Almost 150 years after it sank, Monitor still captivates

One sailor remembered that the clouds parted late that night and an eerie half moon illuminated the ship’s death struggle in the Atlantic gale.

Towering waves broke over the turret. Water gushed through the hatches and knocked men down. Several were swept overboard and vanished into the blackness.

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.


View on deck of USS Monitor looking forward on the starboard side, while the ship was in the James River, Virginia, 9 July 1862. The turret, with the muzzle of one of Monitor's two XI-inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns showing, is at left. Note dents in turret armor from hits by Confederate heavy guns and crewmembers atop the turret. (U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command Photograph)

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.

Both ships had mechanical problems. Neither could do the other much damage. And the slugfest, which went on for four hours, ended in a draw.

The encounter — the first ever between ironclad warships — changed naval warfare forever.

“There will be other battles,” novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne later wrote, “but no more such tests of seamanship and manhood as the battles of the past.”

The age of the wooden warship was over. But the future of the Union was preserved.

The Monitor and its crew became national heroes. The ship was swarmed with visitors who begged for autographs. One woman, given a tour, kissed the guns.

An emotional President Abraham Lincoln went aboard and reviewed the assembled crew, hat in hand.

But before the year was out, the celebrated Monitor would blunder into the gale 16 miles off Cape Hatteras and sink in 220 feet of water.

Sixteen men were lost, including two who were entangled in the ropes, guns and coal that piled into the turret when the vessel capsized.

One of the survivors later described the disaster to his wife, saying: “The Monitor is no more. What the fire of the enemy failed to do, the elements have accomplished.”

The past, reconstructed

But the death of the Monitor also led to a modern maritime saga as bold, ingenious and improbable as the life of the pioneering warship.

Lost for more than a century, the ship was located by scientists in 1973, upside down but mostly intact just off Cape Hatteras.

(The Virginia was blown up in Hampton Roads in 1862 to keep it out of the hands of encroaching Yankees. Little of the ship has ever been found.)

In 2002, the Monitor’s 120-ton turret — its guns still inside — was lifted to the surface with the help of the Navy and taken to the Maritime Museum in Newport News, Va., for preservation.

The museum has the state-of-the art Monitor Center for the display and conservation of the ship’s artifacts.

Scientists have also recovered the ship’s 20-ton engine, its anchor, sailors’ shoes, a boot, part of a wool coat, silverware, rubber buttons, lanterns, the engine room clock and the skull of a rodent.

And they found the almost complete skeletons of the two sailors who were trapped in the turret.

Last month, forensic technicians at Louisiana State University, working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, began trying to re-create their faces.

Using exact models of the two skulls, the scientists applied clay to try to reconstruct how the sailors might have looked.

One was a younger man, about 21, whose skull showed he had suffered a broken nose, and whose feet were still clad in a pair of beat-up, mismatched shoes.

The other was that of an older salt, about 35, whose bones showed he may have had a limp from a prior injury.

He also had a groove in his left front teeth, probably from clenching his pipe. And he wore a gold ring with a crude swirling pattern on a finger of his right hand.

The complete reconstructions are scheduled to be unveiled this week at the Navy Memorial in Washington.

Experts have also extracted DNA, studied the skeletons — which are in a military laboratory in Hawaii — and narrowed down to a few the possible identities of the two.

And although both remain officially unidentified, NOAA experts believe the current sesquicentennial of the Civil War is a perfect time for the two sailors to be buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Let’s put these two men to rest . . . as a group burial representing all of the men who lost their lives that night,” said David W. Alberg, superintendent of NOAA’s Monitor Marine Sanctuary. “These men belong to history and the nation, and it’s time that the nation honors them.”

A crash construction job

The day that changed naval warfare began shortly after sunrise as Monitor steamed out of the shadow of the USS Minnesota, one of the Union ships battered by the Virginia the day before.

The Monitor’s bespectacled paymaster, William F. Keeler, was up on deck with the captain and a ship’s doctor. Keeler spotted the Virginia in the distance through the morning fog.

Suddenly a puff of smoke appeared from the Virginia, and a shell shrieked overhead, crashing into the wounded Minnesota.

“Gentlemen,” said the Monitor’s commander, Lt. John L. Worden, “you had better go below.”

Keeler later wrote his wife: “We did not wait [for] a second invitation.”

He recalled that as the trio descended into the turret, and the hatch was closed, crewmen were hoisting a 175-pound shot into one of the guns. “Send them that with our compliments, my lads,” the captain ordered.

The scene seems like one from a World War II submarine movie rather than one from the Civil War.

That was because the Monitor looked like, and was in many respects, “a submerged iron fortress,” as Hawthorne called it. “She burrows and snorts along, oftener under the surface than above.”

The ship had been built in Brooklyn during a crash construction program after Union officials discovered that the Confederacy was rebuilding the Merrimack.

When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, the U.S. Navy was forced to abandon its venerable Gosport shipyard in Portsmouth. Departing Union officers tried to destroy anything that might be of use to the rebels.

That included the USS Merrimack, a large steam- and sail-powered frigate that was in for repairs.

But the Merrimack was only partly destroyed. And the ingenious Confederates, eager for a weapon to counter Union naval power, salvaged its hull and engine, and built on its deck the iron- and timber-covered block house.

Informed about the Virginia, Washington frantically sought its own ironclad, even advertising in newspapers for “Iron-Clad Steam-Vessels-of-War.”

The Navy was directed to the imperious John Ericsson, a Swedish-born, New York-based ship architect who seven years before had pitched the French a Monitor-like vessel called “Ericsson’s Impregnable Battery and Revolving Cupola.”

Although the French did not take up his offer, Ericsson wrote later that he “was fully prepared to present plans of an impregnable steam battery” to Washington.

And the Navy did not have much time. Although his design was alien — “like nothing in the heaven above or on the earth beneath,” one officer said — Ericsson got the contract on Oct. 4, 1861.

He was given 100 days to deliver the ship.

Much of the work was subcontracted. The Navy borrowed two guns from another vessel. Ericsson supplied the cutting-edge technology and design.

Most of the Monitor rode below the surface, which made it a small target. Its deck rose only 18 inches above the waterline. Indeed, the Monitor was so strange a ship that several sailors deserted on being assigned to it, according to historian John V. Quarstein, who has authored a study of the crew, “ The Monitor Boys .”

The ship used a single four-blade propeller, and an unusual four-pronged anchor that was carried and deployed internally to avoid exposing the crew to gunfire.

The Monitor had a surprisingly elegant interior, and the world’s first on-board toilets that could be flushed underwater — although they would backfire if not operated properly.

The guns had special brakes to reduce recoil in the confines of the turret. And the turret was sheathed in eight layers of thick iron plate.

Ericsson pushed the construction, visiting the shipyard almost every day. And when the Monitor was launched on Jan. 30, 1862, he had missed his deadline by only 18 days.

The crew, up close

Four months after the battle at Hampton Roads, a photographer named James F. Gibson hauled his camera equipment aboard the Monitor while it was anchored in the James River, and took the only known images of the crew.

In the photos, groups of sailors congregate on the sun-baked deck, and officers pose with the Monitor’s dented turret in the background.

The sailors are a weathered-looking, sinewy bunch.

In one shot, several are in bare feet. Two are smoking pipes. There are what seem to be two games of checkers underway. One sailor, wearing a Navy tam, is intently reading what may be a newspaper.

In another shot, crewmen lounge while pots cook over a deck oven. Atop the turret, a crewman stands holding a spyglass.

The Monitor had a complement of 58 men during the battle and 63 when it sank, according to Anna Holloway, vice president of the Mariners Museum’s collections and programs.

There were coal heavers, boilermakers, former slaves, natives of Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, Wales. One had his initials tattooed on his right forearm. Another was the son of a Union general. Several enlisted under false names.

Two members of the crew, including an officer who was haunted by criticism of his performance at Hampton Roads, would later take their own lives.

Most of those aboard escaped in the lifeboats the night the Monitor sank.

Among those who perished was acting master’s mate George Frederickson of Philadelphia, who had given a friend a pocket watch, saying, “Here, this is yours. I may be lost.”

Frederickson is pictured in two of Gibson’s photos of the officers — a short man with a thick goatee and an intense look on his face.

Near Frederickson in both photos is the boyish third assistant engineer Robinson W. Hands, who wears his cap at a jaunty angle and, in one shot, holds a cigar. He, too, died.

Also lost was engineer Samuel Augee Lewis, who was last seen seasick in his bunk. He had called out to a comrade: “Is there any hope?”

Almost a century and a half later, curators found in the rusted turret silverware bearing the initials “S A L” inscribed above the letters “USN.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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