Recalling the Monitor's final hours off Hatteras

`The moan of the ocean grew louder and more fearful,' surgeon wrote

August 04, 2002|By Paul Clancy | Paul Clancy,THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT

NORFOLK, Va. - It was pleasant, "clear and pleasant," as the Monitor prepared to leave Hampton Roads on Dec. 29, 1862, light winds out of the southwest.

The sailors were excited. After months of patrol duty that held none of the thrill of the great Battle of Hampton Roads, Va., they'd received orders to sail to Beaufort, N.C., then on to Charleston, S.C., for possible engagement with Confederate forces.

But this time they were being towed. An almost disastrous trip from New York 10 months ago convinced the Navy that while the Monitor might have been a scrappy fighter, it was plain unseaworthy in rough conditions. In early afternoon, the Rhode Island, a powerful wooden sidewheel steamer, took the Monitor in tow, two thick hawsers attached to a bollard on the Monitor's bow - imagine ropes looped around a trailer hitch.

About 2:30 p.m., the Rhode Island's paddle wheel began churning placid waters and the curious pair began their journey.

"Passed Cape Henry at 6 p.m., water smooth and everything working well," Cmdr. J.P. Bankhead reported.

Swell from south

Next morning, by then off the North Carolina coast, there wasn't much change, although the commander noticed a swell from the south and a slight increase in the southwesterly wind.

Even this posed a danger. The Monitor had only 18 inches of freeboard - the hull above water - and waves broke over the pilothouse and struck the base of the turret.

The turret was designed to seal itself with its 160 tons of weight against a watertight brass ring on deck. Now, with water striking it, caulking stuffed between turret and deck by the sailors was wearing unevenly, allowing sea water to seep below. Not a problem, though. The pumps easily handled the situation.

Assistant Paymaster William F. Keeler noticed cloudbanks rising in the south and west, gradually increasing until the sun was obscured.

The wind continued to build until, by midafternoon, it blew strongly, the sea rushing across the deck. Several large sharks cruised by.

By 7:30 p.m., heavy black clouds covered the sky. As the three-quarter moon glimmered through, men in the turret saw a line of white plunging foam rushing toward them.

"A gloom hung over everything," surgeon Grenville Weeks reported. "The moan of the ocean grew louder and more fearful."

Fireman George S. Geer reported to the commander that water was rising in the bilge faster than the pumps could handle it.

Bankhead told him to start the large steam pump. That did the trick for a while, throwing out a steady gusher of water.

But by 11 p.m., Geer said, "the water rose very fast and I was satisfied that it was all up with her.

"I stayed by the pump until the water was up to my knees," he continued, "and the cylinders to the pumping engines were under water and stopped. She was so full of water and rolled and pitched so bad I was fearful she would roll under and forget to come up again."

The water had risen above the engine room floor. The coal heavers threw wet coal into the engine, raising an acrid smell. Sea water hit the engine fires and there was an explosion of steam.

Sometime after 10:30 p.m., Bankhead gave the order to hoist the lantern.

The cry went out to the Rhode Island as it drew near: "Send your boats immediately, we are sinking."

61 sailors on board

There were 61 sailors on board the Monitor, including crew and officers.

Many of the crew were recent immigrants, like William Allen of England, 24, with gray eyes and black hair.

There were three black men, including Siah Carter, first assistant to the cook, a former slave who escaped and clambered on board one night while the Monitor was anchored on Hampton Roads.

When the men had sat down to dinner about 5 p.m., they were downright jovial. With waves breaking overhead, they boasted how the little ship would again distinguish itself in battle.

But as the wardroom stewards cleared the table, a few of the officers climbed to the turret. They'd just rounded Cape Hatteras light, and the wind was blowing violently.

Keeler observed the ship rising on a wave, then falling into the hollow, its bow, plunging into the trough, "would go down, down, down, under the surging wave" until the turret was all that remained above water. Then as the bow rose sullenly, another wave crashed into the pilothouse, sending a torrent of water to the top of the turret.

Worse, Commander Bankhead observed that when the ship came crashing down from a swell, the protecting armor landed "with great force, causing a considerable shock to the vessel and turret, thereby loosening still more the packing around its base."

Just before dark, the Monitor pulled alongside the Rhode Island.

Bankhead, using a chalkboard, scrawled a message to his counterpart, Cmdr. Stephen Trenchard. If the ironclad ran into trouble during the night, Bankhead wrote, he'd send a signal - a red lantern from the turret mast.

Agony of the end

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