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Crewmen knew impact of brave effort

Daily Press

When the sailors of the Monitor steamed into battle against the Virginia, they set out as an inexperienced crew in an untested vessel. Four hours later, after forcing their mighty Confederate opponent into a historic draw, they had transformed their ship and themselves into heroes.

No one was more conscious of this sudden change than the enlisted men themselves. Many would spend the rest of their lives basking in the glory of their astounding half-day adventure. The bragging started almost immediately, as did the hyperbole and the exaggeration.

Reading their letters today, historians see the embellishments and errors almost immediately, especially when it comes to the damage the Monitor inflicted during the battle. But they also encounter a larger sense of consequence that can't be disputed.

"A lot of their letters reflect the knowledge that they had just participated in something very historic," says education coordinator Dina Hill of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

"They knew they had been part of a great drama - that they had done something incredible."

Made up entirely of volunteers, the crew of the Monitor included coal heavers and firemen - the drones of the engine room "black gang" - as well as landsmen and conventional sailors.

Ranging in age from 14 to 40, most were Irish immigrants, says Monitor National Marine Sanctuary historian Jeff Johnston. Many signed on in order to escape the boredom of being cooped up on the USS North Carolina and USS Sabine, which served as floating holding stations for enlisted men who had no ship assignments.

Only a few had previous Navy experience, making their showing against the Confederate ironclad Virginia all the more impressive. But it also may have made them feel more vulnerable to criticism in the days and weeks following the historic clash, when the Monitor - under strict presidential orders - refused to expose itself to the guns of its rival again.

Attacks in the Southern newspapers, which accused the ship of cowardice, proved especially galling to the crew. Only a few days after one such incident, they penned a letter of complaint to their injured captain, Lt. John L. Worden, asking him to come back and help them regain their honor.

"The last time she [the Virginia] came out we all thought we would have the pleasure of sinking her but we all got disappointed for we did not fire one shot," states the letter, which is signed by "The Monitor Boys."

"...the Norfolk papers says we are all cowards on the Monitor and all we want is the chance to show them where it lies. With you for our captain we can teach them who is cowards..."

Years later, the ironclad's crew would contribute mightily to the deluge of patriotic commentary and memoir that marked the anniversary of the Civil War.

Many modeled their stories on previously published accounts, Johnston says, creating great frustration for future historians attempting to recreate the battle.

They also set off a boom in the number of people who claimed to have served aboard the ship and, as time wore on, in the number of people who claimed to be the last living survivor of the 52-man crew.

"If you listed all the men who claimed to served on the Monitor, you'd have enough for six vessels," Hill says.

"We find people we only know about from a line in an obituary that reads `last surviving crewman' - and we've never heard of them before."

In the South, the men of the Virginia experienced the same glory and occasional trials encountered by the Monitor's sailors.

After the war's end, however, the former Confederacy had something the North did not - relics that helped enlarge the Virginia's already sizable legend.

Scuttled off Craney Island, the ironclad proved to be an easy mark for salvage crews, the first of which began bringing up timbers and iron plate in 1867. The Monitor, in contrast, sank 16 miles off Cape Hatteras in 220 feet of ocean water. It was lost to sight for more than a century.

Period newspaper accounts record how the ladies of St. Mary's Church in Norfolk obtained many of the Virginia's live oak timbers, then turned them over to a local factory to be transformed into canes.

Raffled off to raise funds for Rebel veterans, one of the revered relics wound up in the hands of former Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who was still being held prisoner at Fort Monroe.

Later salvage efforts recovered the ship's 1,500-pound cast-iron ram, which was taken to Baltimore and sold as junk. Entrepreneurs bought many other pieces of metal and recast them as souvenirs.

Fake pieces of the esteemed vessel started showing up soon after the war, and they quickly became so numerous that they began to outnumber the authentic artifacts.

Today only a handful of objects, including the propeller shaft and anchor now on display at The Museum of the Confederacy of Richmond, can be reliably traced back to the historic vessel.

"If you put everything that was said to come from the Virginia together, you'd have enough material to build at least three or four new ironclads," Johnston says.

"There's a lot of very suspicious stuff out there."

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