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U.S. Steamer Monitor
Off Sandy Hook
March 6th, 1862

4 o’clock P.M. We have just parted with our pilot & may consider ourselves at sea. We have a fine westerly wind, a smooth sea & as fair a sky as we could expect in the month of March. We are in tow of the tug Seth Low & convoyed by the U.S. Steam Gun Boats Currituck & Sachem, who are ordered to accompany us the whole distance. Our boat proves to be much more buoyant than we expected & no water of consequence has yet found its way on deck. Our hatchways are covered with glass hatches battened down & the only means of access to the deck is up through the top of the tower & then down to the deck.

9 P.M. I have just returned from the top of the turret. The moon is shining bright, the water smo[o]th & everything seems favourable. The green lights of the gun boats are on our lee beam but a short distance off & the tug is pulling lustily at our big hawser, about 400 feet ahead. A number of sail are visible in different directions, their white sails glistening in the moon light. Not a sea has yet passed over our deck, it is as dry as when we left port. We had a merry company at the supper table, the Captain telling some of his experience as a Midshipman.

Friday, March 7th. When I awoke this morning I found much more motion to the vessel & could see the green water through my deck light as the waves rolled across the deck. A number were complaining of seasickness, among them Capt. Worden & the Surgeon.

The water had worked under the tower during the night & drowned out the sailors whose hammocks were hung on the berth deck immediately below. The water was coming down this morning from under the tower & from the hatches & deck lights & various other openings making it wet & very disagreeable below. In the engine room it was still worse. From the top of the tower, where our seasick ones were laid out, a number of sail were in sight, our companions the gun boats maintaining about the same relative position to us they had last night. They were rolling badly.

Towards noon the wind, which blew quite fresh in the morning, increased, blowing a gale from the no’west & of course getting up quite a heavy sea. The gun boats would occasionally roll the muzzle of their guns under & as far as motion was concerned they were much more uncomfortable than ourselves. To form a correct idea of our position you must bear in mind that our deck is a flat level surface barely a foot above the water in still calm weather, with nothing whatever to keep the seas off our deck. Now the top of every sea that breaks against our side rolls unobstructed over our deck, dashing & foaming at a terrible rate.

The wind continued to increase after dinner with a heavier sea pouring across our deck with an almost resistless force, every now & then breaking against our smoke pipes, which are only about six feet high, sending a torrent of water down on our fires. Our decks are constantly covered with a sea of foam pouring from one side to the other as the deck is inclined, while at short intervals a huge green sea rolls across with terrible force, breaking into foam at every obstruction offered to its passage. Now we scoop up a huge volume of water on one side &, as it rolls to the other with the motion of the vessel, is met by a sea coming from an opposite direction, the accumulated weight seeming sufficient to bury us forever.

The steady & monotonous clank, clank of the engines assure us that they are still at work & the tug ahead is still pulling at the hawser, but as the day advances some anxious faces are seen. Things continued in this way till about 4 o’clock when on turning to go down from the turret I met one of the engineers coming up the steps, pale, black, wet & staggering along gasping for breath. He asked me for brandy & I turned to go down & get him some & met the sailors dragging up the fireman & other engineers apparent[ly] lifeless. I got down as soon as possible & found the whole between decks filled with steam & gas & smoke. The sailors were rushing up stifled with the gas. I found when I reached the berth deck that it came from the engine room, the door of which was open. As I went to shut it one of the sailors said he believed that one of the engineers was still in there. No time was to be lost, though by this time almost suffocated myself. I rushed in over heaps of coal & ashes & fortunately found the man lying insensible. One of the sailors who had followed me helped pull him out & close the door. We got him up to the top of the tower but he was nearly gone.

To understand correctly the nature of our troubles you should get a correct idea of the boat. I enclose a draft of the deck & space below the deck which may assist you some. Immediately under the blower pipes E.E., which are about 2 ft. by 2 1/2 ft. sqr. on the upper deck, are the blowers which take the air down through the pipes & force it into the room aft of the bulk head C.C. This room is tight, the openings to the deck being kept closed. Communication is had with the other part of the ship through small oval openings closed by iron doors about where the letters C.C. are. The air being forced into this room by powerful blowers & having no other outlet goes into the ash pit of the boilers, & up through the fires & so out of the smoke stacks D.D., supplying a strong draft & keeping up combustion. So much water found its way down the blower pipes E.E. that it wet the belts with which the fans were driven & so stretched them as to make them so loose they would not work. This deprived the furnaces of their draft & of course the engine room was soon filled with carbonic acid gas, mingled with the steam of the water which ran down the smoke pipes into the fires. As long as the doors through the iron partition was closed there was no escape for the gas. But as soon as they were opened by the men who were trying to escape the engine room, the gas & steam rushed through & completely filled the whole lower part of the vessel.

We got all the men who were in the engine room stretched out on the top of the turret & put up an old piece of sail as an awning or a protection from the wind & spray which occasionally reached us. It was a sorry looking company which crowded the only habitable spot on our vessel. Our colors were set union down to bring the gun boats to our assistance, but they rolled so on the heavy sea, they could help us none. Things for a time looked pretty blue, as though we might have to “give up the ship.”

We succeeded finally in getting the ventilation started once more & the blowers going. The M.D. in the meantime attending to the sick ones on top of the turret. Evening had now come on & we managed to get the gas out so that we got below once more with the sick. Our supper was crackers & cheese & water. My mechanical genius came in play, as I took charge of the engines till morning when the engineers were sufficiently recovered to attend to their duties. Of course there was no sleep on board that night.

Towards morning the wind moderated & the water became more smooth. Breakfast tasted good I assure you. Weather was a little more pleasant & the water smoother through the day, still it continued to roll over the deck. It seemed singular to sit in my room & hear the huge waves roll over my head & look up through the little deck light at the mass of water [that] darkened the few straggling rays.

A little after noon Cape Charles was seen & about 4 P.M. Cape Henry. About the same time we imagined we heard heavy firing in the distance. Of course all began to speculate as to the cause. As we neared the land, clouds of smoke could be seen hanging over it in the direction of the Fortress [Monroe] & as we approached still nearer little black spots could occasionally be seen suddenly springing into the air, remaining stationary for a moment or two & then gradually expanding into a large white cloud. These were shells & tended to increase the excitement. As the darkness increased, the flashes of guns lit up the distant horizon & bursting shells flashed in the air.

We soon took a pilot & then learned that the Merrimac was out & making terrible havock among the shipping. How slow we seemed to move, the moments were hours. Oh, how we longed to be there. But our iron hull crept slowly on & the monotonous clank, clank of the engine betokened no increase of its speed. No supper was eaten that night as you may suppose.

As we neared the harbour the firing slackened & only an occasional gun lit up the darkness. Vessels were leaving like a covey of frightened quails & their lights danced over the water in all directions. We stopped by the Roanoke frigate & rec’d orders to proceed at once to Newport News to protect the Minnesota which was aground there, so we went up & anchored near her. Capt. Worden went on board & on his return we heard for the first time of the havoc made by the Merrimac & the terrible excitement prevailing among the shipping in the harbour & among the troops ashore.

Everything on board of us had been prepared for action as far as possible as we came up the harbour & the report every little while through the night that the Merrimac was coming kept all hands to quarters through the night. No one slept.

The first rays of morning light saw the Minnesota surrounded by tugs into which were being tumbled the bags & hammocks of the men & barrels & bags of provisions, some of which went into the boats & some into the water, which was covered with barrels of rice, whiskey, flour, beans, sugar, which were thrown overboard to lighten the ship. One of the little tugs alongside had the engine & the whole inside blown out by the explosion of a shell in the previous day’s fight.

After getting up our anchor we steamed slowly along under the towering side of the Minnesota. The men were clambering down into the smaller boats. The guns were being thrown overboard & everything seemed in confusion. Her wooden sides shewed terrible traces of the conflict.

As a light fog lifted from the water it revealed the Merrimac with her consorts lying under Sewall’s Point. The announcement of breakfast brought also the news that the Merrimac was coming & our coffee was forgotten.

Capt. Worden inquired of the Minnesota what he intended to do. “If I cannot lighten my ship off I shall destroy her,” Capt. Van Brunt replied. “I will stand by you to the last if I can help you,” said our Capt. “No Sir, you cannot help me,” was the reply. The idea of assistance or protection being offered to the huge thing by the little pigmy at her side seemed absolutely ridiculous & I have no doubt was so regarded by those on board of her, for the replies came down curt & crispy. As the Merrimac approached, we slowly steamed out of the shadow of our towering friend no ways daunted by her rather ungracious replies.

Every one on board of us was at his post, except the doctor & myself who having no place assigned us in the immediate working of the ship were making the most of our time in taking a good look at our still distant but approaching foe. A puff of smoke arose from her side & a shell howled over our heads & crashed into the side of the Minnesota. Capt. Worden, who was on deck, came up & said more sternly than I ever heard him speak before, “Gentlemen, that is the Merrimac, you had better go below.” We did not wait a second invitation but ascended the tower & down the hatchway, Capt. W. following. The iron hatch was closed over the opening & all access to us cut off. As we passed down through the turret the gunners were lifting a 175 lb. shot into the mouth of one of our immense guns. “Send them that with our compliments, my lads,” says Capt. W.

A few straggling rays of light found their way from the top of the tower to the depths below which was dimly lighted by lanterns. Every one was at his post, fixed like a statue. The most profound silence reigned. If there had been a coward heart there its throb would have been audible, so intense was the stillness. I experienced a peculiar sensation. I do not think it was fear, but it was different from anything I ever knew before. We were enclosed in what we supposed to be an impenetrable armour. We knew that a powerful foe was about to meet us. Ours was an untried experiment & our enemy’s first fire might make it a coffin for us all. Then we knew not how soon the attack would commence, or from what direction it would come, for with the exception of those in the pilot house & one or two in the turret, no one of us could see her. The suspense was awful as we waited in the dim light expecting every moment to hear the crash of our enemy’s shot.

Soon came the report of a gun, then another & another at short intervals, then a rapid discharge, then a thundering broadside & the infernal howl (I can’t give it a more appropriate name) of the shells as they flew over our vessel was all that broke the silence & made it seem still more terrible. Mr. Green says, “Paymaster, ask the Capt. if I shall fire.” The reply was, “Tell Mr. Green not to fire till I give the word, to be cool & deliberate, to take sure aim & not waste a shot.” O, what a relief it was when at the word the gun over my head thundered out its challenge with a report which jar[r]ed our vessel, but it was music to us all.

The fight had been opened by the Merrimac firing on the Minnesota who replied by the broadside we first heard. As we lay immediately between the two, we had the full benefit of their shot — the sound of them at least, which if once heard will never be forgotten I assure you. It would not quiet the nerves of an excitable person I think.

Until we fired, the Merrimac had taken no notice of us, confining her attentions to the Minnesota. Our second shot struck her & made the iron scales rattle on her side. She seemed for the first time to be aware of our presence & replied to our solid shot with grape & canister which rattled on our iron decks like hail stones. One of the gunners in the turret could not resist the temptation when the port was open for an instant to run out his head. He drew it in with a broad grin. “Well,” says he, “the d----d fools are firing canister at us.” The same silence was enforced below that no order might be lost or misunderstood.

The vessels were now sufficiently near to make our fire effective & our two heavy pieces were worked as rapidly as possible, every shot telling. The intervals being filled by the howling of the shells around & over us, which was now incessant. The men at the guns had stripped themselves to their waists & were covered with powder & smoke, the perspiration falling from them like rain.

Below, we had no idea of the position of our unseen antagonist, her mode of attack, or her distance from us, except what was made known through the orders of the Capt.

“Tell Mr. Green that I am going to bring him on our starboard beam close along side.”

“That was a good shot, went through her water line.”

“Don’t let the men expose themselves, they are firing at us with rifles.”

“That last shot brought the iron from her sides.”

“She’s too far off now, reserve your fire till you’re sure.”

“If you can elevate enough, try the wooden gun boat.”

“You struck her.” (We learned afterward that that shot killed four men & wounded the Captain.)

“They’re going to board us, put in a round of canister.”

“Can’t do it,” replies Mr. Green, “both guns have solid shot.”

“Give them to her then.”

Bang goes one of the guns. “You’ve made a hole through her. Quick give her the other.” Snap goes the primer.

“Why don’t you fire?”

“Can’t do it, the cartridge is not rammed home.”

“Depress the gun & let the shot roll overboard.”

“It won’t do it.”

In the meantime two or three more primers snap. 

“How long will it take to get the shot out of that gun?”

“Can’t tell, perhaps 15 minutes” & we hauled off, as the papers say, “to let our guns cool.”

We were soon ready for her again as the order from Capt. W. indicated. “Port bow close aboard, load & fire as fast as possible.”

“A splendid shot, you raked them there.”

“Look out now they’re going to run us down, give them both guns.”

This was the critical moment, one that I had feared from the beginning of the fight. If she could so easily pierce the heavy oak beams of the Cumberland, she surely could go through the 1/2 inch iron plate of our lower hull. A moment of terrible suspense, a heavy jar nearly throwing us from our feet, a rapid glance to detect the expected gush of water. She had failed to reach us below the water & we were safe.

The sounds of the conflict at this time were terrible. The rapid firing of our own guns amid the clouds of smoke, the howling of the Minnesota’s shells, which was firing whole broadsides at a time just over our heads (two of her shot struck us), mingled with the crash of solid shot against our sides & the bursting of shells all around us. Two men had been sent down from the turret who were knocked senseless by balls striking the outside of the turret while they happened to be in contact with the inside.

At this time a heavy shell struck the pilot house. I was standing near, waiting an order, heard the report which was unusually heavy, a flash of light & a cloud of smoke filled the house. I noticed the Capt. stagger & put his hands to his eyes. I ran up to him & asked if he was hurt. “My eyes,” says he, “I am blind.” With the assistance of the Surgeon I got him down & called Lieut. Greene from the turret. A number of us collected around him. The blood was running from his face, which was blackened with the powder smoke. He said, “Gentlemen, I leave it with you. Do what you think best. I cannot see, but do not mind me. Save the Minnesota if you can.”

The quartermaster at the wheel, as soon as Capt. W. was hurt, had turned from our antagonist & we were now some distance from her. We held a hurried consultation & “fight” was the unanimous voice of all. Lieut. Greene took Capt. W.’s position & our bow was again pointed for the Merrimac. As we neared her she seemed inclined to haul off & after a few more guns on each side, Mr. Greene gave the order to stop firing as she was out of range & hauling off. We did not pursue as we were anxious to relieve Capt. W. & have more done for him than could be done aboard. Our iron hatches were slid back & we sprang out on deck which was strewn with fragments of the fight. Our foe gave us a shell as a parting fire which shrieked just above our heads & exploded about 100 feet beyond us.

In a few minutes we were surrounded by small steamers & boats from Newport News, the Fortress, the various men of war, all eager to learn the extent of our injuries & congratulate us on our victory. They told us of the intense anxiety with [which] the conflict was witnessed by thousands of spectators from the shipping & from the shore & their astonishment was no less on learning that though we were somewhat marked we were uninjured & ready to open the fight again.

The Merrimac had a black flag flying during the fight. This was the Commodore’s flag. She was crowded with men, accounts varied in number, some placing it as high as 400 & from that down to 200.

The battle commenced at 1/2 past 8 A.M. & we fired the last gun at 10 minutes past 12 M.

Capt. W. was taken off in a tug boat, in charge of an acquaintance to go to Washington. Our Stewards went immediately to work & at our usual dinner hour the meal was on the table, much to the astonishment of visitors who came expecting to see a list of killed & wounded & a disabled vessel, instead of which was a merry party around the table enjoying some good beef steak, green peas, &c.

“Well, gentleman,” says Sec’y Fox, “you don’t look as though you was just through one of the greatest naval conflicts on record.”

“No Sir,” says Lieut. Greene, “we havn’t done much fighting, merely drilling the men at the guns a little.”

Never was a set of men more completely sold than those on board the Merrimac. She came out in the morning evidently expecting to find an easy prey in the Minnesota without any idea of finding a new antagonist. At first she would scarcely condescend to notice us till we gave her a taste of our quality from our 11 inch Dahlgrens, when she replied with grape & canister, probably thinking that would demolish her puny looking foe.

I believe I have already told you the compliments paid us by Gen. Wool & Sec’y Fox. All regarded us as their deliverers nor doubt could the rebels have succeeded in their designs it would have been a disastrous thing for the country. They could have destroyed & driven off the shipping in the harbour, shelled out the Rip Raps, & Fortress Munroe itself would have been at their mercy as Gen. Wool afterward told us. The[y] would have attacked Gen. Mansfield’s army at Newport News in front while Magruder took them in the rear. This & still more extensive plans of operations had been laid by them when our appearance blocked the game.

The night after the fight I stood watch for one of the officers who I thought needed rest more than I did till 12 o’clock when I turned in & had the first sleep for three nights.

The night we arrived I was on deck & witnessed the explosion of the burning Congress, a scene of the most terrible magnificence. She was wrapped in one sheet of flame, when suddenly a volcano seemed to open instantaneously, almost beneath our feet, & a vast column of flame & fire shot forth till it seemed to pierce the skies. Pieces of burning timbers, exploding shells, huge fragments of the wreck, grenades & rockets filled the air & fell sparkling & hissing in all directions. It did not flash up & vanish in an instant, but seemed to remain for a moment or two, an immense column of fire, one end on the earth the other in the heavens. It soon vanished & a dense thick cloud of smoke hid every thing from view. We were about two miles from the wreck & the dull heavy explosion seemed almost to lift us out of the water.

I think we get more credit for the mere fight than we deserve, any one could fight behind an impenetrable armour — many have fought as well behind wooden walls or behind none at all. The credit, if any is due, is in daring to undertake the trip & go into the fight, in an untried experiment & in our unprepared condition. We were all exhausted before the fight commenced, for want of food & rest. The men had never been drilled at the guns & were not prepared to act in concert. We were unacquainted with our own powers, offensive & defensive & knew nothing of our antagonist except the terrible exhibition of her destructive powers given the previous day. Before we left Brooklyn we heard every kind of derisive epithet applied to our vessel. She was called a “silly experiment,” an “iron coffin for her crew” & we were styled fool hardy for daring to make the trip in her, & this too by naval men. But we did dare & we have won & what is more none of us were ordered to the vessel till we had expressed our willingness to go, or in other words we volunteered.

We have had a letter from Capt. Worden’s wife. She says that he is very weak & nervous, but the doctors say he will recover his sight, though he may be confined for some time. The old quarter master [Williams] who had the wheel by his side has been promoted to a master’s mate. It would take a man of more than ordinary nerve to look steadily & cooly into the muzzle of a ten inch rifled gun & see it loaded, trained & fired within 15 feet of his head. He did it without any apparent emotion, cooly saying to Capt. W., “take care, sir, they are going to try us now.”

The day after the fight the English war steamer Rinaldo came in, & her Capt. went ashore. When in conversation with Gen. Wool he first noticed the Monitor & enquired of the Gen. if that was a machine for raising wrecks. No says the Gen. “that is for making them!”

Sunday March 25—We have been overrun with visitors to day. Among others Gen. Van Vliet & Gen. Heintzleman & Staff & lady, the first one I have seen since I left Brooklyn. Yesterday we were visited by Prince de Joinville, son of Louis Philippe. We have also rec’d a letter from Sec’y Welles  covering the thanks of Congress to officers & crew. Fifteen more steamboats arrived this afternoon crowded with soldiers. Each in turn steamed around us & gave us three cheers, their bands striking up some of our favourite airs. “Onward to Richmond” I think will soon commence from this point, taking Norfolk in the way. I hope we may be “counted in.”

Your letter mailed the 18th I rec’d yesterday the 22nd. It was the first I had had since the 4th & I began to think I had been forgotten. The great event of the day is the arrival of the boat with our mail & you cannot imagine how eagerly letters are devoured. Don’t fail to write often.

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[Marginalia] I fear this will scarcely be intelligible. It has been written while listening to discussions & conversations — sense & nonsense more distracting to me than the Merrimac’s guns. If read to any out of the family you must apologise. I send lots of love & kisses to you all. Direct to Hampton Roads instead of Fortress Munroe.

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