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


Of course the Captain & myself were on our feet in a moment and endeavouring to stop the hawse pipe. We succeeded partially, but now the water commenced to come down the blowers again, and we feared the same accident that happened in the afternoon. We tried to hail the Tug Boat, but the wind being directly ahead, they could not hear us, and we had no way of signalling them, as the steam whistle which father recommended had not been put on. We then commenced to think the Monitor would never see daylight.

We watched carefully every drop of water that went down the blowers, and sent continually to ask the fireman how the blowers were going. His only answer was “slowly”—but could not be going much longer unless we could stop the water from coming down—The sea was washing completely over our decks, and it was dangerous for a man to go on them, so we could do nothing to the blowers.

In the midst of all this our wheel ropes jumped off the steering wheel (owing to the pitching of the ship) & became jammed. She now commenced to sheer about at an awful rate, and we thought our hawser must certainly part. Fortunately it was a new one and held on well. In the course of half an hour we fixed the wheel ropes, and now the blowers were the only difficulty. About 3 o’clock on Saturday morning the sea became a little smoother though still rough and going down our blowers to some extent. The never failing answer from the Engine room: “Blowers going slowly but can’t go much longer.”

From 4 A.M. until daylight, was certainly the longest hour and a half I ever spent. I certainly thought old Sol had stopped in China and never intended to pay us another visit. At last however we could see and made the Tug Boat understand to go nearer in shore and get in smooth water, which we did about 8 A.M. Things again were a little quiet but everything wet and uncomfortable below. The decks and air ports leaked, & the water still came down the hatches and under the tower.

I was busy all day making out my station bills, and attending to different things that constantly required my attention. A 3 P.M. we parted our hawser, but fortunately it was quite smooth, and we secured it without difficulty. At 4 P.M. we passed Cape Henry, and heard heavy firing in the direction of Fortress Monroe, as we approached, it increased, and we immediately cleared ship for action.

When about 1/3 way between Fortress Monroe and Cape Henry we spoke [to] a pilot boat and were told that the Cumberland was sunk, and the Congress was on fire, and had surrendered to the Merrimac. We did not credit it at first, but as we approached Hampden Roads, we could see the fine old Congress burning brightly, and we knew it must be so. Sadly indeed did we feel to think those a fine old vessels had gone to their last homes with so many of their brave crews. Our hearts were so very full and we vowed vengeance on the Merrimac , if it should ever be our lot to fall in with her.

At 9 P.M. we anchored near the Frigate Roanoke, the flag ship, Captn Marston (the Major’s Brother). [Greene refers to Captain John Marston of U.S.S. Roanoke , then the senior U.S. naval officer at Hampton Roads.] Captain Worden immediately went on board, and received orders to proceed to Newport News, and protect the Minnesota, which was aground from the Merrimac. At 11 P.M. I went on board in our cutter, and asked the Captain what his prospects were of getting off. He said he should try to get afloat at 2 A.M. when it was high water. I asked him if we could render him any assistance, to which he replied no. I then told him we should do all in our power to protect him from the attack of the Merrimac. He thanked me kindly and wished me success.

Just as I arrived back to the Monitor, the Congress blew up, and certainly a grander sight was never seen, but it went straight to the marrow of our bones. Not a word was said, but deep did each man think and wish he was by the side of the Merrimac. At 1 A.M. we anchored near the Minnesota. The Captn and myself remained on deck waiting for the Merrimac. At 3 A.M. we thought the Minnesota was afloat, and coming down to us, so we got under way as soon as possible, and stood out of the Channel. After backing and filling about for an hour we found we were mistaken, and anchored again.

At daylight we discovered the Merrimac at anchor, with several vessels under Sewells Point. We immediately made every preparation for battle. At 8 A.M. on Sunday the Merrimac got under weigh accompanied by several steamers and steered direct for the Minnesota when a mile distant she fired 2 guns at the Minnesota. By this time our anchor was up, the men at quarters, the guns loaded, and everything ready for action.