December 30, 1862 – The first Federal ironclad spent its last evening above water before foundering off the coast of North Carolina.
The U.S.S. Monitor left Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the 29th, under tow from the side-wheeler U.S.S. Rhode Island. The ironclad was slated to participate in an attack on Fort Caswell, North Carolina, before continuing down the coast to join the blockade of Charleston. The journey was incident-free on the first day.
On the second day, the ships approached the dangerous area of Cape Hatteras, known by sailors as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Severe winds produced rough waves as night fell, prompting the Monitor’s paymaster to write, “I have been through a night of horrors that would have appalled the stoutest heart. The heavy seas rolled over our bow dashing against the pilot house & surging aft, would strike the solid turret with a force to make it tremble.”
The paymaster stated that the ironclad’s bow “would rise on a huge billow & before she could sink into the intervening hollow, the succeeding wave would strike under her heavy armour with a report like thunder & a violence that threatened to tear (her) apart.”
After midnight, water flooded the Monitor’s engine room and extinguished the fires needed to run the pumps. The ship’s crew used distress rockets to signal the Rhode Island that she was sinking, and crewmen from the Rhode Island hurried to launch their rescue boats.
The paymaster wrote, “Words cannot depict the agony of those moments as our little company gathered on top of the turret… with a mass of sinking iron beneath them. Seconds lengthened into hours & minutes into years. Finally the boats arrived,” as “mountains of water were rushing along our decks and foaming along our sides” and the boats “were pitching & tossing about on them and crashing against our sides.”
A fireman aboard the Monitor stayed in the engine room working a manual pump “until the water was up to my knees and the Cylinders to the Pumping Engines were under Water and stoped (sic).” He rushed onto the deck and was blown into the sea; he managed to grab a rope and haul his way into one of the rescue boats.
Men of the Rhode Island rescued 47 of the Monitor’s crewmen, while 16 men went down with the ship. Although she had participated in the first-ever Battle of the Ironclads, she had never been very seaworthy. As the paymaster wrote his wife, “The Monitor is no more. What the fire of the enemy failed to do, the elements have accomplished.”
Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 248; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 124-25; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 248; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 302; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 133-34; Still, Jr., William N., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 504; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 64-65; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q462