Our Little Monitor

The American Civil War between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America was fought from 1861 to 1865, as a result of the secession of the Southern States from the Union.

John Ericsson, Swedish-American Engineer and Inventor, Designer of the USS Monitor

President Abraham Lincoln went to war to preserve the Union. The South went to war to protect what they viewed as their "states' rights." While most of the details of the war are beyond the scope of this article, it is important to remember that because this war was the first war fought with equipment and arms more modern than the tactics that were employed, the carnage was horrific.

War always puts severe economic strains on any economy, and the Civil War was no exception. The first two years of the war went badly for the Union. Confidence in the government's ability to honor its debt sank rapidly. There was no such thing as an income tax, so government income was limited while war costs soared.

Economic confidence tumbled and people began hoarding coins, especially gold and silver coins. As U.S. coinage nearly completely disappeared from circulation, the government and business men sought ways to enable commerce and put purchasing power back into the hands of the public. Several solutions were tried, including even the use of encased U.S. Postage Stamps. One of the more successful innovations was the privately issued patriotic token.

Coins have been used as a method of disseminating propaganda from ancient times to the present. The issues of ancient Rome and Greece attested to the benefits of membership in an empire or successful confederation or economic union. From New York to Detroit to Chicago and points in between merchants put cent size tokens into circulation with patriotic images and phrases on them and the public accepted them for everyday purchases. Some tokens were struck over U.S. coins including cents and silver coin, others were manufactured new. Phrases such as "The Federal Union It Must and Shall Be Preserved" adorned many.

The collecting of these United States Civil War tokens (U.S. Patriotic Civil War Tokens) is an area of great interest to many numismatists. It is a large and varied area, and collecting Civil War Tokens can easily occupy a collector fulltime. To satisfy my urge to collect Civil War Tokens, I narrowed my focus to a topic that was historically interesting yet offered a very specific subject. The series I chose were the tokens that featured the USS Monitor, the first "modern" U.S. Navy ironclad warship to go to war.

John Brooke, Designer of the CSS Virginia

At the onset of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln met with his generals to devise a strategy by which the rebellious states of the Confederacy could be brought back into the Union. General Winfield Scott, commanding general of the Union army, proposed a plan of battle that became known as the Anaconda Plan. In order to restore the Union with as little bloodshed as possible, Scott favored a relatively non-aggressive policy featuring a complete naval blockade of the Southern states. Named for the South American snake that kills its prey by strangulation, Scott's plan was to strangle the South into submission by cutting its supply lines to the outside world. For both the North and the South, one of the most strategically important coastal regions was Hampton Roads in Virginia, where the wide mouth of the James River poured into the Chesapeake Bay. For the North, Hampton Roads was the doorway to the Confederate capital at Richmond. For the South, this was the passage to the sea and potential European allies.

The Confederate South desperately needed to break the Union naval blockade. If the blockade could be broken Great Britain and France would be much more likely to recognize the legitimacy of the Confederate States, allowing needed supplies and support to pour into the South from overseas. The Confederate solution was quite stunning - an ironclad vessel that would go up against the wooden ships of the Union blockade. The Southern naval yard at Gosport used its limited shipbuilding resources (including a large number of parts salvaged from the former ironclad USS Merrimack, scuttled by retreating Union forces) to produce a steam powered ship without sails, armored with railroad iron, low in profile, and having slanted sides that would not only withstand bombardment from the Union ships but would also allow them to wreak havoc on the anchored and slow moving wooden blockading fleet. The South's ironclad vessel was christened the CSS Virginia, and she served as the prototype for nearly all of the 22 Confederate ironclads built.

Monitor Launch
USS Monitor Launch at Greenpoint

The Union, however, was well aware of the South's plans to build an ironclad vessel. In response the Union began its own crash course in ironclad shipbuilding, with the advantage of the knowledge gained during the trial runs of the USS Merrimack. The result was the USS Monitor. The Monitor featured two major innovations. It had a rotating turret amidships, which allowed its two large guns to do the work of many more conventionally mounted guns. Additionally, only 18 inches of deck was visible above the waterline, affording only a meager target for enemy weapons. The USS Monitor was launched on Jan. 30, 1862 from Greenpoint, New York. On March 7, 1862 the Monitor was engaged in sea trials just north of Virginia.

Just after 3:00 P.M. on March 8, the Monitor neared the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay at Cape Henry. As the Monitor rounded the Cape, flashes of light and thick smoke were visible on the horizon. Unknown to the crew of the Monitor, the CSS Virginia was in the process of mauling the Union blockading fleet at Hampton Roads. The Monitor was met by a host of sailing and steamships fleeing Hampton Roads.

Monitor Battles Virginia
The USS Monitor (foreground) battles the CSS Virginia

When the CSS Virginia steamed into battle at Hampton Roads the last thing she expected was serious opposition. She quickly sank two Union Navy wooden frigates on March 8. On the morning of March 9 she was on her way to do more damage when the "Cheese Box on a Raft" (as the Monitor was dubbed by the CSA) appeared. Both vessels hammered away at each other for several hours. A well-placed shot from the Virginia's stern pivot gun exploded on the Monitor's pilot house, blinding Lieutenant John L. Worden (commander of the Monitor). The Monitor backed off to assess damage. The Virginia, thinking that the Monitor was backing off because it sustained heavy damage turned to engage other Union ships but was unable to do so due to the tide. Instead, the Virginia returned to port for her own damage assessment. The Monitor, thinking that the Virginia withdrew because it sustained heavy damage did not pursue. Although the naval engagement was a tie in that neither ship was disabled, the blockade remained in place and the battle was viewed as a major victory by the Union. Public opinion for the very unpopular war in the North soared and the ironclads of the CSA were henceforth forced to fight only in riverene conflicts. As more and more Union "monitors" were produced, the South's doom was sealed.

On Dec. 31, 1862 the Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, in a severe storm with the loss of four officers and sixteen crewmen.

Several of my tokens featuring the Monitor are on display and identified by Fuld numbers (see the references below for the Fuld book). I hope you enjoy this numismatic foray into U.S. and naval history.

Click here to begin the tour of the Civil War Tokens featuring the USS Monitor

Credit for the illustrations above belongs to the USS Monitor Center. All of the Civil War Token photos in the gallery were taken by .

References and sources for more information about Civil War Tokens

Patriotic Civil War Tokens by George and Melvin Fuld, Fourth Revised Edition, 1982, The Civil War Token Society.

The Civil War Token Society

The USS Monitor Center

Copyright © 2005 and the Willamette Coin Club