"The Merrimac [sic] has caused sad work amongst our vessels. [But] she can't hurt us. God bless you and our little ones."
- USS Monitor commander John L. Worden, writing to his wife on the eve of his battle with the Merrimack, also known as the CSS Virginia
The USS Monitor limped into Hampton Roads just after dusk - and just minutes after the catastrophic battle between the CSS Virginia and the hapless Federal fleet had ended.
Twice during its two-day journey from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the experimental Union ironclad and its exhausted crew had almost perished in an angry Atlantic storm. But the men quickly shook off their sickness and fatigue as they took in the horror that filled the harbor.
On the horizon, the burning hulk of the USS Congress lit up the sky, sending a great column of flames and smoke into the air over Newport News Point. Fleeing vessels had turned the channel into chaos.
"All manner of ships, sail and steam, were running out of Hampton Roads," Paymaster William F. Keeler reported, "leaving like a covey of quails."
Ordered to protect the USS Minnesota, which was grounded on the Hampton Flats off Salter's Creek, the Monitor anchored alongside the giant frigate about 1 a.m. But the "pygmy aspect" of the revolutionary, low-slung vessel did little to inspire confidence in the gloomy commander as he looked down over the rail.
Like the rest of the wounded Union fleet, especially the frantic sailors heaving equipment and supplies over the sides of three stranded ships, he was still in shock over the Confederate ironclad's seemingly irresistible power.
"They had seen the behemoth destroy some of the most powerful sailing ships in the world - and they knew it was coming back," says historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
"All they had standing between them and the Virginia was this cheesebox on a raft."
Nevertheless, by midday on March 9, the strange-looking vessel and its Rebel opponent had secured an indelible place in history. Two revolutions took place off the Peninsula during the Battle of Hampton Roads.
"The first day showed that the age of the wooden fighting ship was over," says historian Joseph M. Judge of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
"The second day showed that it would be very difficult for one ironclad to sink another. For decades to come, naval warfare would be fought with shell against armor."
Sometime around 1:30 a.m., the wreck of the Congress punctuated that historic change, blowing up in a massive series of explosions.
Lt. Samuel Dana Greene, the Monitor's second in command, had just returned to his ship after the rebuff from the captain of the Minnesota.
"Certainly a grander sight never was seen," he later wrote. "But it went right to the marrow of our bones."
Thousands of others watched the spectacular display, including Federal troops at Fort Monroe, Fort Wool and Newport News Point in addition to the sailors of the Union fleet. To the south and west, inside the ring of Confederate shore batteries that linked Sewell's Point, Craney Island, Pig's Point and Ragged Island, Rebel soldiers recorded the sight in their letters and diaries.
Even more people turned out at daybreak to see the fog burn off and give way to a crisp, clear Sunday morning. Hampton Roads had become an arena, with thousands gathering to watch the expected fight.
"Visibility was wonderful," says historian John M. Coski of the Museum of the Confederacy. "Somebody described it as a perfect day to go to church."
At 7 a.m., the Monitor increased her steam and raised her anchor, preparing for the coming battle. The Virginia, accompanied by three gunboats, was already ploughing her way across Hampton Roads from Sewell's Point.
The first shot came from the Confederate warship's powerful bow rifle sometime around 8:30 a.m., blasting into the stranded Minnesota. The Rebel gunners, intent on repeating the previous day's triumph, didn't notice their new opponent until it pulled away from the side of the much larger wooden frigate.
One officer on the Virginia thought the Minnesota's crew was leaving on a raft. Other observers speculated that the odd-looking vessel was a powder magazine or floating water tank.
On the CSS Patrick Henry, Lt. James H. Rochelle noted "such a craft as the eyes of a seaman never looked on before - an immense shingle floating in the water, with a gigantic cheese box rising from its center: no sails, no wheels, no smokestack, no guns."
Lt. Catesby ap Roger Jones, who commanded the Virginia in place of the wounded Franklin Buchanan, recognized the puzzling sight immediately as the long awaited "Ericsson floating battery." Still, his men stood mystified as the Monitor's turret revolved, raised a gunport stopper and delivered a tremendous blast from one of its 11- inch Dahlgren guns.
"You can see surprise on a ship just the same as you can see it in a human being," Monitor crewman Peter Truscott later wrote. "And there was surprise all over the Merrimac [sic]."
Blocked in its attempt to reach its target, the Virginia fired back, initiating a battle in which the contestants circled from a distance at first, then moved increasingly closer.
Inside the Monitor's turret, Greene and his gun crews grimaced in anticipation, waiting for the Confederates to test their 8-inch armor.
"The first shot to hit to the turret was probably the most hair- raising part of the battle - and after that it was all over," Johnston says.
"They all yelled `We've been hit! We've been hit!' But when they realized the armor had held, their faces visibly lightened. After that, in terms of blood and gore at least, one of the most important battles in history was probably the most boring."
Aboard the Virginia, the officers quickly learned that their powerful ship was at a disadvantage. Despite attempts to fire at the Monitor's gunports, the revolving turret made their target maddeningly elusive.
Worse yet, the Confederate magazines teemed with hot shot, canister and explosive shells designed for use against wooden ships - not the solid shot they needed to penetrate the Monitor's armor. Soon, Jones found himself chiding a gun crew that had stopped its work.
"It is quite a waste of ammunition to fire at her," Lt. John R. Eggleston argued.
"Our powder is precious, sir, and I find I can do the Monitor as much damage by snapping my fingers at her every five minutes."
The balky steering and deep draft of the ponderous, 275-foot-long Virginia also limited its effectiveness.
Late in the battle, after resolving to ram the Monitor and board her, Jones and his helmsman managed to give the Federal ironclad one good jolt. But the nimbler and more maneuverable Monitor weathered the glancing blow without significant damage and easily skirted out of the way on every other attempt.
Even so, the technologically superior Union ship proved to be far from perfect. Two men were knocked senseless in the turret after carelessly bracing themselves against the interior wall.
Lt. Greene, who commanded the iron tower, also struggled to aim and fire the Monitor's cannons. The heavy gunport stoppers interfered with each other's operation, leaving only one gun available at a time. And neither could be discharged over the bow for fear of hitting the pilothouse.
Worse still, the revolving turret wouldn't stop on command, forcing Greene to aim and fire on the fly. Shut inside the spinning drum, he peered out over the muzzles of his guns, straining to determine his own position as well as that of the Virginia.
Early on in the action, the white chalk marks he had stroked on the stationary floor to show the bow, stern and sides of the ship had been scuffed away. That left Greene dependent on instructions from his captain, Lt. John L. Worden, who commanded the Monitor from the pilothouse roughly 80 feet away.
When the speaking tube connecting these stations failed, two other officers ran back and forth, passing questions and orders as if they were a bucket brigade.
"The men in that turret were totally disoriented," Johnston says. "They had never seen anything like it."
After two hours of fighting, in fact, the Union ironclad, which had fired roughly every seven minutes, had inflicted no more damage on its opponent than it had sustained. And when it broke away to replenish the powder and shot in its turret, the Virginia turned to attack the nearby Minnesota.
As it advanced, however, the Confederate vessel ran aground, rising so far in the water that it couldn't deflect its guns when the Monitor returned. Greene sent shot after shot into the Virginia's side, testing her armor in every spot but the lightly plated sections at the waterline.
In desperation, chief engineer H. Alton Ramsay lashed down the safety valves and force-fed the already raging boilers. Somehow the cranky old engines generated enough extra power to free the ship from the shoals.
"Jones was more willing to risk being blown up by his own boilers than let himself be destroyed by the Monitor," Johnston says. "And he probably almost was."
Frustrated by the apparent powerlessness of their guns, both commanders turned to brute force, trying to ram their opponent.
The Monitor had just missed the Virginia's propeller when the Confederates' stern gun struck the Federal pilothouse from close range. Fire and smoke blasted through the narrow observation slit, blinding Worden and temporarily knocking the Monitor out of action.
Only the falling tide kept Jones from attacking the Minnesota. Then, realizing that he had expended so much coal, powder and shot that his lightened ship had exposed its vulnerable waterline, he ordered the Virginia back to Sewell's Point.
The Confederate ironclad was well under way when the Monitor, now under the command of Lt. Greene, returned to the scene from the shoals. After firing a parting shot, he, too, turned away and resumed his guard next to the still-stranded Minnesota.
"There are a lot of interesting what-ifs about this battle," Johnston says.
"What if the Virginia had had solid shot? What if the Monitor had used 30-pound instead of 15-pound powder charges? Who would have won then?
"Realistically, though, it was a dead draw. Worden was the only one hurt. Nobody on the Virginia was even wounded."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times