are meaningless when placed beside the tender beauty of your loved one. However, he also knew that this young lieutenant was an important ingredient in the plan to get more ships of the Monitor class constructed by the Navy Department. Without the big money, Ericsson knew he could not regain his love’s interest. Amelia’s parents were against her marriage to Ericsson, from the time he had been arrested for patent infringements, and they did not provide a dowry when they were married. Greene, on the other hand, was young and handsome, and he would be able to go back to his Anna Cameron and live out life in tender bliss, supported by their wealthy parents. Ericsson had no such money upon which to rely. He had left home as a young man, and all that he owned had been earned through his genius and hard work. No, this was his only chance to live the good life, and he was not going to allow Greene, a young romantic, stupefied by love’s early passion, to spoil his own future.
“I’m going out to look for him. You two men get the workers on the conversion of those cannons. We need to have the ship moved tomorrow,” said Ericsson, pulling on his overcoat.
“The men are ready for action, John, and I am proud to be serving with them,” said Captain Worden, who had become quite admired by the crew since he had come aboard. He always had a kind word for everyone aboard, and he took time to get to know each of them by name, where they were from, and if they needed anything special. And Chip Jefferson, the young steward, followed Worden around like his shadow, fetching him drinks, running errands, and doing any other odd jobs the Captain required of him.
Ericsson walked out into the morning sunshine, straightening his waistcoat and tie, and thinking about what he was going to do to make the young man finally understand the importance of this mission. He had been reading Emerson and Greene’s beloved Whitman, and he had finally come upon an idea he believed could work. As he reached the other side of the yard, he spotted Greene, who was sitting on the end of a short pier near a tugboat, which was moored quietly for minor repairs to her engine. Lieutenant Greene had his shoes and stockings off, and his pale legs were dangling over the edge of the pier in the water. He was reading another of his books, probably more poetry, and his gaze was fixed in concentration, and he did not notice when Ericsson approached.
“Your father is very proud of you, Dana,” said Ericsson, and Greene looked up from his reading. The young man’s blue eyes were moist from some passage of prose or poem.
“I’m glad you think so, Captain. I do so want them to believe I will be a good husband for Anna. But . . . I am rather afraid of what is to come in my immediate future.”
Ericsson sat down, with some awkwardness, next to his protégé. “I’ve been meaning to discuss this with you, my boy. Remember how we talked about how we will go to our paradise of Easter Island? Well, we will need to be assured that we have enough capital to get us there and keep us in supplies for some time.”
“Yes, I can see how we would need to be supplied,” said Greene, nodding slowly. “All we need do is tell my parents, or even Anna’s folks certainly have the money.”
“No! Now, I told you this was to be our secret. If we are to live with our women in this tropical paradise, then we must not let anyone else know of our whereabouts, or how we got there. This is extremely important. If others discover where we are, then our secret life away from civilized madness will soon disappear. They will bring their technology and warfare to our island, and we shall have destroyed a beautiful and innocent culture forever!”
Dana’s face became wistful with regret. “Oh, I don’t want that to happen! I know we will find the innocent paradise, just as you described it to me, and our women would enjoy it as well.”
“That’s what I want to explain to you. In order for us to get the money we need, my Monitor must not defeat the Virginia at Hampton Roads.” Ericsson watched the young man’s face, and he saw a certain surprise, but there was inquisitiveness as well, just as he had hoped there would be.
“Not defeat? What do you mean, Captain? How can we not defeat our enemy?”
“The business of warfare is a strange one, Lieutenant. One would assume that the business was one of victory at any price. However, this is not the case. If one’s ship is victorious over the enemy, then the government does not choose to purchase more of these ships to ensure future victories. No, but if there is a confrontation, what we called in the War with Mexico a ‘Mexican Standoff,’ then the government believes it must build upon this in order to increase the profits of everyone involved.”
“I really do not understand. How can the war be won by a draw?” Greene pounded the book of poetry on his legs. “I have never heard of such things!”
“This is the logic of modern war. Certainly no warrior or industrialist wants to lose lives. This is very costly to all concerned. However, if the war can be continued through the fair development of modern armaments which keep both sides protected . . . well, then, don’t you see, both sides continue the chess game, and both sides continue the profit-making industry and no lives are lost! It’s rather ingenious, in a modern way, I must admit.”
“How do I help to do this? I am only one man, a lowly lieutenant, at that.”
“Aye, but you are also an inventor’s son, are you not? You will also be in charge of the guns aboard our Monitor. I will show you how to cause the turret to spread the shots so they do not hit the Virginia in damaging locations. Our craft is much faster and much more maneuverable than her foe. She will be just crafty enough to keep us in the money. We will still stop the South from breaking the blockade, and we will most certainly win the war, but we shall also have a wealthy contract for thousands of Monitor-class ships! See the brilliance of the idea? You will have saved many lives, and you will have also given us our passport to tropical paradise!”
Lieutenant Greene looked down at a poem he was reading. His eyes sparkled with impulsive insight. It was as if he had seen his true, heroic calling for the first time.
“Yes, I do see what you mean, Mister Ericsson! It’s just like Walt says in his poem about democracy. We will be doing this for future humanity. Listen,
Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make the divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.”
“That’s the spirit, Lad! Come; let’s get back to work. I’ll show you what I mean about the trajectory of the turret.” Ericsson put his arm around the lieutenant’s shoulder as he put his shoes and stockings back on, and then they both stood up together. The wind was picking up, as if on cue, and the whistle for work began the daily routine. Two conspirators of fortune walked toward the dry dock where the Iron Maiden, a medieval instrument of torture, was miraculously being transformed into an instrument for love.
Or was it? There were still two other men, who were planning a different rendezvous upon the waves, with a different goal in mind. Robert Whitehead and his invention, the torpedo, and Walter Sinclair, the Confederate spy, were at that very moment watching the two men walk toward their craft, envisioning the flaming hell they would create once their instrument of torture was freed from its lair.