previous next

The most famous naval action of the Civil war

The “monitor's” second commander, a photograph four months after “the most famous fight” : lieutenant W. N. Jeffers, who succeeded the gallant and wounded Worden after the contest, and commanded the ironclad “through most of her career”


The duel between the Monitor and the Merrimac has become familiar to most readers of American history from a decidedly one-sided viewpoint. On this great battle-drama, whose two thrilling acts were separated only by the curtain of night, much has been written that is exaggerated; many of its movements have been misconstrued — or misstated. The first act, so replete with tragedy, that led up dramatically to the last, has often been forgotten.

If any of the Norfolk newspapers of the 6th of March, 1862, reached the Federal fleet lying off Newport News, the spirit of those who read perhaps might have risen, for they announced that the Virginia, as the reconstructed Merrimac was named (and hereafter in this chapter we shall call her by the latter name), was a total failure, her engines were useless, she was incapable of being steered, her armament would have to be lightened; in fact, the money spent on her had been absolutely thrown away. Maybe some of the knowing ones read this bit of news with reservations, for it was customary and perfectly honorable “to deceive the enemy” --as well as the public — in the daily press.

No one knew better than Naval Constructor John L. Porter, Chief Engineer William P. Williamson, Lieutenants William L. Powell and John M. Brooke that her construction was a success. As for her officers, Flag-Officer Buchanan and Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, her executive officer, they were satisfied that she could fight; and her chief engineer, H. Ashton Ramsey, had gotten her old and decrepit engines into such shape that they could be fairly depended upon. Those who knew her were not lacking in faith. [155]

The “Virginia

When those two queer-looking craft — the “Monitor” and the “Virginia” ( “Merrimac” )--approached each other in Hampton Roads on Sunday morning, March 9, 1862, much more hung in the balance to be decided than the mere question of which should win. These were no foreign foes that opposed each other, but men of the same race, and the fighting-machines which they brought into action epitomized the best judgment of men that had been trained in the same navy. The fact that ironclad vessels were to engage for the first time in a momentous conflict was of minor significance. Europe had already taken a long step toward the employment of armor plate; not its place in naval warfare, but the manner in which it was to be given effectiveness by American brains, was at stake. Of these two new armored knights of the sea, the “Virginia” (the first to be begun) was the more directly the result of native thought and circumstance. Her hull was all that was left of one of the gallant old fighting frigates built soon after the United States became a nation. The men who planned and superintended her construction were skilled officers of the old navy — John L. Porter and William P. Williamson. Her armament was prepared by another veteran, John M. Brooke, and consisted in part of his own invention, the Brooke rifled gun. She was built at a national navy-yard at Norfolk; and had this not fallen into the hands of the Confederates at the beginning of the war, the remodeled “Merrimac” would never have appeared in Hampton Roads to teach the wooden ships of the old navy the bitter lesson that their usefulness was on the wane and soon to be at an end. The era of the modern warship had come.

The Norfolk navy-yard: where the “Virginia” was built

John M. Brooke, C. S. N.: designer of the “Virginia's” armament


With everything on board and steam up, the “total failure” was ready to make her first attack on the 8th of March, 1862. People had crowded down to the water's edge to study her much-heralded “imperfections.” What they chiefly noted was that she was very slow, and indeed her speed was not above five knots an hour. Captain William H. Parker, C. S. N., has left so vivid a description of this new departure in naval construction in his “Recollections of a naval officer,” that the mind's eye can see her perfectly:

The appearance of the Merrimac was that of the roof of a house. Saw off the top of a house at the eaves (supposing it to be an ordinary gable-ended, shelving-sided roof), pass a plane parallel to the first through the roof some feet beneath the ridge, incline the gable ends, put it in the water, and you have the Merrimac as she appeared. When she was not in action her people stood on top of this roof which was, in fact, her spar-deck.

The Norfolk papers, however, were not so far from wrong. Captain Buchanan commanded her for three days and a little over; Lieutenant Jones, for about the same time, and Flag-Officer Tattnall for forty-five days, yet out of the two months that she was supposed to be in commission and ready to fight, there were actually only about fifteen days that she was not in dock, or laid up in the hands of the navy-yard mechanics.

But to return to the moment of expectation — the morning of the 8th of March. Off Newport News, in Hampton Roads, only six and a half miles from Old Point Comfort and some twelve miles from Norfolk, lay the Federal squadron: the old Congress and the Cumberland well out in the stream, and farther down toward Fortress Monroe the splendid steam frigates Minnesota and Roanoke, and the sailing frigate St. Lawrence. There were some nondescript vessels and a few decrepit storeships that never counted in the succeeding crowded moments, but certainly six months before it would have been suicide for [157]

Captain Franklin Buchanan, C. S. N., and Captain Josiah Tattnall, C. S. N., commanding the “Virginia” ( “Merrimac” ) It was a task of surpassing difficulty and danger that confronted Captain Buchanan when the “Virginia” shipped her anchors on March 8, 1862, and steamed down Elizabeth River to fight a fleet of the most powerful line-of-battle ships in the Federal navy, lying under the guns of formidable land batteries. The “Virginia's” trial trip was this voyage into imminent battle; not one of her guns had been fired; her crew, volunteers from the Confederate army, were strangers to one another and to their officers; they had never even had a practice drill together. The vessel lay too low in the water, and her faulty engines gave her a speed of but five knots, making maneuvering in the narrow channel exceedingly difficult. But Captain Buchanan, who had risen from a sick-bed to take his command, flinched for none of this — nor for the fact that his own brother, McKean, was paymaster on the “Congress.” It was one of the most hazardous experiments in all warfare that Captain Buchanan was about to make, and its result revolutionized the American navy. Captain Tattnall, another experienced officer of the old navy, relieved Buchanan on April 11, 1862, and diligently sought a second battle with the “Monitor,” but it was not accepted. On May 11th the “Virginia” was destroyed by Tattnall's order.

[158] any single vessel of any navy of the world to have challenged this squadron to action. Although the Congress, St. Lawrence, and Cumberland were sailing vessels, they mounted one hundred and twenty-four guns between them, twenty-two of which were 9-inch; together, their crews amounted to well over a thousand men. The Minnesota and Roanoke had twelve hundred men between them, and carried over eighty 9-inch and 11-inch guns.

There is no question that the appearance of the Merrimac, as she hove in sight accompanied by her consorts, Beaufort and Raleigh, small river steamers mounting rifled 32-pounders in the bow and carrying crews of about forty men, was a surprise. The Merrimac, as she came down the Elizabeth River from Norfolk, had steered very badly. It was necessary for the Beaufort, under command of Lieutenant Parker, to pass her a line in order to keep her head straight. Owing to her deep draft, the great ironclad required over twenty-two feet of water to float her clear of the bottom.

About one o'clock in the afternoon the little squadron had swept into the James and turned up-stream. Lying to the last of the flood-tide, the great wooden frigates Congress and Cumberland, with their washed clothes on the line, were totally unaware of the approach of their nemesis. The Congress was just off the point, and the Cumberland a short distance above it. It was soon seen that the vessels had at last noticed their untried foe. Down came the lines of washing, signals flashed, and shortly after two o'clock the little Beaufort, which was steaming along at the port bow of the Merrimac, fired the first shot. Up the flagstaff of the Merrimac climbed the signals that spelled the order for close action.

The Congress and the Cumberland, though taken by surprise, had cast loose, served their guns in marvelous haste, and soon opened a tremendous fire, assisted by the batteries on the shore. The Merrimac swept by the Congress and made for the latter's consort. The Cumberland's broadside was across the [159]

The “cheese box” that made history: as it appeared four months later In this remarkable view of the “Monitor's” turret, taken in July, 1862, is seen as clearly as on the day after the great battle the effect of the Confederate fire upon Ericsson's novel craft. As the two vessels approached each other about half-past 8 on that immortal Sunday morning, the men within the turret waited anxiously for the first shot of their antagonist. It soon came from her bow gun and went wide of the mark. The “Virginia” no longer had the broadside of a wooden ship at which to aim. Not until the “Monitor” was alongside the big ironclad at close range came the order “Begin firing” to the men in the “cheese box.” Then the gun-ports of the turret were triced back, and it began to revolve for the first time in battle. As soon as the guns were brought to bear, two 11-inch solid shot struck the “Virginia's” armor; almost immediately she replied with her broadside, and Lieutenant Greene and his gunners listened anxiously to the shells bursting against their citadel. They made no more impression than is apparent in the picture. Confident in the protection of their armor, the Federals reloaded with a will and came again and again to close quarters with their adversary, hurling two great projectiles about every eight minutes.

[160] channel. As the big ironclad approached the wooden frigate she fired her guns, and apparently almost every shot reached the bulwarks, while the old frigate's missiles bounded like pebbles off the sloping iron sides. The plucky little gunboats Beaufort and Raleigh dropped back and attacked the Congress. Without hesitation, the Merrimac made for the starboard side of the towering Cumberland, receiving a heavy broadside and replying with her bow gun as she neared.

Through the thick smoke that now hung over the water, the Merrimac steamed on and crashed into the Cumberland just forward of her fore channels. Like some great animal that had received its mortal wound, the ship staggered and immediately began to settle by the head. Reversing her engines, the Merrimac strove to withdraw the iron beak that had reached her opponent's heart. It was with difficulty that she did so; in fact, the Cumberland was sinking steadily by the time she had worked herself free, and the great ramming bow, that already had been submerged for some feet, remained in the wound it had made.

There were things that happened this day under the two flags that, looking back upon them, should make the American heart beat high with pride. As the Cumberland sank, even while the waters were entering her ports, and with succeeding sickening lurches she was going down to her grave, her crew kept on cheering, and continued firing their useless guns. It was only forty minutes after the Beaufort had opened the action that the Cumberland's keel rested on the bottom; then, with her flags flying, she turned over on her beam-ends.

In this charge of the Merrimac there is one thing that must be taken into consideration when giving her officers and men their share of praise for courage. She was an untried experiment; her iron prow was not well fastened on (which proved fortunate for her, all things considered). There were many naval men, who, as they watched her construction, prophesied that if ever she struck full and square the timbers of a well-built [161]

The “monitor” and the “Virginia

Here on the deck of the “Monitor” sit some of the men who held up the hands of Lieutenant Worden in the great fight with the “Virginia.” In the picture, taken in July, 1862, only four months afterward, one of the nine famous dents on the turret are visible. It required courage not only to fight in the “Monitor” for the first time but to embark on her at all, for she was a strange and untried invention at which many high authorities shook their heads. But during the battle, amid all the difficulties of breakdowns by the new untried machinery, Lieutenant S. Dana Greene coolly directed his men, who kept up a fire of remarkable accuracy. Twenty of the forty-one 11-inch shot fired from the “Monitor” took effect, more or less, on the iron plates of the “Virginia.” The “Monitor” was struck nine times on her turret, twice on the pilot-house, thrice on the deck, and eight times on the side. While Greene was fighting nobly in the turret, Worden with the helmsman in the pilothouse was bravely maneuvering his vessel and seeking to ram his huge antagonist. Twice he almost succeeded and both times Greene's guns were used on the “Virginia” at point-blank range with telling effect. Toward the close of the action Worden was blinded by a shell striking near one of the peepholes in the pilot-house and the command devolved upon Greene. Worden, even in his agony of pain while the doctor was attending his injuries, asked constantly about the progress of the battle; and when told that the “Minnesota” was safe, he said, “Then I can die happy.”

Men on the “monitor” who fought with Worden

Admiral J. L. Worden

[162] built and heavy craft, she would become a coffin for her three hundred and twenty men and officers.

When the beak did break off, the Merrimac, leaking not a little at the bow, turned around with some difficulty and made for the Congress. The latter had slipped her cable, set her foretopsail, and with a little tug-gunboat puffing and straining under her bows, was making for shoal water, endeavoring to beach herself under the protection of the Federal batteries on the river bank. It must not be forgotten that on this memorable day, when, owing to the subsequent interest and the doings of the main actors, much was forgotten, there came as near being a fleet-action as took place at any meeting of vessels on the Atlantic coast during the whole course of the war. For, besides the great ironclad and her two little consorts that put out with her from the navy-yard, there was an entirely separate squadron that took part in the battle of the 8th.

A little flotilla that had been armed and outfitted at Richmond and placed under the command of Commander Tucker, had been waiting since daylight some ten miles above Newport News at Day's Point, for the Merrimac's appearance, for Commander Tucker had been informed that she would try conclusions on the 8th. The Patrick Henry, Teaser, and Jamestown, under command of Commander Tucker, Lieutenants Webb and Barney, came steaming down past the shore batteries, and the Congress, stranded and able to use but a very small proportion of her guns, found herself under the concentrated fire of five vessels in addition to the heavy guns of the Merrimac.

Many were the side-stories of this day. The brave old Cumberland's captain, Commander William Radford, was not with his ship when the attack was made, and it was Lieutenant George U. Morris who managed and fought her so bravely. On the Congress a strange condition of affairs existed. Commander William B. Smith had just been relieved of the command but was still on board. Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith had been appointed to take command of her. Lieutenant [163]

The first fighters of the turret — their touching letter In this picture of the “Monitor's” crew taken in July, 1862, are seen the faces of old sailors from the famous old sailing frigate “Sabine,” mingled with those of young recruits from the receiving ship “North Carolina.” As volunteers these brave fellows had manned the new fighting machine that was to revolutionize the Federal navy. They had weathered the perilous voyage from New York to Hampton Roads in constant danger of foundering. With no rest from the anxiety and exhaustion of that voyage, they had fought the greatest naval battle of modern times under conditions that might well make the stoutest heart quail. Here in a brief respite they have escaped from their murky quarters below deck and are playing checkers and idling about in the sunshine. There were to be but few more glimpses of the sun for some of them, for on December 31st the “Monitor” met the fate which had threatened her on her first voyage, and she became an “iron coffin” in fact as well as in name. Sixteen of her company of sixty-five went down with her off Hatteras. After the famous battle the “Monitor's” crew, still waiting for another opportunity to engage the “Merrimac,” had sent the touching letter to Lieutenant Worden of which the following is a portion: “To our Dear and honered Captain:--Dear Sir: These few lines is from your own Crew of the ‘Monitor,’ Hoping to God that they will have the pleasure of Welcoming you Back to us again Soon, for we are all Ready, able, and willing to meet Death or any thing else, only give us Back our own Captain again. Dear Captain we have got your Pilot-house fixed and all Ready for you when you get well again. . . . But we all join in with our Kindest Love to you hoping that God will Restore you to us again and hoping that your Sufferings is at an end now and we are all so glad to hear that your eye Sight will be Spaired to you again. . . We Remain untill death, your Affectionate Crew, the ‘Monitor’ Boys.” Halting words from brave hearts!


Austin Pendergrast was executive officer. As soon as the Merrimac was recognized, the ex-captain volunteered his services, which were accepted, and he was assigned to duty under the two officers whom formerly he had ranked. When the news was brought to Washington that the Congress had surrendered, the father of Joseph B. Smith, himself an old officer of the navy, made but one comment. “The Congress surrendered!” he exclaimed. “Then Joe's dead!” And so it was.

It must not be presumed that the Federal vessels down at Old Point Comfort lay idly by. As soon as the dreaded Merrimac hove in sight, everything had been commotion on board of them. The Minnesota and Roanoke were endeavoring to get up steam, and the St. Lawrence, as well as both of the former vessels, at last had summoned tugs that had made fast towing lines, and they were making every effort to gain the scene of active fighting. Near Sewell's Point, at the south of the James where the Elizabeth River flows into it, was a heavy Confederate battery, mounting, among its other pieces of ordnance, the only 11-inch gun the Confederacy possessed.

It was necessary for these three approaching vessels to come into range of this battery, and the Minnesota received a shot through her mainmast, while the others succeeded in passing without material damage. It may have been due to the eagerness of all three to get into the fight, or it may have been due to the mist of smoke that came drifting down the stream, that first the Minnesota, then the St. Lawrence, and lastly the Roanoke went aground, although the two last-named were soon afloat.

While the Congress and the shore batteries maintained a long and bitter fight of over an hour, the Minnesota fired a few broadsides at the Merrimac and the Confederate gunboats, and was replied to; the St. Lawrence, almost out of range, also endeavored to bring her guns to bear. But it was at the Congress that all the Confederate efforts were now directed. The Merrimac could not pursue the same tactics against her that [165]

Officers on deck of the original “monitor” --the newly fledged fighter of the navy After the brilliant battle in Hampton Roads, high hopes centered in the “Monitor” for still greater achievements. On May 9, 1862, under Lieutenant-Commander W. N. Jeffers, she led a squadron against the Confederate works at Sewell's Point, and as she engaged them the “Virginia” ( “Merrimac” ) came down the river, but the two antagonists did not give battle to each other. On May 11th the “Virginia” was destroyed by the Confederates and it was determined to send the “Monitor” and several vessels up the James River in an effort to capture Richmond. On May 15th, the Federal vessels were confronted by the hastily constructed Fort Darling at Drewry's Bluff. These works were all that stood between the Federals and the Confederate Capital, but behind them were the former gunners of the “Virginia” ( “Merrimac” ) and the “Monitor” again found them formidable foemen. Although she herself was not seriously injured by their fire, the “Galena” and other of her consorts were so cut up that the attempt to take Richmond by the water route had to be abandoned.

[166] she had against the Cumberland for two reasons: there would be no sense in ramming a beached vessel, and even if she had been lying in the deep channel, no such tactics could be employed, owing to the condition of the Merrimac's twisted and leaking bow. The Congress had been assisted to the place where she ran ashore, between the Middle Ground and Newport News Point, by the tug-gunboat Zouave, under Acting Master Henry Reaney, who had passed a line to her, and thus she was dragged to the protection of the Federal batteries.

The decks of the Congress were soon littered with the wounded and running with blood; she was afire in the main hold, in the sick-bay, and under the wardroom near the after magazine. No vessel could come to her assistance; the shore batteries under the circumstances offered her little or no protection, and about four o'clock in the afternoon the colors were hauled down. Midshipman Mallory, son of the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, turning to Lieutenant Parker, on the Beaufort, pointed to the descending flag, at the same time exclaiming, “I'll swear we fired the last gun.” It was true. The little gunboat that had rendered such good account of herself under the same officers in the early actions in North Carolina waters, had fired the first and the last shot of the day.

A strange condition of affairs now followed, and they gave rise to subsequent bitter controversy. Suffice it that when the Beaufort and one or two of the other Confederate gunboats, under orders from the flagship to take off the officers and wounded as prisoners and let the crew escape ashore, came alongside the stranded vessel, they were fired upon with both musketry and artillery at close range from the shore. The Beaufort was driven off, and the Merrimac again opened on the Congress, although a white flag had been hoisted to show that she was out of action. Many of the Federal wounded were hit a second time; some were killed; the casualties among the Confederate gunboats, and even on the Merrimac, were considerably increased. Lieutenant Pendergrast and Commander [167]

The lesson of the ironclad — some of the first tests at the navy-yard Here in the Washington Navy-yard, as it appeared on Independence Day, 1866, are the evidences of what the American Civil War had taught not only the United States navy but the world's designers of warships. In four short years of experimentation in the throes of an internecine struggle, the Navy Department had not only evolved the most powerful fighting fleet on the seas of the world, but had stamped it with distinctively American ideas. In the picture, a year after the war, can be seen how the navy had begun to improve the experience it had gained. Already the tests of piercing power of projectiles upon armor plate lie all about, precursors of the steel battleships and big guns that are the marvel of the present day. The wooden hulls of the early monitors rotted away, and as they did so steel construction was gradually evolved. The monitor principle was finally abandoned in its entirety but the turret still remained. Likewise the turtle-back construction of the decks of these same vessels remains in the swift and powerful torpedo-boat destroyers.


Smith surrendered the Congress to Lieutenant Parker of the Beaufort. The two Federal officers very nearly suffered death from the hail of bullets poured upon the Raleigh and the Beaufort after the surrender.

In view of the happenings of the subsequent day, which were even to be more startling, the comparative losses on the Federal and Confederate side make an interesting showing. The Merrimac lost twenty-one killed and wounded, including Flag-Officer Buchanan and his flag-lieutenant, Robert D. Minor. The casualties of the Patrick Henry were fourteen; the Beaufort, eight; the Raleigh, seven, including two officers; the total Confederate loss was in the neighborhood of sixty. The Federal officers made reports that accounted for nearly four hundred killed, wounded, and drowned.

The gunboats were compelled to draw off from their prize, but they brought along with them her battle-flag, stained and saturated with blood where it had been trailed across the deck. The stranded Minnesota now lay at the Merrimac's mercy; but the tide was lowering; night was coming on, and the further destruction of the fleet was only put off, it was supposed, until the morrow. The Merrimac and her consorts withdrew to anchorage off Sewell's Point. And so the curtain fell!

It would be impossible to exaggerate the feeling of elation on the one side and of consternation on the other that followed the Merrimac's first day of triumph. Prophecies and fears prevailed. “The Merrimac will sweep the Federal fleet from off the surface of the sea; she will exact ransom and levy toll on every Northern seaport;” thus predicted the oversanguine Southern believers in her powers and prowess. Secretary Stanton, at a cabinet meeting, became panic-stricken while discussing the news from Hampton Roads. He was for recalling General Burnside, and abandoning Port Royal. With a glance out of a White House window, he stated that he was sure the monster was at that moment on her way to Washington. “Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or cannon-ball from one of her [169]


This fine figure of a monitor lying in the James in 1864 shows clearly the two great principles Ericsson embodied in his plan. Skeptics said that the “Monitor” would never be able to keep an even keel with the waves washing over her low freeboard. Ericsson, who had seen the huge lumber-rafts in his native Sweden riding steadily though almost submerged, knew better. Again it was objected that the discharge of the guns would kill every man in the turret. But as an officer in the Swedish army, Ericsson had learned, by firing heavy guns from little huts, that if the muzzles protruded the concussion within was inconsiderable. Upon these two ideas he built his model that proved so momentous to the American navy. When C. S. Bushnell took the model to Washington, he was referred to Commander C. H. Davis by the other two members of the Naval Board. Davis, upon examining the model closely, told Bushnell that he could “take the little thing home and worship it, as it would not be idolatry, because it was in the image of nothing ‘in the heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth.’ ” It was not long, however, before the completed monitor became the idol of the Federal navy.

One of the “fighting rafts”--1864

One of the “fighting rafts”--1864

[170] guns in the White House before we leave this room.” The cabinet, and even Mr. Lincoln himself, were much depressed. For they did not know that the only serious consequence of the great sea-fight, besides the loss of two antiquated wooden ships, would be the revolutionizing of the navies of the world.

Lieutenant (afterward Captain) Parker, commander of the Beaufort, who knew the shortcomings as well as the good points of the Merrimac's construction, tells of the feeling of the day, and how moral influence in war becomes a factor in times of crises. He writes in the work above cited:

No battle that was ever fought caused as great a sensation through the civilized world. The moral effect at the North was most marvelous; and even now I can scarcely realize it. The people of New York and Washington were in hourly expectation of the Merrimac's appearance off those cities, and I suppose were ready to yield at the first summons. At the South, it was expected that she would take Fortress Monroe when she again went out. I recollect trying to explain to a gentleman at the time how absurd it was to expect this of her. I told him that she might bombard Fortress Monroe all day without doing it any considerable damage; that she would get out of ammunition; that she carried but three hundred and fifty men, and could not land a force, even if her boats were not shot away, though they would be; that, in fine, I would be willing to take up my quarters in the casemates there and let the Merrimac hammer away for a month — but all to no purpose; the impression had been made on him: a gun mounted on an ironclad must be capable of doing more damage than one on a wooden vessel. An idea once fixed cannot be eradicated; just as we hear people say every day that Jackson at New Orleans defeated the veterans of Waterloo!

As to the Merrimac going to New York, she would have foundered as soon as she got outside of Cape Henry. She could not have lived in Hampton Roads in a moderate sea. She was just buoyant enough to float when she had a few days' coal and water on board. A little more would have sent her to the bottom. When she rammed the Cumberland she dipped forward until the water nearly entered her bowport; had it done so she would have gone down. Perhaps it was fortunate for her that her prow did break off, otherwise she might not have extricated [171]

The first prize of a monitor--Federal officers on deck of the captured Confederate ram “Atlanta The honor of the first decisive engagement with one of the formidable ironclads that were constructed by the Confederacy was denied to the original “Monitor.” It fell to the monitor “Weehawken,” one of seven similar vessels designed by Ericsson for the navy. Under Captain John Rodgers, she, with her sister-vessels, ran first under fire in the attack made upon Fort Sumter and the batteries in Charleston Harbor by Rear-Admiral Du Pont in April, 1863. In June, she and the “Nahant” were blockading the mouth of Wilmington River, Georgia. Early on the morning of the 17th, Captain Rodgers was apprised that the huge Confederate ram, into which the old blockade-runner “Fingal” had been converted, was coming down to raise the blockade. Clearing for action, the “Weehawken” steamed slowly toward the northeastern end of Wassaw Sound, followed by the “Nahant.” When about a mile and a half from the “Weehawken,” the “Atlanta,” which was aground, fired a rifleshot at her. The “Weehawken,” without replying, approached to within three hundred yards of the ram and opened fire. The first shot broke through the armor and wood backing of the “Atlanta,” strewing her deck with splinters and prostrating about forty of her crew by the concussion. The second shot broke only a couple of plates, but the third knocked off the top of the pilot-house, wounding the pilots and stunning the man at the wheel. The fourth shot struck a port-stopper in the center, breaking it in two and driving the fragments through the port. Five shots in all were fired by the “Weehawken” in fifteen minutes. Then the colors of the “Atlanta” were hauled down, a white flag was hoisted, and Commander William A. Webb, C. S. N., put off in a boat to the “Weehawken,” where he delivered his sword to Captain Rodgers. The fight was over before the “Nahant” could become engaged. The “Atlanta” was not seriously damaged and was added to the Federal navy, where she did good service.

[172] herself. I served afterward in the Palmetto State, a vessel of similar construction to the Merrimac, but much more buoyant; yet I have seen the time when we were glad to get under a lee, even in Charleston Harbor. The Merrimac, with but a few days' stores on board, drew twenty-two and one-half feet of water. She could not have gone to Baltimore or Washington without lightening her very much. This would have brought her unarmored hull out of the water, and then she would no longer have been an ironclad!

I was not so much surprised at the extravagant expectations of the Southern people, who necessarily knew but little of such matters; but I must say I could not have imagined the extent of the demoralization which existed at Fortress Monroe and in the Federal fleet on the 8th and 9th of March. I have been told by an officer of high rank, who was present in the fort, that if the Merrimac had fired a shot at it on the 8th, the general in command would have surrendered it; and, if I am not very much mistaken, I have seen a despatch from that general to the effect that if the Merrimac passed Fortress Monroe it must necessarily fall! After this, one can well understand what Napoleon has said in reference to the moral as compared to the physical effect in war.

But John Taylor Wood, C. S. N., a lieutenant on the Merrimac, speaks in “Battles and leaders of the Civil war” of the vessel's condition as she lay at anchor off Sewell's Point:

The armor was hardly damaged, though at one time our ship was the focus on which were directed at least one hundred heavy guns, afloat and ashore. But nothing outside escaped. Two guns were disabled by having their muzzles shot off. The ram was left in the side of the Cumberland. One anchor, the smoke-stack, and the steampipes were shot away. Railings, stanchions, boat-davits, everything was swept clean. The flagstaff was repeatedly knocked over, and finally a boarding-pike was used. Commodore Buchanan and the other wounded were sent to the Naval Hospital, and after making preparations for the next day's fight, we slept at our guns, dreaming of other victories in the morning.

Shortly after breakfast-time on the 9th, the Merrimac, followed by the Confederate squadron, got under way under a [173]

Deck of the “Catskill” --the leader of the great bombardment On July 10, 1863, under Commander George W. Rodgers, and with Rear-Admiral Dahlgren's flag floating above her, the “Catskill” steamed across the bar into Charleston Harbor and opened fire on Fort Wagner on Morris Island. She was followed by the “Montauk,” “Nahant,” and “Weehawken,” and immediately all the Confederate batteries in Charleston Harbor spoke out their terrific thunder. The “Catskill” was no stranger to that battle-ground; she had seen her first service in Admiral Du Pont's squadron that had failed to silence the defenses of Charleston the preceding April. Now came her supreme test under Admiral Dahlgren. As his flagship she became the especial target. A large percentage of the sixty hits were very severe. Yet the brave men in the turret coolly fired their guns, almost oblivious to the heavy shot that was raining upon their armor. Her pilot-house was broken entirely through by one shot, while her side armor and deck-plates were pierced in many places, making the entrance of the water troublesome. But the “Catskill,” after firing 128 rounds, came out of action in good working order. On August 17th Commander Rodgers, while maneuvering for a closer berth in the attack on Fort Wagner, was killed in the pilot-house.

[174] full head of steam, and closely accompanied by the gunboat Patrick Henry, headed directly for the Minnesota that she counted already as a prize. There is no doubt that despite the Minnesota's heavy broadsides she would have become a prey to her reconstructed sister ship, for the original Merrimac had been built on the same lines and was practically of the same tonnage and armament.

Only one thing prevented the carrying out of the program, and that was the sudden appearance of the strange little craft that, with her volunteer crew of old sailors, had started from New York on Thursday, the 6th of March, under the command of officers who were not sure whether they would ever reach their destination or not. No power of imagination could invent a more dramatic moment for the arrival of a rescuer than that of the Monitor's appearance in Hampton Roads. Late in the afternoon of Saturday, March 8th, as she entered the waters of Chesapeake Bay, there was heard the sound of heavy firing, and Lieutenant John L. Worden, then in command, as he listened intently, estimated the distance to be full twenty miles and correctly guessed that it was the Merrimac in conflict with the Federal fleet. While she steamed ahead the Monitor was made ready for action, although such preparations were of the simplest character. Before long the flames and smoke from the burning Congress could be easily distinguished. At 9 P. M. the Monitor was alongside the Roanoke, whose commander, Captain Marston, suggested that she should go at once to the assistance of the Minnesota, which was still aground.

It was midnight before Lieutenant S. Dana Greene, sent by Worden, reached the Minnesota and reported to Captain Van Brunt. While the two officers were talking there came a succession of loud reports, and the Congress blew up, as if warning her sisters of the fleet of the fate in store for them. There was little sleep for anyone that night. At seven o'clock in the morning the crew were called to quarters. [175]

The army's chief reliance on the river — the double-turreted monitor “Onondaga While Admiral Porter and his squadron were absent on the Fort Fisher expedition, it was of the greatest importance that an adequate flotilla should be left in the James to preclude the possibility of the Confederate gunboats getting down past the obstructions and making a bold and disastrous attack on City Point, the army base. Having left this huge ironclad fighting-vessel behind, Admiral Porter felt at ease. But the undaunted Confederate Flag-Officer J. K. Mitchell was not to be deterred from making one last attempt to strike a telling blow with the “Virginia” and her consorts. On the night of January 23, 1865, he came down to the Federal obstructions and attempted to get by. When the movement was discovered, contrary to all expectations the great “Onondaga” retreated down the river. The moment might well have been one of the greatest anxiety for the Federals, but in maneuvering, the “Virginia” and the “Richmond” both got aground and the “Onondaga,” returning with the “Hunchback” and the “Massasoit,” inflicted some telling shots upon them. It was found later by a court-martial that Commander William A. Parker, commanding the division on the James, had made an “error of judgment” in handling the “Onondaga.”


When day dawned the officers of the Merrimac, who expected that the remaining vessels of the fleet would soon be at their mercy, were surprised to see a strange-looking craft lying close under the towering sides of the Minnesota. They had been well informed of the plans and progress and construction of the Monitor, but had received no intimation of her arrival. Her insignificant size did not make her appearance formidable; and, elated by the successes of the day before, the Merrimac's crew went cheerfully to quarters as she steamed down to the meeting.

Almost every phase of the battle that followed is familiar reading. Inside the turret, where Lieutenant Greene, First Master Stodder and Chief Engineer Stimers were in command of two 11-inch guns, each of which had a crew of eight stalwart seamen, all was anxiety. Worden was in the pilot-house with Acting Master Howard, who knew well the waters about him. Quartermaster Peter Williams was at the helm. Ericsson's little craft, whose crew had had no sleep and which had escaped shipwreck twice within the last thirty-six hours, made straight for the oncoming leviathan. The flotilla of gunboats that had taken part in the action of the previous day had been signaled to retire as soon as it had been perceived that the Monitor had arrived. It was to be a duel before an audience of fighting men — David against Goliath.

Captain Van Brunt, in his official report, has stated, “I . . .made signal to the Monitor to attack the enemy,” but, as Lieutenant Greene has said, in referring to this order, “The signal was not seen by us; other work was in hand, and Commander Worden required no signal.”

In a few minutes the battle was on. Shot after shot was hurled against the slanting sides of the Merrimac, and broadside after broadside delivered against the iron-clad tower on the Monitor's deck. From every source, as far as the fighting was concerned, it must be conceded that it was a drawn battle. But it must be remembered that the Merrimac drew twentytwo [177]

An unintentional submarine — the “Caseo” In order to furnish efficient fighting-vessels that could thread the shallow streams and bayous along the shore, the construction of a dozen light-draft monitors was undertaken late in the war. They were to draw only seven feet of water, and to be a small edition of the original monitor, mounting one gun only. Through a miscalculation in the engineer's office, their displacement was wrongly estimated. They proved utter failures. All or nearly all of them were on the ways at the same time. When the first was launched, she proved not sufficiently buoyant to sustain her armor and guns, giving a very good imitation of a submarine when striking the water. To meet the demand for light-drafts--three on the James River — these monitors were lightened by removing their turrets, as has been done in the case of the one in the picture. The naval reports record every form of disparagement of these vessels, except the profanity they evoked from officers and men.

[178] two feet of water and was hard to manage, whereas the Monitor drew less than twelve, and required no maneuvering at all. That was done for her by her turret. One attempt was made on the part of the larger vessel to ram, but the result was fruitless. In her turn, the Monitor tried to run in close to the stern of her antagonist, in the hope of disabling her rudder. But this, also, was unsuccessful.

For over two hours the Monitor and her huge antagonist pounded away at each other at close range. The men in the casemate of the Merrimac, although at times knocked over by the concussion of the heavy shells hurled against her sides, soon saw that their shield was invulnerable. But apparently their own shots created no impression upon the revolving iron tower that was their target. The Monitor fired very slowly, for her speaking-tubes had been shot away, and the orders had to be passed by word of mouth from the conning tower. After forty minutes the Merrimac, changing her tactics, endeavored to get in position to run the smaller vessel aground, but she was so unwieldy that the Monitor could easily avoid her, although once she was struck a glancing blow.

Toward the latter part of the action, Lieutenant Worden placed the bow of his little craft against the Merrimac's quarters and fired both guns at point-blank distance. Had they been loaded with the charges that it was afterward found these guns could stand, both of these shots would have penetrated, and there would never have been any subsequent contention as to the result. The impact of these shots forced the sloping side in two or three inches. The crew of the after pivot-gun fell bleeding from nose and ears. It was at this moment that the Merrimac's officers actually thought of boarding — in fact, the boarders were called away, but before they could swarm through the ports, the Monitor had backed away and dropped astern. With the honors even and a growing respect for each other, the two vessels kept in the fight for over six hours. Then the Monitor hauled off into the shallow water of the Middle [179]

The “Lehigh”

A naval historian has compared the monitor type of vessel “to the elephant, who swims beneath the surface . . . and communicates through his uplifted trunk with the upper air.” In action and in rough weather, the monitor's only means of communication with the upper air are her turret and pilot-house, and from this fact alone it was argued that the monitor type of construction would prove to be an elephant on the hands of the Federal navy. Indeed, on her trial trip Ericsson's “Monitor” came near foundering, and thus she finally met her end in a storm off Cape Hatteras, December 31, 1862. But before this, her faults of construction had been recognized and the Federal Navy Department had undertaken the construction of nine bigger and better monitors. In Charleston Harbor the monitors were hit an aggregate of 738 times, and proved conclusively their superior endurance. The “Lehigh” first made her appearance in the James on an expedition and demonstration made up that river by Acting Rear-Admiral S. P. Lee in July, 1863. In September she was attached to Admiral Dahlgren's fleet. From October 26th to November 4th, under Commander A. Bryson, she and the “Patapsco” were assigned to the special duty of hammering Fort Sumter. On November 16, 1863, she ran aground on Sullivan's Island and was dangerously exposed to the guns of Fort Moultrie for five hours before she could be gotten off.

The new “sea-elephant” of the navy — the “Lehigh” in 1864

The monitor Lehigh.


Ground, but always keeping herself between the Minnesota and the vessel that had counted her as prey. In fear of running aground, the Merrimac did not follow, and at about two o'clock, turned her bow toward Sewell's Point.

It was a few minutes after noon when the Monitor made for the shallow water, and Lieutenant Worden had been stunned and almost blinded by the result of a shell striking the pilot-house. The Monitor did not run away, as Confederate papers of the time averred, but as a Southern eye-witness put it:

Much has been written and more said about this celebrated fight — the first encounter between ironclads in the world's history. Viewing it, as I did, at a distance of more than a mile, I will state that my impression at the time was that, after hammering away at each other for three hours, and finding that the men were wearied out without making much impression on either side, both vessels had simultaneously drawn off and decided to call it a drawn battle.

In Captain Van Brunt's report of the engagement he says: “For some time after this the rebels concentrated their whole battery upon the tower and pilot-house of the Monitor, and soon after the latter stood down for Fortress Monroe, and we thought it probable she had exhausted her supply of ammunition or sustained some injury. Soon after, the Merrimac and two other steamers headed for my ship, and I then felt to the fullest extent my condition. . . . On ascending the poop-deck, I observed that the enemy's vessels had changed their course and were heading for Craney Island.”

Captain Parker's candid and unprejudiced review of this action states:

Why the Merrimac did not persist in destroying the Minnesota, I never exactly understood. . .. Whatever the cause, candor compels me to say that the Merrimac failed to reap the fruits of her victory. She went out to destroy the Minnesota, and do what further damage to the enemy she could. The Monitor was there to save the Minnesota. The Merrimac did not accomplish her purpose. The Monitor did. She did it [181]


While Admiral Porter with the fleet was waiting impatiently at Hampton Roads for the start of the much-delayed expedition against Fort Fisher, there was work a-plenty along the coast to keep up the blockade and circumvent the attempts of such Confederate vessels as the “Roanoke” to raise it. The upper picture is of especial popular interest; lying to the right of the despatchboat and monitor off Port Royal is James Gordon Bennett's yacht “Rebecca,” one of the fastest sailing yachts of her time. When she swept into Port Royal flying the Stars and Stripes, she was taken for a blockade-runner until her identity was learned. The officers of the blockading squadron were handsomely entertained aboard her during her stay, and were glad to get the news she brought from the North. On her way back to New York she was frequently mistaken for a blockade-runner and chased. In the lower picture is seen one of the monitors stationed in Ossabaw Sound. Awnings are stretched in the almost tropical sunshine. Yet the vessel is ready for any emergency.

The detached blockaders — James Gordon Bennett's yacht

Union monitor in the Ossabaw Sound.

[182] by resisting the Merrimac as long as she did, even if she did have to withdraw. The Minnesota was gotten afloat that night and towed below Old Point. I suspect the Merrimac was making more water from the leak in her bow than her officers were willing to admit.

This last statement is borne out by the testimony of Boatswain Hasker of the Merrimac, who states that they reached Norfolk just in time to get into dry dock by high water.

But there is no use in fighting all the contested points of this battle over again. It was a drawn fight, bravely fought, and there is honor enough for both. The thrill of the meeting between these two armored ships was in its novelty. The results were in the reconstruction of the navies of the world.

Neither vessel long survived their famous encounter, and the Merrimac was the first to finish her days. Owing to Flag-Officer Buchanan's injuries, the command on that memorable 9th of March had fallen on Lieutenant Jones, and he was relieved before the end of the month by Flag-Officer Josiah Tatnall. Though the Monitor stayed close at hand, there was no further meeting after her valiant foe was released from the drydock on April 4th.

When Norfolk was evacuated by the Confederates, on the 10th of May, the further disposition of the Merrimac became a grave problem. Tatnall had her lightened three feet in order to take her up the James, but the pilots refused to attempt this in the face of a westerly breeze, and now every officer agreed with Tatnall that she must be blown up. This was done on the 11th. The indignation throughout the South was great, but Tatnall was completely exonerated by a court of inquiry.

After the destruction of the Merrimac, the Monitor went up the James with Commander Rodgers' squadron in the attack on the entrenchments at Drewry's Bluff. Finally on the 31st of December the Monitor was sunk in a gale, while on the way to Beaufort, North Carolina, and sixteen of her officers and crew went to the bottom with her.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Minnesota (Minnesota, United States) (18)
Cumberland (Maryland, United States) (14)
Beaufort, N. C. (North Carolina, United States) (12)
Hampton Roads (Virginia, United States) (9)
Weehawken (New Jersey, United States) (7)
Norfolk (Virginia, United States) (7)
Fortress Monroe (Virginia, United States) (6)
Washington (United States) (5)
Sewell's Point (Virginia, United States) (5)
Charleston Harbor (South Carolina, United States) (5)
Big Lick (Virginia, United States) (5)
Atlanta (Georgia, United States) (5)
Onondaga, N. Y. (New York, United States) (4)
Nahant (Massachusetts, United States) (4)
Catskill (New York, United States) (4)
Raleigh (North Carolina, United States) (3)
Port Royal (South Carolina, United States) (3)
Old Point (North Carolina, United States) (3)
Morris Island (South Carolina, United States) (3)
Elizabeth (Virginia, United States) (3)
Drewry's Bluff (Virginia, United States) (3)
Tunstall (Virginia, United States) (2)
Richmond (Virginia, United States) (2)
Patrick Henry (Virginia, United States) (2)
North Carolina (North Carolina, United States) (2)
Wilmington River (Georgia, United States) (1)
Waterloo, Va. (Virginia, United States) (1)
Warsaw Sound (Georgia, United States) (1)
United States (United States) (1)
Sweden (Sweden) (1)
Sullivan's Island (South Carolina, United States) (1)
Stuart (Virginia, United States) (1)
Roanoke (United States) (1)
Ossabaw Sound (Georgia, United States) (1)
Montauk (New York, United States) (1)
Jamestown (Virginia) (Virginia, United States) (1)
Galena (Illinois, United States) (1)
Fort Moultrie (South Carolina, United States) (1)
Fort Fisher (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Europe (1)
Day's Point (Virginia, United States) (1)
Craney Island (Virginia, United States) (1)
City Point (Virginia, United States) (1)
Chesapeake Bay (United States) (1)
Cape Hatteras (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Baltimore, Md. (Maryland, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: