At ten minutes before ten, on the morning of the 30th of January, 1863, an iron floating battery, designed for the Government of the United States by John Ericsson, and named, at his suggestion, the Monitor, was launched at Green Point, Long Island, and at three p.m., on the 25th of February, formally taken possession of by the Navy Department, and put in commission at the Navy Yard, New York.
On Thursday, the 6th of March, this novel float, concerning whose fate many gloomy predictions had been hazarded, left the Lower Bay in tow of the steamer Seth Low, and, with a fair wind and smooth sea, steered for Hampton Roads. Her "muster-roll," which may well be handed down through all time as a roll of honor, contained the following names:
John L. Worden, lieutenant commanding; Samuel D. Greene, lieutenant and executive officer; Louis M. Stodder, acting master; John J.N. Webber, acting master; George Frederickson, acting master's mate; Daniel C. Logue, acting assistant surgeon; W.F. Keeler, acting assistant surgeon; Albin C. Stimers, inspector of machinery; Isaac Newton, 1st assistant engineer; Albert B. Campbell, 2d assistant engineer; R.W. Hanus, 3d assistant engineer; M.T. Sanstrom, 3d assistant engineer; Daniel Toffev, captain's clerk; Richard Angier, quartermaster; Hans Anderson, seaman; Dorick Brinkman, carpenter's mate; Anton Baston, seaman; William Bryan, yeoman; Joseph Crown, gunner's mate; David Cudderback, captain's steward; Thomas Carroll, 1st captain hold; John P. Conkling, quarter gunner; Thomas Carroll, 2d 1st class boy; Anthony Connoly, seaman; John Driscoll, 1st class fireman; William Durst, coal-heaver; John Garrety, 1st class fireman; George S. Geer, 1st class fireman; R.K. Hubbell, ship's steward; Patrick Hannan, 1st class fireman; Jesse M. Jones, surgeon's steward; Thomas Joice, 1st class fireman; Matthew Leonard, 1st class fireman; Thomas Loughran, seaman; Edward Moore, ward-room cook; Lawrence Murray, ward-room steward; Michael Mooney, coal-heaver; John Mason, coal-heaver; William Marion, seaman; William H. Nichols, landsman; Charles Peterson, seaman; Christy Price, coal-heaver; Robert Quinn, coal-heaver; John Rooney, master-at-arms; William Richardson, 1st class fireman; Ellis Roberts, coal-heaver; James Seevy, coal-heaver; John Stocking, boatswain's mate; Moses M. Stearns, quartermaster; Charles F. Sylvester, seaman; Peter Truscott, seaman; Abraham Tester, 1st class fireman; Thomas B. Viall, seaman; Peter Williams, quartermaster; Robert Williams, 1st class fireman; Daniel Welch, seaman.
About noon, on the 7th, the wind freshened, and the sea began to rise, and by four in the afternoon was making a clean breach over the little Monitor, causing her to reel and stagger like a drunken man—now striking the pilot-house with such fearful force as to drive the helmsman from the wheel, now raising- its foaming crest far above the tops of the smoke and blower-pipes, and deluging with water the deck below. A little later, and the drenched blower-bands begin to slip, the draught grows feeble, and the steam runs down; then, with a sudden snap, the blower-bands part, and in an instant the fire and engine rooms are filled with gas. In vain do the engineers and firemen, led by the executive officer, rush to the post of danger and endeavor to repair the damage. A poison more deadly than that from the upas-tree forbids approach to the severed bands. With heroism unequalled, each, in turn, essays to reach them; but, one by one, all fall senseless to the deck, and are borne on the shoulders of their sailor comrades to the upper air.
While this scene was being enacted in the engine-room, the steam pumps had ceased to work, and the berth-deck pump been found to be useless, while the water driven through the hawse-hole, through the lookout-holes in the turret, and over the tops of the smoke and blower-pipes, was gradually gaining upon the vessel and threatening to submerge her. Fortunately, however, the wind was off the land, and Wordeu, cool and collected amid the menaced danger, had ordered the Seth Low to steer directly for the shore. By dark the sea became smooth, and at eight p.m., the engine being again in motion, and the steam-pumps rapidly freeing the ship of water, the Monitor was a second time headed for Hampton Roads.
The first watch passed pleasantly away, under a serene sky, while the silver moon looked benignantly down upon a band of mariners as hardy and daring as that which, leaving the shores of Spain four centuries before, had braved the trackless ocean in search of this very land, for whose defense these later mariners were now so resolutely pressing onward.
With the mid-watch the sea again rose, and dashed madly over pipes and turret, threatening a recurrence of the disaster of the previous day. The wheel-ropes, too, became jammed, so that, no longer governed by the rudder, the vessel yawed wildly to and fro, bringing a fearful strain upon the hawser by which she was towed, and upon which—now that her engine had nearly stopped—her safety mainly depended. To add to the horror of this anxious night, every few minutes, in response to the enquiries of the captain, came the dismal sound from below, "Blowers going slowly, sir, but can't hold out much longer!"
Ere the rising of the sun, however, the waves had subsided, and when, it set the Monitor was inside of Cape Henry, heading for Fortress Monroe. Through the providence of God, her officers and men were saved from shipwreck; and well might the lovers of freedom, everywhere on the habitable globe, rejoice at their salvation. The Genius of the Republic had a great work for them to perform on the morrow, for which the severe trial to brain and nerve to which they had been subjected on their adventurous passage was doubtless designed as a grim preparation.
For never were brain and nerve more needed than now—never arrival more timely than this! The Cumberland sunk, the Congress in flames, several transports destroyed, the Minnesota aground! Such was the tale, alike piteous for those who told and those who listened to it, which startled the ears of the iron pioneers as they entered the waters of the Chesapeake—a tale which, flashed across the wires, caused apprehension in every loyal heart from Maine to Virginia, from New York to California, for the safety of the capital, of Baltimore, of Mansfield's army. What mighty issues, then, now depended upon the untried Monitor and her glorious crew! Perchance a nation's weal or woe, liberty or slavery, republicanism or tyranny! But God is just; and amply did the vessel sustain her country's honor, amply vindicate the judgment of the gifted Ericsson, in the conflict that ensued.
At nine o'clock that night Lieutenant-Commanding Worden reported his arrival at Hampton Roads to Captain Marston, the senior officer present; and, being directed to proceed to Newport News for the protection of the Minnesota, he availed himself of the services, as pilot, of Acting Master Samuel Howard, an earnest volunteer for this duty, and, continuing onward, anchored in close proximity to the stranded vessel a little after midnight. Just before he "came to," the Congress blew up with a terrific report, and, as the blazing fragments were thrown high in air, exhibited a spectacle of grandeur such as is rarely witnessed. The Confederates greeted it with loud huzzas, but the Unionists beheld it with feelings of shame and humiliation, and a vague fear of some dread disaster in the future. On the Monitor not a word was spoken; but each man registered a vow of vengeance, on the tablets of his heart, against the ruthless Merrimac.
Thus passed away the weary hours of the night, and when day dawned all eyes were directed toward Sewell's Point, in an eager endeavor to discover the number, disposition, and intention of the foe.
And first "loomed up," amid the mists of morning, the Patrick Henry, next the Yorktown, and finally the iron-plated ram herself, the formidable Merrimac, surrounded by several small tugs, and looking, with her arched back, like a huge tortoise. Her design was, evidently, to assume the offensive, and about half-past seven she was reported under way, with her consorts, steering for Newport News. At the same time the drums on the Minnesota and Monitor were heard loudly beating the call to quarters; and the gallant Worden, lifting his anchor, stood boldly toward his enemies, with the intention of engaging them at as great a distance as possible from the noble frigate, in whose defense it became clearly necessary to give battle now.
As he approached, the wooden vessels, scattering like a Hock of frightened sea-gulls, took refuge behind the defenses at Sewell's Point, and, alone and unaided, the Merrimac sullenly confronted her tiny antagonist. Then, turning head to tide and slowing her engine, she triced up her ports and commenced firing, while her crew gave vent to their enthusiasm by cheer after cheer, as they demanded to be taken into close action with what they derisively styled "a Yankee cheese-box upon a raft." And, in truth, the simile was not a bad one; nor was it to be wondered at that, calling to mind the havoc made on the previous day by their mammoth vessel, the Merrimacs should now look contemptuously down on the strange-looking craft which presumed to dispute their approach to what they had deemed their lawful prize, the helpless Minnesota.
On the other hand, the crew of the Monitor felt entire confidence in their officers, their vessel, and themselves, and well knew that, on this still Sabbath morning, from every temple throughout the North, every stately mansion, cot, and cottage—for the telegraph had spread far and wide the news of the impending battle—prayers were being offered up for their welfare. The married men thought of their wives and children, the single of their mothers and sweethearts; and, if anything further were needed to stimulate their patriotism and courage, there were the stars and stripes floating just awash from the mizzen peak of the Cumberland, telling how brave men had died rather than surrender.
Worden now steadily steered for the starboard bow of the Merrimac, on a course at right angles to her keel; and, when within a few yards of her, put his helm hard-a-starboard, and, in a clear, ringing voice that was distinctly heard by the enemy, gave the command—fire!
Scarce had the word escaped his lips when the muzzle of an 11-inch Dahlgren was seen protruding from one of the ports of the turret, and, in a second after, Greene, who was deliberately sighting the piece, pulled the lock-string. "It did our hearts good," said an old tar who had escaped the carnage on board the Congress, and who, with many of his shipmates, was an eye-witness of the fight—"it did our hearts good to see its flash and to hear the noise it made, and to know that the little water-tank was paying the rebs full interest on the debt we owed them."
The Confederates were not slow, however, in responding, both with great guns and musketry—the latter aimed at the lookout-holes in the pilot-house, with the view, no doubt, of disabling the commanding officer and helmsman; and the battle was thus fairly begun, each vessel, as she passed close aboard of her antagonist, delivering her fire and receiving a tremendous fire in return. It was an anxious moment with both Union and Confederate commanders: the one apprehensive that his turret, which had been hit twice, might be so deranged as to cease revolving; the other dreading, as he heard the huge missiles of his enemy rattling against the sides of his vessel, lest her armor should be pierced. As the iron-clads drew clear of each other, however, it became apparent that neither was injured in the least; and as, with confidence redoubled, Worden turned short round to renew the engagement, he found his adversary by no means disinclined to welcome him to close quarters. So at it again they went, side by side, and again the solid bolts glanced harmlessly from roof and tower and turret. For two hours the battle raged in this manner, the vessels almost touching each other, when the Monitor, finding her supply of shot in the turret exhausted, hauled out of the action and ran into shoal water, where she remained while it was being replenished. This was a tedious operation, as each shot weighed one hundred and sixty-eight pounds, and had to be hoisted from below by hand, and occupied about twenty minutes, during all which time the Confederates, both afloat and ashore, believing the victory theirs, were loudly and wildly cheering.
Giving no heed, however, to their noisy vociferations, Worden coolly waited until his battery was reported "ready for action," when, observing that the Merrimac was bearing down upon the Minnesota, and had opened upon her with terrible effect, sending one shell through the boiler of a tug lashed alongside of her, and another fore-and-aft of her berth deck, knocking four rooms into one and setting the ship on fire, he stood boldly across the assailant's bows; and the Merrimacs found, to their chagrin, the despised Yankee cheese-box intact, and once more interposed between the Confederate monster and its prey.
Judging the occasion favorable. Lieutenant Jones, the commanding officer of the Merrimac, determined to ram his saucy opponent, and, ordering four bells to be rung, dashed ahead at full speed, with the hope of hitting her amidships; but, by a skilful movement of his helm, Worden avoided the direct blow, and the Monitor, being struck obliquely on the starboard quarter, bounded away from her enemy without receiving the slightest injury.
The contact of the vessels was brief, but before they separated Greene had planted a shot full and fair in the roof of the Merrimac, which "stripped off the iron freely," and for a moment it was thought by the officers and crew of the Minnesota—anxious spectators, as we may well conceive, of this novel combat, upon whose issue the fate of their own ship depended—that the leviathan had received her quietus; for she turned her head quickly toward Norfolk, while Worden, close at her heels, steered across her stern, and endeavored to cripple her screw.
The excitement now among the lookers-on at Newport News and Fortress Monroe no language can describe. "She is whipped! She is whipped!" they cry. "Hurrah for the little Monitor." But suddenly their voices are hushed, and each man holds his breath; for here the Merrimac comes once more—a goodly sight to see, with all her banners flying—steering straight for the "little, submerged propeller." Again the vessels graze each other in passing, again the eleven-inch gun plays upon the Merrimac, while shot, shell, and canister in return are concentrated upon the pilot-house and turret of the Monitor. Thus the fight continued for another hour without any obvious advantage to either combatant, when a shell, striking the pilot-house of the Monitor, fractured one of the great iron logs—nine by twelve inches—of which it was composed, and, filling Worden's face and eyes with powder, utterly blinded and in a degree stunned him. Deprived of sight for ever, as he supposed, and writhing in agony, this brave officer lost not his self-possession for an instant. His force of character and high professional training nobly sustained him; and, like Regulus amid the tortures of the Carthaginians, his thoughts were not of himself, but for his country. Believing his vessel seriously injured—for the top of the pilot-house had been partially lifted off by the concussion—he ordered the helmsman to sheer off into shoal water, and then, feeling faint, groped his way to the foot of the ladder leading to the berth-deck, and sent for Lieutenant Greene. "I found him," says Greene in a letter written just after the action, "leaning against the ladder, as noble a specimen of a man as ever breathed; his face black with iron and powder, and his sight apparently gone. He told me in a calm, quiet voice that the pilot-house was damaged, and that I must take command. I led him to his cabin, and laid him down upon a sofa, and then hastened to take my place beside the helmsman, while the gun-captains continued to fight the guns, under the supervision of Chief-Engineer Stimers, who was revolving the turret."
Finding the injury to the vessel less severe than his commander had supposed, Lieutenant Greene ordered her head to be again turned towards the Merrimac, which was now, for a second time, keeping up a deadly fire on the Minnesota. As the Monitor turned, however, so did the Merrimac, and, to the surprise of all not on board of her, she steamed at full speed for Norfolk. Yet, expecting her each instant to turn upon her pursuer, the Unionists were silent until they saw her wholly leaving the battle-field and seeking shelter under the Confederate batteries, thus, by all the laws of war, acknowledging herself vanquished. Then a shout of exultation arose, from sailor and soldier alike, extending from Fortress Monroe to Newport News, which shook the very heavens above. Right had, once more in the world's history, triumphed over wrong! And the dead of the Congress and Cumberland, whose bodies were lying stark and stiff upon the banks of the James or in its bed, had not died in vain; for to the injuries inflicted upon the Merrimac by their well-directed broadsides, on the bloody 8th of March, was due, in some measure, it has been credibly asserted, the great victory of the following day.
The political significance of this victory can hardly be over-estimated. It produced an immediate and marked effect upon our diplomatic relations with England and Europe, whose rulers, restored to their senses by this "latest Yankee notion," began now to look upon the United States as a formidable naval power.
What the wounds of the Merrimac really were we shall perhaps never know; but that they were serious none can doubt. For Lieutenant Catesby Jones was an officer of acknowledged capacity, bravery, and experience, who must have well understood that fealty to the cause which he had espoused required him to retain the offensive as long as it was possible to do so. He would, therefore, never have retired from the fight while a hope remained to him of winning it.
As the little Monitor, very properly, gave up the pursuit of the foe—for, with the vast interests depending upon her safety, her role was purely defensive—and, with the proud banner of freedom flying from her flagstaff, once more took her place alongside the Minnesota, all hearts were raised in thankfulness to God for his manifold and great mercies. And all over the land for many, many months the story was told of how Ericsson planned and how Worden and his gallant men fought the famous Monitor. God's blessings on them all! May a grateful country never suffer their memories to grow cold, and may their names, inseparably connected with some of the darkest and yet most glorious days of the Republic, be mentioned with reverence by our children's children.