The Long Voyage South

John Ericsson never claimed that the USS Monitor was an ocean-going vessel. Instead, it was designed for use in shallow coastal waters such as Hampton Roads. Lieutenant Worden completed his provisioning of the Monitor in Brooklyn Navy Yard, and on 4 March he received his orders to take her to Hampton Roads. The Atlantic seaboard was in the grip of a severe storm, so Worden delayed his departure for two days, waiting for the storm to subside. At 11.00am on 6 March he secured a towline from the screw tug Set/i Low, and was led out of New York harbor. The tug was there to augment the small engines of the Monitor, and to be ready to help in the event of any mishap. The wooden screw gunboats USS Sachem, and USS Currituck provided an armed escort.

By the end of the afternoon watch (4.00pm) , the flotilla rounded Sandy Hook and turned south to follow the New Jersey coast.. The

The incomplete walls of Fort Wool were built on the Rip Raps shoal, halfway between Old Point Comfort and Willoughby's Spit. It, therefore, helped seal off the entrance into Hampton Roads from Chesapeake Bay. (Casemate)

Uss Sachem


TivedstorpSioux Reservation 1890

Brigadier General Joseph K. F. Mansfield (center figure) commanded the Union forces at Camp Butler and Newport News Point during the battle. His attempts to prevent the Confederates reaching the Congress after she had surrendered led to the destruction of the vessel. (Hensley)

Monitor continued on throughout the night, and sea conditions were relatively calm. The Navy Department's Chief Engineer, Alban Stimers, was attached to the ship to see how she performed. He recorded that despite the lack of swell, "as soon as we were outside of Sandy Hook the sea washed over the deck so deeply that it was not considered safe to permit the men to go on deck." Whatever the conditions, they seem to have deteriorated during the night. By 10.15pm Barnegat Light on Long Beach was due west, and the log recorded "fine weather." Seven hours later it reported it was "cold and clear," and the flotilla was six miles to seaward of the Absecond Light at Atlantic City. This meant the Monitor made an average speed of 5 knots throughout the night. By dawn conditions had worsened. A light gale had reappeared from the west, and at 6.00am the log recorded "very heavy sea. Ship making heavy weather." Worden was suffering from severe sea sickness, and moved to the top of the turret to revive himself. By mid-morning it was clear the Monitor had been caught in a full gale, and water broke over the turret. It even slammed through the vision slit in the pilothouse with such force that the helmsman was knocked over. The ship started leaking from the base of the turret. It had been designed to rest on a brass ring when not in use, and Ericsson argued that the weight of the turret provided an adequate seal. Worden had ignored Ericsson's advice, and had raised the turret, caulked the ring with oakum and lowered it again. The oakum had washed away, and water poured through "like a waterfall". Seawater also poured down into the engine room through ventilation ducts, soaking the leather belts that turned the engine fans. They were designed to remove poisonous fumes, and the water stopped them working. Within an hour the engine room was filled with carbon dioxide and carbonic gas. During the afternoon the engineers struggled to restart the blowers, but the fumes forced them to abandon the attempt. Chief Engineer Isaac Newton ordered the engine room abandoned, but the fumes quickly spread throughout the ship. Half-sinking and filled with poisonous gases, the Monitor was in danger of foundering, and Worden signaled for help. The Seth Low towed her into the shore, and in calmer waters, the engineers managed to vent the engine room and restart their machinery, including the pumps. Disaster had been averted.

The launch of the USS Monitor on 30 January 1862 was witnessed by thousands of spectators, many of whom were convinced the ironclad would never float. This contemporary lithograph is incorrect, as her turret was fitted after she was launched. (US Navy)

Fort Monroe

By 8.00pm on Friday 7 March, the Monitor was ready to resume her journey. The gale had passed on to the north and sea conditions were moderate as she steamed southwards past Fenwick Island. Lieutenant Greene reported a "smooth sea, clear sky, the moon out, and the old tank going along five and six knots very nicely." Around midnight they passed Chincoteague Island on the Maryland coast, but soon afterwards the swell increased. Water passed through the hawsepipe, making a "dismal, awful sound", and Worden ordered the hawsepipe stopped up to prevent any leaks. The seas started breaking over the smokestacks and ventilation ducts again. For the next few hours it remained doubtful whether the engines could continue, but somehow they kept turning. At one point the tiller ropes came loose, and the vessel turned "broadside to the seas and rolling over and over in all kinds of ways." It seemed likely the Monitor would be capsized if struck by a rogue wave, but within half an hour the wheel was working again. By dawn the seas had abated slightly, allowing Worden to signal the Seth Low to tow her inshore again. By 8.00am the Monitor and her escorts were in sheltered coastal waters again, and the crew ate breakfast. They had come close to disaster twice, but the ironclad remained afloat and her engines still worked. She was pumped dry and the voyage south continued.

At noon the quartermaster recorded "fine weather and clear sky." The worst was behind them, and Worden sighted Cape Charles, marking the northern entrance to Chesapeake Bay. The Monitor was on the last leg of her epic maiden voyage. At 2.45pm the Seth Lotus towing hawser parted, but this was quickly replaced and the flotilla resumed its progress. A few minutes later Cape Henry Light became visible, and further to the right smoke lingered over Hampton Roads. Lieutenant Keeler recorded "as we approached still nearer little black spots could occasionally be seen." These were shells bursting in the air. Worden assumed the worst. Unable to steam any faster, he prepared his ship for action. When a pilot boat came out to meet, the Monitor, the Pilot confirmed their fears. The Merrimac was destroying the blockading squadron. It was 9.00pm when Worden finally dropped anchor in Hampton Roads alongside the flagship USS Roanoke. He immediately sent a message to Washington announcing his safe arrival. Captain and crew then prepared themselves for the battle that would almost certainly take place the following morning.

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