The Monitor And The Merrimac
A FIGHT WHICH CHANGED ALL NAVAL WARFARE.
THE story I am now going to tell you takes us forward to the beginning
of the great Civil War, that terrible conflict which went on during four
long years between the people of the North and the South. Most of this
war was on land, but there were some mighty battles at sea, and my story
is of one of the greatest of these.
You should know
that up to 1860 all ocean battles were fought by ships
with wooden sides, through which a ball from a great gun would often cut
as easily as a knife through a piece of cheese. Some vessels had been
built with iron overcoats, but none of these had met in war. It was not
till March, 1862, that the first battle between ships with iron sides
The Constitution, you may remember, was called the Old Ironsides,
but that was only a nickname, for she had wooden sides, and the first
real Ironsides were the Monitor and the Merrimac.
Down in Virginia there is a great body of salt water known as Hampton
Roads. The James River runs into it, and so does the Elizabeth River, a
small stream which flows past the old City of Norfolk.
When the Civil War opened there was at Norfolk a fine United States navy
yard, with ships and guns and docks that had cost a great deal of money.
But soon after the war began the United States officers in charge there
ran away in a fright, having first set on fire everything that would
burn. Among the ships there was the old frigate Merrimac, which was
being repaired. This was set on fire, and blazed away brightly until it
sank to the bottom and the salt water put out the blaze. That was a very
bad business, for there was enough left of the old Merrimac to make a
great deal of trouble for the United States.
What did the Confederates do but lift the Merrimac out of the mud, and
put her in the dry dock, and cut away the burnt part, and build over
her a sloping roof of timbers two feet thick, until she looked something
like Noah's ark. Then this was covered with iron plates four inches
thick. In that way the first Confederate iron-clad ship was made.
The people at Washington knew all about this ship and were very much
alarmed. No one could tell what dreadful damage it might do if it got
out to sea, and came up Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River to the
national capital. It might be much worse than when the British burnt
Washington in 1814, for Washington was now a larger and finer city.
Something had to be done, and right away, too. It would not do to wait
for a monster like the Merrimac. So Captain John Ericsson, a famous
engineer of New York, was ordered to build an iron ship-of-war as fast
as he could. And he started to do so after a queer notion of his own.
That is the way it came about that the two iron ships were being built
at once, one at Norfolk and one at New York. And there was a race
between the builders, for the first one finished would have the best
chance. There was a lively rattle of hammers and tongs at both places,
and it turned out that they were finished and ready for service only a
few days apart.
It was necessary to tell you all this so that you might know how the
great fight came to be fought, and how Washington was saved from the
iron dragon of the South. Now we are done with our story of
ship-building and must go on to the story of battle and ruin.
On the morning of March 8, 1862, the sun came up beautifully over the
broad waters of Hampton Roads. The bright sunbeams lit up the sails of a
row of stately vessels stretched out for miles over the smiling bay.
There were five of these: the steam frigates St. Lawrence, Roanoke,
and Minnesota; the sailing frigate Congress; and the sloop-of-war
Cumberland. They were all wooden ships, but were some of the best
men-of-war in the United States navy.
All was still and quiet that fine morning. There was nothing to show
that there was any trouble on board those noble ships. But there was
alarm enough, for their captains knew that the Merrimac was finished
and might come at any hour. Very likely some of the officers thought
that they could soon decide matters for this clumsy iron monster. But I
fancy some of them did not sleep well and had bad dreams when they
thought of what might happen.
Just at the hour of noon the lookout on the Cumberland saw a long
black line of smoke coming from the way of Norfolk. Soon three steamers
were seen. One of these did not look like a ship at all, but like a low
black box, from which the smoke puffed up in a thick cloud.
But they knew very well what this odd-looking craft was. It was the
Merrimac. It had come out for a trial trip. But it was a new kind of
trial its men were after: the trial by battle.
Down came the iron-clad ship, with her sloping roof black in the
sunlight. Past the Congress she went, both ships firing. But the great
guns of the Congress did no more harm than so many pea-shooters; while
the shot of the Merrimac went clear through the wooden ships, leaving
death in their track.
Then the iron monster headed for the Cumberland. That was a terrible
hour for the men on the neat little sloop-of-war. They worked for their
lives, loading and firing, and firing as fast as they could, but not a
shot went through that grim iron wall.
In a few minutes the Merrimac came gliding up and struck the
Cumberland a frightful blow with her iron nose, tearing through the
thick oaken timbers and making a great hole in her side. Then she backed
off and the water rushed in.
In a minute the good ship began to sink, while the Merrimac poured
shot and shell into her wounded ribs.
"Do you surrender?" asked one of the officers of the Merrimac.
"Never!" said Lieutenant Morris, who commanded the Cumberland. "I'll
sink alongside before I pull down that flag."
He was a true Yankee seaman; one of the "no surrender" kind.
Down, inch by inch, settled the doomed ship. But her men stuck grimly to
their guns, and fired their last shot just as she sank out of sight.
Then all who had not saved themselves in the boats leaped overboard and
swam ashore, but a great many of the dead and wounded went down with the
She sank like a true Yankee hero, with her flag flying, and when she
struck bottom, with only the tops of her masts above water, "Old Glory"
still fluttered proudly in the breeze.
That was the way it went when iron first met wood in naval warfare. The
victor now turned to the Congress and another fierce battle began. But
the wooden ship had no chance. For an hour her men fought bravely, but
her great guns were of no use, and a white flag was raised. She had
surrendered, but the Confederates could not take possession, for there
were batteries on shore that drove them off. So they fired hot shot into
the Congress and soon she was in a blaze.
It was now five o'clock in the afternoon, and the Merrimac steamed
away with the Confederate flag flying in triumph. She had finished her
work for that day. It was a famous trial trip. She would come back the
next and sink the vessels still afloat--if nothing hindered.
For hours that night the Congress blazed like a mighty torch, the
flames lighting up the water and land for miles around. It was after
midnight when the fire reached her magazine and she blew up with a
terrific noise, scattering her timbers far and near. The men on the
Merrimac looked proudly at the burning ship. It was a great triumph
for them. But they saw one thing by her light they did not like so well.
Off towards Fortress Monroe there lay in the water a strange-looking
thing, which had not been there an hour before. What queer low ship was
that? And where had it come from?
The sun rose on the morning of Sunday, March 9, and an hour later the
Merrimac was again under way to finish her work. Not far from where
the Congress had burnt lay the Minnesota. She had run aground and
looked like an easy prey. But close beside her was the floating thing
they had observed the night before, the queerest-looking craft that had
ever been seen.
Everybody opened their eyes wide and stared as at a show when they saw
this strange object. They called it "a cheese box on a raft," and that
was a good name for its queer appearance. For the deck was nearly on a
level with the water, and over its centre rose something like a round
iron box. But it had two great guns sticking out of its tough sides.
It was the Monitor, the new vessel which Captain Ericsson had built
and sent down to fight the Merrimac. But none who saw this little low
thing thought it could stand long before the great Confederate
iron-clad. It looked a little like a slim tiger or leopard before a
great rhinoceros or elephant. The men on the Merrimac did not seem to
think it worth minding, for they came steaming up and began firing at
the Minnesota when they were a mile away.
Then away from the side of the great frigate glided the little
Monitor, heading straight for her clumsy antagonist. She looked like
no more than a mouthful for the big ship, and men gazed at her with
dread. She seemed to be going straight to destruction.
But the brave fellows on the Monitor had no such thoughts as that.
"Let her have it," said Captain Worden, when they came near; and one of
the great eleven-inch guns boomed like a volcano. The huge iron ball,
weighing about 175 pounds, struck the plates of the Merrimac with a
thundering crash, splitting and splintering them before it bounded off.
The broadside of the Merrimac boomed back, but the balls glanced away
from the thick round sides of the turret and did not harm.
Then the turret was whirled round like a top, and the gun on the other
side came round and was fired. Again the Merrimac fired back, and the
great battle was on.
For two hours the iron ships fought like two mighty wrestlers of the
seas. Smoke filled the turret so that the men of the Monitor did not
know how to aim their guns. The Merrimac could fire three times to her
one, but not a ball took effect. It was like a battle in a cloud.
"Why are you not firing?" asked Lieutenant Jones of a gun captain.
"Why, powder is getting scarce," he replied, "and I find I can do that
whiffet as much harm by snapping my finger and thumb every three
Then Lieutenant Jones tried to sink the Monitor. Five times the great
iron monster came rushing up upon the little Yankee craft, but each time
it glided easily away. But when the Merrimac came up the sixth time
Captain Worden did not try to escape. The Monitor waited for the blow.
Up rushed the Merrimac at full speed and struck her a fierce blow.
But the iron armor did not give way, and the great ship rode up on the
little one's deck till she was lifted several feet.
The little Monitor sank down under the Merrimac till the water
washed across her deck; then she slid lightly out and rose up all right
again, while the Merrimac started a leak in its own bow. At the same
moment one of the Monitor's great guns was fired and the ball struck
the Merrimac, breaking the iron plates and bulging in the thick wood
Thus for hour after hour the fight went on. For six hours the iron ships
struggled and fought, but neither ship was much the worse, while nobody
was badly hurt.
The end of the fight came in this way: There was a little pilot-house on
the deck of the Monitor, with a slot in its side from which Captain
Worden watched what was going on, so that he could give orders to his
men. Up against this there came a shell that filled the face and eyes of
the captain with grains of powder and splinters of iron, and flung him
down blind and helpless. Blood poured from every pore of his face.
The same shot knocked an iron plate from the top of the pilot-house and
let in the daylight in a flood. When the light came pouring in Captain
Worden, with his blinded eyes, thought something very serious had
happened, and gave orders for the Monitor to draw off to see what
damage was done.
Before she came back the Merrimac was far away. She was leaking badly
and her officers thought it about time to steam away for home.
That was the end of the great battle. Neither side had won the victory,
but it was a famous fight for all that. For it was the first battle of
iron-clad ships in the history of the world. Since then no great warship
has been built without iron sides. Only small vessels are now made all
That was the first and last battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac.
For a long time they watched each other like two bull-dogs ready for a
fight. But neither came to blows. Then, two months after the great
battle, the Merrimac was set on fire and blown up. The Union forces
were getting near Norfolk and her officers were afraid she would be
taken, so they did what the Union officers had done before.
The Monitor had done her work well, but her time also soon came. Ten
months after the great battle she was sent out to sea, and there she
went to the bottom in a gale. Such was the fate of the pioneer
iron-clads. But they had fought a mighty fight, and had taught the
nations of the world a lesson they would not soon forget.
In that grim deed between the first two iron-clad ships a revolution
took place in naval war. The great frigates, with their long rows of
guns, were soon to be of little more use than floating logs. More than
forty years have passed since then, and now all the great war-vessels
are clad in armor of the hardest steel.