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Lincoln's Secret Weapon

Workers at the Norfolk Navy Yard clad the Confederate ship Merrimack in iron during her conversion to the Virginia.
Eyewitness to the Battle
Part 2 | Back to Part 1

As a light fog lifted from the water it revealed the Merrimac with her consorts lying under Sewall's Point. The announcement of breakfast brought also the news that the Merrimac was coming & our coffee was forgotten.

Capt. Worden inquired of the Minnesota what he intended to do.—"If I cannot lighten my ship off I shall destroy her," Capt. Van Brunt replied.—"I will stand by you to the last if I can help you," said our Capt.—"No Sir, you cannot help me," was the reply.

The idea of assistance or protection being offered to a huge thing by the little pigmy at her side seemed absolutely ridiculous & I have no doubt was so regarded by those on board of her, for the replies came down curt & crispy. As the Merrimac approached, we slowly steamed out of the shadow of our towering friend no ways daunted by her rather ungracious replies.

Every one on board of us was at his post, except the doctor & myself who having no place assigned us in the immediate working of the ship were making the most of our time in taking a good look at our still distant but approaching foe. A puff of smoke arose from her side & a shell howled over our heads & crashed into the side of the Minnesota. Capt. Worden, who was on deck, came up & said more sternly than I ever heard him speak before, "Gentlemen, that is the Merrimac, you had better go below." [For a thorough look belowdecks, see Tour the Monitor.]

We did not wait [for] a second invitation but ascended the tower & down the hatchway, Capt. W. following. The iron hatch was closed over the opening & all access to us cut off. As we passed down through the turret the gunners were lifting a 175 lb. shot into the mouth of one of our immense guns. "Send them that with our compliments, my lads," says Capt. W.

A painting shows crew members taking in the air on the Monitor's deck.

A few straggling rays of light found their way from the top of the tower to the depths below which was dimly lighted by lanterns. Every one was at his post, fixed like a Statue, the most profound silence reigned—if there had been a coward heart there its throb would have been audible, so intense was the stillness.

I experienced a peculiar sensation, I do not think it was fear, but it was different from anything I ever knew before. We were enclosed in what we supposed to be an impenetrable armour—we knew that a powerful foe was about to meet us—ours was an untried experiment & our enemy's first fire might make it a coffin for us all.

Then we knew not how soon the attack would commence, or from what direction it would come, for with the exception of those in the pilot house & one or two in the turret, no one of us could see her. The suspense was awful as we waited in the dim light expecting every moment to hear the crash of our enemy's shot.

Soon came the report of a gun, then another & another at short intervals, then a rapid discharge. Then a thundering broadside & the infernal howl (I can't give it a more appropriate name) of the shells as they flew over our vessel was all that broke the silence & made it seem still more terrible.

Mr. Green says, "Paymaster ask the Capt. if I shall fire." The reply was, "Tell Mr. Green not to fire till I give the word, to be cool & deliberate, to take sure aim & not waste a shot."

O, what a relief it was, when at the word, the gun over my head thundered out its challenge with a report which jarred our vessel, but it was music to us all.

The fight had been opened by the Merrimac firing on the Minnesota who replied by the broadside we first heard. As we lay immediately between the two, we had the full benefit of their shot—the sound of them at least, which if once heard will never be forgotten I assure you. It would not quiet the nerves of an excitable person I think.

Monitor's turret
The Monitor's turret, with one gun visible.
Until we fired, the Merrimac had taken no notice of us, confining her attentions to the Minnesota. Our second shot struck her & made the iron scales rattle on her side. She seemed for the first time to be aware of our presence & replied to our solid shot with grape & canister which rattled on our iron decks like hail stones.

One of the gunners in the turret could not resist the temptation when the port was open for an instant to run out his head, he drew it in with a broad grin. "Well," says he, "the d----d fools are firing canister at us."

The same silence was [again] enforced below that no order might be lost or misunderstood.

The vessels were now sufficiently near to make our fire effective & our two heavy pieces were worked as rapidly as possible, every shot telling—the intervals being filled by the howling of the shells around & over us, which was now incessant.

The men at the guns had stripped themselves to their waists & were covered with powder & smoke, the perspiration falling from them like rain.

Below, we had no idea of the position of our unseen antagonist, her mode of attack, or her distance from us, except what was made known through the orders of the Capt.

"Tell Mr. Green that I am going to bring him on our Starboard beam close along side."

"That was a good shot, went through her water line."

"Don't let the men expose themselves, they are firing at us with rifles."

"That last shot brought the iron from her sides."

"She's too far off now, reserve your fire till you're sure."

The Monitor's officers
The Monitor's officers arrange themselves for a group portrait before the turret.

"If you can elevate enough, try the wooden gun boat."

"You struck her." . . .

. . . "They're going to board us, put in a round of canister."

"Can't do it," replies Mr. Green, "both guns have solid shot."

"Give them to her then."

Bang goes one of the guns.

"You've made a hole through her, quick give her the other."

Snap goes the primer.

"Why don't you fire?"

"Can't do it, the cartridge is not rammed home."

"Depress the gun & let the shot roll overboard."

"It won't do it."

In the meantime two or three more primers snap.

"How long will it take to get the shot out of that gun?"

"Can't tell, perhaps 15 minutes."

And we hauled off, as the papers say, "to let our guns cool."

Continue: Back into the fray

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