USS 'Monitor,' Famous Union Ironclad, Sunk by Rough Seas
On Dec. 30, 1862, stormy seas off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, did what the Confederate ironclad Virginia (Merrimac) could not: sink the mighty Union ironclad Monitor. Another Union gunboat, the Rhode Island, was towing the Monitor in fine weather on calm seas, but about 9:00 the night of Dec. 30 the weather suddenly changed for the worse, and by 10:00 the rough seas were pounding the Monitor and it sprang a leak. The crew battled for several hours to save the ship, but around 1:30 in the morning the Monitor sank, drowning 16 of her total crew of 62.
The loss of the Monitor was both a physical and psychological loss to the U.S. Navy. The third of three different styles of ironclad ordered by the Navy, the Monitor was the first commissioned, with the ceremony taking place Feb. 25, 1862. When the Monitor fought the Confederate ironclad Virginia on March 9, it was the historic first clash of ironclads in the history of naval warfare. The Monitor had a distinct and unusual shape, designed by Swedish engineer John Ericsson. Most of the ship was underwater, with the iron-plated deck barely above the waterline and only the turret, housing the ship’s two cannons, and a small pilothouse sticking up above the water.
This nearly-submerged configuration made the Monitor hard to hit, but it also made it more suitable for service on rivers and near coastlines; its heavy iron turret made it top-heavy and unsuitable for travel in the open seas. That is why it was being towed by a more stable, wooden gunship the night it went down.
The New York Herald (New York, New York) announced the loss of the Monitor on the front page of its Jan. 4, 1863, issue:
The Monitor Foundered!
The Famous Iron-Clad Gunboat Monitor Lost off Cape Hatteras.
Four Officers and Twelve Men Missing.
One Officer and Eight Seamen of the Steamer Rhode Island Missing.
Serious Loss to Our New Navy.
The Navy Department has received a dispatch from Fortress Monroe announcing the arrival there of the steamer State of Georgia with the intelligence that the Monitor foundered at sea off Cape Hatteras, and two officers and twenty-eight men were drowned. Neither names nor other details given.
Dispatch from Rear Admiral Lee
Washington, Jan. 3, 1863.
The following has been received at the Navy Department from Rear Admiral Lee:
Fortress Monroe, Jan. 3, 1863.
Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, Washington:
The State of Georgia reports that the Monitor foundered on Tuesday night south of Cape Hatteras, with the loss of two officers and twenty-eight men (names not known) belonging to the Monitor or to the Rhode Island, or to both.
--Rear Admiral Lee.
In that same issue, the New York Herald printed a follow-up article providing more details:
The Loss of the Monitor
That invaluable, “cheese box on a raft,” the unconquerable little Monitor in battle, is lost, having gone down to the bottom in that perilous sea off Cape Hatteras, with four of her gallant officers and twelve of her brave men. Bound upon an important Southern expedition, the loss of this favorite little ship, under the circumstances, may be said to be equal to the loss of a battle. But, while she has done enough to give a glorious immortality to Ericsson, as one of the great heroes of the Union, and enough to place our naval power ahead of that of England, we trust that her loss will not defeat the objects of the expedition to which she was attached. When we shall have learned the particulars of the foundering of this noble vessel—the pioneer of our iron-clad navy—we may perhaps gain some useful instruction from the misfortune. At all events, her loss is the loss of the pet of the people.
Additional details were provided by an article printed by the Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.) on Jan. 5, 1863:
A Distressing Shipwreck.
Loss of the Iron-Clad Monitor and a Part of Her Crew.
The following dispatch was received yesterday morning at the Navy Department:
Hampton Roads, Jan. 3—9 o’clock p.m.
Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy:
The Monitor, in tow of the gunboat Rhode Island, passed Hatteras Shoals on Tuesday afternoon. The weather was then fine and promising. About nine p.m. the weather became squally; about ten it blew hard; and at half-past one o’clock a.m. on Wednesday, 31st, the Monitor, having sprung a leak, went down.
Commander Bankhead and the officers and crew of the Monitor behaved nobly, and made very effort to save their vessel. Commander Tranctard, the officers, and crew of the Rhode Island did everything in their power to rescue the officers and crew of the Monitor.
…The Rhode Island, just arrived, passed the Montauk at 5 1/2 this morning, fifteen to twenty miles to northward of Hatteras, doing well—weather fine.
--S. P. Lee, A. R. Admiral.
The sinking of the Monitor was big news for the Southern papers as well, though for them it was a cause of celebration, of course, not lament. This article was printed by the Macon Daily Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on Jan. 6, 1863:
And the Galena very near ditto. These are important items—not so much in the destruction of a single iron-clad vessel, however formidable, as in the demonstration that the whole of that numerous class, upon which the Yankees mainly depend, are unseaworthy. If there has been any violent storm upon the Atlantic coast, we have no evidence of the fact, and presume on the other hand that the wreck is due wholly to the character of the craft.
Four days later the Macon Daily Telegraph ran another article on the sinking of the Monitor, emphasizing the ship’s design flaws and commenting: “This is a severer blow to Federal insolence than the loss of several battles.” This article was printed by the Telegraph on Jan. 10, 1863:
Terrible Work among the Iron-Clads
Three, and probably four, of the Yankee revolving iron-clad gunboats are hors du combat. The Monitor, Galena, Passaic and Montauk left Hampton Roads…Of these vessels, the Monitor went down, the Galena had to throw all her armament overboard, the Passaic was towed into Beaufort, N.C., disabled, with the loss of her guns and turret and leaking badly, and the Montauk has not been heard of and has most probably gone to the bottom.
There is no evidence of any violent storm upon the Atlantic coast, and these vessels probably fell victims to their own unseaworthiness, in the swell raised by a moderate gale off Cape Hatteras.
The source of the difficulty seems apparent. They were top-heavy by reason of the enormous weight of iron in the turret and armament. The Monitor probably capsized. The Passaic, a newer ship, and improved by the suggestions of experience in navigating the Monitor, still was so badly balanced that she snapped off her turret in her prodigious labors in the roll of the sea, and thus relieved, was able to get into port, though so strained as to leak badly. The Galena was relieved by early throwing overboard her heavy armament in the turret, but was also so strained as to be unseaworthy. The Montauk, like the Monitor, probably capsized before they had time to relieve the enormous top weight.
Thus the experience of one voyage has shown that the whole race of much-vaunted Monitors, of which we think there are ten built and in course of construction, are worthless for marine purposes. No man in his senses will ever go to sea in them again. They must hereafter be used in still water as mere harbor defences. This is a severer blow to Federal insolence than the loss of several battles. These iron-clads were not only their main dependence for the destruction of the cities from Richmond to Galveston, but they were held to be potent scare-crows against foreign intervention. To every indication of the possibility that France or England, tired of the war, might interpose to stop it, these terrible Monitors were held up as an infallible foil, and their destructive ravages upon the commerce and coast of so presumptuous an enemy, were the subject of much eloquence by the New York prints.
The ignominious failure of this race of sea monsters will therefore be a blow not less severe upon the power than upon the vanity of the North. It will set the maritime powers in a giggle at the expense of the Federals. It is true, Yankee ingenuity will go to work upon others of a better pattern, but it requires much time to build an iron fleet, and time is emphatically money and opportunity with the Federal Government just now. As many of their most important military operations in the present campaign were conditioned upon the cooperation of these gunboats, their failure seriously disjoints the whole plan of operations and may well be considered by the Confederates as a most auspicious omen, for which we have reason for devout gratitude to God.
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