The Miracle That Saved The Union

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Just before 11 A.M. the Merrimac ’s quick-tempered skipper—hopelessly suffering, said a doctor, from “nervous prostration”—ordered her to sail. She moved out from the pier with workmen jumping ashore as she left. Rebel crowds cheered. Laboring against a strong flood tide, the Merrimac steamed ponderously down the Elizabeth River and into Hampton Roads at her top speed of six knots. Dragging her deep, twenty-two-foot hull through the muddy water, with heavy smoke pouring from her stack, she steered poorly. The gunboats Raleigh and Beaufort escorted her. Shortly after three bells Captain Buchanan called all hands to quarters and told them that “you shall have no reason to complain of not fighting at close quarters….”

The U.S.S. Cumberland sent the tug Zouave to Pig Point to reconnoiter—to see what all that smoke was coming down the Elizabeth River. After a bit the officers of the Zouave saw “what looked to them like the roof of a barn belching forth smoke from a chimney.” It was the Merrimac . No real worry, though. She was hugging the opposite shore so closely and moving so slowly that obviously she was on no more than a trial run.

At about 4 P.M. the Monitor passed Cape Henry and entered the Chesapeake. Her crew heard what sounded like gunfire. It was in fact the Merrimac in the act of destroying the Congress , whose captain, young Joe Smith, was killed.

A pilot came on board the Monitor and told about the havoc the Merrimac had created in the Union squadron. The Minneapolis was aground, the Congress on fire, and the Cumberland sunk in fifty-four feet of water. The Monitor rushed ahead to the battle area, but it was too late. The victorious Merrimac had already retired for the night. So the Monitor anchored alongside the Minnesota and waited for the dawn.

By 8 P.M. the Merrimac was anchored off Sewall’s Point. She had lost her prow but was otherwise in fighting trim. Her exhausted crew had to clear away the debris of battle before the cooks could get supper ready at eleven o’clock. After supper the men stayed up to watch the fire they had started over by Newport News. Shortly after midnight the Congress blew up. It was not until then that the crew of the Merrimac , satisfied, turned in. But they were soon up again, and her anchor was aweigh at 6:20 A.M.

One hundred minutes or so later the Monitor and the Merrimac met in the momentous first battle between ironclads. The Merrimac , accompanied by several steamers, headed directly toward the Minnesota , firing at the Union vessel, which had been run aground the previous day. Aboard the Monitor Captain Worden gave the order to commence firing, with young Greene pointing and firing the guns himself as they were quickly loaded and reloaded. Five times the two ironclads came so close to each other that they actually touched. The armor of both vessels was proving to be formidable. After two hours of steady combat the Monitor broke away briefly to enable her crew to hoist shot into the turret. When the battle was joined again a half hour later, the pilothouse on the Monitor was struck and Worden temporarily blinded by the terrific impact. He turned over command to Greene. Stimers was now in charge of the turret guns, and he kept up the firing until suddenly the Merrimac , running out of fuel, riding high at the bow, and leaking, broke off contact and headed toward Sewall’s Point. Under strict orders to protect the Minnesota , Greene did not pursue but instead returned to the Minnesota ’s side until she was afloat.

The grueling four-and-a-half hour battle had ended in a stand-off, but for all intents it was a Union victory. As Gideon Welles put it:

There is no reason to believe that any of our wooden vessels guarding the Southern Coast would have withstood her [the Merrimac ’s] attacks any better than the Cumberland , Congress , or Minnesota . She might have ascended the Potomac, and thrown bombshells into the Capitol of the Union. In short it is difficult to assign limits to her destructive power. But for the timely arrival of the Monitor … our whole fleet of wooden ships, and probably the whole sea coast, would have been at the mercy of a terrible assailant.