The Miracle That Saved The Union

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At last, on February 19, DeLamater’s mechanics lighted the fires in the boilers and warmed up the engines. Ericsson boarded the Monitor , and she headed out into the river for her first trial trip, in a blinding snowstorm driven by a northeast wind. DeLamater’s men soon began having trouble. The little cut-off valves that controlled the admission of steam to the cylinder had unfortunately been put on backward; the vessel could not get up to speed. The valves were adjusted, and that same evening, as the snow changed to a torrential downpour of rain, Thomas Rowland delivered the Monitor to Hiram Paulding at the Brooklyn Navy Yard for fitting out.

Down south in Hampton Roads, Commodore Louis M. Goldsborough, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, had a motley array of vessels—old sailing frigates, steamers, and tugs. They were all in danger. The Merrimac could sink them at will and, it was feared, proceed north and burn out New York Harbor. Would the Monitor never get there?

 

Washington was in a frenzy. On February 20, the day the Monitor was officially finished by her contractors, Gideon Welles sent sailing orders to her skipper, John Lorimer Worden, a veteran naval officer who had only recently been incarcerated as a Confederate prisoner of war: “Proceed with the U.S. Steamer Monitor under your command to Hampton Roads, Va… .” But in his haste Welles had forgotten that the Monitor wasn’t even commissioned. She had no crew on board, no provisions, no ammunition. Her battery had not been tested.

The next day a messenger from the American Telegraph Company sped to Ericsson’s office on Franklin Street. He bore an envelope directed to “J. Ericsson, Constructor of Iron Battery.” Opening it, Ericsson read: It is very important that you should say exactly the day the Monitor can be at Hampton Roads. Consult with Comdr. Paulding.

G. V. FOX¥¥ Ass’t Sec’y Navy

Three days later Griswold, running the Monitor ’s finances in Troy, wrote hoping that she would be ready in time to stop the Merrimac . A northwest gale, so violent that the cupola of the Brooklyn City Hall “occilated like a pendulum,” raged in New York Harbor, damaging many vessels. Fortunately the Monitor did not suffer. A new underwater cable from Fortress Monroe to Cape Charles was completed, and news of Confederate doings would get north twelve to twenty hours sooner. Rebel Secretary Mallory finally got around to ordering a commanding officer for the Merrimac , old disciplinarian Captain Franklin Buchanan, who had been the first superintendent of the Naval Academy at Annapolis and at the time the war broke out had commanded the Washington Navy Yard. But the Merrimac still had not been loaded with ammunition for her guns.

On February 25 the Monitor was officially commissioned at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The crew marched over from the North Carolina and skidded down the gangway sloping steeply from the pier above to the iron deck of their strange new ship, which floated barely eighteen inches above the river. They could lean over and put their hands in the water. All they saw on her bare decks were the turret, the tiny pilothouse near the bow, and the two small ventilator cowls at the other end. Captain Worden ordered the flag run up. He read his orders and broke his commission pennant. She was at last a ship of the United States Navy. The watch was set and her log started. The new crew loaded on stores, provisions, and ammunition. Ericsson telegraphed Gustavus Fox that the Monitor would indeed leave on the morrow.

And so the Monitor departed on the morning of February 26 from the Brooklyn Navy Yard for her trip to rebel waters. It was snowing heavily. She headed bravely down the East River for the Narrows and the open sea. Bushnell, writing from Willard’s Hotel in Washington, had “no doubt of her making a good and safe passage to the entire satisfaction of all parties on her arrival at the point of destination.” But her steering became difficult, and by the time she was abreast of Wall Street, only a mile downstream, it was out of the question that she could go any farther. Worden reluctantly gave the order to turn around, and the Monitor ignominiously returned to the Navy Yard.

Her return caused dismay. Rowland said he could put the Monitor in the sectional dock at the foot of Pike Street “with perfect safety, alter her rudder, and have her out in 24 hours.” But Ericsson, greatly annoyed, said it was entirely unnecessary to dock the ship, and in fact he made the adjustment without docking her.