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Notes on the monitor-merrimac fight. 1

Dinwiddie B. Phillips, Surgeon of the Merrimac.
The Virginia (or Merrimac), with which I was connected during her entire career, bore some resemblance to a huge terrapin with a large round chimney about the middle of its back. She was so built as not to suit high winds and heavy seas, and therefore could not operate outside the capes of Virginia. In fact she was designed from the first as a defense for the harbor of Norfolk, and for that alone. In addition to our guns, we were armed with an iron ram or prow. The prow, not being well put on, was twisted off and lost in our first encounter with the Cumberland. I am also satisfied that had not our prow been lost, we should have sunk the Monitor when we rammed her on the 9th of March, 1862. Admiral Worden is of contrary opinion. In a private letter to me, dated March 13th, 1882, he says:
If the prow of the Merrimac had been intact at the time she struck the Monitor, she could not have damaged her a particle more by the blow with it than she did in hitting her with her stem; and for the following reasons: The hull of the Monitor was in breadth, at her midship section, 34 feet, and the armored raft which was placed on the hull was, at the same point, 41 feet 4 inches in breadth, so that the raft extended on either side 3 feet 8 inches beyond the hull. The raft was 5 feet deep and was immersed in the water 31 feet. The Merrimac's prow, according to Jones, was 2 feet below the surface of the water. The prow, therefore, if on, would have struck the armored hull 131 feet above its lowest part, and could not have damaged it. Further, the prow extended 2 feet forward from the stem, and had it been low enough to reach below the armored raft, it could not have reached the hull by 1 foot 8 inches.

Admiral Worden's theory, given above, like all untested ones, is merely speculation; and I doubt not the commander of the Cumberland, previous to a practical demonstration, would have thought it impossible for our prow to have first crushed its way through a strongly constructed raft projected in front of that vessel as a protection against torpedoes, and then to have penetrated her bow — the strongest part of the ship — and to have made a chasm in it large enough, according to Wood, to admit a “horse and cart.”

Most of our crew being volunteers from the army and unused to ship-life, about twenty per cent. of our men were usually ashore at the hospital, and our effective force on the 8th of March was about 250 or 260 men.

We left the Norfolk Navy Yard about 11 A. M. of that day. As our engines were very weak and defective, having been condemned just before the war as worthless, we were fortunate in having favorable weather for our purpose. The day was unusually mild and calm for the season, and the water was smooth and glassy; and, except for the unusually large number of persons upon the shores watching our motions, there was nothing to indicate a serious movement on our part. Our vessel never having been tested before, and her model being new and unheard of, many of those who watched us predicted failure, and others suggested that the Virginia was an enormous metallic burial-case, and that we were conducting our own funeral.

Though we withdrew on the first day of the battle, at 7 P. M., and went to our anchorage at Sewell's Point, our duties kept us so constantly engaged that it was near midnight before we got our supper, the only meal we had taken since 8 A. M. Afterward the attractiveness of the burning Congress was such that we watched her till nearly 1 A. M,, when she blew up, before we went to our rest, so that when we were aroused to resume the fight on Sunday morning, it seemed as though we had scarcely been asleep. After a hurried breakfast, and while the crew were getting up the anchor, I landed Captain Buchanan, Lieutenant Minor, and the seriously wounded men at Sewell's Point, for transmission to the naval hospital at Norfolk. Returning, I pulled around the ship before boarding her, to see how she had stood the bombardment of Saturday and to what extent she had been damaged. I found all her stanchions, iron railings, and light work of every description swept away, her smoke-stack cut to pieces, two guns without muzzles, and ninety-eight indentations on her plating, showing where heavy solid shot had struck, but had glanced off without doing any injury. As soon as I had got on deck (about 6:25 A. M.), we started again for Hampton Roads.

On our way to the Minnesota, and while we were still too far off to do her much damage, the Monitor came out to meet us. For some length of time we devoted our attention to her, but having no solid shot, and finding that our light shell were making but little impression upon her turret, Jones ordered the pilot to disregard the Monitor altogether, and carry out his first instructions by placing the Virginia as near to the Minnesota as possible. Instead, however, of taking us within a half mile of that ship, as we afterward learned he could have done, he purposely ran us aground nearly two miles off. This he did through fear of passing under the Minnesota's terrible broadside, as he confessed subsequently to Captain A. B. Fairfax, Confederate States navy, from whose lips I received it.

After fifteen or twenty minutes we were afloat again. We sheered off from the Monitor in order to get a chance to turn and ram her. This was the time when Captain Van Brunt was under the impression we were in retreat and “the little battery chasing us.” As soon as the move could be effected, we turned and ran into the Monitor, and at the same time gave her a shot from our bow pivot-gun. Had our iron prow been intact, as I have already said, we would have sunk her. As it was, she staggered awhile under the shock, and, sheering off from us was for a time inactive [see p. 725]. The battle was renewed, but shortly after noon the Monitor again withdrew [see p. 727].

We continued our fire upon the Minnesota, at long range, for about half an hour longer, when we took advantage of the flood-tide and returned slowly to Norfolk. That we did not destroy the Minnesota was due solely to the fact that our pilot assured us we could get no nearer to her than we then were without grounding again.

1 condensed from a paper in The Southern bivouac for March, 1887.

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J. L. Worden (2)
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