What was it like to be inside the Union ironclad USS Monitor during its famous confrontation with the CSS Virginia? Fortunately, a member of the crew, William F. Keeler, who served as the Monitor's Acting Paymaster, described the conflict in glowing and often affecting detail in letters written to his wife Anna before and immediately after the historic battle. Keeler dashed off the first letter less than two hours after the brief but momentous clash ended, just to let his family know he was safe. He had begun the second, much longer letter three days before the battle began, and he finished and mailed it some time after the battle concluded.
The two ships met in Hampton Roads, a broad body of water found where the James River empties into Chesapeake Bay (see map). The Union fleet had formed a blockade east of Fort Monroe, a strategic position that enabled the North to command the entrance to the bay. On the fateful day of the battle, March 9, 1862, the Virginia, which was known as the Merrimack before the Confederates refitted it as an ironclad, had sailed out of Norfolk to attack Union ships near Newport News. The North's defending ships included the 50-gun USS Congress, which is the ship Keeler sees ablaze on his arrival, and the USS Minnesota, which had run aground.
These letters were excerpted with permission from Aboard the USS Monitor: 1862: The Letters of Acting Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, U.S. Navy To His Wife Anna, edited by Robert W. Daly (Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1964). Note that to preserve the letters' spontaneity and strong sense of immediacy, Daly retained Keeler's occasional convoluted syntax and misspellings (e.g., the "Merrimac"). For more about the battle's impact, see the Afterword.
Photo: Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.