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John Flack Winslow and the USS Monitor

William Kuffner, Marist ’68

Hudson River Valley Review Vol. 28, No. 2

Editors’ introduction: This undergraduate thesis was written by Marist College student William Kuffner in 1968, before the Internet and Google. We received it along with a six-page introduction detailing the trials and travels that the author encountered in the course of his research. Originally inspired by Marist Brother Edward Cashin, Mr. Kuffner began making phone calls to strangers who were able to provide clues to sources of additional information. His research, perseverance, and luck led him to letters, monographs, and memories stored in institutional archives and people’s homes—all of which enabled him to recreate this history of the Monitor’s construction. The unabridged saga of his research appears along with this article online at www.hudsonrivervalley.org.

The name “Winslow” should be familiar to any student of American colonial history. Edward Winslow was one of the original passengers on board the famous voyage of the Mayflower, which landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620. He served this fledging colony with great distinction as its governor in 1622, 1636, and 1644.

Edward’s brother Kenelm also came to America, in 1637, and while little is known about him, many of his descendants served their country very courageously. Richard Winslow served as a captain in the Continental Army during the American Revolution.

John Flack Winslow is less known to many, but performed a vital and integral act of heroism which contributed to the cause of the Union during the Civil War. He was the chief advocate and financier of the ironclad warship USS Monitor which met and defeated the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, formerly the Merrimac, at the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862.

John Flack Winslow was born on November 10, 1810, the fourth of seven sons of Captain Richard Winslow and Mary Corning Seymour. He was born in Bennington, Vermont while they were on vacation. Captain Winslow worked as a ship’s captain in Albany, New York, until his retirement. John Flack had a well-rounded boyhood attending Albany’s finest schools, where he pursued finance and mathematics.

At age seventeen, he declined an offer to enter into the banking business with his brother James and instead took a position as commercial clerk at the W. & A. Marvin Company of Albany. Working diligently for four years, Winslow received a commission to go to New York City as a supervisor trainee at the City Iron Company. In early 1831, after ten months training, he ventured to New Orleans in order to establish a subsidiary company, but returned a year later due to health concerns. Upon his return he was given the position of managing agent of the New Jersey Iron Company as a reward for his brief but successful tour of duty in New Orleans.

In 1832, while at this position of managing agent, Winslow met and married Nancy R. Jackson, the daughter of William Jackson, a prominent businessman from Rockaway, New Jersey. He moved to a new position in 1833 with the Bergen and Sussex Iron Company of New Jersey, where he learned about the production of pig iron. Winslow remained at this position for approximately four years. It was during this period that he made acquaintance with Erastus Corning, who would become his business associate for over thirty years.

In 1837 Winslow and Corning returned to Albany to form the partnership of Corning and Winslow, an iron company. From this simple beginning, the partnership grew into the Rensselaer Iron Company and was soon to become one of the largest railroad iron manufacturers on the East Coast. In 1840 a third member joined the partnership; with the addition of John A. Griswold, his capital, and his contacts, the Albany Rensselaer Iron Company became the Albany Iron Works. By 1845, it had become the nation’s second leading manufacturer of railroad iron.

In 1852 Winslow traveled to Europe to learn new techniques of producing iron. While in England, he purchased the rights from the British government to manufacture and sell iron and steel using the patented Bessemer process. Upon his return to America in 1853, he was able to use this newly-acquired knowledge to push the sales of the Albany Iron Works into first place. The maneuver also made him and his associates into very influential multi-millionaires. Winslow was honored in 1860 with the position of Presidential Elector from the Albany/ Troy district. Little did he know that this position would set the stage for his life’s greatest accomplishment.

John Flack Winslow traveled to Washington, D.C., in March 1861 to be present at the gala affairs that succeeded the inauguration of president-elect Abraham Lincoln. He had planned to make his stay very brief, but while he was in attendance at the grand ball, he met Captain John Ericsson, the renowned engineer from Sweden. He knew of Ericsson’s brilliance and was anxious to talk to him. In the course of the conversation that followed, Captain Ericsson informed him of the dismal results he had received from a Senate Sub-Committee on Naval Affairs, which had told him that his plans for an ironclad warship were much too impractical. Winslow’s interest was piqued and he made arrangements to see Captain Ericsson’s plans the next day.

Winslow was a very liberal man when it came to business; he was constantly looking for new methods and means of improving iron and steel products. Upon seeing Captain Ericsson’s blueprints for his warship, Winslow was immediately inspired by the vessel’s great potential. Preliminary talks began between Ericsson and Winslow, and they both wired their associates to join them in Washington. Griswold arrived from Troy the next morning, as did C.S. Bushnell, a capitalist from Boston. Winslow and Griswold were swiftly won over to the cause of constructing an ironclad warship by Ericsson’s precise explanation of each detail. After reviewing the blueprints for a week, Winslow was sure that such a ship would be an overwhelming success. He then used his newly acquired political influence to secure a new meeting with the Senate Sub-Committee on Naval Affairs for the first week of June, 1861.

During the interim from March to June, the four gentlemen returned to Winslow’s country home near Troy to continue their discussion and to make improvements on the blueprints. It was during this time that the Civil War began, just one month after President Lincoln’s inauguration. The Union’s plans of battle were submitted to the commander in chief and the one ultimately accepted has become known as the Anaconda Plan. This plan, proposed by General Winfield Scott of Mexican War fame, called for a three-pronged attackon Confederate positions; one would descend the Mississippi River down to New Orleans, cutting of the South’s food supply. The second prong would move south from Washington to Atlanta, Georgia, and then west to meet the first. The third prong would be a naval blockade of all Southern ports in order to strangle the South and keep her from getting war materials from Europe. This third prong became increasingly important as the war continued.

In June of 1861 Mr. J.R. Mallory, the newly appointed Secretary of War for the Confederacy, was reported to have said, “a vessel of iron and steam should be constructed to transverse the entire coast of the United States to prevent the blockade and encounter with a fair prospect of success the Union Navy.” 1 Ironically, Mr. Mallory had been the chairman of the Senate sub-committee that vetoed John Ericsson’s plea for an ironclad warship in March of 1861.

Winslow had been able to arrange the date to meet with the Senate subcommittee for June 3, 1861. The committee consisted of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Wells, US . Navy Commodore Joseph Smith, and other high-ranking navy officials. But the group of four men was to be dismissed repeatedly because the committee could not see the practicality of an ironclad ship that they feltwould probably sink at her christening.2 A determined man, Winslow decided to go over the Senate committee and arrange a private audience with President Lincoln himself.

After a month of disappointments in the Senate, and another month and a half spent attempting to gain an audience with Lincoln, he finally succeeded on September 1, 1861. Winslow described every detail of the design, the functional value, and great necessity of John Ericsson’s ironclad warship. Lincoln was greatly impressed by his earnestness and sincerity and was himself persuaded of the ironclad’s value. In a final meeting consisting of the President, the Naval Affairs subcommitteeand Winslow, Griswold, Ericsson, and Bushnell held on September 16, 186l, the president took matters into his own hands, and said “Gentlemen, all I can say is what the girl said when she stuck her foot into the stocking; it strikes me there’s something in it.3

The next step was to secure a government contract, no easy task due to Gideon Wells’s skepticism. Finally, on October 4, 1861, a contract was signed by all parties concerned. It stated that Ericsson would be chief engineer in directing the construction of an ironclad vessel of iron and wood 179 feet in length, 41 feet in width and 11 ½ feet in depth. This vessel would have masts spans, sails and rigging to drive it at a sufficient speed of six knots per hour, a steam engine to produce eight knots per hour for twelve consecutive hours; a condenser to purify salt water to fresh water; provisions for 100 people for a period of ninety days, and 2,500 gallons of water. The cost of the vessel would be $275,000, to be paid by the builders John F. Winslow and John A. Griswold. The ship was to be ready within 100 days of the signing of the contract.4 The terms of the contract were difficult, but did not dampen the faith of the men about to undertake these stipulations; they had complete confidence in one another’s ability. However, many of Winslow’s and Griswold’s contemporaries thought that they were making a grave mistake, not to mention a bad investment, announcing “Winslow and Griswold have lost their heads and their business sagacity.” 5

From its very conception, the construction of the ironclad warship that would be named the Monitor was hampered by several setbacks The design called for a revolving turret to be mounted amidships and armed with two eight-inch cannons. However, it had been voted by the Naval Affairs sub-committee that on January 18, 1843, the Federal Patent Office had reviewed and accepted a patent by Theodore C. Tembly of Pawling, New York, for “revolving turrets made for purposes of war of wood or steel.” Even though Ericsson claimed to have no knowledge of Mr. Tembly’s invention when he was designing his ship, Winslow made arrangements to pay royalties of $5,000 for this and any other revolving turrets manufactured by the Albany Iron Works. With all problems now overcome, he became the business manager of the project and set about arranging contracts with other companies to supply the material for the Monitor’s construction. His own company, the Albany Iron Works, would supply the armor plating.

Additional contracts were signed with other manufacturers throughout the state and the Union. William Everett of Novelty Iron Works of Green Point Long Island constructed the hull. Cornelius H. Delamater of New York City assembled the engine machinery. Charles H. de Gancy of Buffalo manufactured the port stopper, and H. Abbott and Sons of Baltimore and Holdame and Company of New York prepared the iron plates. The Rensselaer Iron Works supplied the rivets and bars.

John Flack Winslow personally traveled to each one of these companies throughout October 1861 to secure these contracts. At the same time, Ericsson, Bushnell, and Griswold were supervising the assembly of the wooden frame of the ship at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City. Within twenty-three days of the signing of the contract, the frame was completed and the parts from the other companies began to arrive in Brooklyn. Throughout the first seventeen days of construction, Winslow remained in Albany to supervise the preparation of the ship’s vital armament. This was the most important aspect of the project, with each piece being precisely four inches thick and formed to fit in an interlocking pattern for floatation.

Winslow related the toll this project took on him physically in a letter to Griswold in December 1861: “I have abstained from sleeping for the past four days in order to accomplish the task that I have taken upon myself. May God give me the strength to be successful.” 6 Several days after the writing of this letter, his wife Nancy became seriously ill and died—a deep personal trauma at a time already fraught with great anxiety and need. In another letter to Griswold, Winslow wrote, “my loss has been great for I had a great love for my wife. But now with her passing into the hands of God I will devote my unfaltering resources to our task if it will be a means of overcoming deep depression.” 7

On January 30, 1862, exactly 101 days after the signing of the government contract, the ironclad warship was completed and christened the Monitor. Elated at this success, Winslow was given the honor of choosing her captain. He chose a Navy lieutenant from Poughkeepsie, John Lorimer Worden, who then handpicked a crew of five men.

On the Monitor’s trial run, the steam valves functioned sporadically and had to be replaced. On the second run, the steering apparatus became defective and also had to be replaced. The third run proved to be a success, and the Monitor, upon arriving back at New York, received orders to set sail for Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 6, 1862. It was at this time that chance became intricately involved in the Monitor’s destination. Five hours after she departed from New York, orders arrived that would have sent the ship to Washington to be stationed in the Potomac River as protection for that city. But those orders were never received, and the Monitor pushed on to Hampton Roads. The ship nearly floundered off the coast of New Jersey in very turbulent seas, but Lieutenant Worden managed to keep his ship going at all costs.

On March 8, 1862 the Confederate ironclad Virginia steamed into Hampton Bay. She was commanded by Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, who quickly turned her ten-gun battery on the Union frigates at anchor in the harbor. The first salvo set the Cumberland afire; she soon sank with 117 casualties. One of those killed was Lieutenant Joseph Smith, son of Commodore Smith, member of the Senate Naval Affairs sub-committee. The Virginia then fired upon the Congress, hitting the ship’s magazine and causing her to sink immediately. Even the shore batterries of Fort Monroe proved to be useless against the Virginia. After hoisting her colors, the ship eventually returned to Sewell’s Point, leaving a frightened Union Navy behind. Messages sent to Washington, D.C., caused great alarm in that city, for the Virginia appeared to be invulnerable.

Wild rumors spread, causing a great panic and fear of what the “monster” would do after she destroyed the Union Navy. At 11 p.m. that evening, President Lincoln called a special meeting of his Defense Department to consider methods of preventing an attack upon Washington by the Virginia. The plan most seriously considered entailed sinking a number of barges and canal boats in the Potomac River at Kettlebottom Schools and other strategic positions to make the draft too shallow for the Virginia’s huge hull. The Union’s largest and strongest frigate, the Vanderbilt, would be plated with six inches of steel and her bow reinforced with timber so she could pursue and ram her antagonist. While these and similar ideas were being discussed by high officials, the Monitor steamed into Hampton Bay.

Upon sighting the wrecks of the Union frigates, Commander Worden ordered his ship to weigh anchor adjacent to the frigate Minnesota, which had gone aground in an attempt to escape the guns of the Virginia. The time was 2:30 a.m. on March 9, 1862. At 8 a.m. the Virginia appeared for the second time, unaware of the ensuing battle. The Monitor slowly approached her foe and Lieutenant Jones reacted: “ram that floating tower sledding over the water.” 8 But the Monitor remained in water too shallow for the Virginia and proved to have much greater maneuverability than her enemy. The Monitor also had quicker fire power, able to fire one round every six minutes compared to the Virginia’s one round every fifteen minutes. And the Monitor had one last, decisive advantage in that there was virtually no area, except for the turret, that could be struck by the Virginia’s guns. The battle began at 8:30 and raged on for three and a half hours.

In the midst of the battle, Captain Worden was temporarily blinded while commanding the ship from the lookout position and Lieutenant Dana Greene took over the Monitor’s command. On March 12, 1862, Lieutenant Greene gave the report to Congress: “At 8:00 a.m. perceived the Merrimac [sic] standing next to the Minnesota; have up anchor and went to quarters. At 8:45 am we opened fire on the Merrimac [sic] and continued the action until 11:30 a.m. when Captain Worden was injured. Captain Worden then sent me to take charge of the vessel. We continued action until 12:15 p.m. when the Merrimac [sic] retreated to Sewall’s Point. We went to the Minnesota and lay, by her.” 9

The battle was over. The Virginia was severely damaged but the Monitor suffered very little. The Virginia would appear twice during the bombardment ofSewell’s Point in May of that year, but would not be engaged again in battle; shewas scuttled and burned on May 10,1867. The Monitor had more thanproved her worthiness. She hadsaved the Union fleet at HamptonRoads from inevitable defeat.Upon hearing of the Monitor’s victory Winslow, Griswold,Ericsson, and Bushnell offered atoast of champagne to the successof the the Monitor and the Union.As a reward for their efforts, themen were awarded presidential andCongressional citations for theircontributions to the Union cause.In 1866, Charles B. Boynton, D.D.wrote in his History of the Navy During the Rebellion: “the genius that conceivedthe Monitor and the patriot manufacturers who perilled reputation and money inher construction were as truly among the heroes and saviors of this country asour President and his cabinet, or our Legislators or the Generals at the head ofour armies or our naval officers in their victorious ships.” 10

John Flack Winslow was very humble about the honors bestowed upon him as he wrote to his brother James in 1862: “This was an opportunity that a businessman could not ignore—a chance to prove his ability. But I saw it also as a chance to aid my country in a time of great peril and for this I do not deserve an honor befitting a man who gave his life for his country.” 11 But Winslow and his partners were to be heralded as great men by their contemporaries: as semblance of an award, the government contracted them to manufacture five more Monitorclass ships with a very good monetary profit involved. By June of 1863, thirty five Monitor-class vessels were patrolling the coast and rivers, and every one was constructed from the original plans.

After the battle at Hampton Roads, the Monitor patroled in the Potomac River throughout the spring and summer months. In August of 1862, she was ordered to South Carolina, a fatal mistake. On her first cruise from New York to Hampton Roads it had become quite apparent that she was not made to cruise on high seas. On her second trip into open waters, she encountered a severe storm, floundered, and sank off the coast of Cape Hatteras.

John Flack Winslow’s career through 1865 was one of great success. He was a millionaire, already famous for his achievements and soon to be awarded once again, with the presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. He served in this position for three years with great distinction, and the John Flack Winslow Memorial Library was erected in his honor. It was begun in 1866 and completed in 1868, partially destroyed by fire on August 27, 1884, and restored by February 1, 1885.

In 1868, John Flack Winslow retired to private life and moved to Poughkeepsie, where he married his second wife, Harriet Wickes, the daughter of Reverend Thomas Wickes of the local Presbyterian Church. The Winslows lived on the Wood Cliff Estate on the Hyde Park Road, a magnificent estate which is today part of the Marist College campus. Winslow loved his property and always kept it in perfect condition. He was also a very hospitable person who was known for having many gatherings of Poughkeepsie’s influential people. Every year on the Fourth of July he would fire a small cannon at the stroke of midnight to celebrate that famous day. This tradition came to a dramatic end when a shot from the cannon accidentally exploded a small tugboat sailing down the Hudson. Fortunately no one was injured, but to make reparation for this incident Winslow bought the company a new boat.

When he moved to Poughkeepsie, Winslow had intended to retire to a peaceful life, but his overpowering drive to remain active in public affairs prevented this from happening. In 1860, before he moved to Poughkeepsie, the city legislators had approved a bill to begin a railroad system. In 1871, Winslow was elected president of the Poughkeepsie and Eastern Railroad, and initiated rail service between Poughkeepsie and Stissing.

Also in 1871, a charter was granted by the City of Poughkeepsie for the purpose of “constructing and maintaining a permanent bridge, and avenues of approach thereof for the passage of transportation of passengers, railroad trains, teams, vehicles, cattle, horses, sheep, swine and other merchandise and property” 12 across the Hudson River. Sale of stock in order to obtain $2,000,000 was sold at $100 per share and construction was to be completed by January 1, 1876. But the construction met with several obstacles and was not opened to tariff until January, 1889. Winslow was elected to the position of president of the Poughkeepsie Railroad Bridge Company and served until January 2, 1872. On June 30, 1873, he was elected to the post of chairman of the Finance Committee. While holding these offices, he also was a member of the Executive Committee of the Poughkeepsie and Eastern Railroad, one of the thirteen companies making up the bridge company. Owing to a series of financial and construction delays, the first train would not cross the bridge—now the Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park—until 1888.

John Flack Winslow finally did retire to his estate in 1875, yet he remained active in philanthropic organizations. He was a member of the American Society to Revive the Bible, the American Tract Society, an honorary member of the Christian Alliance to which he was appointed delegate at the annual conference held in Florence, Italy (a position that he graciously declined). He also contributed a substantial amount of money to the Egyptian Exploration Company; archeology was one of his favorite hobbies. In 1888 Winslow was honored once again when he was elected as Presidential Elector from Dutchess County, a position that he considered to be one of his greatest honors.

John Flack Winslow died on March 10, 1892. This account is taken from the Poughkeepsie Courier Obituary Page: “Death was due to natural causes or a general breaking up of his system due to old age.” This eulogy appeared in the same paper: “The death of John Flack Winslow which occurred at his home on the Hyde Park Road a short distance north of Poughkeepsie at 5:00 Thursday morning removed from earth a man whose goal, judgment and patriotism, exercised at a crucial moment during the Civil War, contributed to turn defeat into victory and in a large measure saved the Union cause.” Thus a great man was recognized for living his good life.

The author would like to express his sincerest gratitude to all those who helped in the completion of this project, especially Brother Edward Cashin, who was instrumental in initiating the work, and Mr. Paul Hasbrouck who provided vital information.

Endnotes

1. Kraft, Herman, Sea Power in American History, The Century Publishing Company, New York

1923, p.227

2. Ibid, p.229

3. Ibid, p.232

4. W heeler, D.H., John Flack Winslow & His Monitor, Poughkeepsie, 1896, p.36

5. Ibid, p.28

6. letter to John Griswold—personal file in Adriance Memorial Library, Poughkeepsie, NY

7. Ibid

8. Porter, Admiral David, The Naval History of the Civil War, Sherman Publishing Company,

Hartford, Connecticut 1886, p. 128

9. Ibid, p. 130

10. Boynton, Charles, The History of the Navy During the Rebellion, Volume I. New York, D. Appleton

and Company, 1867, p.188

11. W inslow Catalogue—Adriance Memorial Library, Poughkeepsie, NY

12. Corwine, Wm. R., History of the Poughkeepsie Bridge & Connecting Railroads, Poughkeepsie NY

 

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