Monitor vs. Merrimac

Admiral John L. Worden

One tall, slender man with full gray beard and a manner which shows you that his sixty years have been full of strange experiences, took great interest in the nightly representation of the battle between the Monitor and Merrimac at the drill grounds. He knows, better than anyone lese, perhaps, how far the "play" has been from absolute accuracy in an historical standpoint, yet the mimic battle has brought vividly to his mind the detailed events here represented, and in which he had a prominent part. His name is John L. Worden, Admiral John L. Worden, and he is the man who commanded the Monitor in that trying hour of experiment, an hour and a success which probably saved the nation.

"It was an hour of great anxiety" he said, in talking of it, "when we made that experiment, just a quarter of a century ago, for it was in March 1862, you know. We had been under a terrible strain of anxiety and work coming down from New York to Hampton Roads, for there was nothing known of the capacity of the vessel for enduring a sea voyage or what she would do in a fight. The voyage down was a very rough one, and sometimes it seemed that we must go to the bottom. The seas swept over us, poured down the smoke holes and put out our fires and suffocated the men with gas from furnaces so that they fell as if dead. The result was that our men were worn out with work and lack of sleep and proper food when we reached Hampton Roads."

"Did you have confidence in the ability of the vessel to encounter the Merrimac?"

"I was confident that the monitor could do good service in quiet waters. My chief fear was that the revolving turret would get out of order in the fight and refuse to go round. The opinion had been expressed by naval officers that the first shot which struck the turret would put it out of kilter and that it would not revolve. But when the first shot struck her and others began to pour in, and she still worked like a charm, I had no more anxiety about the result. When I saw the Merrimac making for us I felt confident that we were a match for her. I put bows on and fired straight upon the monster. Shots were exchanged pretty fast. Sometimes we were no further apart than across the street. I remember once trying to cut off her propeller by running our vessel into it, but missed it probably not over six inches. Once she attempted to run us down with her ram, but by a quick turn we received the blow at such an angle that it did us no damage."

"Could you see that your shots were taking effect upon the Merrimac, whose sloping sides of railroad iron had been apparently impervious to the shots of the other vessels?"

"Yes, in my report made sometime afterwards, and recently published, you will find these words: "Every shot from our guns took effect upon the huge sides of our adversary, stripping off the iron freely."

"The powder marks which you carry across your forehead and eyes are the result of this engagement?"

"Yes. In the last part of the fight a shell from the enemy struck the pilot house, just over the peep-hole, out of which I was looking. I was knocked down and completely blinded. The blow was right in my eyes, but from the flood of light which followed, and of which I was conscious, as one is conscious of light when his eyes are closed, I knew that the roof had been torn off the pilot house, and I did not know what other damage was done. So I gave orders as I lay there to bear off. As soon as  Lieutenant Green could be brought from the turret I placed him in command and was taken below. Within twenty minutes he had the damages repaired and turned back to renew the fight with the Merrimac, but before we could get in close quarters she retired in the direction of Norfolk."

This memorable battle between these then remarkable vessels lasted nearly four hours. It began at 8 in the morning and continued with but about fifteen minutes interruption (while the Monitor was hoisting shot to her tower) until near noon. Lieutenant Green, who was in command of the guns in the turret during the fight, and who was placed in charge of the vessel when Captain Worden was wounded, in a letter to his mother, after the fight was over, after describing the fight which began about 8 o'clock in the morning, said:

"At 11:30 the captain sent for me. I went forward, and there stood as noble a man as ever lived. His face was perfectly black with powder and iron, and he was apparently blind. I asked him what was the matter and he said a shot had struck the pilot house directly opposite his eyes, blinding them."

Continuing the story of the remaining portion of the battle he says:

"When the fight was over and we were victorious, my men and myself were perfectly black with smoke and powder. All my underclothes were perfectly black and my person was in the same condition. When our noble captain (Worden) heard that the Merrimac had retreated he said he was perfectly happy and ready to die. "

But he did not die, though he has never recovered his full health, for Admiral Worden is today, twenty-five years later, still an honored citizen of Washington.

We left Fortress Monroe on Monday, the 20th of December, in tow of the steamer Rhode Island with the Passaic in tow of the steamer, State of Georgia. We passed Cape Henry Monday afternoon at 5 o’clock, with a smooth sea and light wind. The Passaic was a little way ahead. The weather continued fine until five o’clock Tuesday evening, when it commenced to blow from the South West, with a heavy sea running and making a clean sweep over all.

At 9:30 Cape Hatteras bore NNW, distant 20 miles. The gale still increased. The vessel labored very heavily, the upper hull coming down upon every sea with fearful violence. Up to this time the Worthington pumps and bilge injectors were entirely competent to keep the vessel free.

At 10 o’clock several heavy seas struck the vessel in succession, when word was sent up from the engine rooms that the water was gaining on the pumps. Orders were then given to start Adams’ Centrifugal Pump, capable of throwing three thousand gallons of water per minute. For a while the water appeared to be kept under.

In a short time, however, word was passed from the engine room that the water was again gaining on the pumps, and was at that time up to the ash pits, in a great measure stopping the draft. The water at this time was standing two feet deep on the ward room floor.

All hands were then set to work with every bucket on hand to bail. Water, however, kept gaining upon the pumps until within a foot of the fires in the furnaces.

A "Costern" signal was then flashed to call the attention of the Rhode Island to our condition. After much delay, consequent upon the heavy sea running, a boat was lowered from the Rhode Island and sent to our assistance. After several trials she succeeded in getting alongside of us.

The Rhode Island at the same time in going astern, caught her launch between her own side and our vessel, crushing the boat badly and bringing her own counter very heavily down upon our side. For a time she could not move her engine. Getting on a centre she finally started ahead, and the launch, smashed as it was, succeeded in conveying to the steamer thirty of the crew of the monitor.

After the departure of the launch, those remaining on board worked at the buckets with a will. The gale at this time was raging furiously, the sea making a clean sweep over the top of the turret. The water at this juncture had succeeded in rising up to the grade bars of the furnaces, and was gradually extinguishing the flames. The steam in the boilers consequently ran down, and the pumps could not be worked for want of sufficient steam.

At this time three boats were discovered coming towards the vessel. Word was passed that boats were at hand sufficient to take all of them from the vessel. The Monitor was sinking. Every pump was stopped, and her deck was under water. Several, in coming off the turret were swept by the waves to the leeward and must have perished as no assistance could be rendered them.

The boats shoved off from the sinking vessel, and though entreated to come down and get in them, several remained standing up on the turret, afraid of being swept from the deck, stupefied by fear. The boats succeeded in reaching the Rhode Island in safety and all on them got on board.

A picked crew with the gallant officer of the Rhode Island, Mr. Brown, then shoved off in the launch to return to the Monitor. The moon, which up to this time had been throwing some light upon the waves, was shut out by dense masses of black clouds.

At a quarter to one in the morning, the Monitor’s lights disappeared beneath the waves. The Rhode Island then started for the spot where the Monitor was seen to go down. Costern signals were constantly kept up on all parts of the vessel to catch a glimpse of the missing boat.

At daylight nothing was seen on the waves and with heavy hearts we ran around the spot as nearly as could be judged where the Monitor had disappeared until late in the afternoon. Several steamers and other vessels were spoken, to learn, if possible, the fate of the missing boat, but nothing could be heard.

The survivors reached Fortress Monroe last evening in the Rhode Island. Nothing whatever was saved."

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