More than 135 years after the first clash of ironclads, Lt. John L. Worden - the captain of the USS Monitor - looks like an unlikely hero.

Though he'd logged 27 years in the Navy when he took command of the ship, the 44-year-old New Yorker was a loyal and dependable officer but hardly distinguished.

On the stormy trip to Hampton Roads from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he reeled from seasickness while his officers and crew struggled twice to save the badly leaking vessel. Even after the historic battle, some people who shook his hand came away whispering that he had the grip of a lady.

But for four hours on the morning of March 9, 1862, Worden fought one of the most powerful ships in the world to a standstill - and he did so with virtually no training on an untested, highly experimental vessel.

"He had to take everything he'd learned about fighting in a traditional wooden ship and somehow find a way to use this revolutionary new technology," says historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

"And he had to do it instantly - while he was under fire."

Worden did achieve some small distinction early in the war, when he became the first Federal officer to be taken prisoner by the Confederates.

Instructed to deliver a secret message to the commander of Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Fla., he was captured on his return trip - just after the shooting began at Fort Sumter.

Worden spent seven months in a Southern prison before he was exchanged. But it was his seniority - not his service - that led him to the Monitor.

"The Navy told him to take a look at it, to see if he wanted it - and he did," Johnston says.

"People all over New York harbor were laughing at it as it was being built. But he saw something in it that made him think it had some potential."

Some of that insight may have come from Worden's young executive officer, Lt. Samuel Dana Greene, who'd arrived at the shipyard several days earlier and escorted Worden on his tour.

Smart, curious and ambitious, the recent Naval Academy graduate already knew the ironclad marvel inside and out.

"The first thing he did was make it his job to study the ship from stem to stern," Johnston says.

"He wanted to know what would work and what might give them problems. He was all over the place bothering the engineers and shipyard workers with his questions."

Greene's familiarity helped save the ship just a few weeks later, when it ran into an angry storm on the way to Hampton Roads.

Stepping in for a seasick Worden, he and Engineer Alban Stimers, who had worked closely with inventor John Ericsson during the ironclad's construction, overcame a deluge of leaks that panicked the crew and twice threatened to sink the vessel.

"Each time they had a problem, he was there to provide the leadership that led to a solution," says historian John V. Quarstein, director of the Virginia War Museum.

"He saves the ship twice. He does not sleep. He was the hero."