Below deck, the rising water sloshed almost waist deep. Several members of the crew were paralyzed by seasickness or fear. And a master’s mate gave a watch away, sensing his doom.
It was a “panorama of horror,” a survivor recalled, one that “would have appalled the stoutest heart.”
And as the USS Monitor was pounded by the ocean, the skipper signaled to his escort ship to send the lifeboats: He was sinking.
It was Dec. 31, 1862, and as the moon set over the North Carolina coast, the strange iron-covered vessel — the ship that had so recently saved the Union — vanished, leaving behind only an eddy on the surface.
The engine room clock was later found stopped around 1 a.m., marking the moment of one of the great naval tragedies of the Civil War.
A battle for the ages
Ten months earlier — 150 years ago this month — the Monitor had become the nation’s salvation and had altered the course of the war.
Armed with only two guns and powered by a single-cylinder engine, the vessel steamed into Virginia’s Hampton Roads and interrupted the destruction of a Union flotilla by a powerful iron-clad Confederate warship.
The Confederate vessel, the CSS Virginia, had rampaged among the Union’s wooden ships on March 8, as Yankee shot bounced off its greased iron sides.
One Union warship was rammed and sunk. Another was set ablaze, and surrendered. A third was heavily damaged. More than 200 Union sailors were killed.
It was the worst defeat in U.S. Navy history up to that time, according to John D. Broadwater, a long-time Monitor scholar. And it threatened to break the Union’s crucial naval blockade of the South.
Fear of the rebel war machine — “the horrid creature of a nightmare” — reached as far away as Washington, where it was hourly expected to steam up the Potomac, shell the Capitol and scatter Congress.
It made for a fearsome sight, with its slanted black silhouette, menacing guns and smoke billowing from its stack.
Adding insult to apprehension, it had been built on the burned remains of a United States Navy ship, the Merrimack, which the Navy thought it had destroyed.
But the next day, March 9, as the Virginia returned to finish off the Union ships, the Monitor, which had arrived the night before, steamed out to give battle.
As 20,000 spectators watched from shore and other ships, one of history’s most important naval engagements unfolded.
The Monitor was an almost laughable contrast, with a deck just above the waterline and a solitary revolving iron turret — a “cheesebox,” as the reporters would call it.
The Virginia outgunned the Monitor, with 10 weapons firing from ports in its blockhouse on deck.
But the Monitor’s twin eight-ton smoothbores were bigger, and the spinning turret allowed the guns to be fired without maneuvering the ship into shooting position.