Monitor gives rise to one hero, sinks other's career

More than 135 years after the first clash of ironclads, Lt. John L. Worden - the captain of the USS Monitor - looks like an unlikely hero.

Though he'd logged 27 years in the Navy when he took command of the ship, the 44-year-old New Yorker was a loyal and dependable officer but hardly distinguished.

On the stormy trip to Hampton Roads from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he reeled from seasickness while his officers and crew struggled twice to save the badly leaking vessel. Even after the historic battle, some people who shook his hand came away whispering that he had the grip of a lady.

But for four hours on the morning of March 9, 1862, Worden fought one of the most powerful ships in the world to a standstill - and he did so with virtually no training on an untested, highly experimental vessel.

"He had to take everything he'd learned about fighting in a traditional wooden ship and somehow find a way to use this revolutionary new technology," says historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

"And he had to do it instantly - while he was under fire."

Worden did achieve some small distinction early in the war, when he became the first Federal officer to be taken prisoner by the Confederates.

Instructed to deliver a secret message to the commander of Fort Pickens in Pensacola, Fla., he was captured on his return trip - just after the shooting began at Fort Sumter.

Worden spent seven months in a Southern prison before he was exchanged. But it was his seniority - not his service - that led him to the Monitor.

"The Navy told him to take a look at it, to see if he wanted it - and he did," Johnston says.

"People all over New York harbor were laughing at it as it was being built. But he saw something in it that made him think it had some potential."

Some of that insight may have come from Worden's young executive officer, Lt. Samuel Dana Greene, who'd arrived at the shipyard several days earlier and escorted Worden on his tour.

Smart, curious and ambitious, the recent Naval Academy graduate already knew the ironclad marvel inside and out.

"The first thing he did was make it his job to study the ship from stem to stern," Johnston says.

"He wanted to know what would work and what might give them problems. He was all over the place bothering the engineers and shipyard workers with his questions."

Greene's familiarity helped save the ship just a few weeks later, when it ran into an angry storm on the way to Hampton Roads.

Stepping in for a seasick Worden, he and Engineer Alban Stimers, who had worked closely with inventor John Ericsson during the ironclad's construction, overcame a deluge of leaks that panicked the crew and twice threatened to sink the vessel.

"Each time they had a problem, he was there to provide the leadership that led to a solution," says historian John V. Quarstein, director of the Virginia War Museum.

"He saves the ship twice. He does not sleep. He was the hero."

Greene played an equally important role in the battle itself, commanding the disoriented gun crews shut up inside the Monitor's revolving turret.

Restricted to what he could see through the narrow gunports - and unable to stop the turret when he wanted to shoot - the young lieutenant had to aim and fire his 11-inch Dahlgrens on the fly. Yet his brisk exchanges kept the powerful Confederate ironclad at bay for hours.

"He was from the school of naval heroes like Stephen Decatur," Quarstein says.

"He gave it his all - and he had the rare ability to inspire men. The Monitor wouldn't have made it through the battle without him."

Tragically, Worden failed to give Greene the credit he deserved for his role in the historic clash.

Injured by a Confederate shell that struck the Monitor's pilothouse, the dazed commander didn't even mention his executive officer when he dictated his pared-down report from a sickbed.

That unintended slight, combined with Greene's decision not pursue the Virginia after relieving Worden of command, followed the young officer for the rest of his career. Even after his captain made a profuse apology, Greene was dogged by questions.

Historians today say the Monitor couldn't have passed the massive Confederate batteries at Sewell's Point and Craney Island. They also cite the damaged condition of the pilothouse, the crew's concern for Worden's injuries and the captain's last command, which instructed his executive officer "to protect the Minnesota."

Still, the controversy raged on for years, especially after the Monitor's inventor blamed Greene for failing to follow his opponent.

The beleaguered officer was reportedly suffering from chronic alcohol and medical problems when, in 1884, on the eve of a potentially embarrassing new book about the battle, he took his life.

"To this day," Johnston says, "his family has kept his papers sealed."

Worden, in contrast, became a celebrated hero - despite never again serving in an important battle.

Blinded in his left eye and permanently disfigured on the left side of his face, he went on to attain the rank of rear admiral and command of the Naval Academy.

"He never was the flamboyant hero the newspapers tried to paint him as," Johnston says.

"He was old navy. He was just doing his job."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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