The Monitor And The Merrimac


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

took place.

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

of wood.

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.