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[412]

Chapter 35: operations of the North Atlantic Squadron, 1863.


When Acting-Rear-Admiral S. P. Lee succeeded Rear-Admiral Goldsborough in the command of the North Atlantic squadron there was not much left to be done except keeping up a strict blockade of the coast and keeping the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds under subjection.

All the naval force of the enemy between Norfolk and Howlet batteries had either been destroyed or made its escape to Richmond, enabling the Navy Department to decrease the large force kept in and about Hampton Roads.

From September 1st up to January there was but little of moment to report in the North Atlantic squadron, beyond the operations in the sounds of North Carolina and the naval expedition under Commander Foxhall A. Parker, off Yorktown, which proved successful, the Navy being of much service to the Army contingent under General Negley; also a successful military expedition up the Neuse River under General Foster, in which the Navy participated, with much credit to its commander, Commander Alexander Murray.

On December 31st, 1862, the Government [413] met with a serious loss by the sinking at sea of the famous little Monitor, which had set the huge Merrimac at defiance and driven her back to Norfolk. This was not only the great actual loss of a fighting vessel, but in addition there were associations connected with this little craft which made her name dear to every Union-loving man, and it was hoped by all those who had faith in her that she might be long permitted to float the flag of the Union at her staff and become a terror to its enemies. But it seems that she was only permitted to perform the great service for which she was built, an event that made her name as famous as that of the old “Constitution,” and then she sank from sight in the depth of ocean, leaving behind her not as much of her hull as would serve to make a small memento of the past.

The Monitor left Hampton Roads in tow of the U. S. steamer Rhode Island, on the 29th of December, 1862, at 2.30 P. M., with a light southwest wind, and clear, pleasant weather, with a prospect of its continuance. At 5 A. M., the next morning, a swell set in from the southward with an increase of wind from the southwest, the sea breaking over the pilot-house forward and striking the base of the turret, but not with sufficient force to break over it. But it was found that the packing of oakum under and around the base of the turret had worked out, as the Monitor pitched and rolled, and water made its way into the vessel, though for some time the bilge pumps kept her free.

The wind hauled to the south, increasing all the time, the vessel towing badly and yawing about very much. By 8 P. M., the wind began to blow heavily, causing the Monitor to plunge deeply, the sea washing over and into the turret, and at times into the hawse-pipes. Commander J. P. Bankhead, of the Monitor, signalled several times to the Rhode Island to stop towing, in order to see whether that would prevent the influx of water into his vessel, but she only fell off into the trough of the sea and made matters worse, the water coming on board so rapidly that it became necessary to start the centrifugal pumps.

It was quite evident to many on board that the last days of the Monitor had come unless the wind should abate and the sea go down, which did not seem at all likely; but the enthusiasm of the commander, officers and men kept them at their posts until it became necessary to signal to the Rhode Island for assistance, which was promptly given. The officers and men of the Rhode Island (Commander Stephen D. Trenchard) did not hesitate to jump into their boats in that tempestuous weather and go to the relief of their comrades. The Commander of the Monitor, in order to keep his vessel afloat as long as possible, cut the large cable by which she was towed and ran down to the Rhode Island, which enabled him to use all the pumps.

Two boats reached the Monitor from the Rhode Island, and the Commander ordered Lieutenant S. Dana Green (who had been first-lieutenant during the fight with the Merrimac) to put as many of the crew in then as they would safely carry. This was a very dangerous operation, and it brought into play that cool courage which is more admirable than that shown in battle. A heavy sea was breaking entirely over the deck and there was great danger of the boats being crushed by the overhang, if not pierced by the sharp prow which was first high above the waves, then completely submerged by the crushing billows. The Rhode Island herself was in great danger, as she was lying close by and liable at any moment to be struck by the Monitor's bow.

The Monitor lost in a gale.

The first two boat-loads safely reached the Rhode Island amid the storm and darkness, and again returned on their mission of mercy to rescue the remaining persons, the vessel being most difficult to find in the gale. In the meantime the captain and the remnant of his crew retired to the turret and there held on, though several of the men were washed overboard and lost. Fortunately the vessel was on soundings, and the captain gave the order to let go an anchor in hopes it would bring the Monitor's head to wind, and that the chain would hold her there long enough to get the crew out. At this moment the water was over the ash-pans and increasing rapidly, and the engine-room had to be abandoned.

Fortunately the Monitor came head to wind, when the cable brought her up. By this time the vessel was filling rapidly, the deck was on a line with the water, and all the men left on the turret were ordered by [414] the captain to gain the deck and endeavor to reach the two boats that were again approaching. At that time there were twenty-five or thirty men left on board.

The boats had to approach the Monitor very carefully. She was as dangerous as a reef of rocks just above the water over which the sea was breaking furiously. Several men were washed overboard in their attempt to reach the boats, and only one of them was picked up. With great difficulty one of the boats succeeded in getting into a position where a number of the crew could get into her, but there were several persons still on the turret who would not come down, either being unmanned, or not supposing the vessel would sink so soon. These went down in her.

The captain had done all a good officer could do to save his vessel and his crew. He had stood at his post like a hero, helping the men into the boats, and now finding that he could be of no more use he jumped into the already deeply laden boat and shoved off, the heavy, sluggish motion of the Monitor giving evidence that she would soon go down.

The boats had scarcely reached the Rhode Island when the gallant little craft that had done so much to save the honor of the nation, and had by her one battle destroyed the prestige of the best fighting ships in Europe, sank to the bottom, the wild winds howling a requiem over her resting-place!

While regrets remain that not all her crew were saved (many of whom had served in the fight with the Merrimac), it is wonderful, considering the dangerous condition of the Monitor, that so many were rescued.

In mustering the crew of the Monitor, on the deck of the Rhode Island, two officers and twelve men were found to be missing. All honor to their memories! Two great battles had they fought in a short time, one with the Confederate monster, the other with the wrath of the ocean, and in both cases had they shown that indomitable courage and skill which are among the highest attributes of the American sailor.

There was no instance during the war where greater courage, skill and coolness were exhibited than on this ever — to be-remembered occasion, and it is due to the officers and men of the ill-fated Monitor that this small tribute should be paid them for standing so manfully by the historic vessel which had added some of the greenest laurels to the fame of the American Navy.

The position of the vessel on that dark and tempestuous night was enough to appall the stoutest heart, but neither officers nor men quailed before the danger which seemed to cut off all hope of rescue.

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