Nobody imagined that just 36 hours later the famous ship hailed as the savior of the Union after its historic March battle with the
So sudden and unexpected was the ironclad’s Dec. 31 demise off Cape
Editors and reporters penned mournful tributes. Poets published somber elegies lamenting the deaths of 16 officers and men. And like the New York Herald writer who filed an early account after talking to the survivors at
“The Monitor wasn’t just a ship. It was a celebrity. It was larger than life. People lined up on the shores to watch it go by or — if they were lucky — have the chance to go aboard,” says Anna Holloway, curator of the
“This was a ship that people referred to as ‘our litte Monitor’ and ‘the pet of the nation.’ They compared it to ‘Old Ironsides’ and wrote poems, plays and songs. So when it sank it was a huge deal. There was a tremendous sense of loss.”
Long before its departure, the experimental ship designed to serve largely as a coastal vessel had revealed a series of serious problems while making its way through off-shore waters.
Leaving New York under tow on March 6, 1862, it nearly sank in a heavy gale off New Jersey just two days before its historic clash with the Virginia — also known as the Merrimack — in the Battle of Hampton Roads.
So badly did the Monitor ride the storm’s waves that seasickness forced the veteran captain and many others to seek refuge in the top of its turret. The blowers below deck failed, too, resulting in the build-up of fumes so noxious that the overwhelmed engine room crew had to be rescued.
The ship also leaked so badly in heavy seas that Executive Officer Lt. Samuel Dana Greene later reported “there was immediate danger that the ship would founder.”
“There were all kinds of places for potential leaks on this vessel, including the ventilation and exhaust stacks, the decklights, the pilot house, the coal chutes and the anchor well,” says conservator David Krop, director of the Monitor Center, which houses 210 tons of artifacts from the wreck.
“It was just perforated with openings.”
That near-deadly experience prompted Capt. John Bankhead to have every one of the ship’s known weaknesses waterproofed with red lead putty, rubber seals and fibrous oakum packing before its Dec. 29 voyage.
He also ordered his men to jack the turret up so its suspect metal-to-metal joint with the hull could be filled with caulking.
Since the immense iron drum was recovered in 2002, however, conservators have discovered evidence that the ship’s pioneering designer — John Ericsson — may have been right when he insisted that the 8-inch thick seam would have been better protected had it been left alone.
“The bottom rim of the turret was machined flat, and every place where it’s not corroded it’s absolutely beautiful,” Krop says.
“It’s obvious that they took pains to make as tight a seal as possible.”
So stern were the lessons learned from the Monitor’s near-sinking that Bankhead took these precautionary measures even after the addition of a powerful Andrews centrifugal pump rated at 3,000 gallons per minute.
That critical improvement made at the Washington
“We think the fitting would have mounted to the pump flange, but it may not have been properly hooked up,” he explains.
“It looks like they didn’t use all the bolts they should have used — and the surfaces don’t mate up.”
Still, as Bankhead recorded when the Monitor left Hampton Roads, the “weather was clear and pleasant, and (showed) every prospect of its continuation.”
Nearly 24 hours passed before the southwest wind picked up and the seas broke into a roll. Yet even then some officers felt so little threat that they amused themselves for more than an hour watching the sharks that had gathered to swim alongside the vessel.
By sunset on Dec. 30 the ship was taking on small amounts of water through the sight holes of its low-slung pilot house, the hawser hole and the base of the turret. But not only were the pumps performing as hoped but the wind and swells were diminishing amidst possible signs of clearing weather.
What happened instead was a rapid change for the worse just after the Monitor rounded Cape Hatteras about 8 p.m. Rising to 20 feet and more, the waves completely submerged the pilot house and began reaching up and crashing into the top of the turret and the blower pipes. In response, the vessel slammed down violently after each surge in the swells, sending shock waves through the hull and loosening still more packing.
By 9 p.m., the incoming water was gaining on the Monitor’s pumps, and some of the blowers were spitting. Within a hour it measured a foot deep in the engine room, where the command to man the hand pumps and a bucket brigade did little to stem the leaks from waves so large they often buried the ship completely.
On board the Union ironclad Passaic just a few hundred yards away, the harried crew recorded Force 9 winds of up to 54 mph, which can create waves of more than 30 feet. The readings on the State of Rhode Island, which had the Monitor in tow, were only slighter weaker.
“The weather service defines a ‘weather bomb’ as an intense winter storm in which the pressure drops at least 24 millibars in 24 hours — and the pressure on the Rhode Island had dropped 26 millibars in only 16 hours — so they were in real trouble,” says Mariners’ Museum Library archivist Jay Moore, who manages the USS Monitor Collection.
“Not only was it a fairly strong storm but it was quickly and deeply intensifying right over them.”
Sometime after 10 p.m., Bankhead ordered the ship’s red distress lantern lit and signaled the Rhode Island for help. He then tried to right the Monitor’s unmanageable thrashing through the waves by ordering the tow line cut and the anchor dropped.
Several seamen had already been swept off the deck when the first rescue boat arrived, only to see more sailors snatched up by the crashing water as they attempted to abandon ship. Others looked down at this wrenching scene with horror and refused to leave their wave-drenched perch in the top of the turret.
Inside the ship more officers and sailors huddled, at least one so stricken by seasickness that he could not stand to save himself. Two others waited inside the turret itself, where their remains were found in 2002 when the huge artfact was recovered.
So close did the Rhode Island approach during these agonizing rescue attempts that its crew threw lines over the side in the hopes of aiding their stricken comrades. One boat was badly damaged when it was caught between the hulls in a harrowing collision.
When the ships separated in alarm, the distance between them quickly grew.
Soon the only thing visible in the darkness was the Monitor’s red distress signal, and — shortly after the boat carrying Bankhead reached the Rhode Island at 1 a.m. — it ceased to flicker from across the waves and disappeared from view.
“The Monitor is no more,” Paymaster William Keeler later wrote.
“What the fire of the enemy failed to do, the elements have accomplished.”