John Ericsson: The Swede that Saved the Union

John EricssonWhen it comes to America’s naval history, few had more influence on battleship design than a man named John Ericsson.

In fact, it’s a Swedish story better than ABBA.

Ericsson was a Swedish American who revolutionized steamship propulsion through his invention of the screw propeller.

He also invented the first submarine boat, self-propelled torpedo and torpedo boat. His innovations made large ships move faster and further, reimagining the use of navies in war. Thank God he was on our side.

Two of Ericsson’s most revolutionary naval ship designs were the USS Merrimack (1855) and the USS Monitor (1862).

During the Civil War, the Confederacy resurrected the de-commissioned Merrimack and transformed it into a iron-plated naval destroyer (renaming it the CSS Virginia). The Merrimack was a formidable foe in the water. The Union suffered great losses to this naval monster (including 16 war ships).

On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginian sunk two of the Union’s best: USS Congress and USS Cumberland. It was a moment of fate. After all, the very next day the Union launched a new Ericsson designed warship named the USS Monitor—who immediately went to battle the Confederate’s CSS Virginia. After a four-hour battle, the Monitor eventually crippled and disabled the Virginia…permanently. The Monitor, surprisingly, suffered no damage. After that victory, the Union owned the coastal waterways. It just kept launching more Ericsson “monitor” ships.

On May 29, 1926, President Calvin Coolidge honored John Ericsson as the “great son of Sweden” and “a great American.”

But there’s something often missed in this story. And that’s Ericsson’s Swedish and religious heritage.

At one time, Sweden was one of the more religious nations on earth.

Influenced heavily by the Protestant Reformation, this Nordic country converted to Christianity. In fact their prominent and popular Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus (a.k.a. “The Lion of the North”) proved rather zealous for religious freedom and expansion. He is also credited with making Sweden a powerful force (politically and militarily) among the European nations of his day. His greatest notoriety was on the seas. Adolphus was an influential and noted naval commander known as the ”father of modern warfare.” During the Thirty Year Wars, his defense of Protestant Christianity inspired many Europeans to name their churches and societies after him, including Germany’s Gustav-Adolf-Werk foundation.

Gustavus Adolphus wanted to help colonize America with Swedes for the purpose of trade…and religion.

He desired to create another nation “made more civilized and taught morality and the Christian religion…[through] propagation of the Holy Gospel.” One of the skill sets Swedes brought to America was ship making and naval innovation—later incredibly helpful in naval battles with the British, French and Confederates.

The state of Delaware was where most early Swedes migrated…and Sweden continued to export into America not just its people, but Bibles, hymnals, and pastors. In the years leading up  to 1789, Sweden sent forty-one prominent clergymen who “laid the basis for a religious structure” in America. These Swedes built the first flour mills, ships, brickyards, and roads. They also introduced the sciences of forestry and horticulture. And they built nearly 2000 churches and schools.

Wherever a Swede landed on America soil, their first task (after building their own shelter) was to erect a place to worship and launch a school to train clergymen and teachers. They also continued to influence and innovate naval operations for a young nation.

John Ericsson was one of those Swedish descendants.

By the way, the Swedes were also abolitionist. They despised the slave trade.

John Ericsson was so committed to liberating slaves, he refused payment for his design of the Union warship the USS Monitor. “It was my contribution to the Union cause,” he told Lincoln, “…which freed 4,000,000 bondsmen (black slaves).”

Like all Swedish-Americans, Ericsson cherished America and its commitments to equality, justice and liberty.

He once penned: “I love this country. I love its people and its laws, and I would give my life for it.” In fact, a famous photo features skyscraper builders high above the New York skyline enjoying lunch. Although their identities remain a mystery, the Swedes claim at least two of them.

Lunch atop a skyscraper

It’s why we cannot forget John Ericsson. Nor should we dismiss the contributions of the Swedish that helped forge the American ideas of liberty, equality, and justice. Many nationalities contributed to the building of America, but few have given more than the Swedes.

It’s something to think about the next time you listen to ABBA, dine on Swedish meatballs or shop at IKEA.


  1. Delbert Durfee on April 18, 2023 at 12:35 pm

    Thank you, Rick, for this article. As we see our values threatened, it’s good to make known how our country forged these values.

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