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USS Monitor’s famous clash with CSS Virginia is etched in history. But perhaps its most important battle was the one to save itself.

Massive waves pounded across USS Monitor’s deck on December 30, 1862, choking and drowning frantic sailors trying to escape the vessel’s turret and get into rescue boats. Cape  Hatteras’ savage seas were winning this fight, and the Graveyard of the Atlantic prepared for another victim.

Monitor’s crewmen were not used to losing battles. On March 9, 1862, they and their ship had made history by fighting off CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads, Va. After the engagement the sailors enjoyed minor celebrity status that helped compensate for serving on the hot, uncomfortable ironclad.

After the famous engagement, Moni – tor remained in Hampton Roads, and in mid-1862 it was active along the James River in support of the Army of the Potomac’s Peninsula Campaign. Later that year it was sent to the Washington Navy Yard for repairs. Once the repair work was complete, the ironclad was sent back to its old mooring grounds at Hampton Roads.

On December 25, Monitor received orders to head to Beaufort, N.C. Commanded by John P. Bankhead, it was to be towed by Rhode Island, a powerful side-wheel steamer. Towing was necessary because the ironclad’s low freeboard and heavy turret made it highly unseaworthy in rough waters.

Bad weather delayed their departure, but on the morning of December 29 Bankhead ordered his men to ready the vessel for deployment. Anticipating the notoriously rough seas off Cape Hatteras, the crew secured the gun ports and their large iron pendulums, as well as securing or storing below deck everything loose inside the turret. The two massive Dahlgren shell guns were moved amidships in the turret. Crewmen also secured the carriage brakes with their rigging and gun tackle, to keep the cannons from sliding around inside the turret. Up on deck, crewmen caulked the pilothouse view slits so that no water could penetrate. All aboard knew that waves would likely come rolling across the deck and up against the pilothouse, so shutting the vessel up tight was crucial. As Monitor’s paymaster, William Keeler, reminded some of the crew members, “Hatteras is the Cape Horn of the Atlantic coast!”

While Monitor’s sailors worked to prepare for their sea passage, Rhode Island moved alongside the ironclad to secure the towlines. About 2 p.m. on the 29th, Rhode Island’s paddle wheels began churning up the calm waters of Hampton Roads. Three hundred yards behind the side-wheeler Monitor, with its crew of 62, was finally underway. Under clear skies, the two ships made their way out of Hampton Roads, past Cape Henry and out into the Atlantic. Along the way, one of the officers on deck recalled seeing two large sharks nosing alongside the ironclad, “perhaps sizing us up for a meal.”

By first light on the 30th, storm clouds had formed to the southwest. The wind began to howl, and the waves were high. By midafternoon the seas got even uglier, crashing violently across Monitor’s flat deck. Waves rolled up and over the pilothouse and slammed into the turret. It was impossible for anyone to remain topside.

Yet at 5 p.m. officers in the wardroom gathered for dinner as usual, laughing and joking about being free from their “monotonous inactive life,” assuring each other “Monitor would soon add fresh laurels to her name.”

By 6:30 p.m. the two ships had entered the waters of the Gulf Stream. Soon all hell broke loose. As Keeler recalled, “The wind began blowing violently; the heavy seas rolled over our bows dashing against the pilot house and surging aft…would strike against the solid turret with such a force to make it tremble.”

Just before dark, Bankhead pulled up alongside Rhode Island to warn the side-wheeler’s captain, Commander Stephen Trenchard, that if Monitor ran into trouble he would hoist a red signal lantern from the turret mast.

At 7 p.m. one of the towlines snapped and Monitor began to yaw and roll severely. Below-decks the ironclad had begun taking on water. Passing beneath the turret, engineer W.F. Waters noted that water was pouring in through the areas where the oakum, a type of sealer placed under the base of the turret, had been displaced. According to a report Waters later filed, “When the ship rose to the swell, the flat undersurface of the turret’s armor would come crashing down with great force, causing considerable shock to the vessel and turret, thereby loosening more of the packing material around its base.”

At first about an inch of water slowly trickled in, then more. By that time the crew could also see water pouring in through the coal chutes. “Wet coal won’t give off enough heat for steam pressure!” shouted one man.

Although they continued to feed wet coal into the furnace, the pressure, which normally ran at 80 pounds, had dropped to 20 pounds, a dangerously low level. But the crewmen kept at it. The longer they could keep the boilers going, the better chance they and their shipmates had of reaching safety.

As the storm increased in strength, gigantic waves crashed across Monitor’s decks. The pilot house was repeatedly engulfed. Men passed buckets of water up to and out of the turret—the vessel’s only escape valve.

Monitor’s anchor had been pounding against its well at the ship’s bow, eventually rupturing its casing. The ironclad was now taking in water both forward and in the furnace room.

Shortly after 10 p.m. Bankhead learned that water was coming in faster than the ironclad’s buckets and pumps could expel it. He had to face the inevitable: His ship was in serious trouble. The red lantern was hoisted.

Another alarming report soon followed—the towlines were sagging, rendering Monitor unmanageable. Three men volunteered to cut the lines, but strong winds swept two of them overboard. The remaining sailor managed to cut one line, then made his way back to the turret.

Rhode Island’s Captain Trenchard, noting the distress signal, mustered all his officers and crew and ordered the engines stopped. “Away to the res – cue!” he commanded.

At 11 p.m. Bankhead gave the order to stop Monitor’s engines, drop anchor and prepare to abandon ship. It was clear nothing could save the ironclad. With Monitor obviously foundering, Rhode Is land’s crew had to move quickly.

There was only one way out for the ironclad’s crew—through the turret. They made their way up, then started across the deck. Once outside the turret, they clung to a rope for safety and waited for rescue. Three men were quickly swept overboard and carried away by the swift currents.

Keeler vividly recalled the terrible night: “It was a scene well calculated to appall the boldest heart. Mountains of water were rushing across our decks… the howling of the tempest, the hoarse orders…of the officers; the cry of a strong swimmer in his agony and the whole panorama of horror which time can never efface from my memory.”

Rhode Island’s first rescue attempt almost ended in catastrophe. In the dead of night, and with the storm roiling the waters, the two boats had drifted dangerously close to each other.

Rhode Island lowered a launch, but high swells soon wedged the boat between the two vessels, damaging it considerably. Miraculously, the launch remained afloat, and 16 Monitor men managed to clamber aboard.

As Rhode Island attempted to pull away from the ironclad, the severed towline became tangled in the paddle wheel, pulling the ships even closer together. The steamer’s sailors managed to cut the two loose. But then the side-wheeler drifted away with the line still tangled in its paddle wheel. Two of Rhode Island’s men courageously maneuvered inside the paddle wheel, hoping to cut the line free.

Once loaded, the first launch—commanded by Ensign A.O. Taylor—made its way back through the treacherous waters toward Rhode Island, which had by then drifted nearly two miles from Monitor. The little boat was overloaded, and all the men not manning oars were bailing. Then Taylor caught sight of another hazard.

“We neared the Rhode Island but now a peril appeared,” Taylor later wrote. “Right down upon our center, borne by the might of rushing water, came a whale boat sent to rescue others from the ironclad….We barely floated; if she struck us with her bows full on, we must go to the bottom.” Monitor’s surgeon Grenville Weeks, who was in Taylor’s cutter, got to his feet as the whaleboat approached and shoved its bow aside. The two boats scraped against each other as they passed, and Weeks’ right hand was sandwiched between them, crushing three fingers and wrenching his arm from its socket. Several of his fingers later had to be amputated.

By 12:15 a.m. the two men in Rhode Island’s paddle wheel finally cut loose the tangled line and the ship started toward Taylor’s launch. Sailors threw down lines to pull the exhausted Moni – tor crewmen aboard.

Meanwhile, Monitor’s pumps had stopped working. Engineer Waters reported to Bankhead that they had done everything possible to save the sinking ship; nothing would help. Bankhead then ordered: “Let each man save himself. Leave the turret.”

After bringing aboard the survivors in Taylor’s boat, Trenchard launched another rescue cutter with Master’s Mate Rodney Browne at the helm. Battling the waves, they found their way back to the ironclad thanks to the light from Monitor’s red lantern. Three men were still clinging to the turret, but they ignored pleas to climb into Browne’s launch. “We had now got in my boat all of the Monitor’s crew that could be persuaded to come down from the turret,” Browne recalled. “Some that were washed overboard from the deck of the Monitor we picked up and some we were unable to save.”

When Browne’s launch reached Rhode Island, surging waves forced the small vessel against the steamer. Leaping from the rescue boat to Rhode Island’s deck was treacherous business for the exhausted survivors.

For more than an hour after Browne returned, Trenchard and his sailors, along with the rescued Monitor men, watched the lonely light on the ironclad’s turret. “A hundred times we thought it had gone forever, a hundred times it reappeared,” Weeks reported.

It was nearing 1:30 a.m. when Browne and his men again made their way back toward Monitor’s position, hoping to rescue the men clinging to the turret. As they drew closer to where they had last seen the red lantern, everyone fell silent. There was nothing there. As William Keeler later wrote: “The Moni tor is no more. What the fire of the enemy failed to do, the elements have accomplished.”

Commander Bankhead survived, but four of Monitor’s officers and 12 crewmen were lost. “Their names are for history,” wrote Grenville Weeks, “and so long as we remain a people, so long will the work of the Monitor be remembered….The ‘little cheese box on a raft’ has made herself a name which will not soon be forgotten by the American people.”

For their heroic efforts to rescue the ironclad’s survivors, five crewmen from USS Rhode Island were awarded the Naval Congressional Medal of Honor—three posthumously.


Walter Bonora would like to thank Jeff Johnston, chief historian with the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary offices, for his contributions to this article. Want to learn more about Monitor and the museum that now houses its turret? Turn to “Resources,” P. 71.

Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here