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Prelude to a Duel - June 1997 Civil War Times Feature

Originally published by Civil War Times magazine. Published Online: September 23, 1997 
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Prelude to a Duel
Prelude to a Duel

Terrified of the South's new deadly weapon–an ironclad gunboat–
the Union navy races its own armored ship to Virginia. Will
the Monitor arrive in time to save the Union fleet?


At ten minutes before ten o'clock on the morning of January 30, 1862, the Monitor slid slowly out of the shiphouse at Greenpoint, Long Island to float on the waters of the East River. On the deck, as she moved down the ways and out into the stream, stood John Ericsson, her creator. As a cold, light rain fell, he acknowledged plaudits from dignitaries on board and the crowd lining the banks, many of whom had predicted that the strange vessel would "make a dive to the bottom."

Promptly after hearing news that Monitor had been launched successfully, Ericsson was urged to get her to sea as quickly as possible by distant Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox who telegraphed: "I congratulate you and trust she . . . will be a success. Hurry her for sea, as the Merrimack is nearly ready at Norfolk and we wish to send her there." Although the Monitor was not built to challenge the ship the Rebels had renamed Virginia, she was clearly the best answer that the Union navy had to that Confederate ironclad, rapidly approaching completion. But before leaving for the South, the Monitor had to have detail work completed, a crew assembled, stores and ammunition loaded, and trial runs carried out.

During the days that followed her launching, the remainder of the armor was attached, the two 11-inch Dahlgren guns were mounted in the turret, and work was carried out on the hull, interior, and machinery. On the last day of the month her boilers were fired for the first time. In the following week the ship's complement of officers and men–some fifty-seven in all–began to fill up.

Lieutenant John L. Worden was appointed to command the Monitor. His executive officer was Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene, a twenty-one-year-old Marylander, recently out of the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

On February 19, nearly three weeks after launching, the Monitor made her first trial run. Various problems and defects were discovered which, although embarrassing, were readily solved. A New York newspaper called the vessel an "ignominious failure" because she was difficult to steer, the engines failed to function properly, and she rammed into the riverside New York gas works and had to be towed back to her dock. But Ericsson quickly solved the troubles, and on February 25 she was officially commissioned in the United States Navy.

A final trial run was made on March 4, in which everything worked satisfactorily, including the firing of the guns, and she was ready for sea. Worden waited for better weather, but after two days, he ordered the Monitor to get under way for Hampton Roads, so she left in tow in the midst of a snow storm. The first day in the Atlantic was calm, seas smooth, and the Montior towed well. During the night, however, a storm blew in and by morning gale force winds were sending heavy seas rolling over the vessel's deck. Despite the precautions that had been taken at the navy yard, she began to take in water under the turret "like a waterfall," wrote Lieutenant Greene.

The water also streamed down into the engine room ventilator shafts, and when the water-soaked leather belts on the blowers stretched or broke, the engines stopped. "Hydrogen and carbonic gases" along with the rising water forced the engine room gang to abandon the space. Disaster, with possible loss of the ship, was averted when the weather began to moderate and repairs were successfully made.

At noon on March 8, the Monitor entered Chesapeake Bay. Two hours later she passed Cape Henry, on the Virginia side of the bay and less than fifteen miles due west of Fort Monroe and Hampton Roads. As she moved slowly up the Chesapeake, members of her crew observed clouds of smoke on the horizon. As darkness fell, William Keeler, the ship's assistant paymaster, later wrote to his wife that he could see the flashes of guns and bursting shells. When a pilot was taken on board to guide the vessel through the narrow channel, the crew discovered that the Union fleet in Hampton Roads anchorage had been attacked by Confederate warships, including the ironclad Virginia.

As the Monitor entered the Roads, Lieutenant Worden ordered the ship cleared for action. Although the crew had had little sleep or warm food during the past forty-eight hours, they quickly disassembled the ventilators and smoke stack, the deck stanchions and canvas awning, and "keyed" the turret up off its brass ring making it ready to rotate. At 9:00 P.M. she anchored near the frigate Roanoke. Worden went on board that vessel for orders, observing as he was rowed to it that a large ship was burning in the background. This was the frigate Congress set afire by the Virginia. On board the Roanoke Worden was ordered to move his ship next to the Minnesota, which had grounded during the day's battle. So at one o'clock in the morning the Monitor came alongside the stranded frigate and anchored. Shortly afterward the Congress blew up in "a grand but mournful sight," wrote Lieutenant Greene. The Monitor's disturbed crew then tried to get some rest, although "no one slept," Paymaster Keeler told his wife.

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