An ironclad forgery

An ironclad forgery

Harlowe, Jerry

“What a crock,” I mumbled. I had just finished reading the back of a stereoview purchased minutes before. It read,



No. 143


The “Monitor” showing her ports open, and the muzzles of her “barkers” This view also shows dents in the turret, where she was struck by Rebel shot, but this side of the turret does not show as many marks of shot as No. 111.

These are the original views taken by the Government Artist, during 1861-2-34-5. They can be obtained only of John C. Taylor, 17 Allen Place, Hartford, Conn.

My reaction was a sarcastic “Yeah, right!” I was amused because the photo was a phoney. It was not the famous Monitor. The image held a unique appeal, however, because it was not a modern fake. It had been “doctored” 100 years ago. It was, in fact, a clever piece of darkroom legerdemain by the Hartford photographer.

In the 1880s, Taylor had reissued the “War for the Union” series of stereoviews originally offered by E. & H.T. Anthony. The bogus “Monitor” was included in the set-following alteration by Taylor.

A rapid inspection told me this was not a view of Ericsson’s little cheese box on a raft, not the little vessel that met and neutralized the rampaging CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack.) The guns were the most obvious defect in the spurious identification. Monitor was armed with two 11-inch smoothbore Dahlgrens. Here, I was looking at the business end of a 15-inch smoothbore and an 11-inch rifled gun.

Not only were the guns wrong-the gunports were wrong as well. The USS Monitor had gunports made by drilling through the iron in three separate but overlapping operations. The result was a distinctive scalloped edge to the opening through which the guns were pointed and fired. In the phoney view, by contrast, the gunports were finished with a smooth edge.

Furthermore, the larger gun in the bogus view-the 15-incher-could not project through the gunport. That is to say, the muzzle of this great beast of a cannon could not be run out of the turret. I knew this quirk to be a feature of the Passaic-class monitors.

Passaic-class monitors were built so quickly after the success of the original Monitor that the gun foundries did not have sufficient time to cast the newer, longer barreled guns specified for these ships. The shorter gun was too wide at the muzzle to fire through the gunports as designed.

Moreover, the Passaic design called for two 15-inch guns in the turrets. Again, the speed of construction had caused difficulties. The Navy, lacking -sufficient numbers of guns, substituted an 11-inch rifle for the second 15-inch gun on many of the Passaic-class monitors, while at least two vessels of that class received 150 pounders in lieu of the second gun.

Thus the guns and gunports scream “Fake!” But there is more. Note that the turret has a base ring. This large protective collar was retrofitted to the Passaic-class monitors after several of them were put out of action by jammed turrets suffered while trading shots with Confederate gunners in the forts of Charleston harbor. Heavy, plunging shots striking at or near the juncture of the turret and the deck would warp and displace the deck plating, forcing it against the turret. To solve this problem, a base ring was later added to the turret of all Passaics. But it never existed on the original Monitor, which had gone to the bottom in a storm off Cape Hatteras long before.

One more point: the Passaic-class monitors had a pilot’s cupola atop the turret. None is seen here, however. Why? It seems obvious that the cupola was painted out of the picture to make this view more closely fit the description of the original Monitor. It was a deliberate alteration to make the stereoview more marketable. By the 1880s, when this card was offered for sale, not many potential customers would know or care about a relatively obscure action by Passaic-class monitors in Charleston harbor. But all would know of the soul-stirring fight between the Rebel behemoth in Hampton Roads and the gallant little Monitor that saved Washington and perhaps the Union.

Subsequent to purchasing the card, I came upon several more views of the retouched monitor, a.ka. “Monitor” A second stereocard, No. 148 in the same series, shows the opposite side of the same turret-but the pilot’s house has not been painted out. Nonetheless, the ship is referred to as “The Monitor” in the caption.

When is a monitor not a Monitor? When it’s a Passaic, of course. Or one of the eleven other classes of monitors. But because everyone remembers the story of the “Monitor and the Merrimac,” a nineteenth century entrepreneur wanted to evoke a memory rather than raise a new question: “What’s a Passaic?” No doubt exists in my mind that photographer John Taylor, with a little sleight-of-hand in the darkroom, gave the public what it wanted, and perhaps made a few bucks in the process. His greed, or artistic license; has given us an image of interest not only for what it is but for what it isn’t.

Copyright Military Images Sep/Oct 1998

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