"I Fired The First Gun And Thus Commenced The Great Battle”


When the Monitor and the Merrimac fought the world’s first engagement between ironclads at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 9, 1862, the executive officer of Monitor was the very junior Lieutenant S. Dana Greene, 22 years old and only three years out of Annapolis. When Monitor’s commander, Captain John L. Worden, was wounded during the engagement, Lieutenant Greene succeeded to the command; and a few days later he wrote to his family giving a detailed account of the battle.

That letter, with Lieutenant Greene’s slightly erratic punctuation and spelling preserved, is now the property of Warren C. Shearman of Los Angeles, by whose permission it is published here. The letter was written when battle fatigue and excitement were still felt; here is what the fight looked like to one of its principals, jolted down while Merrimac was still afloat and when another engagement was expected.

U. S. Steamer Monitor
Hampton Roads
March 14/62

I commence this now but I don’t know when I shall finish as I have to write at odd moments when I can find a few minutes rest. When I bid Charley good bye on Wednesday the 5th I confidently expected to see you the next day as I then thought it would be impossible to finish our repairs on Thursday but the mechanics worked all night and at 11 A.M. on Thursday, we started down the harbour in company with the Gun-boats Sachem and Currituck. We went along very nicely and when we arrived at Governors Island the Steamer Seth Low came alongside and took us in tow.

We went out, passed the Narrows with a light wind from the West, and very smooth water. The weather continued the same all Thursday night. I turned out at six o’clock on Friday morning and from that time until Monday at 7 P.M. I think I lived ten good years. About noon the wind freshened and the sea was quite rough. In the afternoon it was breaking over our decks at a great rate, and coming in our hawse pipe forward in perfect floods. Our berth deck hatch leaked in spite of all we could do, & the water came down under the tower [the tower: i.e., the revolving turret which was Monitor’s legacy to the navies of the world] like a waterfall. It would strike the Pilot House, & go over the Tower in beautiful curves. The water came through the narrow eye holes in the Pilot House, with such force as to knock the helmsman completely round from his wheel.

At 4 P.M. the water had gone down our smoke stacks and blowers to such an extent that the blowers gave out, and the Engine room was filled with gas. Then, Mother, occurred a scene I shall never forget. Our Engineers behaved like heroes, every one of them. They fought with the gas, endeavouring to get the blowers to work until they dropped down apparently dead as men ever were. I jumped into the Engine room with my men as soon as I could, and carried them on top of the Tower to get fresh air.

I was nearly suffocated with the gas myself, but got on deck after every one was out of the Engine Room just in time to save myself. Three firemen were in the same condition as the Engineers. Then times looked rather blue, I can assure you—we had no fear as long as the Engines could be kept going, to pump out the water, but when that stopped the water increased rapidly. I immediately rigged the hand pump on the berth deck, but as we were obliged to lead the hose out over the Tower, there was not force enough in the pump to throw the water out, our only resource now was to bail, and that was useless as we had to pass the buckets up through the Tower which made it a very long operation.

What to do now we did not know. We had done all in our power, and must let things take their own course. Fortunately the wind was off shore so we hailed the Tug Boat and told them to steer direct for the shore, in order to get in smooth water. After 5 hours of hard steering, we got near the land and in smooth water. At 8 P.M. we managed to get the Engines to go, & everything comparatively quiet again. The Captain had been up nearly all the previous night, and as we did not like to leave the deck without one of us being I here, I told him I would keep the watch from 8 to 12, he taking it from 12 to 4, and I would relieve him from 4 to 8; well the first watch passed off very nicely.

Smooth sea, clear sky, the moon out, and the old tank going along five or six knots very nicely. All I had to do was to keep awake & think over the narrow escape we had in the afternoon. At 12 o’clock things looked so favorable that I told the Captain he need not turn out. I would lay down with my clothes on, and if anything happened I would turn out, & attend to it. He said “very well” & I went to my room, & I hoped to get a little nap.

I had hardly got to my bunk, before I was startled by the most infernal noise I ever heard in my life. The Merrimac’s firing on Sunday last was music to it. We were just passing a shoal, and the sea suddenly became very rough, and right ahead. It came up with tremendous force through our anchor well, and forced the air through our hawse pipe, where the chain comes, and then the water would come through in a perfect stream, clear to our berth deck, over the ward room table. The noise resembled the death groans of 20 men & certainly was the most dismal awful sound I ever heard.