USS Monitor's first battle came before Hampton Roads

John Hartwell

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Never, until her final moments, was the USS Monitor in greater danger of going down than during her first voyage from New York to Hampton Roads. It is a harrowing tale of desperate peril. Lt. Samuel D. Greene describes the harrowing journey in a letter home:

"U. S. Steamer Monitor, Hampton Roads,
March 14th, 1864.

“My dear Mother and Father — When I bid you good-night on Wednesday, the fifth, I confidently expected to see you the next day, as I then thought it would be impossible to finish our repairs on Thursday. But the mechanics worked all night, and at eleven a.m., Thursday, we started down the harbor, in company with the gunboats Sachem and Currituck. We went along very nicely, and when we arrived at Governor's Island the steamer Seth Low came alongside and took us in tow. We went out, passing the Narrows with a light wind from the west and very smooth water. The weather continued the same all Thursday night. About noon 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 we could do, and the water came down under the tower like a waterfall. It would strike the pilot-house and go over the tower in most beautiful curves, and came through the narrow eye-holes in the pilot-house with such force as to knock the helmsman com- pletely round from the wheel. At four p. m. the water had gone down our smoke-stacks and blowers to such an extent that the blowers gave out, and the engine-room was filled with gas. Then occurred a scene I shall never forget. Our engineers behaved like heroes, every one of them fighting with the gas, endeavoring to get the blowers to work, until they dropped down, apparently dead. I jumped into the engine-room with my men as soon as I could, and carried them on top of the tower to get fresh air. I was nearly suffocated with the gas myself, but got on deck, after every one was out, just in time to save myself. Three firemen were in the same condition as the engineers. Then times looked rather blue, I can assure you. We had no fear as long as the engine could be kept going to pump the water, but when that stopped the water increased rapidly. I immediately rigged the hand-pumps, on the berth-deck, but we were obliged to lead the hose out over the tower, and there was not force enough in the pump to throw the water out. Our only resource now was to bail; and that was useless, as we had to pass the buckets up through the tower, making it a very long operation. We knew not now what to do, but felt we had done all in our power, and must let things take their own course. Fortunately the wind was off shore, so we hailed the tug-boat and told them to steer directly for the shore, in order to get into smooth water. After five hours of hard steaming we got near the land and in smooth water. At eight p.m. we succeeded in getting the engines to work, and everything apparently quiet. The captain had been up nearly all the previous night, and as we did not like to leave the deck without one of us being there, I told him I would keep the watch from eight to twelve, he take it from twelve to four, and I relieve him from four to eight.

“The first watch passed away nicely; smooth sea, clear sky, the moon out, and the old tank going along at the rate of six knots. All I had to do was to keep awake, and think over the narrow escape we had in the afternoon. At twelve o'clock, things looked so favorable, I told the captain he need not turn out; I would lie down with my clothes on, and if any thing happened, I would attend to it. He said, 'very well,' and I went to my room, hoping to get a short nap. I had scarcely gone to my berth, when I was startled by the most infernal noise I ever heard. The Merrimac's firing on Sunday last was music to it. We were just passing a shoal, when the sea suddenly became very rough, and right ahead. It came up with tremendous force through our anchor-well, and forced the air through our hawse-pipe, where the chain comes, and then the water would come through in a perfect stream to our berth-deck, and over the ward-room table. The noise resembled the death-groans of twenty men, and certainly was the most dismal sound I ever heard. Of course, the captain and myself were on our feet in a moment, and endeavored to stop the hawse-pipe. We succeeded partially, but now the water commenced to come down the blowers again, and we feared the same accident of the afternoon. We tried to hail the tug-boat, but the wind being directly ahead, they could not hear us; and we had no way of signalling to them, as the steam-whistle, which father recommended, had not been put on. We commenced to think, then, the Monitor would never see daylight. We watched carefully every drop of water that went down the blowers, and sent continually to ask the fireman how the blowers were going. His only answer was, 'slowly,' but could not be kept going much longer, unless we could stop the water from coming down. The sea was washing completely over decks, and it was dangerous for a man to go on them, so we could do nothing. In the midst of all this, our wheel-ropes jumped off the steering-wheel (owing to the pitching of the ship), and became jammed. She now commenced to sheer about at a fearful rate, and we thought our hawser must certainly break. Fortunately it was a new one, and held on well. In the course of half an hour we fixed the wheel-ropes, and now our blowers were the only difficulty. About three o'clock on Saturday morning the sea became a little smoother, though still rough, and going down our blowers to some extent. The never-failing answer from the engine-room, 'blowers going slowly, but can't go much longer.' From 4 a. m. until daylight was the longest hour and a half I ever spent. I certainly thought old "Sol" had stopped at China, and did not intend to visit us again. At last, however, we could see, and made the tug-boat understand to go nearer in shore, and get in smooth water, which we did at about 8 a.m. Things were again a little more quiet, but every thing wet and uncomfortable below. The decks and air-ports leaked, and the water still came down the hatches and under the tower. I was busy all day making out my station bills, and attending to different things that constantly required my attention. At 3 p. m. we parted our hawser, but the sea was quite smooth, so we secured it without difficulty. At 4 p. m. we passed Cape Henry, and heard heavy firing in the direction of Fortress Monroe.”

The letter continues to describe the course of the next morning's battle with CSS Virginia, during which battle Lt. Greene would take over command after Capt. Worden was wounded.
[Text from: https://archive.org/details/soldierslettersf00post]
 
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