Friday, July 13, 2018

The USS Monitor overcame doubters. Its crew trusted the ironclad, even during the terrible storm that sank the famous ironclad.

Monitor crew in July 1862 on James River in Va.  (Library of Congress)

Robert Williams (right)
On a summer day in 1862, a contingent of the USS Monitor’s crew gathered in front of its battle-scarred turret. A few sailors played checkers while others gazed toward a camera.

None of them looked more intensely at the photographer than Robert Williams, a fireman first class from Wales. His sleeves were rolled up, exposing his brawny, crossed forearms.

“There is a cockiness,” said David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, which protects the remnants of the Monitor. “That is the look of the hero.”

But that air of confidence couldn’t have been predicted just a few months before.

On March 6, 1862, the new Union ironclad – its radical design dubbed “Ericsson’s folly” by its doubters -- steamed down New York City’s East River for the short journey to Virginia. There were doubts about whether the Monitor could withstand the seas and intense enemy firepower; it fired only two cannons from the revolving turret.

“People thought these 70 men were going to their deaths,” Alberg told the Picket. “The crew was unconvinced. Many were seasick.”

But the small ship quickly challenged the heavily armored CSS Virginia upon arrival and ended the latter’s rampage against Federal ships. The stalemate at Hampton Road changed naval warfare and foreshadowed the end of wooden warships.

Harper's Weekly rendering of Monitor sinking (public domain)

While much of the USS Monitor’s wreckage remains where it sank during a storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C, on Dec. 31, 1862, the turret, guns, anchor, engine components and thousands of artifacts are housed at the Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Va.

An exhibit that opened last year features personal items – including shoes, a comb, buttons and pocket knives -- found near or with the remains of two sailors found in the turret when it was recovered in 2002. Sixteen men, including four officers, perished when the Monitor went down.

Despite advanced forensics testing and physical descriptions of sailors noted during their Civil War service, the identities of the two crew members remain unknown.

Sailor 1 is believed to be William H. Eagan, 21, or Jacob Nicklis (Nickles), 21. Sailor 2 is likely either William Bryan, 31, or Williams, 30, who worked in the engine room. A spoon on display has the initials “J.N.” and is believed to have belonged to Nicklis. In the top photo in this post, Bryan may be the kneeling man to Williams' right.

Judging from contemporary accounts and what was found in the turret (discarded footwear, silverware and clothing), there was a mad rush to escape through the turret when it became clear the Monitor was going to sink.

David Alberg
Lifeboats from the steamer USS Rhode Island, which was towing the ironclad to Beaufort, N.C., plowed through 30-foot waves to scoop up survivors in midnight maelstrom. Some onboard likely couldn’t swim, while others’ best chance was leaping from the deck into a rescue boat.

It’s unclear why the two men found in the turret remained on board. “They probably said, ‘Maybe the storm will lie down and they will send another boat back,’” said Alberg.

In the minds of the crew, he said, the ironclad had gone from an “iron coffin” on March 6 to an icon in December. “And it had served them well.” Amid the storm, their confidence “kept them on that boat.” 

USS Monitor was 'a strange ship'

Like much of the US Navy, the Monitor’s crew was a cross-section of 19th century America. A few, including Williams and Eagan, were born in Europe. Three African-Americans were lost with the vessel off Hatteras.

The crew lived below the waterline, and oil lamps burned to make up for the lack of natural light in the iron vessel. Officers had better food and quarters while the enlisted men slept on hammocks in a common room behind the wardroom.

The USS Monitor is a “strange ship” for those accustomed to canal boats and traditional wooden vessels, said John Quarstein, director emeritus of the USS Monitor Center at the museum. For example, it had pressurized commodes. “Half of those people had never seen a commode.”

As one can imagine, life on the boat was almost unbearable during the summer months. A photo taken after the CSS Virginia clash shows a shade awning above the turret.

The crew did a fair bit of drilling, said Quarstein, and their work was subject to weekly inspections.

Panels in crew exhibit at Mariners' Museum (Picket photos)


Not a lot is known about Bryan and Eagan.

Bryan, like Williams, served on the ironclad during the battle with the Virginia. The New York native was an experienced yeoman.

Nicklis and Eagan, a relatively inexperienced landsman born in Ireland, were replacements brought on at the Washington Navy Yard while the boat was undergoing repairs in the autumn of 1862. By then, crowds cheered the Monitor and its occupants.

A good bit is known about Nicklis because of surviving letters in the museum’s collection, written to his father from Oct. 27, 1862, to Dec. 28, 1862. The young seaman from Buffalo, New York, stood 5 feet 7 inches and had a ruddy complexion.

Nicklis had enlisted in the Navy at age 16, but re-enlisted in 1862 for a one-year term.

Officers on the deck in July 1862 (Library of Congress)

Throughout his letters, Nicklis expresses his misgiving on serving on board the Monitor. He states that the turret is “getting weak” and that “they say we will have a pretty rough time a going around Hatteras but I hope it will not be the case.” 

The USS Monitor returned to Hampton Roads in November after it was repaired, and then it was ordered on Christmas Eve to steam to Beaufort.

Terrifying storm put it under

The pride of the US Navy left on Dec. 29, 1862. Two days later, it encountered a strong storm that had it floundering in the Atlantic waves. Not built to withstand the forces of the open seas, the ironclad bounced up and down, resulting in loosened bolts that allowed water to come in.

Landsman Francis Butts, standing atop the structure, later wrote that the waves “would leap upon us and break far above the turret” with “a shock that would sometimes take us off our feet.”

Commander John Bankhead ordered a red lantern (right) be hoisted to signal distress to the Rhode Island. The line between the two vessels was cut to minimize the chance of them colliding. The flooding continued during the rescues by leaky and overloaded lifeboats. Eventually, Bankhead ordered the crew to abandon ship.

Quarstein, author of “The Monitor Boys,” called the rescue of 47 USS Monitor crew members “a tremendous story of heroism” by the crew of the Rhode Island’s commander, Stephen Decatur Trenchard.

There was no requirement at the time of being a proficient swimmer, and most of the men knew if they fell into the water they were lost. A few slipped off the deck to their deaths, while others missed lifeboats.

“The people who are left in the turret when the second boat goes back, they are called to get into the boat by Bankhead. They are either too afraid or they think the boat is so overloaded.”

Rhode Island Acting Master’s Mate D. Rodney Browne and members of his crew rowed back for them (at least one member of the USS Monitor crew was below deck). The USS Monitor was gone.

Quarstein estimates about half of the 16 who died drowned, while the remaining went down when the USS Monitor capsized, turned over and hit the bottom.

Clash of the CSS Virginia and Monitor (Library of Congress)

Deep affection for Monitor's service

The USS Monitor retains its special place in US naval history. While it never engaged with the CSS Virginia again (the latter was destroyed to avoid capture after it was bottled up by the Monitor), the boat took part in the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, firing on a Confederate fort on Virginia’s James River.

But it’s best remembered for its heroics on March 9, 1862, a day after the Virginia sank the USS Cumberland and pulverized the USS Congress, which was set afire after capture.

The Monitor’s skipper at the time, Lt. John Worden, was ordered to protect the steam frigate USS Minnesota. The Virginia plowed toward the Minnesota but the Monitor interceded and the two circled for hours, firing broadsides and looking for weakness in the other’s armor. Both sides claimed victory.

The Minnesota was saved outright by the Monitor. According to the USS Monitor Center, “One Minnesota crew member had his tombstone designed to look like the Monitor -- the ship that saved his life.”

Fast forward to March 2013, when the remains of the two unidentified men found in the turret were buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. (The bodies of the other 14 have not been recovered)

Reverse of coin has image of old USS Minnesota (NOAA)

Alberg, the superintendent of the Monitor marine sanctuary, told the Picket he has vivid memories of the day. About 140 descendants of the crew were on hand. “Some were of men who clearly survived. I have a photo of a lady laying her hands on the casket. I was very moved at how all 140 people viewed them as theirs.”

Front of coin (NOAA)
He keeps a coin given to him that day by the commanding officer of the new advanced nuclear submarine USS Minnesota. The reverse side includes an image of the Civil War-era USS Minnesota. The gift was a token of appreciation – 151 years later – for the Monitor’s saving of the Minnesota.

“That short 10-second exchange will stick with me forever,” said Alberg. “It really showed … the power of the Monitor story."

• Part 1: These two sailors went down with the USS Monitor. Now you can see items they carried or were found near them.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

In Houston, check out 'Fort Humbug'

Civil War buffs traditionally don’t give Houston much consideration. The city’s presumptively minor role is even echoed in the title of The Heritage Society’s current exhibition, “Dumped and Forgotten Below the Milam Street Bridge: Houston In the Civil War,” on display through Aug. 4, at the society’s museum in Sam Houston Park. The underlying theme, explains Collections Curator Ginger Berni, is to counter the common perception that the Civil War was inconsequential to the city -- “just some sort of inconvenient blip in our history,” she says. • Article

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Turn left at Farragut, then right on Shiloh

In 1961, William Estes Jr., a Civil War history buff, named a Tucson, Az., subdivision his father was working on because it was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. He also named the streets in it after Civil War leaders, ships, battles and battlegrounds, and the model homes — “The General Jackson,” “The General Sherman,” “The General Grant,” “The General Lee” and “The Mr. President” — for Civil War leaders. • Article