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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Monitor and the Merrimack
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The civil war in America made in military science one step of progress of the highest importance: it revolutionized naval combats. From the earliest days of naval warfare nearly up to the year 1861 the wooden ship was the type of warlike vessels, oaken beams being the strongest bulwarks behind which fought the gallant sailors of the past. Somewhat previous to the outbreak of the war in American experiments in iron armor for ships had been made in England and France, but little had been done towards proving the efficacy of this expedient in war. The value of this method was first practically proved in the American war. The idea of coating their vessels with iron at once arose in the minds of the combatants, both sides simultaneously trying the experiment. Thus, in a crude manner at first, was brought into practical use that feature in naval architecture which has made such extraordinary progress within the succeeding twenty-five years.

At the opening of the war the navy was very weak, and its ships were widely scattered, there being, indeed, but one efficient war-vessel on the Northern coast when the first shots were fired. The dock-yards were also ill provided. Buchanan's Secretary of the Navy had been careful to strengthen the South and weaken the North during the later months of his term of office. Active steps were at once taken, however, for the creation of a navy, and war-vessels were built with remarkable rapidity. In this labor the idea of building iron-clads at once came into prominence. In the attack on Fort Sumter the Confederates had used a floating battery, composed of a raft with sloping bulwarks of iron. This expedient was quickly extended. The Merrimack, a large frigate which had been sunk at the abandonment of the Gosport navy-yard, at Norfolk, was raised with little difficulty, and the Confederates proceeded to cover the hull with a sloping roof of iron, the covering of mail extending beneath the water.

The Federal government, in like manner, proceeded to build iron-clads, for both river- and ocean-service. Gunboats, to be covered with iron mail, for use on the Western rivers, were contracted for, and built with such rapidity by Mr. Eads, of St. Louis, that in less than a hundred days after their commencement a fleet of eight heavily-armored steamboats were fully ready for service. Several other vessels, more thinly coated, but musket-proof, were built. These gained the title of "tin-clads." Mortar-boats were constructed, similarly protected.

For ocean-service, in addition to the numerous fleet of wooden vessels intended for use in the blockade of the Southern ports, some of them very large and powerful, an efficient fleet of iron-clads was prepared. Originally contracts were entered into for three such vessels, of different character. One was a small corvette, the Galena, covered with iron three inches thick. This experiment proved a failure, as solid shot easily penetrated that thickness of mail. A second, the New Ironsides, was a heavily-coated frigate, which did good service. The third brought into play a new idea in naval architecture, the invention of John Ericsson, a Swedish engineer. It consisted of a nearly- submerged, flat-surfaced hull, surmounted by a revolving turret strongly plated and containing a few powerful guns. This vessel, the Monitor, was to be built in one hundred days, and fortunately the contract was executed within the prescribed time. The great success of her first engagement encouraged the government to build several other vessels of the same type, some of them being very large and powerful. Several of these vessels were provided with rams, of solid wood and iron, calculated to pierce any vessel whose sides they might have an opportunity to strike. The Merrimack was also furnished with a ram, and the Confederates afterwards prepared several strong vessels of this sort, all of which, however, met with serious disasters. It may be said here that the use of the Monitor idea in warfare practically ended with our civil war. The development of the ironclad has proceeded in a different direction.

Another idea was adopted which also has had a revolutionizing effect on naval warfare, that of the employment of very heavy guns. Up to 1860 the English navy used no guns of larger calibre than eight inches. America had long given her ships a more powerful armament than those of England. In 1856 American frigates were afloat armed with guns of nine-, ten-, and eleven-inch calibre. With the outbreak of the war much heavier guns were made, the twenty-inch Rodman throwing a ball of eleven hundred pounds' weight, with a range of four and a half miles. The progress of iron-clad naval architecture has since rendered the use of very heavy guns an absolute necessity, and experiments in this direction have kept pace with those in thickening the steel coating of ships, until both seem to have nearly reached their limit of possible utility.

The remarks here made seem necessary as preliminary to the description of perhaps the most remarkable event in naval warfare which exists in the annals of history, the encounter of the first two iron-clad ships, with the sudden and radical revision of previously-existing ideas to which it gave rise. A description of this highly interesting event we select from Draper's "Civil War in America."]

When the navy-yard at Norfolk was seized by Virginia, among the ships partly destroyed was the steam-frigate Merrimack, of forty guns. She was one of the finest vessels in the navy, and was worth, when equipped, nearly a million and a quarter of dollars.

She had been set on fire, and also scuttled, by the officers who had charge of the yard. Her upper work alone, therefore, had suffered. He hull and machinery were comparatively uninjured.

The Confederate government caused her to be raised and turned into an extemporaneous iron-clad. Her hull was cut down, and a stout timber roof built upon it. This was then strongly plated with three layers of iron, each one inch and a quarter thick, the first layer being placed horizontally, the second obliquely, the third perpendicularly. The armature reached two feet below the water-line, and rose ten feet above. The ends were constructed in the same manner. A false bow was added for the purpose of dividing the water, and beyond it projected an iron beak Outwardly she presented the appearance of an iron roof or ark. It was expected that, from her sloping armature, shots striking would glance away. Her armament consisted of eight eleven-inch guns, four on each side, and a one-hundred-pound rifled Armstrong gun at each end.

As the fact of her construction could not be concealed, the Confederate authorities purposely circulated rumors to her disadvantage. It was said that her iron was so heavy that she could hardly float; that her hull had been seriously injured, and that she could not be steered. Of course they could have no certain knowledge of her capabilities as a weapon of war, and, as was the case with many officers of the national navy, perhaps they held her in light esteem.

About mid-day on Saturday, March 8th [1862], she came down the Elizabeth River, under the command of Franklin Buchanan, an officer who had abandoned the national navy. She was attended by two armed steamboats, and was afterwards joined by two others. Passing the sailing-frigate Congress, and receiving from her her fire, she made her way to the sloop-of-war Cumberland, of twenty-four guns and three hundred and seventy-six men. This ship had been placed across the channel to bring her broadside to bear, and, as the Merrimack approached, she received her with a rapid fire. At once one of the problems presented by the Merrimack's construction was solved: the shot of the Cumberland, from thirteen nine- and ten-inch guns, glanced from her armature "like so many peas." Advancing with all the speed she had, and receiving six or eight broadsides while so doing, she struck her antagonist with her iron beak just forward of the main chains, and instantly opened her fire of shells from every gun she could bring to bear. The battle was already decided. Through the hole she had made, large enough for a man to enter, the water poured in. In vain Lieutenant Morris, who commanded the Cumberland, worked the pumps to keep her afloat a few moments more, hoping that a lucky shot might find some weaker place. He only abandoned his guns as one after another the settling of the sinking ship swamped them in the water. The last shot was fired by Matthew Tenney, from a gun on a level with the water. That brave man then attempted to escape through the port-hole, but was borne back by the incoming rush, and went down with the ship. With him went down nearly one hundred dead, sick, wounded, and those who, like him, could not extricate themselves. The Cumberland sank in fifty-four feet of water. The commander of her assailant saw the flag of the unconquered but sunken ship still flying above the surface. He was not a Virginian, but a Marylander by birth, and had served under that flag for thirty-five years.

The sailing-frigate Congress, which had fired at the Merrimack as she passed, and exchanged shots with the armed steamboats, had been run aground by her commander with the assistance of a tug. The Merrimack now came up, and, taking a position about one hundred and fifty yards from her stern, fired shell into her. One shell killed seventeen men at one of the guns. Of the only two guns with which she could reply, one was quickly dismounted, and the muzzle of the other knocked off. The Merrimack ranged slowly backward and forward at less than one hundred yards. In her helpless condition, the Congress took fire in several places, and nearly half her crew were killed or wounded. Among the former was her commander. The flag was therefore hauled down, and a tug came alongside to take possession of her. But, fire being opened on the tug by some soldiers on shore, the Merrimack recommenced shelling, doing the same again later in the day, after the crew of the Congress had abandoned her. The Congress was set thoroughly on fire. About midnight she blew up. Out of her crew of four hundred and thirty-four men, only two hundred and eighteen survived. In little more than two hours Buchanan had killed or drowned more than three hundred of his old comrades.

When the Merrimack first came out, the commander of the steam-frigate Minnesota got his ship under way, intending to butt the iron-clad and run her down. As he passed Sewall's Point, he received the fire of a rifle battery there, and had his mainmast injured. It was ebb tide; the Minnesota drew twenty-three feet of water; at one part of the channel the depth was less, but, as the bottom was soft, it was hoped that the ship could be forced over. She, however, took the ground, and, in spite of every exertion, became immovable. The Merrimack, having destroyee the Cumberland and Congress, now came down upon the Minnesota. Her draft, however, prevented her coming nearer to her intended victim than a mile, and the fire on both sides was comparatiely ineffective. But the armed steamboats ventured nearer, and, with theirrifled gunds, killed and wounded several men on board the Minnesota. On her part, she sent a shot through the boiler of one of them. Night was coming on; the Merrimak did not venture to lie out in the Roads: so, expecting another easy victory in the morning, she retiree at seven p.m., with her consorts, behind Sewall's Point.

The Minnesota still lay fast on the mud-bank. The re-coil of her own firing had forced her harder on. Attempts were made at high tide, and indeed, all through the night, to get her off, but in vain. The steam-frigate Roanoke, disabled some months previously by the breaking of her shaft, and the sailing-frigate St. Lawrence, had both like-wise been aground, but had now gone down the Roads.

At nine o'clock that night Ericsson's new iron-clad turret-ship, the Monitor, reached Fortress Monroe from New York. Every exertion had been made by her inventor to get her out in time to meet the Merrimack; and the Confederates, finding from their spies in New York that she would probably be ready, put a double force on their frigate, and worked night and day. It is said that this extra labor gained that one day in which the Merrimack destroyed the Cumberland and the Congress.

The Monitor was commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden. A dreadful passage of three days had almost worn out her crew. The sea had swept over her decks; the turret was often the only part above water. The tiller-rope was at one time thrown off the wheel. The draft-pipe had been choked by the pouring down of the waves. The men were half suffocated. The fires had been repeatedly extinguished. Ventilation had, however, been obtained through the turret. Throughout the previous afternoon Worden had heard the sound of the Cannoanding. He delayed but a few minutes at the Fortress, and soon after midnight had anchored the Monitor along-side the Minnesota (March 9).

Day broke, - a clear and beautiful Sunday. The flag of the Cumberland ws still flying; the corpses of her defenders were floating about on the water. The Merrimack approached to renew her attack. She ran down towards the Fortress, and then came up the channel through which the Minnesota had passed. Worden at once took his station at the peep-hole of his pilot-house, slid the Monitor before the enemy, and gave the fire of his two eleven-inch guns. The shot of each was one hundred and sixty-eight pounds' weight. Catesby Jones, who had taken command of the Merrimack, Buchanan having been wounded the previous day, saw at once that he had on his hands a very different antagonist from those of yesterday. The turret was but a very small mark to fire at, nine feet by twenty; the shot that struck squarely, penetrating into the iron; "it then broke short off, and left its head sticking in." For the most part, the shot flew over the low deck, missing their aim.

Five times the Merrimack tried to run the Monitor down, and at each time received, at a few feet distance, the fire of the eleven-inch guns. In her movements at one moment she got aground, and the light-drawing Monitor, steaming round her, tried at every promising point to get a shot into her. Her armor at last began to start and bend.

Unable to shake off the Monitor or to do her any injury, the Merrimack now renewed her attempt on the frigate Minnesota, receiving from her a whole broadside which struck squarely. "It was enough," said Captain Van Brunt, who commanded the frigate, "to have blown out of the water any wooden ship in the world." In her turn, she sent from her rifled bow-gun a shell through the Minnesota's side; it exploded within her, tearing four of her rooms into one, and setting her on fire. Anothr shell burst the boiler of the tug-boat Dragon, which lay alongside the Minnesota. The frigate was firing on the ironclad solid shot as fast as she could.

Once more the Monitor intervened between them, compelling her antagonist to change position, in doing which the Merrimack again grounded, and again received a whole broadside from the Minnesota. The blows she was receiving were beginning to tell upon her. As soon as she could get clear, she ran down the bay, followed by the Monitor. Suddenly she turned round, and attempted to run her tormentor down. Her bak grated on the Monitor's deck, and was wrenched. The turret-ship stood unharmed a blow like that which had sent the Cumberlad to the bottom; she merely glided out from under her antagonist, and in the act of so doing gave her a shot while almost in contact. It seemed to crush in her armor.

The Monitor now hauled off, for the purpose of hoisting more shot into her turret. Catesby Jones thought he had silenced her, and that he might make another attempt on the Minnesota. He, however, changed his course as the Monitor steamed up, and it was seen that the Merrimack was sagging down at her stern. She made the best of her way to Crancy Island. The battle was over; the turreted Monitor had driven her from the field and won the victory.

The Minnesota had fired two hundred and forty-seven solid shot, two hundred and eighty-two shells, and more than ten tons of powder. The Monitor fired forty-one shot, and was struck twenty-two times. The last shell fired by the Merrimack at her struck her pilot-house opposite the peep-hole, through which Worden at that moment was looking. He was knocked down senseless and blinded by the explosion. When consciousness returned, the first question this brave officer asked was, "Did we save the Minnesota?"

The shattering of the pilot-house was the greatest injury that the Monitor received. One of the iron logs, nine inches by twelve inches thick, was broken in two.

On board the Merrrimack two were killed and nineteen woulded. She had lost her iron prow, her starboard anchor, and all her boats; her armor was dislocated and damaged; she leaked considerably; her steam-pipe and smoke-stack were riddled; the muzzles of two of her gunds were shot away; the wood-work round one of the ports was set on fire at every discharge.

In his report on the battle, Buchanan states that in fifteen minutes after the action began he had run the Cumberland down; that he distinctly heard the crash when she was struck, and that the fire his ship received did her some injury; that there was great difficulty in managing the Merrimack when she was near the mud, and that this was particularly the case in getting into position to attack the Congress. It was while firing the red-hot shot and incendiary shell by which that ship was burnt that he was himself wounded.

This engagement excited the most profound interest, throughout the civilized world. It seemed as if the day of wooden navies was over. Nor was it alone the superiority of iron as against wood that was settled by this combat: it showed that a monitor was a better construction than a mailed broadside ship, and that inclined armor was inferior to a turret.

[This opinion does not take into account the defects of the monitors as sea- going vessels, which have prevented their coming into extended use. The original Monitor foundered in a storm off Cape Hatteras during the same year. The Merrimack was blown up on the abandonment of Norfolk, on May 11, 1862.]

John William Draper

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