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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Little Monitor

By William Swinton (1833–1892)

[Born in Saltoun, Scotland, 1833. Died in Brooklyn, N. Y., 1892. The Twelve Decisive Battles of the War. 1867.]

THE GALE of the previous day had abated, and there was but little wind or sea. As the Confederate fleet steamed steadily into view its character became apparent; the central figure was the long-expected Merrimac, whose advent had been the theme of speculation through days and nights for many weeks, not only in the squadron which waited to receive her, but throughout the country. The cry of “the Merrimac! the Merrimac!” speedily ran from ship to fort, and from fort to shore. To the curious eyes of the thousand spectators gazing intently from near, or peering through telescopes from afar, she seemed a grim-looking structure enough—like the roof of an immense building sunk to the eaves. Playing around her, and apparently guiding her on, were two well-armed gun-boats, the Jamestown and Yorktown, formerly New York and Richmond packets, which seemed to act like pilot-fish to the sea-monster they attended. Smaller tugs and gun-boats followed in her wake, some of which had emerged from the James River. On she came, the Cumberland and Congress meanwhile bravely standing their ground; and, as the Merrimac approached the latter vessel, she opened the battle with the angry roar of a few heavy guns. The Congress answered with a full broadside, and when the Merrimac, passing her, bore down upon the Cumberland, the latter, too, brought to bear upon her every available gun, in a well-delivered fire. To the chagrin of both vessels, their heaviest shot glanced as idly from the flanks of their antagonist as peas blown at the hide of a rhinoceros. Hot and terrific as was the firing that now took place, the contest could only be of short duration. With fell intent, the huge kraken, unharmed by the missiles rained upon her, bore down upon the Cumberland, and, striking that ill-fated vessel with her iron beak, under terrific momentum, rent a great gaping cavern in her side. In an instant it was seen that all was over with the Cumberland. But, while the waters rushed into the yawning chasm, and while the ship sank lower and lower, her gallant crew, led by their heroic commander, Lieutenant Morris, refused to quit their posts, and with loud cheers continued to pour their broadsides upon the gigantic enemy. As the guns touched the water they delivered a last volley, then down to her glorious grave went the good Cumberland and her crew, with her flag still proudly waving at the masthead.

Meanwhile the consorts of the Merrimac had furiously engaged the Congress with their heavy guns. Warned by the horrible fate of the Cumberland, she had been run aground in an effort to avoid being rammed by the Merrimac. But the latter, at half-past two, coming up from the destruction of the Cumberland, took deliberate position astern of the Congress, and raked her with a horrible fire of heavy shells. Another steamer attacked her briskly on the starboard quarter, and at length two more, an unneeded reënforcement, came up and poured in a fresh and constant fire. Nevertheless, until four o’clock the unequal, hopeless contest was maintained; and with each horrible crash of shell, the splinters flew out, and the dead fell to the deck of the dauntless Congress. She could bring to bear but five guns on her adversaries, and of these the shot skipped harmlessly from the iron hump of the dread monster who chiefly engaged her. At last, not a single gun was available; the ship was encircled by enemies; her decks were covered with dead and dying, for the slaughter had been terrible; her commander had fallen; she was on fire in several places; every one of the approaching Union vessels had grounded; no relief was possible; then, and then only, was the stubborn contest ended, and the flag of the Congress hauled down.

And now, with the waters rolling over the Cumberland and with the Congress in flames, the Confederate dragon, still belching her fiery, sulphurous breath, turned greedy and grim to the rest of the Union squadron. Arrived within a mile and a half of Newport News, the Minnesota grounded while the tide was running ebb, and there remained a helpless spectator of the sinking of the Cumberland and the burning of the Congress. The Roanoke, following after, grounded in her turn; more fortunate, with the aid of tugs, she got off again, and, her propeller being useless, withdrew down the harbor. In fine, the St. Lawrence grounded near the Minnesota. At four o’clock, the Merrimac, Jamestown, and Yorktown bore down upon the latter vessel; but the huge couching monster, which in a twinkling would have visited upon her the fate of the Cumberland, could not, from her great draught, approach within a mile of the stranded prey. She took position on the starboard bow of the Minnesota, and opened with her ponderous battery; yet with so little accuracy that only one shot was effective, that passing through the Union steamer’s bow. As for her consorts, they took position on the port bow and stern of the Minnesota, and with their heavy rifled ordnance played severely upon the vessel, and killed and wounded many men. The Merrimac, meanwhile, gave a share of her favors to the St. Lawrence, which had just grounded near the Minnesota, and had opened an ineffectual fire. One huge shell penetrated the starboard quarter of the St. Lawrence, passed through the ship to the port side, completely demolished a bulkhead, struck against a strong iron bar, and returned unexploded into the wardroom; such were the projectiles which the Merrimac was flinging into wooden frigates. Very soon the St. Lawrence got afloat by the aid of a tug, and was ordered back to Fort Monroe. The grounding of the Minnesota had prevented the use of her battery, but at length a heavy gun was brought to bear upon the two smaller Confederate steamers, with marked effect. As for the 10-inch pivot gun, its heavy shot were harmless against the Merrimac. Thus the afternoon wore on, till with the parting day died the fury of battle. At length at seven o’clock, to the great relief of the Union squadron, all three Confederate vessels hauled off and steamed back to Norfolk.

So ended the first day’s battle in Hampton Roads. What wild excitement, what grief, what anxiety, what terrible foreboding for the morrow possessed the Union squadron when night fell, cannot be described. All was panic, confusion, and consternation. That the Merrimac would renew the battle in the morning was too evident, and the result must be the destruction of a part of the fleet, the dispersion of the rest, and the loss of the harbor of Hampton Roads. Her first victim would be the Minnesota, now helplessly aground off Newport News; next, whatever vessel might be brave or rash enough to put itself in her way; whether she would then pause to reduce Fort Monroe; or, passing it by, would run along the Northern coast, carrying terror to the national capital, or making her dread apparition in the harbor of New York, was uncertain. The commander of the fort, General Wool, telegraphed to Washington that probably both the Minnesota and the St. Lawrence would be captured, and that “it was thought that the Merrimac, Jamestown, and Yorktown will pass the fort to-night.” Meanwhile, that officer admitted that, should the Merrimac prefer to attack the fort, it would be only a question of a few days when it must be abandoned.

It was upon such a scene that the little Monitor quietly made her appearance at eight o’clock in the evening, having left the harbor of New York two days before. Long before her arrival at the anchorage in Hampton Roads the sound of heavy guns was distinctly heard on board, and shells were seen to burst in the air. The chagrined officers of the Monitor conceived it to be an attack upon Norfolk, for which they were too late, and the ship was urged more swiftly along. At length a pilot boarded her, and, half terror-stricken, gave a confused account of the Merrimac’s foray. The response was a demand upon him to put the Monitor alongside the Merrimac; terrified at which, the moment the Roanoke was reached he jumped into his boat and ran away. The appearance of the Monitor did little to abate the consternation prevailing. That so insignificant a structure could cope with the giant Merrimac was not credited; and those who had anxiously watched for her arrival—for she had been telegraphed as having left New York—gazed with blank astonishment, maturing to despair, at the puny affair before them. Her total weight was but nine hundred tons, while that of the Merrimac was five thousand. What had yonder giant to fear from this dwarf? A telegram from Washington had ordered the Monitor to be sent thither the moment she arrived; but this of course was now disregarded, and the senior officer of the squadron, Captain Marston, of the Roanoke, authorized Lieutenant Worden to take the Monitor up to the luckless Minnesota and protect her.

It was a memorable night. In fort, on shipboard and on shore, Federals and Confederates alike could not sleep from excitement: these were flushed with triumph and wild with anticipation, those were oppressed with anxiety or touched the depths of despair. Norfolk was ablaze with the victory, and the sailors of the Merrimac and her consorts caroused with its grateful citizens. In Hampton Roads, amidst the bustle of the hour, some hopeless preparations were made for the morrow. The Monitor, on reaching the Roanoke, found the decks of the flagship sanded and all hands at quarters, resolved, though destruction stared them in the face, to go down in a hard fight. Her sister ship still lay aground off Newport News, tugs toiling all night painfully but uselessly to set her afloat again. Meanwhile a fresh supply of ammunition was sent to her. As for the officers and crew of the Monitor, though worn out by their voyage from New York, they had little mind for sleep, and passed much of the night in forecasting the issue of the coming day. The stories poured into their ears respecting the armor and battery of the Merrimac had not dismayed them, or weakened their confidence in their own vessel; yet, as the officers had not been long enough on her to learn her qualities, nor the men to be drilled at the guns and at quarters, the guns, the turrets, the engines, the gear, and everything else, were carefully examined, and proved to be in working order.

While thus in toil and expectation the night-hours passed, an entrancing spectacle illumined the waters around. The landscape, a short distance off, in the direction of Newport News, was brilliantly lighted by the flames of the burning Congress. Ever and anon a shotted gun, booming like a signal of distress, startled the air around the ill-fated ship, when its charge had been ignited by the slowly-spreading flames. Ten hours now, the ship had been burning; and at one o’clock in the night, the fire reached the magazine, which blew up with an explosion heard more than fifty miles away. At once, in a gorgeous pyrotechny, huge masses of burning timber rose and floated in the air, and strewed the waters far and wide with the glowing débris of the wreck; then succeeded a sullen and ominous darkness, in which the flickering of the embers told that the course of the Congress was nearly run. Meanwhile the dark outline of the mast and yards of the Cumberland was projected in bold relief on the illumined sky. Her ensign, never hauled down to the foe, still floated in its accustomed place, and there swayed slowly and solemnly to and fro, with a requiem-gesture all but human, over the corpses of the hundreds of brave fellows who went down with their ship.

At six o’clock on the morning of March 9th, the officer on watch on the Minnesota made out the Merrimac through the morning mist, as she approached from Sewall’s Point. She was up betimes for her second raid, in order to have a long day for the work. Quickly the Monitor was notified, and got up her anchor; the iron hatches were then battened down, and those below depended on candles for their light. It was a moment of anxiety on the little craft, for there had been no time for drilling the men, except in firing a few rounds to test the compressors and the concussion, and all that the officers themselves, who were now to fight the ship, knew of the operation of the turret and guns, they learned from the two engineers who were attached to the vessel, and who had superintended her construction. When the great smoke-pipe and sloping casemate of the Confederate came clearly into view, it was evident that the latter had been smeared with tallow to assist in glancing off the shot. As she came down from Craney Island, the Minnesota beat to quarters; but the Merrimac passed her and ran down near to the Rip-Raps, when she turned into the channel by which the Minnesota had come. Her aim was to capture the latter vessel, and take her to Norfolk, where crowds of people lined the wharves, elated with success, and waiting to see the Minnesota led back as a prize. When the Merrimac had approached within a mile, the little Monitor came out from under the Minnesota’s quarter, ran down in her wake to within short range of the Merrimac, “completely covering my ship,” says Captain Van Brunt, “as far as was possible with her diminutive dimensions, and, much to my astonishment, laid herself right alongside of the Merrimac.” Astounded as the Merrimac was at the miraculous appearance of so odd a fish, the gallantry with which the Monitor had dashed into the very teeth of its guns was not less surprising. It was Goliath to David; and with something of the coat-of-mailed Philistine’s disdain, the Merrimac looked down upon the pigmy which had thus undertaken to champion the Minnesota. A moment more and the contest began. The Merrimac let fly against the turret of her opponent two or three such broadsides as had finished the Cumberland and Congress, and would have finished the Minnesota; but her heavy shot, rattling against the iron cylinder, rolled off even as the volleys of her own victims had glanced from the casemate of the Merrimac. Then it was that the word of astonishment was passed, “The Yankee cheese-box is made of iron!”

The duel commenced at eight o’clock on Sunday morning, and was waged with ferocity till noon. So eager and so confident was each antagonist, that often the vessels touched each other, iron rasping against iron, and through most of the battle they were distant but a few yards. Several times, while thus close alongside, the Merrimac let loose her full broadside of six guns, and the armor and turret of the little Monitor were soon covered with dents. The Merrimac had, for those days, a very formidable battery, consisting of two 7.5-inch rifles, employing twenty-one-pound charges, and four 9-inch Dahlgrens, in each broadside. Yet often her shot, striking, broke and were scattered about the Monitor’s decks in fragments, afterwards to be picked up as trophies. The Monitor was struck in pilot-house, in turret, in side armor, in deck. But, with their five inches of iron, backed by three feet of oak, the crew were safe in a perfect panoply, while from the impregnable turret the 11-inch guns answered back the broadsides of the Merrimac.

However, on both sides, armor gained the victory over guns; for, unprecedented as was the artillery employed, it was for the first time called upon to meet iron, and was unequal to the task. Even the Monitor’s 11-inch ordnance, though it told heavily against the casemate of the Merrimac, often driving in splinters, could not penetrate it. So excited were the combatants at first, and so little used to their guns, that the latter were elevated too much, and most of the missiles were wasted in the air; but, later in the fight, they began to depress their guns; and then it was that one of the Monitor’s shot, hitting the junction of the casemate with the side of the ship, caused a leak. A shot, also, flying wide, passed through the boiler of one of the Merrimac’s tenders, enveloping her in steam, and scalding many of her crew, so that she was towed off by her consort. But, in general, on both ships the armor defied the artillery. It is this fact which contains the key to the prolonged contest of that famous morning. The chief engineer of the Monitor, Mr. Newton, questioned afterwards by the War Committee of Congress, why the battle was not more promptly decided against the Merrimac, answered: “It was due to the fact that the power and endurance of the 11-inch Dahlgren guns, with which the Monitor was armed, were not known at the time of the battle; hence the commander would scarcely have been justified in increasing the charge of powder above that authorized in the Ordnance Manual. Subsequent experiments developed the important fact that these guns could be fired with thirty pounds of cannon powder, with solid shot. If this had been known at the time of the action, I am clearly of opinion that, from the close quarters at which Lieutenant Worden fought his vessel, the enemy would have been forced to surrender. It will, of course, be admitted by every one, that if but a single 15-inch gun could possibly have been mounted within the Monitor’s turret (it was planned to carry the heaviest ordnance), the action would have been as short and decisive as the combat between the monitor Weehawken, Captain John Rodgers, and the rebel iron-clad Atlanta, which, in several respects, was superior to the Merrimac.” He added that, as it was, but for the injury received by Lieutenant Worden (of which hereafter), that vigorous officer would very likely have “badgered” the Merrimac to a surrender.

The Minnesota lay at a distance, viewing the contest with undisguised wonder. “Gun after gun,” says Captain Van Brunt, “was fired by the Monitor, which was returned with whole broadsides from the rebels, with no more effect, apparently, than so many pebble-stones thrown by a child … clearly establishing the fact that wooden vessels cannot contend with iron-clad ones; for never before was anything like it dreamed of by the greatest enthusiast in maritime warfare.” Despairing of doing anything with the impregnable little Monitor, the Merrimac now sought to avoid her, and threw a shell at the Minnesota which tore four rooms into one in its passage, and set the ship on fire. A second shell exploded the boiler of the tugboat Dragon. But by the time she had fired the third shell, the little Monitor had come down upon her, placing herself between them. Angry at this interruption, the Merrimac turned fiercely on her antagonist, and bore down swiftly against the Monitor with intent to visit upon her the fate of the Cumberland. The shock was tremendous, nearly upsetting the crew of the Monitor from their feet; but it only left a trifling dent in her side-armor and some splinters of the Merrimac to be added to the visitors’ trophies.

It was now that a shell from the Merrimac, striking the Monitor’s pilot-house, which was built of solid wrought-iron bars, nine by twelve inches thick, actually broke one of these great logs, and pressed it inward an inch and a half. The gun which fired this shell was not more than thirty feet off, as the Merrimac then lay across the Monitor’s bow. At that moment, Lieutenant Worden, the commander, and his quartermaster were both looking through a sight aperture or conning-hole, which consisted of a slit between two of the bars, and the quartermaster, seeing the gunners in the Merrimac training their piece on the pilot-house, dropped his head, calling out a sudden warning, but at that instant the shot struck the aperture level with the face of the gallant Worden, and inflicted upon him a severe wound. His eyesight for the time and for long after was gone, his face badly disfigured, and he was forced to turn over his command to Lieutenant Greene, who hitherto had been firing the guns. Chief Engineer Stimers, who had been conspicuously efficient and valuable all day by his skilful operation of the turret and by the encouragement and advice he gave to the gunners, thereby increasing the effective service of the guns, now personally took charge of the latter, and commenced a well-directed fire.

However, with the wounding of Worden, the contest was substantially over, a few well-depressed shots rang against the cuirass of the Merrimac, and the latter, despairing of subduing her eager and obstinate antagonist, after four hours of fierce effort abandoned the fight, and, with her two consorts, steamed away for Norfolk, to tell her vexation to the disappointed throng of spectators, and then to go into dock for repairs.