A Duel of Iron

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Deciding to see for himself, he discovered a vessel with an extremely low, flat deck broken only by a very large cylinder directly amidships and a much smaller projection closer to one end. None of the things Williams associated with a ship seemed to be there. There was no majestic hull rising out of the water to support decks cluttered with weapons, capstans, and the like. There also were no towering masts reaching for the heavens, nor webs of lines to awe and confuse landsmen.

He discovered that the large cylinder amidships was a revolving turret about 20 feet in diameter and 9 feet high , housing two 11-inch guns. Williams, whose naval experience had been primarily as a helmsman on vessels with rows of cannon along their sides, had more than once heard a gunner's mate say, "you seamen aim the ship and we'll fire the guns." He was awed by this new invention that allowed the guns to be trained in any direction—the only exception being dead ahead because of the projection near the bow, which Williams learned was the pilothouse.

A first-class fireman—a variety of sailor Williams had never met before—named George Geer had told him there were two steam-powered engines, one to propel the ship through the water and the other to rotate the turret. Geer explained she also had a forced-air ventilation system that fed air to the boilers and actually moved air throughout the ship for the crew. The smoke from the engines was vented through gratings in the deck aft of the turret, and a detachable stack could be mounted over those gratings to funnel the smoke upward when the ship was not in battle. Heavy armor plating encased the entire ship, which made Williams feel uneasy about her seaworthiness, but it was reassuring when one considered the advantage in combat. All in all, Williams had been greatly impressed and was determined to become part of her crew.

Now, as the ironclad ship wallowed in heavy seas, he had reason to doubt the wisdom of his choice. Crashing waves knocked down her smokestack, and the new-technology ventilator drive belts began to malfunction as they became soaked by the intruding water. Only with heroic efforts had the engineers managed to repair them before the crew suffocated from the mounting fumes inside the iron hull.

Water suddenly came driving into the pilothouse through the narrow slits with such force it knocked Williams down, away from the helm. Struggling to his feet, he seized the spinning wheel and fought the heaving seas for control of the ship. His arms ached as he opposed the tons of water pushing against the rudder. Despite her seeming reluctance to do what was best for her, Williams already had developed an "exasperated affection" for this iron monster. Back in New York, he had knocked a man down for calling her a "filthy old tub." He was determined to save her, for her sake as well as his own.

By the great efforts of Williams and his shipmates—many of whom had bailed water with buckets for long, exhausting hours—the Monitor survived. In the evening of 8 March, the "cheese box on a raft" (as some aptly dubbed her) rounded the tip of the DelMarVa peninsula, heading into calmer waters.

Safe from the raging sea at last, the Monitor and her crew were headed into a storm of another sort. As they steamed up the channel, they could hear the distant booming of gunfire and soon could see a Union frigate burning. It became clear there would be little time to recover; these exhausted sailors were going to have to find the strength to fight in the morning.

Rampage

Earlier that day, another strange vessel had made her debut in the Virginia waters known as Hampton Roads. It too was clad in iron and had no masts, sails, or associated rigging. The Confederate Navy called her the Virginia, but she had been created on the hull of the USS Merrimack, a steam- and sail-powered frigate that had been captured when Confederate forces seized Gosport Navy Yard a year earlier. The retreating Union sailors set her afire before they were driven out, and her masts and rigging had been destroyed, but her hull and engines remained relatively intact.

Unlike the Monitor, this ironclad had no rotating turret. Instead, she had a more conventional array of 10 guns aligned along the length of the hull, their muzzles protruding from the armor that was angled upward at a 35° slope. Like an ancient Greek galley, she had a ram protruding from her bow, just below the waterline.

The Virginia had been under construction since the previous  summer, and by early spring 1862 her commander, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan (the first superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy before he left the Union Navy to fight for the Confederacy), decided it was time for the iron ship to go to war even though the yard workers still had things left to do. On 8 March, with clouds of black smoke initially belching from her untried engines, she moved slowly away from the shore and then gained momentum as her great weight began moving down the Elizabeth River, headed for nearby Hampton Roads, where a Union fleet had taken up blockade duty. She glistened in the mid day sun because her crew had greased her topsides with pork fat to help deflect enemy shot and to make boarding her more difficult. As the cumbersome but fearsome-looking vessel made her way down the river at six knots—her top speed—crowds waved and cheered from the banks. The Confederate Navy had been the underdog to the more powerful Union Navy since the war began, and it seemed at this moment that perhaps that was about to change.

Out in the more open waters of Hampton Roads, the wooden Union ships were at Saturday routine with laundry fluttering from their rigging, drying in the midday sun. Scuttlebutt had been warning of a great iron monster for so long that few took it very seriously when reports began to circulate that something was coming out of the river.

In the USS Congress, a sailing frigate of 50-guns directly across the roads from the mouth of the Elizabeth River, Quartermaster John Leroy had been pee ring southward through a telescope for several minutes when he turned to a nearby officer and said, "I wish you would take the glass and have a look over there, Sir. I believe that thing is a-comin' down at last."

As the Virginia emerged from the river, all eyes in Hampton Roads were fixed on her. Among those watching was a young lieutenant named T. McKeen Buchanan, the Congress's paymaster and brother of the Virginia's captain—a terrible little irony so typical of civil war. Curiosity, awe, and dread seemed to be the prevailing emotions among the onlookers. Seaman Frederick Curtis, gun captain of no. 8 gun in the Congress, later recalled that "not a word was spoken, and the silence that prevailed was awful." Those who watched the iron monster come out of its lair remembered it as looking like a "barracks building on water," "a long, low barn," a "crocodile," and "an iron plated coffin."

The Virginia closed on the Congress. According to the latter's surgeon, the ship waited until the ironclad's "plating and ports" could be seen clearly and then "tried her with a solid shot from one of the stern guns, the projectile glancing off her forward casement like a drop of water from a duck's back…This opened our eyes." The doctor had little time left for observation because the Virginia replied with a broadside of grape shot, "killing and wounding quite a number on board Congress."

There was a deafening roar as the Congress fired a 32-gun broadside at her attacker. A soldier on the nearby shore could hear the great blast of the guns but was amazed when the shower of projectiles "rattled on the armored Merrimack [Virginia] without the least injury."

One of the Virginia's shells made a direct hit on the Congress's gun no. 7. Curtis, at his station at gun no. 8, "felt something warm, and the next instant I found myself lying on the deck beside a number of my shipmates." The cannon next to him had been blown off its carriage, "sweeping the men about it back into a heap, bruised and bleeding. The shell struck right in back of me and took my left hand-man."

Leroy, who had first spotted the Virginia, lost both legs in that first broadside and was carried below, bleeding profusely. He did not live long, but in his last few minutes of life he urged the men to fight on, telling them to "stand by our ship."

The Confederate ironclad moved away, and the men on the Congress's deck began to cheer, believing the Virginia had given up. But the Confederate vessel was only heading for the next target, the USS Cumberland, a 30-gun sailing sloop of war. What is more, those cheering men did not yet realize it, but the Congress was burning in her main hold, sickbay, and below the wardroom, dangerously close to the after powder magazine.

The Virginia raked her new adversary, then rammed her. The ram broke off as the ironclad backed away, but the gaping hole left in the wooden ship quickly filled with a torrent of water. In the Confederate captain's admiring words, "she commenced sinking, gallantly firing her guns as long as they were above water. She went down bravely with her colors flying."

Attempting to get under way to join the battle, the 40-gun frigate USS Minnesota ran aground and became a helpless target for the rampaging ironclad and several Confederate gunboats that had joined the fray. But the light of day was fading, and Captain Buchanan decided to retire for the night, saving the remainder of the destruction for the next day.

Sometime after midnight, the raging fires reached the Congress's magazine and a huge explosion destroyed the ship completely. It had been a bad day for the Union Navy, and the next day promised to be mo re of the same. It seemed apparent that no wooden ship was going to be able to stand up to the ironclad. What the Confederates did not yet know was that the Monitor had arrived.

Duel of Iron

All night the Monitor's crew made preparations for the coming battle. There was a lot to do in the aftermath of the arduous voyage and in getting ready to face the Virginia. As they worked, it suddenly occurred to Peter Williams that the next day would be the first time the crew had ever fired the guns; there had been no time in the hasty preparations and the harrowing voyage to exercise the crew at battle stations. As an even more sobering thought, there was no doubt the Virginia's crew had experience working their guns—fresh experience indeed! The burning wreck of the Congress was evidence enough of that.

At dawn, Williams carefully inspected the Monitor's steering gear, then joined his messmates for breakfast. He was relieved that the cooks had chosen to open one of those "new-fangled" tin cans that kept meat fresh. It was so much better than the dehydrated vegetables they sometimes ate after soaking them in water for an hour. He was grateful the hardtack was fresh and had not yet molded or been infested. It was a good breakfast and a good start to a day that would soon prove to be like no other before it.

As he ate, Williams watched a group of engineers messing nearby. He wondered how they did it, how they endured the conditions below decks. It was confining and stifling enough in his tiny pilothouse, but at least he did have the slits to see the outside world and get an occasional breath of fresh air. Those men who worked among the tangles of piping and in the coal bins were in a class of their own. The pipes had no insulation and we re 230° to the touch. In a letter to a friend, a sailor wrote, "When we beat to quarters, my place is in the boiler room—hot steam pipes all around me and I know the gas inside would admire to get at me for the work I've made it do; it hisses out sometimes as if to say, 'Look out young man, you got me in a tight place right now, but it may be my turn someday.'" Williams knew it was not all disadvantage working in that hellish world. His friend Geer told him they always had plenty of hot coffee down there. Nonetheless, Williams was glad to be a helmsman and not an engineer.

At about 0730, excited voices reported that the Virginia was under way and heading straight for the helpless Minnesota, still hard aground. The Monitor's crewmen raced to their stations, closed hatches behind them, removed the stack, and placed protective covers over her running lights. Within minutes, she was under way and steaming toward her Confederate counterpart with Williams at the helm and the ship's captain, Lieutenant John Worden, standing in front of him in the tiny pilothouse.

To those watching from shore, it was evident the Virginia was much larger than the Monitor, and many anticipated seeing a quick end to this Union newcomer. On board the Virginia, her chief engineer was astonished to see "a black object that looked like…a barrelhead afloat with a cheese box on top of it" come out from behind the Minnesota and head right for them.

Paymaster William Keeler had no assigned battle station, so he positioned himself in the turret in case he could be of assistance there. He watched in awe as the men loaded 175-pound projectiles into the big guns. Once the guns were loaded, Keeler noted that "the most profound silence reigned." Sealed inside the armored turret, unable to see out with the gun ports closed, the men seemed almost to freeze in place as they waited for the battle to begin. Keeler thought, "If there had been a coward heart there, its throb would have been audible, so intense was the stillness." Although he admitted no fear, Keeler did ponder their circumstance as he waited, noting that "ours was an untried experiment and the enemy's first fire might make it a coffin for us all."

At last the awful silence was broken. Keeler could hear the "infernal howl" of the Virginia's shells as they passed over the Monitor on their way to the Minnesota. Worden sent word to his executive officer, Lieutenant Samuel Greene, "not to fire till I give the word" and "be cool and deliberate…take sure aim and not waste a shot."

Worden calmly passed his maneuvering orders to Williams, who expertly spun the helm in response. He steered the Monitor toward the Virginia, closing the range, "approaching her on her starboard bow, on a course nearly at right angles with her line of keel, saving my fire until near enough that every shot might take effect." When the Monitor was sufficiently close, Worden gave the order to commence firing.

The executive officer "triced up the port, ran out the gun, and, taking deliberate aim, pulled the lockstring." And naval warfare was changed forever.

The two ironclads went at each other with a determined fury. The Monitor's first shot struck her adversary at the waterline, and the Virginia responded with a broadside that the day before would have destroyed a wooden ship of the same size. To the great relief of Greene and the other sailors inside, "the turret and other parts of the ship were heavily struck, but the shots did not penetrate; the tower was intact, and it continued to revolve."

The two ships spiraled about one another, trading shots for quite some time, with neither able to strike a fatal blow. Their suits of armor withstood the terrible punishment each was attempting to inflict on the other. One Yankee witness on the nearby shore later remembered that "gun after gun was fired by the Monitor which was returned with whole broadsides by the rebels with no more effect, apparently, than so many pebblestones thrown by a child." Within the ironclads, the shots striking the metal did not sound like pebblestones; the din inside both vessels was almost unbearable as striking shot reverberated throughout their echo-chamber hulls.

The spirals grew ever tighter until the two ships were next to each other, firing at point-blank range. And still the shots glanced off the Monitor's whirling turret and off the Virginia's sloping sides, causing no more than dents and the awful clatter. It was clear each had met her match, yet neither was able to prevail.

As the battle wore on indecisively, Williams continued working the Monitor's helm in response to Lieutenant Worden's calm orders. At one point, as they maneuvered around the Virginia's stern, over Worden's shoulder Williams could see the enemy ship through the forward window slit. He realized he was looking right into the muzzle of the Confederate's stern gun only 20 yards away. Worden was speaking to Williams, saying, "Keep her with a very little port helm, a very little"—when, suddenly, there was a great flash and a thunderous crash as an enemy shell slammed into the pilothouse. Williams was thrown from the helm and found himself on his hands and knees. The top of the pilothouse was torn partially off and Williams was blinded momentarily by the light that poured in from above. Miraculously, the young quartermaster was not seriously injured. But his captain was less fortunate. Worden had taken much of the blast full in the face, and his eyes were filled with smoke and burning powder. He staggered back with his hands to his face and said, "My eyes. I am blind!" With blood pouring from all the pores of his upper face, Worden was taken to his cabin.

Trembling violently, his ears ringing from the concussion, Williams climbed to his feet and grasped the spokes of the Monitor's helm. Locating the Virginia through one of the slits, he steadied his ship and began maneuvering her into position as he had seen Worden doing. For a time, until the executive officer could get to the pilothouse and take command, Williams was in sole command of the ironclad's movements.

By this time, the two iron contestants had fought for several hours with neither ship suffering disabling damage. No one had been killed on either ship; only Worden was seriously injured. The Virginia had fought a battle with enemy ships the day before; the Monitor had fought a battle with the forces of nature that day as well. The result was that the men in both ships were exhausted. The two vessels had expended much coal and ammunition. It was time for this undecided but historic battle to end. The Virginia headed for Sewell's Point and the Monitor returned to her anchorage.

Aftermath

Both sides claimed victory in this first clash of ironclads. In truth, it was, by most objective assessments, a draw. Northerners could rightfully claim the Monitor had prevented the Virginia from her mission of destroying the Minnesota and the other Union ships in Hampton Roads, but neither ship had defeated the other.

Circumstances would prevent these two ships from a rematch. Only two months later, the Virginia was destroyed by her own sailors with Norfolk about to fall to Union forces. The Monitor succumbed to another storm the following December, taking 14 men with her. Williams was still part of her crew, but he was not among those lost. He remained in the Navy and eventually was promoted to acting master's mate. For his courageous performance as the Monitor's helmsman, he was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Worden recovered from his wounds and commanded another ironclad, the Montauk, in action the following year. When Abraham Lincoln heard Worden was recuperating in a friend's home in Washington after the fight with the Virginia, the President hurried to the house. Worden, his eyes still bandaged, heard Lincoln's voice, and said, "Mr. President, you do me great honor by this visit." Lincoln paused a moment, then said, "Sir, I am the one who is honored."

By the time the United States fought her next major war—the Spanish-American War just 36 years later—sea battles would be fought by U.S. cruisers and battleships made of steel slugging it out with breech-loading rifled guns in rotating turrets. The day of the Monitor vs. the Virginia marked the beginning of a revolution and the end of an era.

This article is an adaptation from Lieutenant Commander Cutler's forthcoming A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy, to be published by Naval Institute Press in 2005.

 

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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