USS Monitor series: Sunken ambition

Daily Press

"Well, gentlemen, you don't look like you were just through one of the greatest naval conflicts on record."

- Asst. Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox, greeting the Monitor's powder- blackened crew just after its historic battle

When the smoke finally cleared from Hampton Roads, those who had watched the battle between the Monitor and the Virginia were astounded.

For roughly four hours, what some people had come to regard as two of the world's most powerful ships had slugged it out. Yet each could be seen steaming away from the thunderous clash practically undamaged.

Looking on from the surrounding vessels, many officers and men recognized at once that they had witnessed something historic. They knew no mere wooden warship - even one with a 24-inch-thick oak hull - could have survived such a prolonged and ferocious pounding.

"The lack of bloodshed was the most remarkable thing about the battle," says historian John M. Coski of The Museum of the Confederacy.

"With four hours total - and almost an hour of that in virtual touching range - the damage should have been catastrophic. Two wooden ships fighting in that kind of proximity for that duration would have meant a bloodbath."

Even the European observers, who held the American navies in low esteem, knew that the confrontation signaled the end of an era. The British, in particular, assessed the performance of the armored ships in dramatic terms, prompting the Admiralty to halt construction on wooden vessels.

In a single stroke, the world's largest and most advanced navy had been upstaged by the innovative tinkerings of two second-rate military powers.

"Whereas we had available for immediate purposes 149 first-class war-ships, we now have two," the Times of London lamented, "these being the Warrior and her sister, Ironside."

On board the Monitor, the first order of business was fresh air rather than historical assessment. Yet the mantle of fame fell over the ship as soon as the shooting ended.

In less than 24 hours, the shocking threat of Confederate naval supremacy had been matched if not beaten. The panic of the previous day changed to jubilation.

Within minutes, Assistant Navy Secretary Gustavus Fox steamed over to congratulate the powder-blackened crew, becoming the first in a long line of dignitaries to visit the vessel. But not before Paymaster William F. Keeler scrambled on deck, hunting for Confederate shell fragments to keep as souvenirs.

Later, when the ironclad shifted its anchorage, the sailors in the Union fleet clambered into the rigging and cheered the ship they had ridiculed the night before.

"The people ashore around Fortress Monroe cannot say enough in our praise and they will take no money for anything we send for," Second Assistant Engineer Albert. B. Campbell reported the day after the battle.

"...if the Merrimac [sic] had not been stopped by us, all our fleet had orders to sail, for they would all have been destroyed [by the Virginia] if they had stayed."

Still, the North's relief faded quickly in the face of the continuing threat posed by the Confederate marauder. For the rest of March and into April, the Monitor and the Federal fleet waited for the Virginia to reappear. But the two foes never met again in battle.

President Lincoln and Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, who believed only the Monitor could prevent a disastrous attack on the Union's coastal cities, insisted that the ship "be not too much exposed." Alarmed by a bedside warning from the ironclad's injured captain, Lt. John L. Worden, the president feared that the vessel might be boarded and captured.

Indeed, the Confederates recognized this weakness, and they planned to blind the Monitor by throwing a cover over its pilothouse. They also anticipated the Union's intention to lure the Virginia into the waters near Fort Monroe, where the ironclad would face a special flotilla of rams and the army's huge coastal guns.

Just how much threat the Rebel warship actually posed, however, can be seen in the reports of her first commander. Though Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory hoped attacks on the Union's coast "would eclipse all the glories of the combat at sea...and would strike a blow from which the enemy could never recover," Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan was far from certain that the Virginia could carry them out.

"[The] Virginia is yet an experiment, and by no means invulnerable as she has already proved in her conflict on the 8 and 9," he wrote.

"The Virginia may probably succeed in passing Old Point Comfort and the Rip Raps... [but] she has yet to be tested in a seaway...Should she encounter a gale, or a very heavy swell, I think it is more probable she would founder."

Caution ruled both sides of Hampton Roads, in fact, leading to a series of combative displays but no shooting engagement.

On April 11, the Virginia steamed out of Norfolk while the Monitor guarded the channel near Fort Monroe. Though the two antagonists sailed back and forth within sight of each other for most of the day - and the Confederates captured three Northern merchant ships - neither ventured within range of the other's guns.

On May 8, similarly, the Monitor and the Union fleet moved across Hampton Roads to test the Rebel batteries at Sewell's Point. When the Virginia appeared moments later, it seemed as if the two ironclads might do battle again.

Then the Federal commander ordered his forces to cease firing and resume their moorings near Fort Monroe.

"It was the most cowardly exhibition I have ever seen," one of the Virginia's officers wrote.

Three days later, the chance for another meeting disappeared for good. The Union army advanced overland to take Norfolk, leaving the Confederate ironclad - with its 21-foot draft - no place deep enough to go.

Unable to move up the James to Richmond, the crew put ashore near Craney Island and set the ship on fire. The notorious armored "monster" exploded shortly before 5 a.m. on May 11 - less than three months after it had been launched.

Hours after the blast, the Monitor steamed past the blackened hulk and tied up at her rival's empty berth in the Gosport Navy Yard. Most of the crew was on deck as President Lincoln, touring the fallen Rebel stronghold by boat, doffed his hat and bowed.

"Thus perished the Virginia," wrote Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, the ironclad's last commander.

"And with her, many highflown hopes of naval supremacy and success."

The Union ironclad met the gun crews of the Virginia again on May 15 - this time while testing the Confederate batteries at Drewry's Bluff southeast of Richmond. The unsuccessful three-hour fight marked the last time the warship saw serious action.

In the months that followed, the Monitor's chief enemy became the dull routine of blockade duty on the James. That meant fighting not Rebel guns but boredom, heat and mosquitoes.

Still, President Lincoln made an unannounced visit the morning of July 9, stepping aboard off Harrison's Landing to find some of the officers still sleeping. Then there was the excitement caused by the threat of a powerful new Southern ironclad, the CSS Richmond.

"About the middle of the forenoon a small smoke was discovered over the tree tops way up the river which was decided at once to be the Richmond coming," Keeler wrote.

"Well we waited all day and here we are, 9 o'clock P.M. and the cloud of smoke has produced nothing but a scare...Some of us will die off one of these days with Merrimac-on-the-brain."

Relief finally came at the end of September, when the Monitor steamed to the Washington Navy Yard for an overhaul. Large numbers of spectators greeted the ship as it made its way up the Potomac.

President Lincoln visited again. So did a large number of curious women who had followed the Monitor's exploits in the press.

"...on going into my stateroom I found a party of the `dear delightful creatures' making their toilet before my glass, using my combs and brushes," Keeler wrote.

"An extensive display of lower extremities was made going up & down our steep ladders."

Such pleasant diversions ended in November, when the Monitor resumed blockade duty in Hampton Roads. A few weeks later, the ship was ordered to proceed under tow to Beaufort, N.C.

The ironclad was 14 miles northeast of Cape Hatteras on Dec. 30 when it started to encounter problems in an Atlantic gale. Instead of riding over the growing swells, the vessel began to plunge through them.

At 7 p.m., one of its tow lines snapped, leaving the Monitor to yaw and wallow under the pounding waves. Much of the oakum packing stuffed around the bottom of the turret washed out, creating a path for a torrent of water.

The sea seeped into the coal bunkers, too, making the fuel too wet to keep the steam engines operating at full pressure. Around 10 p.m., the fires began to give out, slowing the 3,000 gallon-per-minute pumps.

A half-hour later, the Monitor put up a red distress lantern, cut its remaining tow line and attempted to ride out the storm by dropping its anchor. Two rescue boats set out from the USS Rhode Island in a heroic attempt to save the ironclad's crew.

Some men were swept away by the waves, while other clung to the turret, too frightened to jump off the wildly pitching vessel. Another rescue boat was approaching at 1:30 p.m. when the light disappeared, leaving only a swirl of water where the ship had been.

Years later, the Monitor's creator, John Ericsson, would argue that the crew had jacked the turret up and packed the bottom against his directions. Had they trusted the mechanism as it was designed, he wrote, "an ordinary hand-pump would have sufficed to keep the vessel dry."

As it was, the officers counted 16 men missing after the historic ship went down - less than a year after it had been launched into the East River. No one would see it again for 111 years.

"It was just her time," says historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

"They did everything they could to save her - and they couldn't. All they did was delay the inevitable."

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