Smoke, shrapnel, and explosions fill the air as the Monitor (right) and the Virginia face off at close range.
U.S. Steamer Monitor
March 9th, 1862
2 o'clock P.M.
My Dear Wife & Children,
I have but a few minutes to spare just to say that I am safe. We have had an engagement with the Merrimac continuing for three hours & have driven her off, we think in a sinking condition. [Keeler calls the CSS Virginia The "Merrimac," which is a misspelling of the ship's former name (see About the Letters.] We have three men disabled, among them & the worst is our noble Captain who has lost his sight, I hope only temporarily. The first opportunity I get you shall have full details & my own experience. With my best & kindest love to you all.
We fought her at 20 feet distance a part of the time, the two vessels were touching. My hands are all dirt & powder smoke as you will discover by the paper—
U.S. Steamer Monitor
Off Sandy Hook
March 6th, 1862
. . . As we neared the land, clouds of smoke could be seen hanging over it in the direction of the Fortress, & as we approached still nearer little black spots could occasionally be seen suddenly springing into the air, remaining stationary for a moment or two & then gradually expanding into a large white cloud—these were shells & tended to increase the excitement. As the darkness increased, the flashes of guns lit up the distant horizon & bursting shells flashed in the air.
During a relaxed moment aboard the Monitor, Lt. William Jeffers takes a breather on deck in one of the wardroom chairs.
We soon took a pilot & then learned that the Merrimac was out & making terrible havock among the shipping—how slow we seemed to move—the moments were hours. Oh, how we longed to be there—but our iron hull crept slowly on & the monotonous clank, clank, of the engine betokened no increase of its speed. No supper was eaten that night as you may suppose.
As we neared the harbour the firing slackened & only an occasional gun lit up the darkness—vessels were leaving like a covey of frightened quails & their lights danced over the water in all directions.
We stopped by the Roanoke frigate [Captain John Marston] & rec'd orders to proceed at once to Newport News to protect the Minnesota [Captain Henry Van Brunt] which was aground there, so we went up & anchored near her. [Monitor] Capt. [John] Worden went on board & on his return we heard for the first time the havoc made by the Merrimac & the terrible excitement prevailing among the shipping in the harbour & among the troops ashore.
Everything on board of us had been prepared for action as far as possible as we came up the harbour & the report every little while through the night that the Merrimac was coming kept all hands to quarters through the night. No one slept.
The first rays of morning light saw the Minnesota surrounded by tugs into which were being tumbled the bags & hammocks of the men & barrels & bags of provisions, some of which went into the boats & some into the water, which was covered with barrels of rice, whiskey, flour, beans, sugar, which were thrown overboard to lighten the ship. . .
. . . After getting up our anchor we steamed slowly along under the towering side of the Minnesota. The men were clambering down into the smaller boats—the guns were being thrown overboard & everything seemed in confusion. Her wooden sides shewed terrible traces of the conflict.