- USS Monitor commander John L. Worden, writing to his wife on the eve of his battle with the Merrimack, also known as the CSS Virginia
Twice during its two-day journey from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the experimental Union ironclad and its exhausted crew had almost perished in an angry Atlantic storm. But the men quickly shook off their sickness and fatigue as they took in the horror that filled the harbor.
On the horizon, the burning hulk of the USS Congress lit up the sky, sending a great column of flames and smoke into the air over Newport News Point. Fleeing vessels had turned the channel into chaos.
"All manner of ships, sail and steam, were running out of Hampton Roads," Paymaster William F. Keeler reported, "leaving like a covey of quails."
Ordered to protect the USS Minnesota, which was grounded on the Hampton Flats off Salter's Creek, the Monitor anchored alongside the giant frigate about 1 a.m. But the "pygmy aspect" of the revolutionary, low-slung vessel did little to inspire confidence in the gloomy commander as he looked down over the rail.
Like the rest of the wounded Union fleet, especially the frantic sailors heaving equipment and supplies over the sides of three stranded ships, he was still in shock over the Confederate ironclad's seemingly irresistible power.
"They had seen the behemoth destroy some of the most powerful sailing ships in the world - and they knew it was coming back," says historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
"All they had standing between them and the Virginia was this cheesebox on a raft."
Nevertheless, by midday on March 9, the strange-looking vessel and its Rebel opponent had secured an indelible place in history. Two revolutions took place off the Peninsula during the Battle of Hampton Roads.
"The first day showed that the age of the wooden fighting ship was over," says historian Joseph M. Judge of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
"The second day showed that it would be very difficult for one ironclad to sink another. For decades to come, naval warfare would be fought with shell against armor."
Sometime around 1:30 a.m., the wreck of the Congress punctuated that historic change, blowing up in a massive series of explosions.
Lt. Samuel Dana Greene, the Monitor's second in command, had just returned to his ship after the rebuff from the captain of the Minnesota.
"Certainly a grander sight never was seen," he later wrote. "But it went right to the marrow of our bones."
Thousands of others watched the spectacular display, including Federal troops at Fort Monroe, Fort Wool and Newport News Point in addition to the sailors of the Union fleet. To the south and west, inside the ring of Confederate shore batteries that linked Sewell's Point, Craney Island, Pig's Point and Ragged Island, Rebel soldiers recorded the sight in their letters and diaries.
Even more people turned out at daybreak to see the fog burn off and give way to a crisp, clear Sunday morning. Hampton Roads had become an arena, with thousands gathering to watch the expected fight.
"Visibility was wonderful," says historian John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy. "Somebody described it as a perfect day to go to church."