“Tin can on a shingle,” some Union soldiers would say upon seeing Monitor; “Cheesebox on a raft,” quipped other Yankees. Both are fine descriptions with a homespun American flavor and culinary twist that work well and conjure up an apt image for John Ericsson’s vessel. But boxes and tin cans were far too rustic references for a Frenchman accustomed to the refined foodstuffs of Paris bistros.
“Everybody knows,” wrote Francois-Ferdinand-Philippe-Louis-Marie d’Orléans, who mercifully is most often referred to by his succinct title, the Prince de Joinville, “the cylindrical Savoy biscuit covered with chocolate paste, an ornament of every pastry cook’s shop. Imagine one of those biscuits placed on an oblong plate and you will have an exact idea of the appearance of the Monitor.” It seems de Joinville had dessert on his mind that day.
The prince, an admiral in the French navy and a veteran of numerous European conflicts, came to the United States in 1861 with his son and two nephews to offer his services to the Union Army. They took part in George McClellan’s 1862 Peninsula campaign, and de Joinville recorded some of the sites in a watercolor sketchbook that was printed in English in 1964, in time for the Civil War Centennial, as A Civil War Album of Paintings by the Prince de Joinville.
The watercolors are quite good, and include the view of Monitor presented here. It’s an important illustration because, despite all the fantastic photos and artifacts we have related to the noteworthy vessel, wartime profile views of the craft are rare.
Film footage does exist of another single-turret Monitor, USS Canonicus, puttering along at the 1907 Jamestown Naval Exhibition, an opportunity for the U.S. Navy to show off Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet.” Built in 1863, the ironclad was at the end of its life and certainly seemed an anomaly among its modern comrades. Sharp observers, however, would have realized that the metal hulls and swiveling gun turrets of Roosevelt’s fleet could be traced to Canonicus and its ilk.
That rare footage is available commercially on Echoes of the Blue and Gray, Volume I, put out by Belle Grove Publications. It’s fascinating to watch the choppy film and imagine what it must have been like to see such a strange little craft for the first time. Some might even say it looks like a pastry on a plate.