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Chapter 16

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
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Chapter 18
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p273  XVII
The Battle of Hampton Roads (Continued):
The Monitor and the Merrimac

A Race in Shipbuilding

It was seemingly a strange coincidence that within eight hours after the first ironclad of the South had entered so brilliantly on her career, an armored champion of the North, also the first of its kind, should come upon the same scene. But the coincidence admits of explanation.

The South, recognizing her inability to build and man a navy, was virtually forced into trying the ironclad, and, as we have seen in the last chapter, began work on the Merrimac two months after the beginning of the war. News of this alarmed the North, and three or four months later the Department signed contracts for three ironclads. The smallest of these, the Monitor, was to be completed in the almost unprecedented time of 100 days. As the navy departments of the North and South were kept fairly well informed of the progress made by each other, there ensued a race in shipbuilding of grave importance; in which the North had the advance of superior shops and mechanics, the South of a long start and intensity of feeling, stimulated by the constant presence of her enemy. This nearness of her foe promised the South another important advantage: her ironclad would have to steam fewer hours than the Monitor would days before striking the first decisive blow.

The South won the race by half a day, and thus was able to destroy two staunch old sailing ships. This, compared with the losses suffered by the army, was trivial.  p274 But although the navy did not in general bear the brunt of the fighting, much depended on the ships. If the Monitor had been delayed another week in reaching Hampton Roads, the whole character of the war might have been changed.

Early in August, 1861, Congress, convened in extra session, had appropriated $1,500,000 "for the construction or completing of iron- or steel-clad steamships or steam batteries." Commodore Joseph Smith, Commodore Hiram Paulding, and Commander Charles H. Davis were appointed a board to investigate the plans and specifications that were submitted. These old and tried officers, schooled in everything that pertained to the earlier navy, admitted in their report that they approached "the subject with diffidence, having no experience and but scanty knowledge in this branch of naval architecture." Nevertheless, they did not shirk their responsibility, and after careful consideration approved the plans for the Monitor, the Galena, and the New Ironsides, which ships were soon begun. In fact, the Monitor's keel-plate was passing through the rolling mill while the clerks of the Navy Department were drawing up the formal contract. The Monitor was launched January 30, 1862, and was turned over to the Government on February 19.

The inventor of the Monitor was John Ericsson,​1 born in Sweden in 1803. His strange craft showed nothing less than genius in its adaptation to the service required. She was of light draft to navigate the shallow bays and  p276 rivers of the Southern States. As light draft made impossible high armored sides, her exposed surface was small, but heavily armored, and thus invulnerable to any guns of this period. A revolving turret was introduced that she might use her few guns in narrow streams where maneuvering would be impossible. Engines below the water line, and propeller and rudder protected by a wide overhang, were other elements of strength; the overhang, on sides as well as ends, protected her from ramming and also from shot directed at the water line, besides giving her increased stability in a rough sea.2
[image ALT: A cross-section diagram of a large shallow trapezoidal box, on the wide upper end of which sits a smaller rectangular room or box containing a cannon, connected by a shaft thru the floor to a large gear in the lower box. It is the ironclad Monitor in 1862.]

The original Monitor was, in simple terms, a turret on a raft, and the whole was superposed on a flat-bottomed boat. She was of 776 tons burden. Her extreme length was 172 feet; breadth, forty‑one and a half feet; draft, ten and a half feet; inside diameter of turret, twenty feet; height of turret, nine feet.​3 The turret was composed of eight thicknesses of wrought-iron plates, each one inch thick, firmly riveted together. The sides of the hull, which rose scarcely two feet above the water, were protected by five inches of armor, and the deck was covered with a plating one inch thick. She had an armament of two 11‑inch Dahlgren guns, the muzzles of which were run out through ports placed side by side. When the guns were drawn back, the ports were closed by heavy iron stoppers, acting like pendulums.

Even after the Monitor had been launched and had convinced the skeptical — of whom there were many — that she would at least float, duty on her was thought to be so hazardous that a crew was not detailed to man her,  p277 but volunteers were called for. Lieutenant J. L. Worden was given the command, and Lieutenant S. D. Greene was made executive officer.

The Hazardous Trip to Hampton Roads

The Monitor was built at Green Point, Long Island. After two short and rather unsatisfactory trial trips, she started for Hampton Roads. She left New York on Thursday, March 6, towed by the tugboat Seth Low. Of the experiences on that dangerous voyage, Lieutenant Greene wrote to his mother a week later: "About noon [Friday] the wind freshened and the sea was quite rough. In the afternoon the sea was breaking over our decks at a great rate and coming in our hawse-pipe forward in perfect floods. Our berth-deck hatch leaked in spite of all like a waterfall. . . . The water came through the narrow eye‑holes in the pilot house with such force as to knock the helmsman completely around from the wheel."4

The men on the Monitor had to meet all kinds of dangers. Water swept over the craft in such a volume that it went down the blowers and the smokestack. Engineers and firemen narrowly escaped asphyxiation, and when the engines stopped, the pumps were rendered useless, and the water in the hold increased rapidly. As the wind was from the west, by signaling the tug to go nearer the shore, the crew found relief in smoother water. At eight P.M., they succeeded in starting the engines, and all went well till midnight, when, passing a shoal, they once more encountered a heavy sea. The wheel ropes then jumped off the steering gear and became jammed. The vessel came very near foundering, but by heroic perseverance, Worden and his men finally succeeded in weathering  p278 the storm. At four P.M., the following afternoon the Monitor passed Cape Henry, and shortly after dark reached Fortress Monroe. According to orders already sent by the Department to Captain Marston of the Roanoke, the senior officer present, the Monitor on arrival was to proceed immediately to Washington; but in view of the desperate state of affairs at Hampton Roads, Captain Marston decided to disregard the orders and detain her for the defense of the fleet.

The Battle of the Ironclads

Shortly after sunrise on Sunday morning, March 9, 1862, the Merrimac, attended by the Patrick Henry and the Jamestown, got under way and headed for Fortress Monroe; then, striking the channel up which the Minnesota had labored the day before, the squadron came slowly about and made for the Union ship. When still a mile distant, the Merrimac opened fire and planted a large shell under the counter near the water line. Before any considerable damage had been done, however, the Monitor appeared from the shadow of the Minnesota and boldly advanced to meet the Merrimac. Such a novelty in ship construction mystified the lookouts on the Merrimac. Lieutenant Davidson of the Confederate ship is said to have remarked, "The Minnesota's crew are leaving her on a raft." Soon the new vessel was recognized as Ericsson's invention, and many were the observations concerning the absurdity of this "immense shingle floating on the water, with a gigantic cheese box rising from its centre."

At a time seemingly so unpropitious, the officers and crew of the Monitor showed no ordinary courage in offering battle. All the night before they had been hard at work preparing for action; two days and a night previous to that, they had been struggling for their lives, and twice  p279 had narrowly escaped shipwreck; thus for forty-eight hours they had had almost no sleep or food. Further, it required unusual spirit to disregard the gloomy forebodings that surround the Union fleet, and advance in a small, untried craft to meet a foe that had just been proved to be practically invulnerable.

At about 8.30, on the Monitor's coming within short range, Lieutenant Worden changed his course so as to pass the Merrimac abeam, and gave the order to commence firing. Up went a port, a gun was thrust out, and a heavy shot struck the Merrimac; the latter responded with a broadside. Then the vessels, after passing, came about and passed again somewhat nearer. The firing now became regular; the Monitor discharged her guns every seven or eight minutes, and used solid shot; the Merrimac with her larger number of guns fired more often, and used only shells. Most of the early shot of the Merrimac had gone wide of the mark, for her gunners had a far smaller target than that offered the day before by a frigate. And later, as their missiles struck, they made no impression on the Monitor's turret, which continued to revolve freely — a fact which brought great relief to the men inside the turret, now being tested for the first time. When, however, as happened in three cases, a man was leaning even slightly against the wall of the turret on its being struck, he was knocked down and stunned. Thus Master Stodder, who had charge of the machinery controlling the turret, was disabled about ten o'clock, and had to be carried below. Fortunately, Chief Engineer Stimers, who was on board as official inspector, was eager to take part in the action; and as he knew more about the machinery of the turret than any one else on the vessel, his service was of great value.

The Monitor, because of the anchor-well in her bow, was scarcely adapted for ramming. The well was a device  p280 of Ericsson that permitted the anchor to be raised or lowered through the bottom without exposing men or machinery to the fire of the enemy. Nevertheless, Lieutenant Worden, on seeing that his heavy 11‑inch shot were glancing off the slanting sides of the Merrimac, secured a favorable position and made a dash for the ram, hoping thereby to disable her rudder and propeller. He missed his mark by three feet, and the Monitor passed clear of the Merrimac.

It had been a part of Worden's plan in engaging the Merrimac to protect the Minnesota by offering battle at some distance from her. The Merrimac was, however, within long range of the Minnesota, and when in the middle of the engagement the Monitor withdrew for a few minutes, Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, who was commanding the Merrimac, gave all his attention to the wooden ship. Captain Van Brunt of the Minnesota says, "On her second approach, I opened with all my broadside guns and 10‑inch pivot, a broadside which would have blown out of water any timber-built ship in the world. She returned my fire with her rifled bow gun with a shell, which passed through the chief engineer's stateroom, through the engineer's mess room, amid­ships, and burst in the boatswain's room, tearing four rooms all into one in its passage, exploding two charges of powder, which set the ship on fire, but it was promptly extinguished by a party headed by my first lieutenant; her second went through the boiler of the tugboat Dragon."​5 By the time the Merrimac had fired a third shell, the Monitor had again taken the offensive, and coming between the Minnesota and the Merrimac, compelled the latter to change her position, in doing which she grounded. Fifteen minutes later she was free, and then headed down the bay, with  p281 the Monitor in pursuit. This was but a ruse on the part of the Merrimac, for, getting into deeper water, after considerable maneuvering she attempted to ram the Monitor. But the smaller craft, much the more agile, put her helm over and received only a glancing blow. The heavy beak of the Merrimac that had gone down with the Cumberland had not yet been replaced, and the light iron shoe now on her stem was cut by the Monitor's sharp edge. This opened a leak on the ram, which had been started the day before and had been only temporarily checked. At the moment of contact, Lieutenant Greene, who with his own hands fired all the guns of the Monitor until he left the turret near the close of the battle,​6 planted a solid 180‑pound shot in the forward casemate of the Merrimac. The shot broke some of the iron plate and bent in the timber. Another shot striking in the same place would probably have penetrated. By order of the Department, only fifteen pounds of powder was used to a charge. Had thirty pounds been used, which later was found to be not too heavy for the guns, it is thought that several of the shot might have pierced the shield. A gun crew on the Merrimac were so affected by the concussion that they bled from nose and ears, but there was no further injury.

After the Monitor had been fighting for two hours, ammunition began to fail in her turret, and as this could be replenished only by bringing a hole in the turret directly over a scuttle, she withdrew into shallow water, where the Merrimac could not follow. Fifteen minutes later she was back and ready for the fight.

 p282  The engagement had at this time been fought for three hours without either antagonist's securing the advantage. Each was power­ful in defense, and each met with many difficulties on assuming the offensive. The Merrimac was cumbrous and unwieldy, and her draft of twenty‑two feet was ill adapted to Hampton Roads. Her smokestack had been so riddled by the fight of the previous day, that the fires did not draw well, and steam got so low as scarcely to drive her defective engines. The Monitor, much shorter, and with a draft of less than twelve feet, responded quickly to her helm; as she also had twice the speed of her antagonist, she showed a marked superiority in maneuvering. She would dart about, assume a position where for a time the Merrimac could not bring a gun to bear, and, when threatened, retreat to shoal water, where her huge enemy could not follow. But the turret of the Monitor could be operated only with great difficulty; it was hard to start, and when started it was still harder to stop. Consequently the guns had to be fired "on the fly," and it was anything but a simple matter to secure a good aim when all that a man in the turret could see of the outside world was what he saw through the narrow cracks between the guns and the sides of the ports. By the revolving of the turret, the men at the guns lost their sense of direction; white guide marks painted on the stationary platform below were soon covered with grime, so that when word was brought from the pilot house that the Merrimac bore off the starboard or port bow, the gunners had little to guide them. It was a constant source of anxiety to Lieutenant Greene​7 lest in the smoke and confusion the guns of the Monitor might be trained on their own pilot house, which, being in almost the extreme  p283 bow, was separated from the turret by a third of the length of the ship. Communication between pilot house and turret was by a speaking-tube, and when this was disabled early in the engagement, the paymaster and captain's clerk were employed as messengers; since they were without sea‑training, orders were not always rightly understood.

At about half past eleven, the gunners of the Merrimac, despairing of doing any injury to the turret of the Monitor, directed their fire against the pilot house. This projected four feet above the deck, and was made of wrought-iron beams, nine inches thick and twelve inches deep, dovetailed together at the corners. By crowding, it now held three people, Lieutenant Worden, the quartermaster, and the pilot. While Worden was looking through the long narrow slit interposed between the iron beams, which served as a sight hole, a shell fired by the Merrimac only a few yards distant exploded directly outside, and his face and eyes were painfully wounded with powder and fine fragments of iron. The explosion also partially raised the heavy iron cover of the conning tower, which had been laid in a groove, not bolted down. Though suffering extreme pain, and temporarily blinded, Worden retained his presence of mind; conscious of the flood of light streaming in from above, he feared that the pilot house had been demolished, and gave orders to sheer off, a maneuver that brought the vessel into shallow water towards Fortress Monroe.

Lieutenant Greene, who had been summoned to take command, after helping Worden to the cabin, found that the Monitor, though drifting aimlessly about beyond the reach of the Merrimac, was practically as fit for engagement as ever; the pilot house had suffered little harm, and the steering gear was uninjured. Accordingly, after fifteen or twenty minutes' absence, the Monitor was again  p284 pointed towards the Merrimac; but it was towards a retiring foe. The Merrimac was on her way back to Norfolk. The Monitor followed her a short distance, fired a few shot to indicate her willingness to continue the engagement, and then returned to the Minnesota. This was shortly after twelve o'clock; the battle had been fought nearly four hours without either ironclad's losing a man.

Both sides later expressed surprise that the Merrimac should have retired when she did. Captain Van Brunt of the Minnesota in his official report said that on seeing the Monitor withdraw after Worden's incident, he inferred she was leaving because she had run short of ammunition or had met with serious injury. And he admitted that, since the Minnesota was immovably aground, and had expended most of her solid shot, he had decided, when the Merrimac returned to the attack, to destroy his ship.

Lieutenant Catesby Jones, who was severely criticised, defended his action as follows:

"We had run into the Monitor, causing us to leak, and had received a shot from her which came near disabling the machinery, but continued to fight her until she was driven into shoal water. The Minnesota appeared so badly damaged that we did not believe that she could ever move again. The pilots refused to place us any nearer to her (they had once run us aground). About twelve [o'clock] the pilots declared if we did not go up to Norfolk then, that we could not do so until the next day."​8

If this explanation is not wholly satisfactory, further light may be gained from a letter of Lieutenant Davidson, C. S. N.: "Our officers and men were completely broken down by two days' and a night's continuous work with the heaviest rifled ordinance in the world."9

 p285  During the engagement, the Monitor fired forty‑one solid cast-iron shot. A proof of the fair marksman­ship was found when the Merrimac went into drydock; twenty of the 100 indentations in her armor were recognized as caused by the shot of the Monitor. While six of the outer plates of the Merrimac were cracked, and had to be replaced, none of the inner course were broken. The Monitor had been struck twenty‑two times. The armor of her turret had been indented in one place two and a quarter inches, but none of the plates had been cracked. As has been narrated, one of the wrought-beams of the pilot house, however, had been fractured by a 68‑pound shell.


The fight between the Monitor and the Merrimac, so far as the ironclads were directly concerned, ended at noon, March 9; but on paper, a contest of the same name has been fought over again and again in a fruitless effort to decide who was victor. Whether it was a defeat, a victory, or a drawn battle, it relieved the North of the greatest apprehension. The Monitor, by her remarkable defense, had saved the Minnesota, the Roanoke, and the St. Lawrence. She had prevented the blockade from being broken at Hampton Roads, its most important point. She insured the supremacy of the sea to the North. She allayed the discouragement and terror felt through the loyal States on the overwhelming defeat of the previous day, and checked the wild rejoicing of the South.

These results were of such moment that the battle is to be classed with Gettysburg and Vicksburg in its influence on the war. Its fame, for other reasons as well, went far beyond the United States. "Probably no naval conflict in the history of the world ever attracted so much attention as did the battle in Hampton Roads, between the Monitor and the Merrimac. It revolutionized the navies  p286 of the world, and showed that the wooden ships, which had long held control of the ocean, were of no further use for fighting purposes."10

The conservative London Times observed, on receiving the news of the battle, "Whereas we [the English] had available for immediate purposes 149 first-class warships, we have now two, these two being the Warrior and her sister Ironside. There is not now a ship in the English Navy, apart from these two, that it would not be madness to trust to an engagement with that little Monitor."11

As the North immediately proceeded to construct other monitors of an improved type, the danger of armed intervention by England and France in behalf of the seceded States was materially lessened.

The Subsequent Careers of the Monitor and the Merrimac

Each side made elaborate plans for boarding or ramming the ironclad of the other in a later engagement; but each, recognizing how disastrous would be a defeat, refused to fight except on terms promising a decided advantage.

The Merrimac, after being repaired, appeared twice in the Roads, but made no further attempt against the Union fleet, and no engagement followed. On the 10th of May, 1862, when the Confederates evacuated Norfolk and Portsmouth, it became a question what should be done with the Merrimac. Commodore Tattnall, who had succeeded to the command of the ram, despairing, because of her draft, of taking her up the James for the defense of Richmond, as had been planned, applied the torch and destroyed her on May 11.

 p287  The career of the Monitor was also brief, and she survived her great rival by only little more than half a year. She was once more actively engaged; the occasion, May 15, 1862, was a bombardment of Drewry's Bluff, seven miles below Richmond, by the Monitor, Galena, Aroostook, Naugatuck, and Port Royal. The ironclad Galena was perforated eighteen times by plunging shot, and had thirteen men killed and eleven wounded. The Monitor was struck three times, but not injured. The end of this, the most famous ship of modern history, came at the very conclusion of the year 1862. On December 29 the Monitor left Hampton Roads, towed by the Rhode Island, bound for Charleston, S. C. All went well until the evening of the 30th, when, being about fifteen miles south of Cape Hatteras Shoals, she struck a rough sea and yawed badly. The wind was from the south. Had the Rhode Island, with her tow, early come about, and run before the gale, the Monitor might have been saved; but the Rhode Island held determinedly to her course. About eight o'clock in the evening the sea rose rapidly; from that time till midnight Commander J. P. Bankhead, with his men on the Monitor, made a heroic fight against the waves, which swept repeatedly over the decks, poured through innumerable crevices, and made the engines work harder and harder. Shortly before midnight two boats of the Rhode Island began taking off the shipwrecked crew. This, in the raging sea, with the Monitor submerged much of the time, was a most hazardous undertaking; and four officers and twelve men of the Monitor were lost. Shortly after Commander Bankhead had reached the Rhode Island, the red light in the turret of the Monitor disappeared, for the waves had closed over her.12

The Authors' Notes:

1 Already Ericsson had given evidence of genius. While living in England he invented the screw propeller (1836); and it was because his invention met with utter indifference from British ship-owners and naval officers that on the encouragement of an American consul and naval officer he came to the United States. The U. S. S. Princeton, already mentioned as the first warship with a screw propeller, was of his designing.

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2 Church, Life of John Ericsson, I, 263.

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3 Executive Doc., House of Rep., 48th Cong. 1st Sess., Report No. 1725.

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4 Published in United Service, April, 1885.

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5 Naval War Records, VII, 11.

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6 By the strange fortune of war, Lieutenant Butt, an old Naval Academy chum of Greene, also took part in this battle. As Greene wrote to his mother, "My old room-mate was on board the Merrimac. Little did we think at the Academy we should ever be firing 150‑pound shot at each other, but so goes the world."

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7 Greene's story of the battle will be found in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, I, 719.

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8 Naval War Records, VII, 59.

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9 Ibid., VII, 61.

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10 Knox, Decisive Battles since Waterloo, p228.

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11 Quoted by Knox.

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12 Commander Bankhead's report will be found in the Naval War Records, VIII, 347.

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