The Miracle That Saved The Union


At the same time Flag Officer French Forrest, commandant of the Norfolk Navy Yard, was getting desperate for gunpowder for the Merrimac . He needed it at once. It would take three full days to fill the Merrimac ’s cartridge boxes, and it was already February 28.

On March 3 Winslow was writing Ericsson from Troy, supposing the Monitor was “ere this en route to Hampton Roads.” But she wasn’t until the following day, a blustery, cold March 4. A board of experts went on board the Monitor . Captain Worden took her out into the open sea off Sandy Hook for her final checkup. The two eleven-inch Dahlgrens were loaded with fifteen-pound powder charges and solid shot weighing 168 pounds. The pendulumlike gunport shields were swung aside. The gun carriages ran out on their rails until the gun muzzles protruded outside their gunports. They were fired time and again. The new turning mechanism, which had caused Ericsson so much trouble, swung the twenty-foot turret around smoothly. Even the bothersome steering gear worked. The trial was a success, and the board of experts gave the Monitor its approval. She returned triumphantly to the yard at five o’clock that evening. Commodore Smith was pleased enough to send a draft for $18,750. But there still was a great deal of work to do. Sailing date was fixed for March 6. Nevertheless Lieutenant Greene, her executive officer, the man who should have known, did not see how they could possibly make it.


Paulding ordered the steamers Currituck and Sachem to stand by to escort the Monitor to Hampton Roads and a tug to take her in tow. It would be a wild trip in the rampaging winter Atlantic. Even Captain Worden thought she might capsize in case of heavy gales.

At about 11 A.M. on Thursday, March 6, the Monitor finally left the Brooklyn Navy Yard. She proceeded without difficulty in a light westerly breeze. Opposite Governor’s Island the tug took her in tow. Soon the Monitor disappeared from view, was through the Narrows and out to sea, heading south.

Friday March 7 was an angry day at sea. Dreadful things happened on board the Monitor . Water poured down through the turret foundations and into the boiler room, unchecked by the makeshift oakum packing that had been added without Ericsson’s knowledge. The blowers quit. Men in the engine room nearly suffocated and had to be dragged out. The engine stopped. The captain ordered the tug to tow her inshore close to the coast, where there would be calmer water. Five hours were lost.

At Norfolk, that Friday was a trying day for the Confederacy too. Although the Stars and Bars were run up on the Merrimac , her crew was worried. All her officers knew that the ship was not prepared for the heavy work she had to do. Her engines had not been tested. Her water line was her weak part, her Achilles’ heel. A well-directed fire here, and she would be done for. Some crew members predicted total failure; few expected to return to Norfolk. Yard workers swarmed all over the ship in a last-minute effort to finish the work.

That evening the Monitor got going again. Chief engineer Alban Stimers, despite the discouragement of all hands, insisted that they keep on. Captain Worden kept the deck all night in the tiny pilothouse. The whole crew was already exhausted, choked with fumes and water-soaked. But the Monitor steamed steadily on.

It was Saturday morning, March 8. Commodore Goldsborough’s blockade squadron rode at anchor in Hampton Roads, engaged in dull routine. He had waited so long for the Merrimac , had heard so many cries of wolf, that now on this pleasant day he was lulled into a false sense of security. It was a lovely morning with hardly a ripple on the surface of the bay. Over at Newport News the old fifty-gun frigate Congress , commanded by Joseph B. Smith, the commodore’s son, waited. Nearby was the Cumberland , while over by Old Point Comfort the remainder of the squadron, headed by Van Brunt’s steam frigate Minnesota , was disposed. Gustavus Fox left Washington and went down to Fortress Monroe, guarding Hampton Roads, to see how the Monitor would make out.