Loss of the USS Monitor

It was on this date, December 31, 1862, at 1:30 a.m.—in the earliest hours of New Year’s Eve—that the USS Monitor went down in rough seas off Cape Hatteras. Sixteen men aboard lost their lives. Forty-seven men, including Captain John P. Bankhead, survived.

“In the age old battle of man against the sea, the USS Monitor, en route to Beaufort, North Carolina under tow by the USS Rhode Island, foundered in a gale…” says a memorial outside the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras, North Carolina, at the very tip of Hatteras island.

Best known for its role in the March 8-9, 1862, Battle of Hampton Roads, which revolutionized naval warfare, the Monitor had an active-duty career of fewer than ten months. Most recently, it had been involved in operations against Richmond on the James River. On Christmas Day, the crew received orders to sail south to join in a joint army-navy operation against Wilmington.

“I do not consider this steamer a sea going vessel,” said Executive Officer Samuel Dana Greene.

Greene’s assessment would prove right. The low profile of the Monitor allowed it to take on water easily in rough seas. It became so waterlogged, its pumps couldn’t keep up, and even the addition of hand pumps and a bucket brigade didn’t help. She swamped in less than two hours.

“We had left behind us, one more treasure added to the priceless store which the Ocean so jealously hides,” said the ship’s surgeon, Greenville M. Weeks, quoted on the memorial at Hatteras. “The Cumberland and Congress went first; the little boat that avenged their loss followed; in both noble souls have gone down. Their names are for history; and as long as we remain a people, so long will the work of the Monitor be remembered, and her story told to our children’s children.”

The reverse side of the monument honors maritime casualties of the Civil War, among whom are listed those killed in the Monitor disaster:

N.K. Attwater, G. Frederickson, R.W. Hands, S.A. Lewis, W. Allen, W. Bryan, R. Cook, W.H. Eagan, J.R. Fenwick, R.H. Howard, T. Joyce, G. Littlefield, D. Moore, J. Nicklis, J. Stocking, R. Williams.

Logan and C.H. Smith of the USS Rhode Island also perished in the disaster and are listed on the monument.

“The white line of the running surf goes booming down the beach,
But I shall never see them, thought the land lies close abroad,
I’ve shaped the last long silent tack as takes one to the Lord.”
— John Masfield, quoted on the monument

For more on the Monitor monument and the other Civil War monuments of the Outer Banks, read this post from September 2011, “The Civil War on the Outer Banks.”

5 Responses to Loss of the USS Monitor

  1. I was a graduate student at East Carolina University in Greenville ,N.C. when the anchor of the Monitor was salvaged and brought to Greenville. I was fortunate that some of my friends in the Underwater Archaeology Program had access to the anchor and I was able to see it.

    I was just beginning to start my civil war adventure that would start to bloom in the early 1990’s.

  2. Bill Still’s daughter was a Captain in the Navy and a friend of my wife and through her I got to meet Prof Still and get some of his history of the Monitor project.

    1. It is interesting that you were able to meet Dr. Still as he was my professor for both the undergraduate and graduate courses on the civil war at ECU. This was the day before computers were in wide use and he used to say to me, ” I may not know the answer but I can tell you where to find it.”

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