- Historic Sites
"I Fired The First Gun And Thus Commenced The Great Battle”
June 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 4
As the Merrimac came closer the Captn passed the word to commence firing. I triced up the port run the gun out & fired the first gun and thus commenced the great battle between the Monitor & Merrimac.
Now mark the condition our men were in. Since Friday morning 48 hours, they had had no rest, and very little food, as we could not conveniently cook. They had been hard at work all night, had nothing to eat for breakfast except hard bread, and were thoroughly worn out. As for myself I had not slept a wink for 51 hours, and had been on my feet almost constantly. But after the first gun was fired we forgot all fatigue, hard work, and everything else—& went to work fighting as hard as men ever fought.
We loaded and fired as fast as we could—I pointed and fired the guns myself. Every shot I would ask the Captain the effect, and the majority of them were encouraging. The Captn. was in the Pilot House directing the movements of the vessel. Acting Master Stodder [L. N. Stodder, who was next in rank to Lieutenant Greene on the Monitor] was stationed at the wheel which turns the tower, but as he could not manage it he was relieved by Stimers. [A. C. Stimers, Monitor’s chief engineer.] The speaking trumpet from the Tower to the pilot house was broken, so we passed the word from the Captn. to myself, on the berth deck by Pay Master Keeler, and Captns Clerk Toffey.
Five times during the engagement we touched each other, and I will vouch the 168 lbs penetrated her sides. [An error: Merrimac’s armor was cracked, but no shots came through.] Once she tried to run us down with her iron prow, but did no damage whatever.
After fighting 2 hours, we hauled off for half an hour to hoist our shot into the Tower. At it we went again as hard as we could. The shot, shell, grape, canister, musket, and rifle, balls flew about in every direction, but did us no damage. Our tower was struck several times, and though the noise was pretty loud, it did not affect us any. Stodder & one of the men were carelessly leaning against the Tower, when a shot struck the Tower exactly opposite to them, and disabled them for an hour or two.
At about 11:30 the Captn. sent for me. I went forward, & there stood as noble a man as lives at the foot of the ladder, of the Pilot House. His face was perfectly black with powder & iron & he was apparently perfectly blind. I asked him what was the matter. He said a shot had struck the Pilot House exactly opposite his eyes, and blinded him, and he thought the Pilot House was injured. He told me to take charge of the ship, and use my own discretion, I led him to his room, and laid him on the sofa, and then took his position.
On examining the Pilot house, I found the iron hatch on top had been knocked about ½ way off, & the second iron log ∗
∗ 9 x 12 inches wrought iron
from the top on the forward side was completely cracked through. We still continued firing, the tower being under the direction of Stimers. We were now between two fires, the Minnesota on one side, & the Merrimac on the other. The latter was retreating, to Sewells point, and the Minnesota had struck us twice on the Tower, I knew if another shot should strike our pilot house in the same place, our steering apparutus would be disabled, & we would be at the mercy of the batteries on Sewells point. The Merrimac was retreating towards the latter place. We had strict orders to act on the defensive, and protect the Minnesota.
We had evidently finished the Merrimac as far as the Minnesota was concerned, [That is, the wooden Minnesota had been saved from destruction.] our pilot house was damaged, & we had strict orders not to follow the Merrimac up. Therefore after the Merrimac had retreated, I went to the Minnesota, and remained by her until she was afloat.
Gen Wool and Secy Fox have both complimented me very highly for acting as I did, and said it was the strict military plan, to follow. [Greene refers to Major General John E. Wool, U.S. army commander at Fortress Monroe, and to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox.] This was the reason we did not sink the Merrimac, & every one here capable of judging says we acted right.
The fight was over now, & we were victorious. My men & myself were perfectly black with smoke, and powder. All my underclothes were perfectly black, and my person in the same condition. As we ran alongside the Minnesota, Secretary Fox hailed us, & told us we had fought the greatest naval battle on record, and behaved as gallant as men could. He saw the whole fight.