The Last Union Survivor

Edited by Robert M. Browning Jr.

Driscoll spent his final years in the New York State Soldiers’ Home at Bath and then in Philadelphia at the U.S. Naval Home. On 13 June 1921, he died of heart disease at the age of 82. 3

Driscoll’s interaction with Roosevelt had prompted the veteran to have his reminiscences recorded, and he narrated the following account. Too infirm to write, Driscoll dictated to a stenographer who penned it with only two paragraph breaks and introduced errors throughout the 22-page document. Effectively, this was an oral history, and for the purposes of this article the spelling and punctuation errors introduced by the recorder were corrected to make the manuscript more fluid. We pick up Driscoll’s narrative as the Monitor goes to sea.

On March the 6th 1862 when the Monitor pulled out of Brooklyn Navy Yard, nothing but gloom surrounded our departure. The weather itself seemed to mock us, it being one of the most dreary mornings I had ever witnessed. Well so I remember that cold, biting rain, which together with a very doubtful send-off, made our position a most unenviable one. It was customary at that time when a craft was going on the blockade for the crew of the receiving ship North Carolina to man the netting and give the departing vessel three cheers as she passed down the bay. 4 Also, for the ferry boats and other steam craft to toot their whistles as a parting salute. Not so when the Monitor started out.

As we passed the North Carolina , not a head was seen above the rail; not a whistle sounded to cheer us as we went out. Those we passed seemed to think it would be better to have played the funeral dirge than to have given us the customary cheer, at least that is the way it appeared to us on the Monitor . As we passed into the lower bay we were taken in tow by the powerful ocean tug Seth Low and were accompanied by two schooner-rigged propellers, the Currituck and the Sachem . 5 They were no more use to us in case of an accident than two clamshells.

At this late date it is impossible for me to remember the exact hours of the day or night when certain incidents occurred, for day or night, it was all the same to us on the Monitor when at sea or when in action. With the exceptions of a few men in the turret and pilothouse we were all in absolute darkness excepting the dim rays of light we got from an oil lamp. But every incident that occurred on the Monitor , not only on the trip from New York to Hampton Roads, but for the entire nine months that I remained on her, is as clear in my mind as if it had occurred yesterday, but let us get back to the story.

We soon left Sandy Hook behind, and the New Jersey coast was lost to view. As night approached nothing unusual occurred until early in the evening of the seventh when the gale, which had been threatening all day, commenced to begin with violence. Had the weather remained moderate the Monitor would have arrived at Hampton Roads early in the morning of the eighth instead of as she did on the same night. If she had arrived on the scheduled time, the fate of the Cumberland and Congress would have been different. 6 Providence decreed otherwise for on that day the high wind increased the seas and the water gushed down the smokestacks, which were only six feet high, as well as the blower pipes, which were four feet. I was on duty in the fire room, at that time the fire and engine rooms, being both in one. At eight bells (4 p.m.), I was relieved by the next watch. . . . Realizing my need of sleep I retired to aloft under the turret where the hammocks were stowed and then I went to sleep, and that sleep saved me from a terrible fate that befell all the others; eighteen engineers and firemen who were suffocated with gas which came from the furnaces. . . . 7

I had scarcely gotten asleep when the belt on the port side blower engine flew off. Engineer R. W. Hands, who was on duty at that time, with the assistance of the crew, shortened and laced the belt. By this time the fan box was full of water. Consequently, on every attempt to start the engine, the belts would fly off. While attempting to get the port blower started, the starboard belt blew off, and since all draft was cut off, the gas soon filled the engine room, suffocating all who were in there at that time.

The other firemen on the berth deck, smelling the gas, rushed in a body to the engine room and dragged out those who were overcome. The last man to be carried out was Chief Engineer Newton. 8 The ladder leading to the turret was very close to where I was asleep, and when Newton was being carried up, the noise awakened me, so I rushed like the others to the engine room.

The only means of reaching the engine room was by a narrow passage leading from the berth deck and passing between the boilers and coal bunkers. As the pressure of gas was so strong, I was forced to retreat. But by tying a silk handkerchief over my mouth and nose and keeping as close to the floor as possible, I succeeded in reaching the engine room, and it was thick with gas. Like the others, I tried to start one of the blowers but the belt flew off. I rushed into the storeroom. I procured a hammer and chisel and knocked a hole through the sheet-iron box.

While I was working, the water from the blower was rushing over me, but it helped to expel the gas from about me. When the water was all out, there was nothing to prevent the fan from starting. Five minutes had not elapsed from the time I entered the engine room until I got the blower started. With one blower started, the gas was gradually expelled. At this time the crew were all up into the turret, while the engineer and firemen were being revived by the use of brandy administered by Doctor Logue on top of the turret. 9

I had scarcely gotten one blower started when two seamen came into the engine room. They had wet cloths over their mouths. They informed me that they had been sent by Captain [John L.] Worden with orders to find me and bring me up on the turret, supposing that like the others, I had been overcome by the gas and was overlooked. When I got on top of the turret, Captain Worden with a speaking trumpet was calling to our convoys to keep within hailing distance. I looked ahead and saw the tug Seth Low straining away at the new nine-inch manila hawser, and it was there for the first time I thought that the predictions of some of the croakers was about to come to pass. I informed Captain Worden of what I had done and the condition of things in the engine room and requested that I get some help from among the seamen. And then I received a glass of brandy, which relieved me of my troubles a great deal.

I returned to the engine room, and with the assistance of the seamen given me, I kept the engines going until some of the engineer’s crew came to our relief. When I was relieved I at once laid down and went to sleep. When I awoke it was daylight and we were at the Delaware Capes and in smooth water. The Monitor was not rolling or pitching to any extent at any time. She seemed like a rock with the waves breaking over her, wetting those on “top of the turret” and coming down on the berth deck and galley, making cooking out of the question. We had not even a cup of coffee from Friday morning until Sunday morning; we had cold water and hardtack.

We then continued on our way to Hampton Roads. It was now Saturday morning, and nothing unusual occurred until the afternoon of the same day when heavy firing was heard in the distance. The glasses were leveled in the direction it seemed to come from, but nothing could be seen. At last, Quartermaster Moses M. Sterns on top of the turret turned to Captain Worden and said he thought the firing was from the Rip Raps, which statement was confirmed. 10

Later on, a little before sundown, being then in smooth water near Cape Henry, the Monitor cast off from the Seth Low , and we proceeded under our own steam. Soon after, we were boarded by a pilot. He informed us that the Merrimack had sailed out, had attacked the sailing frigates Cumberland and Congress , sunk the first, and set fire to the second and was at that time . . . no doubt preparing to destroy the balance of the fleet.

Many were the expression then made by the crew of the Monitor in the shape of a desire to meet the Merrimack the next day and take revenge. Many of the expressions were more forcible than elegant. Captain Worden tried to engage the pilot to remain for the fight the next day, but he refused to.

About 9 o’clock p.m., we came alongside the flagship Roanoke , and Worden reported that he was ready for any duty that was required of him. 11 He was ordered to go to the Minnesota and protect her if he could. Samuel Howard, sailing master of the Roanoke , volunteered to pilot her the next day. 12 After Captain Worden returned from the Roanoke , we proceeded up the bay. The burning Congress could be seen in the distance, and gloom seemed to have settled all around, and the appearance of the Monitor did not seem to inspire much hope. . . .

It was about 10 o’clock at night when we came alongside of the Minnesota , anchored, and began making preparations for the next day’s work. About 12 o’clock, the Congress blew up, the fire having reached her magazine. We, whose nerves could stand it, tried to get a little sleep by lying down where we could get a chance, but sleep was not in the question. . . .

At 4 o’clock a.m. all hands were up and at work to get ready for the conflict which was to come. Patrick Hannon, William Durst, and the writer, John Driscoll, were sent on deck to screw the iron plates over the deadlights in the deck and to take down blower pipes and smokestacks, four in number. 13 (Two of each, composed of four sheet iron plates each angled at the corners and put together with small bolts.) About six o’clock, the quartermaster, on top of the turret, reported to Captain Worden that the Merrimack and her escorts were blowing off steam back of Sewell’s Point. We then went down to breakfast, the first warm meal we had since Friday morning.

While sitting on the deck around the mess cloth, Captain Worden came down from the turret. He addressed his crew of thirty-eight men all told besides the officers. 14 He reminded us that we had all volunteered to go with him and that now having seen what the Merrimack had done, and from all appearances was now capable of doing, and that the fate of the Cumberland may soon be ours, that if anyone regretted the step he had taken he would put him on board of the Roanoke . He was answered by every man jumping to his feet and giving three cheers. Well do I remember what we had for breakfast that Sunday morning fifty-four years ago. 15 It was something extra. We had canned roast beef, hardtack, and coffee. After breakfast we returned to the deck and finished the work.

Meanwhile, the Merrimack escorts steamed out from the forts at Sewell’s Point and proceeded towards Hampton Roads. The Monitor got under way about the same time we had finished the work we were at, excepting one smokestack, when a shell from the Merrimack passed over us alighting between the Monitor and Minnesota . It was evidently intended for the taller vessel. Captain Worden, who was on top of the turret, ordered us inside, but as we had the bolts all out, we remained and took down the plates. All hands were ordered to our stations, and the second day’s Battle of Hampton Roads commenced about 8 o’clock.

I was stationed at the foot of the ladder leading to the turret and heard every word that passed between Captain Worden in the pilothouse and Lieutenant Greene in the turret for five hours and fifteen minutes that the battle lasted. 16 Paymaster Keeler and Daniel Toffey, Captain’s Clerk, acted as messenger between Captain Worden and Lieutenant Greene at the commencement of the fight.

Captain Worden gave the order to Mr. Greene to fire slowly and deliberately, not to overexert his men or waste any shot. As the two vessels approached each other, the Merrimack , which was accompanied by two river steamers, the Jamestown and Yorktown , undoubtedly for the purpose of towing the Minnesota off when she surrendered (as they expected she would so as she still lay aground) . . . seemed to ignore the presence of the Monitor and sheered off to the Minnesota . 17 One of the other steamers which was keeping close to the Sewell’s Point shore, came abreast of the Monitor about a mile and a half off, and Captain Worden ordered Lieutenant Greene “give that steamer a shot as you pass her.” The order was promptly obeyed, the shot taking effect. 18 She at once turned and put back for Sewell’s Point, followed by the other, and the Merrimack changed her course for the Monitor .

Both drew up at close range and began firing, the Monitor always managing to keep between the Merrimack and the Minnesota as Captain Worden’s orders were to protect that vessel if he could. The Merrimack tried to pass the Monitor several times and get at the Minnesota , but the little cheese box always blocked her path. Captain Worden was able to do this, not because of the speed of the Monitor . . . but because [of] her light draft and shortness, which enabled her to turn in a small space and in shallow water, while the Merrimack , owing to her size, was compelled to keep in deep water and take a long range to turn in. . . .

The battle continued at short range for about one half hour when the Monitor drew off and Captain Worden came down out of the pilothouse and went up into the turret and passing out through one of the portholes onto the deck, examined every place where she had been hit. His officers protested against his exposing himself, but Captain Worden knew no fear. On his return, as he passed by where Robert Williams and I stood, he remarked we have been hit in some of the weakest parts and were all right. 19

As the fight continued at close range, Captain Worden would draw off from time to time to give his men a chance to rest and take some refreshments. This led the people on the Merrimack to believe that the Monitor was getting the worst of it. I shall never forget the appearance of the men in the turret the first time they came down, all stripped to the waist and as black as Negroes except where the perspiration had made streaks on face and body.

For two hours the fight continued without any apparent damage to either vessel, when the word came down from Captain Worden: “Well done, you made the iron fly that time. Hit her again in the same place.” As the two lay nearly side-by-side, the next word that came was “Well done, that shot went through.” 20 Then a cheer went up from the Monitor ’s crew. At one time the order was given on the Merrimack , which was plainly heard on the Monitor , “Boarders away.” Mr. Greene passed the word to Captain Worden. “They are going to board us.” Worden’s answer was “Very well, load with grape and canister.” But no attempt was made to board us. The Monitor could depress her guns so as to sweep her own decks with them. Also, . . . in the turret of the Monitor was stored hand grenades that could be thrown over the tops [of the turret] in case any attempt was made to board her. . . .

The Monitor was hit in every convenient point, but she was proof against the enemy’s heaviest fire. The Merrimack , in despair at not being able to damage the Monitor , made a desperate attempt to ram her. To do this, she drew off some distance then coming on with full force. Peter Williams, at the wheel, acting promptly without waiting for orders, put his helm hard-a-starboard, and the Monitor ’s head swung off so that the blow was a glancing one, yet with such force as to jar the chimney off of every lamp below and to slightly start one of the deck plates. 21 At the same time, the blow caused the Merrimack to keel [heel] over to starboard, as both vessels were now almost side-by-side. . . .

Both vessels now maneuvered for advantage, the Merrimack still trying to get at the Minnesota still aground, the Monitor always beating her off. Captain Worden now made an attempt to damage the propeller of the Merrimack , which was exposed, by running into it. He missed by about two feet. The two vessels drew close together again almost touching.

The Merrimack now selected the pilothouse of the Monitor , which had not yet been hit, and delivering a full broadside at the pilothouse, the guns nearly touching it. The charge slightly cracked one of the 9-by-12 bars and slightly lifted the top plate. Worden was looking out through the opening and received the full force of the concussion, as well as the powder and small particles from the exploding shells [sic] in the face. His first words were “Tell Mr. Greene that I am wounded and to come and take command.” When Worden was wounded, Quartermaster Peter Williams, at the wheel, put his helm to starboard and sheered off to the left. The Merrimack sheered off to the right and put for Sewell’s Point where they commenced lightening her. Colonel R. G. Colston, who . . . witnessed the fight from start to finish from his barge, said both vessels seemed to separate as if by common consent. 22 That has always been my own statement.

But what compelled the course of both vessels to separate was different. When the commander of the Monitor was wounded, both ships had lost their commanders. The Monitor had one lieutenant, a boy twenty-two years of age left in command. On the other hand, the Merrimack when her commander was wounded, left his ship in care of seven lieutenants; [any] one of them was capable of taking command. 23

Mr. Greene, as soon as he received word of the wounding of Captain Worden, hastened down out of the turret, passing close to me. As he did so, he was black from powder. When he arrived at the pilothouse and observed the light coming in under the top plate, but the pilothouse was practically uninjured, he returned to the cabin to consult with Captain Worden, but the latter was unconscious. Mr. Greene then returned to the pilothouse and turned the Monitor ’s head in the direction of the Merrimack and fired one shot, but the Merrimack was out of range, and the Monitor returned to the Minnesota .

As soon as we got on deck, we observed the men on the Merrimack and the crews of the other two ships unloading the Merrimack to lighten her. About 2 o’clock p.m. the Merrimack started for the navy yard. The Monitor then steamed down towards Fortress Monroe. . . . In the meantime, the Merrimack proceeded to Norfolk accompanied by the Jamestown and Yorktown and at once put into the drydock. 24 Thus ended the first battle of ironclads, the most famous naval duel between two ships in the history of the world.

1. The last documented Monitor crewman survived until 1927 but did not participate in the Battle of Hampton Roads. John V. Quarstein, The Monitor Boys: The Crew of the Union’s First Ironclad . Charleston, SC: History Press, 2011, p. 271; John Driscoll File, Mariners’ Museum; Irwin M. Berent, The Crewmen of the USS Monitor : A Biographical Directory . North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, [1984], p. 20; John M. White [Driscoll] to Frank H. Pierce, 6 September 1886, Frank H. Pierce Papers, New York Public Library.

2. In 1885 Driscoll wrote a series of articles for a local Connecticut newspaper. White to Pierce, ibid.; Berent, The Crewmen of the USS Monitor, p. 20; Victor M. Drake to Commandant Fort Monroe, 7 October 1965, Driscoll File, Mariners’ Museum; Columbus Daily Enquirer , 2 March 1916.

3. Philadelphia Inquirer , 14 June 1921; Drake to Commandant Fort Monroe, 7 October 1865.

4. The ship-of-the-line North Carolina became a receiving ship in 1839.

5. The Currituck and Sachem were screw steamers. The Seth Low , a side-wheel steam tug, was chartered to tow the Monitor to Hampton Roads.

6. Built as a frigate, the Cumberland (24 guns) had been razed into a sloop. The Congress (60 guns) was a frigate.

7. Acting Assistant Paymaster William F. Keeler described the gas as “carbonic acid gas [carbon dioxide], mingled with the steam of the water which ran down the smoke pipes into the fires.” Robert W. Daly, ed., Aboard the Monitor : 1862, The Letters of Acting Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, U.S. Navy to his Wife, Anna (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1964), p. 30.

8. Isaac Newton Jr. was a first assistant engineer.

9. Dr. Daniel C. Logue was an acting assistant surgeon.

10. The Rip Raps was a small island. Fort Wool, on the island, could provide a crossfire on the channel.

11. The Roanoke was a screw frigate.

12. Howard was an acting master and was instead attached to the bark Amanda . Goodwin to Marston, 10 March 1862, Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion . 31 vols., (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1894–1927), ser. 1, vol. 7, p. 31.

13. Hannon was a first class fireman, and Durst was a coal-heaver.

14. There were 46 enlisted men on board the Monitor .

15. This makes the narrative occur in 1916, just before Driscoll passed away.

16. Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene was the executive officer. The battle lasted in reality about four hours.

17. The Confederate gunboat Patrick Henry was originally named the Yorktown .

18. Other lightly armed Confederate warships in the area were the Teaser , Beaufort , and Raleigh . The latter had to withdraw early due to a problem with a gun carriage. None of the small Confederate warships was damaged by the Monitor .

19. Robert Williams was a first-class fireman.

20. No shot from the Monitor passed through the armor of the Virginia . Other crew members also believed this happened. See Berent’s The Crewmen of the USS Monitor.

21. Peter Williams was a seaman and later was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the sinking of the Monitor nine months later.

22. (Confederate) Brigadier General Raleigh E. Colston, “Watching the Merrimac in the Peninsular Campaign,” Century Illustrated Magazine , vol. 29, no. 7, pp. 763–66.

23. Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan was wounded on the 8th and did not participate in the fight with the Monitor . Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones commanded the Virginia on the 9th.

24. There is no evidence that the Virginia was lightened, and she did not go into drydock.

The Monitor Boys

By John V. Quarstein

First-class Fireman John Driscoll was just one of the hundred-odd sailors who served on board the Monitor during her brief life. Referring to themselves as “the Monitor Boys,” the men experienced storms, battles, boredom, poor living conditions, and disaster as they participated in the transformation of naval warfare.

Once the Monitor was launched on 30 January 1862, her commander, Lieutenant John L. Worden, had to quickly secure a crew. He estimated that he would need 10 officers and 47 men to manage the ship. Besides Worden, the complement of officers when she set out for Hampton Roads consisted of four engineers, one medical officer, one paymaster, two masters, and one executive officer.

The enlisted men were all volunteers. Since the ironclad was such a revolutionary warship and different from any other vessel in the U.S. Navy, Worden did not wish to accept men just arbitrarily assigned to her. Instead, the Monitor ’s commander went aboard the receiving ship North Carolina and frigate Sabine at Brooklyn Navy Yard and asked for volunteers. More men volunteered than were needed. The chosen enlisted men would be transferred to the Monitor from early February through 6 March, the day the ship departed New York.

Worden needed firemen, coal-heavers, and ordinary seamen. Many of the men lacked naval experience, listing their prewar occupations as farmer, machinist, carpenter, stonecutter, sailmaker, or none. Volunteers with previous sea service included Seaman William Bryan, who transferred from the Sabine . Petty officers were all seasoned sailors. Quartermaster Peter Truscott (Samuel Lewis) had five years of U.S. Navy service. The use of an alias was not uncommon for sailors, as it enabled them to desert with impunity if they were dissatisfied with a posting.

Each crew member was assigned a special ship’s number on being transferred to the ironclad. Numbers 1 to 49 were members of the crew when the Monitor left New York, 1 being the first man transferred and 49 the last. John Stocking, the alias of William Wentz, enlisted as a boatswain’s mate on 25 January 1862. He was transferred from the Sabine to the Monitor as ship’s number 43.

Most of the other sailors at the Brooklyn Navy Yard thought the Monitor volunteers were foolish or suicidal. That attitude, as well as the low-lying warship’s appearance—her deck virtually awash even in calm water—and the unusual living space below her waterline, prompted several men to desert. George Frederickson noted in the Monitor ’s log on 4 March, “Norman McPherson and John Atkins deserted taking the ship’s cutter and left for parts unknown so ends this day.” Coal-heaver Thomas Feeney deserted seven days after he enlisted and the very day he arrived aboard the ironclad.

Despite these problems, many volunteered for service on board the ironclad out of a sense of duty or as an opportunity to find a place in their new nation. Acting Quartermaster Hans Anderson was originally from Sweden and Seaman Anton Basting was from Germany, while Coal-heaver William (Wilhelm) Durst was a Jew from Austria. Several of the crewmen were born in the British Isles, including Seamen James Fenwick (Scotland) and Coal-heaver David Robert Ellis (Wales). Two African-Americans were among the initial crew. One was 19-year-old William H. Nichols, born a free man in Brooklyn, who enlisted as a landsman for a three-year term. While Nichols may have been urged to enlist in an effort to end slavery, others saw service as an opportunity for advancement. George Geer enlisted as a first-class fireman to earn money ($30 per month) and to learn a steady trade.

After dueling with the CSS Virginia and participating in the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, the Monitor was protecting the Union Army of the Potomac’s James River flank when several escaped slaves attempted to join the crew. On 18 May an alarm sounded on board the ironclad as a small boat approached. Captain William Jeffers, then the ship’s commander, cried, “Boarders!” William Keeler “found the vast array of ‘ Monitors ’ armed to the teeth confronting the enemy—a poor trembling contraband begging not to be shot.” The escaped slave, Siah Hulett Carter, enlisted the next day as a first-class boy, ship’s number 53.

During the summer of 1862, the Monitor Boys endured oppressive heat and were plagued by flies and mosquitoes. Despite occasional, brief clashes with the enemy, the crew suffered enormously from boredom. In September the Monitor received a new captain, Commander John P. Bankhead, and was ordered to the Washington Navy Yard for an overhaul. The ironclad’s bottom was fouled, the ventilation system needed improvement, and her engine required repair. During the refit, the crew was given furlough, but more than a dozen sailors did not return when their leave expired. William Durst was listed as a deserter due to illness; however, he was impressed one night while drinking. His “WD” tattoo resulted in an alias of Walter Davis. Needing to replace the lost men, Bankhead called for volunteers from the unassigned seamen at the yard. Ordinary Seaman Jacob Nicklis did not wish to ship aboard the Monitor “on account of her accommodations they are very poor” but did so anyway because several of his friends from Buffalo, New York, such as Isaac Scott, volunteered.

Once her complement was filled and repairs completed, the Monitor returned to Hampton Roads. On Christmas Day 1862, Bankhead received orders to take his ship to Beaufort, North Carolina. Learning of the assignment, Lieutenant Greene warned, “I do not consider this steamer a seagoing vessel.” Jacob Nicklis wrote his father, “They say we will have a pretty rough time going around Hatteras, but I hope it will not be the case.”

Those fears were fulfilled when the Monitor foundered and sank off Cape Hatteras during the early hours of 31 December 1862 with the loss of 16 men, including Nicklis. The ship’s surgeon, Grenville Weeks, would write Nicklis’ sister that “[you] have my warm sympathies, and the assurance that your brother did his duty well, and has I believe gone to a brighter world, where storms do not come.” The side-wheel steamer Rhode Island , which had been towing the ship, rescued her survivors and returned them to Hampton Roads. Many of the ironclad’s former crew members would serve in other warships, including monitors, during the remainder of the conflict. But the time they and their former shipmates spent on board the U.S. Navy’s first ironclad would forever define them as Monitor Boys.



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