The first-ever Federal ironclad, the U.S.S. Monitor, left Hampton Roads, Virginia, on December 29, under tow from the side-wheeler U.S.S. Rhode Island. The Monitor 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 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.”
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