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Washington, D.C.
Jan’y 6th, 1863

Dear Anna,

Another chapter has been added to my eventful life. The Monitor is no more. What the fire of the enemy failed to do, the elements have accomplished.

We left Hampton Roads Monday afternoon (Dec. 29th) at 2 o’clock in tow of the side wheel gun boat Rhode Island. We were attached to her by means of two large hawsers, one 11 inches, the other 15 inches in circumference and from 250 to 300 feet in length. Everything passed quietly & pleasantly that afternoon & evening. A smooth sea & clear skies seemed to promise a successful termination of our trip & an opportunity of once more trying our metal against rebel works & making the “Little Monitor” once again a household word.

Tuesday morning cloud banks were seen rising in the south & west & they gradually increased till the sun was obscured by their cold grey mantle. The wind which in the morning was quite light continued to increase till the middle of the afternoon when it blew quite heavy, the sea rolling with violence across our deck rendering it impossible to remain on it without danger of being swept off. We amused ourselves for an hour or more watching two or three large sharks who glided quietly along by our sides observing us apparently with a curious eye as if in anticipation of a feast. We made no water of consequence. A little trickled down about the pilot house & some began to find its way under the turret rendering it wet & cheerless below.

At 5 o’clock P.M. we sat down to dinner, every one cheerful & happy & though the sea was rolling & foaming over our heads the laugh & jest passed freely ’round. All rejoicing that at last our monotonous inactive life had ended & the “gallant little Monitor” would soon add fresh laurels to her name.

It was dark when I returned to the top of the turret. We were now off Hatteras, the Cape Horn of our Atlantic coast. The wind was blowing violently. The heavy seas rolled over our bows dashing against the pilot house & surging aft would strike the solid turret with a force to make it tremble, sending off on either side a boiling foaming torrent of water.

Word came from the engine room that we were making water, more than the ordinary pumps (which had been kept working) would throw out. It sounded ominously. Orders were given to start the Worthington pump, which for a time kept the water down, but again the report, “The water is gaining on us, sir.” As a last resort the large centrifugal pump, of a capacity of three thousand gallons per minute, was started & once more the water diminished, but it was of short duration. The opening through which the water was rushing was rapidly enlarged by the constant beating of the sea, which was now at times rolling over the top of the turret. Again came the report that the water was gaining & had risen above the engine room floor. It was the death knell of the Monitor. The storm continued to increase in fury.

In order to understand our situation & contrast it with our passage from New York to Hampton Roads last spring, it will be necessary to bear in mind that in the latter case “the sea was on our beam” as sailors term it, that is, the waves would come up on our side, rolling on to us on one side & off on the other. Now we were going “head on,” or in other words were crossing them at right angles. As we were unable to carry our boats at sea, they had been sent on board the Rhode Island & nothing whatever remained to support us in the water were we obliged to trust ourselves to that treacherous element.

But our brave little craft struggled long & well. Now her bow would rise on a huge billow & before she could sink into the intervening hollow, the succeeding wave would strike her under her heavy armour with a report like thunder & a violence that threatened to tear apart the thin sheet iron bottom & the heavy armour which it supported. Then she would slide down a watery mountain into the hollow beyond & plunging her bow into the black rolling billow would go down, down, down, under the surging wave till naught could be seen but the top of the black “cheese box” isolated in a sea of hissing seething foam, extending as far as we could see around us. Then as she rose slowly & sullenly under the accumulated weight of waters, the foam pouring in broad sheets off the iron deck, a wave would roll over the bow & strike the pilot house with a force that would send the water in torrents on to the top of the turret where our little company were gathered. From behind the iron breastwork which surmounted the top of the turret, a circle of anxious faces were gazing over the expanse of angry waters & awaiting with anxiety the report from the pumps. It came as I have stated.

About this time too it was found our smaller hawser had parted, a disaster which no human agency could remedy, as well might one stand under Niagara, as to attempt to breast the waves which were rolling over our decks. It was with the greatest reluctance that our Captain now gave the order to make the signal for assistance. Every pump was at work & gangs of men had been organised to bail, more however with the design of keeping them employed & preventing a panic, than with the hope of any good result. The water was already a foot deep on the engine room floor & was fast deepening in the ward room. From its rapid influx it was very evident that but a short time would elapse before it would reach the fires & then the iron heart of the Monitor would cease to beat. Every expedient which human ingenuity or skill could suggest had been tried in vain & all that remained was to save the lives of those on board.

At the order our signal flashed upon the darkness, lighting up the tumultuous sea for miles around. Our consort stopped & attempted to come alongside, but with the two vessels connected with the hawser it was found impossible. At the call for a volunteer to go forward & cut it (a task involving almost certain destruction), one of our officers seized a hatchet & going cautiously forward holding on the life line, which was stretched around the deck, with a few blows severed the connection while the waves were rolling high over his head & returned in safety to the turret.

We hailed our consort as soon as sufficiently near, “Send your boats immediately, we are sinking.” A hoarse unintelligible reply was all that we could get amid the roar of the elements. Again & again it was repeated & signal after signal flashed out amid the storm as we saw no sign of boats, & the same unintelligible response induced us to believe that they understood neither our signal or our hail. Words cannot depict the agony of those moments as our little company gathered on the top of the turret, stood with a mass of sinking iron beneath them, gazing through the dim light, over the raging waters with an anxiety amounting almost to agony for some evidence of succor from the only source to which we could look for relief. Seconds lengthened into hours & minutes into years.

About this time the report was brought from the engine room that the water had reached the furnaces & the fires were being extinguished. Our Commander’s orders were given calmly & cooly & met with a ready & cheerful response from officers & men. No one faltered in obedience, but a ready aye, aye sir, met every order. Some however obeyed mechanically, while others worked cooly & resolutely as if realising that our safety depended upon the prompt & ready execution of every order.

After an hour that seemed an eternity to us, boats were seen approaching. What a load was taken from our anxious hearts. With what interest we watched as they toiled & struggled slowly over the heavy seas, now hidden from our sight in a watery hollow, then balanced on the foaming crest of a mountain wave.

Hoping to be able to get off in one of the approaching boats & to take with me the books & accounts of the vessel, I started for my state room to gather them up. I passed down the turret ladder, felt my way around the guns & making a misstep fell from the top of the berthdeck ladder to the deck below. A dim lantern swinging to & fro with the motion of the vessel just served to make the nearest objects visible in the thick darkness, rendered more dense if possible by the steam, heat & gas which was finding its way in from the half extinguished fires of the engine room. I passed across this deck, down into the ward room, where I found the water nearly to my waist & swashing from side to side with the roll of the ship, & groped my way through the narrow crooked passage into my state room. It was a darkness that could be felt. The hot, stifling, murky atmosphere pervaded every corner. After groping about for a little time, I collected what books & papers I deemed it important to save, but found they made so large & unmanageable a mass that the attempt to save them would be utterly useless & would only endanger my life, as my whole physical energies would be required to get me safely over the wave washed deck & into the boats. I took down my watch, which was hanging on a nail near by &, putting it in my pocket, took out my safe keys with the intention of saving the Government “green backs.” The safe was entirely submerged. In the thick darkness, below the water & from the peculiar form of the lock I was unable to insert the key. I desisted from the attempt & started to return.

My feelings at this time it is impossible to describe, when I reflected that I was nearly at the fartherest extremity of the vessel from its only outlet & this outlet liable to be completely obstructed at any moment by a rush of panic stricken men, & the vessel itself momentarily expected to give the final plunge. Everything was enveloped in a thick murky darkness, the waves dashing violently across the deck over my head, my retreat to be made through the narrow crooked passage leading to my room, through the ward room where the chairs & tables were surging violently from side to side, threatening severe bruises if not broken limbs, then up a ladder to the berth deck, across that & up another ladder into the turret, around the guns & over gun tackle, shot, sponges & rammers which had broken loose from their fastenings, & up the last ladder to the top of the turret.

I reached the goal & found our consort close alongside, so near in fact that I expected every instant to see her thrown against our iron side & both vessels go down together. Her launch was under her quarter & was crashing & grinding most fearfully between the two vessels. Its crew had leaped upon our deck to escape being crushed with the boat & for a time it seemed as if we had but received an addition to our imperilled number. Ropes were thrown from over her bulwarks, which towered far above us but none of the crew seemed to have the courage & resolution to make the perilous passage of the deck & seize them. Fortunately she remained but a short time in this position. She forged slowly ahead, clear of our iron mass, leaving her launch tossing & pitching against our side with a violence that threatened its instant demolition. It was necessary that she should receive her living freight without delay & leave the dangerous spot, but the embarkation was an undertaking of the most perilous nature as sea after sea was sweeping the deck with resistless violence. Already two or three of our number had been swept off & those who remained seemed to hang back fearing to make the effort. It was a scene well calculated to appall the boldest heart. Mountains of water were rushing across our decks & foaming along our sides. The small boats were pitching & tossing about on them or crashing against our sides, mere playthings on the billows. The howling of the tempest, the roar & dash of waters, the hoarse orders through the speaking trumpets of the officers, the response of the men, the shouts of encouragement & words of caution,“the bubbling cry of some strong swimmer in his agony,” & the whole scene lit up by the ghastly glare of the blue lights burning on our consort, formed a panorama of horror which time can never efface from my memory.

Upon the order from Capt. B. to “lead the men to the boats,” I divested myself of the greater portion of my clothing to afford me greater facilities for swimming in case of necessity & attempted to descend the ladder leading down the outside of the turret but found it full of men hesitating but desiring to make the perilous passage of the deck. I found a rope hanging from one of the awning staunchons over my head & slid down it to the deck. A huge wave passed over me, tearing me from my footing & bearing me along with it, rolling, tumbling & tossing like the merest speck. My feeble powers of swimming were of no avail in this whirlpool of foaming waters. I distinctly remember at this time making a hasty review of natural history, piscatorially considered, especially where it related more immediately to the specimens who had favoured us with their company during the forepart of the day & I attempted a mathematical calculation as to the number of rations that 150 pounds of humanity would make them. I however had but little time for thought or reflection as I was borne helpless along with the moving mass of water. I was carried as near as I could judge ten or twelve yards from the vessel when I came to the surface & the backset of the wave threw me against the vessel’s side near one of the iron staunchons which supported the life line. This I grasped with all the energy of desperation & drawing myself on deck worked my way along the life line & was hauled into the boat into which the men were jumping one by one as they could venture across the deck.

We were soon loaded and shoved off but our dangers were not yet over. We were in a leaky overloaded boat, through whose crushed sides the water was rushing in streams & had nearly half a mile to row over the storm tossed sea before we could reach the Rhode Island. This, after a hard long struggle, was accomplished & we found ourselves under the weather quarter of our consort in imminent danger of being swamped as she sunk in the hollow of the sea. The ends of ropes were thrown to us from the high bulwarks over our heads, which the more active of our number seized & climbed up. Others grasped them firmly & were thus drawn over the side. In my exhausted state & with my crippled hand I could do neither of these, but watching my opportunity till I saw a loop, or what a sailor would call a bight of a rope, let down, I passed it under my arms & was drawn on board the Rhode Island to receive the congratulations & hospitalites of her officers, & I assure you they were not deficient in either.

Other boats soon came alongside bringing the remainder of our officers & crew & a little before one o’clock on the morning of the 31st the Monitor disappeared beneath the surface. On mustering the officers & crew, four officers & twelve of the crew were missing. Those who escaped did so without receiving any serious injury with the exception of our surgeon, whose fingers on one hand were so badly mashed by being caught between the boats as to render partial amputation necessary.

One of the Rhode Island’s boats was still absent & we spent the remainder of the night & the next day in search of it, when we proceeded to Wilmington where the vessel was ordered. From there we were ordered to Beaufort & thence to Hampton Roads where we received every kindness & hospitality that friendship & our destitute condition could suggest.

During all the time we were standing on the sinking ship, & while whirling over & over in the water, I am not aware that the idea occurred to me that I might be lost. Although I fully realised the danger, I looked forward with just as much confidence to being saved as if it were a fact already established. When we left Hampton Roads we felt convinced that if we should encounter a severe gale we should go to the bottom & had it not been for shewing a want of confidence in our vessel & a tendency to create a panic among the men, all the officers would have transfered their effects to the Rhode Island. As it was we got on board of her perfectly destitute & had it not been for the kindness & generosity of her officers we should have fared poorly indeed. I still hope to visit Charleston in an iron clad.

Yours truly,
W. F. Keeler

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