Total Pageviews

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Sinking and Loss of the USS Monitor ~ 150 Years Ago on December 31, 1862

Blog #24. December 29, 2012 by Marcus W. Robbins

The following is a mixture of my own words and personal observations while drawing upon existing postings from both the Naval History & Heritage Command and the National Monitor National Marine Sanctuary websites concerning the USS Monitor sinking, my visit to the Mainers Museum on March 8, 2012, and my attendance today at the Hampton National Cemetery for the dedication of the USS MONITOR MEMORIAL MONUMENT.

USS Monitor, a 987-ton armored turret gunboat, was built at New York to the design of John Ericsson. She was the first of what became a large number of "monitors" in the United States and other navies. Commissioned on 25 February 1862, she soon was underway for Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Monitor arrived there on 9 March, and was immediately sent into action against the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, which had sunk and destroyed the USS Cumberland & USS Congress the day before. The resulting battle, the first between iron-armored warships, was a tactical draw. However, Monitor prevented the Virginia from gaining control of Hampton Roads and thus preserved the Federal blockade of the Norfolk area.

As I like to provide with each of my writings some obscure lesser known yet direct connection to the old Norfolk Navy Yard, here are a couple of lesser known tidbits of information concerning USS Monitor.

First, tempting as it might have been for Monitor to attack the Gosport Navy Yard before CSS Virginia ever came out, it was deemed too risky to attack for fear of being trapped by a physical blockade once in the narrows of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River thus preventing Monitor's escape. Virginia was also able to return to the Gosport drydock for further repairs and alterations after the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, and continued to remain unmolested at home in Gosport due to the same reason. The stalemate continued between the two ships into the spring of 1862, never directly engaging each other again.

Secondly, yet in due time, Monitor did indeed sail down the Elizabeth River, now escorting President Lincoln on the USS Baltimore to observe the Navy Yard in ruins as it smoldered again, this time due to the self-inflicted Confederate torching the day before. The President and his small fleet had just visited the area where Virginia was blown up by her own crew off Craney Island just a few hours prior before sailing past Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard the early morning of May 11, 1862. The Monitor most likely turned around and headed north to carry the President back to Washington DC after observing the old stone drydock, the birthplace of the Virginia at the southern extreme of the shipyard.

Monitor remained in the Hampton Roads area and in mid-1862 was actively employed along the James River in support of the Army's Peninsular Campaign. It is at this time various photos are taken of Monitor's officers and crew. Photos have a way to preserve and document naval service on a more personal level. Who were these men, what did they look like and how did they live aboard ship? Today is a day of remembrance to Monitor's men.

After a hot summer of routine duty in the Hampton Roads area, Monitor badly needed an overhaul. This work, done at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC, fitted the ship with a telescopic smokestack, improved ventilation, davits for handling her boats and a variety of other changes to enhance her fighting power and habitability. She returned to the combat zone in November 1862, remaining in vicinity of Newport News for the rest of that month and nearly through the next.

In December, Monitor was ordered south to join the blockading forces off the Carolinas. After preparing for sea, on 29 December she left Hampton Roads in tow of USS Rhode Island, bound for Beaufort, N.C. The weather, expected to be good for the entire voyage, stayed that way into the 30th as the two ships moved slowly along several miles off the North Carolina coast. However, wind and seas picked up during the afternoon and turned to a gale by evening. The Monitor labored heavily as she neared Cape Hatteras, famous for its nasty sea conditions. Water began to enter the ship faster than the pumps could expel it and conditions on board deteriorated dangerously.

Shortly before midnight, it was clear that Monitor was in grave danger. Her steam pressure was fast failing as rising water drowned the boiler fires. The tow line was cut, the anchor dropped, and distress signals were sent to the Rhode Island. Boats managed to remove most of the ironclad's crewmen under extremely difficult conditions, but several men were swept away. Finally, at about 1:30 in the morning of 31 December 1862, the historic Monitor sank. Sixteen of her crew of sixty-two were lost with her.

Loss of the "Monitor" in a Storm off Cape Hatteras, December 30th, 1862.
– Gallant efforts to rescue the Crew by the "Rhode Island".
(Naval History & Heritage Command image NH 51957)

The above line engraving was published in "The Soldier in Our Civil War", Volume I, page 248. It shows USS Monitor sinking at left with a boat picking up crewmen as USS Rhode Island stands by in the right background firing rockets.

The Monitor shipwreck was discovered in 230 feet of water approximately 16 miles off of Cape Hatteras in 1974. It has been now designated the nation's first national marine sanctuary. In August of 2002 the turret was raised, then taken to its new home at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia, for long term conservation and display. It is well worth the trip and you will also wish to return again in future years to observe their continuing progress of bringing the USS Monitor back to life.

Of those sixteen crew members that perished, two sets of remains were found during the recovery effort. The remains of these two unknown sailors currently reside with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii. NOAA is making every effort to identify these sailors and to have them interred at Arlington National Cemetery in 2013.

When I toured the Mariners Museum this year on March 8, 2012, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, I was privileged to be in the right place at the right time just after opening and before the crowds got there. I was able to view up close the Monitor's famous gold ring as it was taken out of its display case by the staff. It was an honor for me to be within inches of such an iconic historic artifact that day. I will forever realize and appreciate the very personal and yet tragic side to this story, as there were two sets of human remains recovered in the turret. Now it wasn't just about the ship but about the men that sailed, operated and ultimately gave their lives for USS Monitor.

On Saturday, Dec. 29, 2012, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, together with the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, dedicated a memorial to honor the USS Monitor and the memory of the 16 sailors who died that night the Monitor sank. Placed in the Civil War section of Hampton National Cemetery, located on the Hampton University campus, the monument memorializes the iconic vessel and the heroic efforts of the brave men who served their country.

Memorial to honor the USS Monitor and the 16 sailors who died when the ship sank.
(Photo taken by Marcus W. Robbins at dedication ceremony on December 29, 2012)

Wreath to honor the USS Monitor and the 16 sailors who died when the ship sank.
(Photo taken by Marcus W. Robbins at dedication ceremony on December 29, 2012)

It is so important now 150 years later to remember both the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor for each of their unique designs and contributions that changed naval warfare forever. It is equally important for us to pause and remember the men that served upon each ship and even gave their lives because – "history matters".

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.