When the USS Monitor arrived in the Confederate-controlled waters off the coast of Sewall's Point, Va., in the early morning hours of March 9, 1862, the wooden-hulled USS Congress was still ablaze from the previous night's battle with the ironclad CSS Virginia.
The first night of the two-day engagement, the historic Civil War Battle of Hampton Roads, proved deadly for the Union, which lost 400 sailors and two ships. Three other ships were aground. The Monitor pulled up alongside the grounded USS Minnesota, waiting for the Virginia to return. Clad in half-inch iron plates made from pig iron smelted at the North Adams Iron Co., only a rotating gun turret and 18 inches of the ironclad were visible above the waterline.
The Monitor didn't have to wait long.
The battle, which marked the first meeting of two ironclad ships, ended in an indecisive duel after the ships spent several hours firing at each other at close range.
Although it would not see battle again, the Monitor would continue to be a significant part of the Union's blockade fleet in the coming months.
The Monitor was lost 16 miles off Cape Hatteras, N.C., during the early hours of Dec. 31, 1862, after taking on water during a storm. Despite its only being in commission for 11 months, the Berkshires has never forgotten its role in the ironclad's early beginnings.
At least two Berkshire towns claim to have contributed to the iron plates of the Monitor's turret gun. North Adams, having the best claim, was said to be the site where pig iron was smelted in the furnaces of the North Adams Iron Co. before being shipped to the Albany Iron Works in Troy, N.Y. There, it was rolled into the Monitor's iron plates.
Claims that the pig iron was made in North Adams go back to an editorial published March 10, 1862, in the Hoosac Valley News and Transcript:
"The citizens of North Adams have patiently let the Trojans take great credit unto themselves for having had the iron plates for the 'Monitor' manufactured in that city and the powder used in the fight with the 'Merrimac' (USS Virginia) having been produced in Schaghitocke [sic] Mills in Renssalaer [sic] County. They would now, that the joyousness has worked a little old with their city friends, announce that the iron plates of the 'Monitor' were made from the superior pig iron manufactured at the North Adams furnace of Beckley & Co. This superior iron has been furnished to Corning, Winslow & Co. for the manufacture of steel cannon and plating of vessels for the past eight months and in the affray with the 'Merrimac' demonstrated its firmness and strength of texture to the letter. Massachusetts will be found somewhere about when the sinews of war are laid bare to the public, and old Berkshire had, it seems, a good sized finger in this kettle of fish."
The editorial was among items provided to the Legislature in 1950 by Clara Beckley, granddaughter of John Beckley, when she petitioned the state for the erection of a monument, near the site of the North Adams Iron Co., attesting to the city's contribution to the Monitor's plating.
John Beckley, owner of Beckley and Co., owned ironworks and furnaces in North Adams, Richmond and Housatonic, as well as in East Canaan and Sharon Valley, Conn., and in Copake, Dover, Van Deusenville, Beekman, Wassaic and Hudson, N.Y.
Clara Beckley also included a March 20, 1862, article from the same paper, which further stated, "iron was molten at the charcoal pig-iron furnace of Beckley & Co. on Furnace Hill for Winslow and Griswold of Albany-Troy, who rolled the iron into plates which covered the historic Monitor."
Beckley also noted in her petition that her grandfather, in 1866, was awarded a gold medal by the American Institute at New York. In a copy of her petition, included in a collection of documents donated to the Berkshire Historical Society, she wrote that the award was given for "making the best iron in this country and, in fact, the world."
Among the documents held by the Berkshire Historical Society is a letter from John Beckley, dated "North Adams, Jany. 26, 1861," to John F. Winslow, of Troy, N.Y., confirming an order of 50 tons of No. 1 pig iron. In the letter, he confirms he is to make the iron from "all Copake Ore."
While the letter does not establish that the iron smelted in North Adams was used in the Monitor plates, it does establish the relationship between the two ironworks.
The Winslow mentioned in the letter, along with business partner John Griswold, owned the Albany Iron Works and were granted the contract to build the Monitor. Swedish-American John Ericsson, designer of the Monitor, was present in Troy when the turret was built there.
Information about the companies contributing materials and parts used to build the Monitor, outside of eight documented ironworks, is scarce. The ironclad, built in secret, was completed in 112 days. It was built and launched from the Continental Iron Works in Greenpoint, N.Y.
In 1951, the state erected a 5,000-pound granite memorial on West Main Street in North Adams. The monument included a bronze tablet featuring an artist's rendering of the historic battle.
In 2012, during a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, Edward Morandi, a member of the North Adams Historical Society, spoke about the city's claim.
"Today, many communities claim ownership of the Monitor's armor," he said. "People in Richmond say the pig iron was produced there, at the Richmond Iron Works. The present managers of the foundry that made the plates, now Mohawk Hudson Industrial Gateway [in Troy, N.Y.], insist that the pig iron and plates alike were produced in that plant. And really who's to say? Not a whole lot of documentation exists; the construction of the Monitor was cloaked in secrecy and might be described as the Manhattan Project of its day."
Morandi, who spent several years contacting numerous state and federal officials trying to locate solid proof that the city had played a part in the Monitor's armor, read an email from Anna Holloway, curator of the USS Monitor Center of the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Va., confirming the city's involvement.
"The story of the Monitor is not the property of any one location — her story belongs to us all. She is celebrated in Gotheburg, Sweden and Buffalo, N.Y., in Beaufort, N.C. and Baltimore, Md.; in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and London; in Hampton Roads, Va. and in North Adams," Holloway wrote.
Local traditions claiming that the ironworks in Richmond and West Stockbridge contributed iron ore to the pig iron smelted in North Adams are harder to substantiate.
While ore from both those locations was smelted at the North Adams furnace, there is no evidence suggesting whether or not it was. Clara Beckley, who made her home in Richmond, did not petition for a similar marker in town.