The Most Frightened Man and the Ironclads

The president and cabinet, July 1862. At left: Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Fourth from left: Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. (loc)

One hundred and sixty years ago yesterday, March 8, 1862, a frustrated commander in chief convened another council of war to prod Major General George B. McClellan into action.

McClellan proposed to transport the Army of the Potomac down the Chesapeake and up the Rappahannock River to the Virginia town of Urbanna, outflank Confederate forces near Manassas, surge 50 miles overland to capture Richmond, and end the war.

But as General Joe Johnston fall back from Manassas, McClellan decided instead to invade the Peninsula at Fort Monroe in Hampton Roads. As usual, he proceeded at a glacial pace. “The President is vehemently urging an advance upon Richmond” by any route, wrote presidential secretary William O. Stoddard.[1]

That was not the only problem on their minds, however. The dreaded Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (aka Merrimack) was expected to appear in Hampton Roads any day posing a mortal threat to warships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and gaggles of supply and support vessels anchored there. To counter Virginia, the experimental Union ironclad USS Monitor departed New York three days earlier under tow. She was scheduled to arrive in the roads this day.

Throughout that afternoon, telegrams began filtering in from Major General John E. Wool at Fort Monroe. “The Merrimack is being towed down . . . past Craney Island . . .” “The Merrimack is close at hand.” “The Merrimack is engaging the Cumberland at close quarters.” “The Congress is now burning.” And so on. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton ordered the news be made public at once to alert Northern merchants that they faced great danger. “For a while the news looked very badly,” reported another of Lincoln’s secretaries, John Hay.[2]

This meant, continued Stoddard, that the James River was closed to Union vessels and troops. “Some of our best ships have been shattered and sunk near its mouth by an iron-armored monster against whose sides their bullets rattled like so many peas. . . .” There was no telling how much more mischief she might do.

“Have similar sea-monsters been building in the other rivers and harbors of the Confederacy? . . . The air and the minds of men teem with panicky imaginations hatched out into rumors.” After a long day, they faced a long, dark night. “The hours go by at the White House under the pressure of a constant stream of dispatches, sent over from the War and Navy Departments, except when the President is there himself to read them as they come.”[3]

Sunday morning, March 9, wrote senior treasury official Lucius E. Chittenden, “was as gloomy as any that Washington had experienced since the beginning of the war. There was no excitement, but all seemed to be overwhelmed with despondency and vague apprehension.”[4]

John Hay reported panic at Willard’s Hotel: “Nothing was too wild to be believed in the way of theory and suggestion.” One old gentleman turned purple with fright contemplating the fate of his navy son aboard a warship supporting General Ambrose Burnside’s Expedition in the North Carolina Sounds.[5]

Navy Secretary Gideon Welles arrived at his office early that morning and was examining dispatches when the assistant secretary of war barged in waving a copy of General Wool’s final telegram summarizing the dire situation as of Saturday evening. President Lincoln called an emergency cabinet session at the White House.

White House south front (1858). President Lincoln’s office is behind the south porch on the second floor of the east wing. Windows overlooked the stub of the unfinished Washington Monument, the Potomac River, and encampments of Union soldiers. (loc)

Welles scurried over to find Secretary of War Stanton, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase already with the president “discussing the intelligence in much alarm.”

They inquired of the navy secretary what could be done to counter this formidable monster. They expected her to wreak still greater havoc, “probably, while we were in council,” noted Welles. Others arrived as they talked.[6]

In their Lincoln biography, secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay characterized this cabinet meeting as “perhaps the most excited and impressive of the whole war.” Welles also recorded his diary observations in customarily frank, if rather dramatic and occasionally sarcastic, detail covering intense exchanges throughout the day and evening.[7]

Of the cabinet, only Postmaster General Montgomery Blair was absent. Discussions included General McClellan, Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs (Quartermaster General of the Army), and Navy Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) John A. Dahlgren (Acting Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard).

“That day and its incidents were among the most unpleasant and uncomfortable of my life,” wrote Welles. “The events were momentous and portentous to the nation—the responsibility of it and its consequence were heavier on me than on any other individual—there was no one to encourage and support me.”

But his department must meet the emergency. Despite these pressures, “the President always gave me the credit of being the most calm and self possessed of any member of the government.”[8]

On that Sunday forenoon, however, the navy secretary knew of no immediate steps that could be taken. Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, Commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, was an able and skillful leader, but he remained down in North Carolina with General Burnside. Equally capable officers on station commanded the best and most powerful vessels in the navy, but judging from General Wool’s dispatch, they could be of little avail.

Their new ironclad battery should have reached the roads the day before. General Wool, however, made no mention of Monitor in his last telegram. Welles expected word momentarily from Assistant Secretary Fox or from the senior naval officer on site. Monitor had indeed arrived the previous evening. The first battle of ironclads raged as they spoke. But due to another break in the telegraph cable, they would not receive news of their ironclad until late in the afternoon and would not know of the battle results until evening.

“The most frightened man on that gloomy morning was the Secretary of War,” recalled Welles. “He was at times almost frantic.” His words sounded broken and denunciatory. The “panic under which he labored . . . added to the apprehension of others.” As recorded in Welles’s diary, Stanton did most of the talking. The Rebel ironclad would change the whole character of the war, he exclaimed. She would destroy every naval vessel and take Fort Monroe.[9]

McClellan’s campaign against Richmond must be abandoned. Burnside’s forces must be recalled or would be captured. The vital blockading base of Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, must be given up. The Rebel monster would “come up the Potomac and disperse congress, destroy the Capitol and public buildings, or she might go to New York and Boston and destroy those cities, or levy from them contributions sufficient to carry on the War.”[10]

Stanton insisted on warning Northern governors and municipal authorities to take instant measures to protect their harbors. Welles caustically described him peering out the window with an expansive view down the Potomac, expecting a Rebel cannonball to land in the White House before they left the room.

Union soldiers with rifles at attention in front of the unfinished Capitol in May 1861. (loc)

“Foreign intervention would surely follow a succession of events like these, which heated imagination easily called up,” observed Nicolay and Hay. “Stanton, unable to control his strong emotion, walked up and down the room like a caged lion. McClellan was dumfounded and silent. . . . Chase [was] impatient and ready to utter blame; Seward and Welles [were] hopeful, yet without encouraging reasons to justify their hope.

“Lincoln was, as usual in trying moments, composed but eagerly inquisitive, critically scanning the dispatches, interrogating the officers, joining scrap to scrap of information, applying his searching analysis and clear logic to read the danger and find the remedy. . . . The possibilities of the hour were indeed sufficiently portentous to create consternation.”[11]

“Most of Stanton’s complaints were directed to me,” continued the navy secretary, and the others naturally turned to him for information or suggestion. “I had little to impart, except my faith in the untried ‘Monitor’ experiment, which we had prepared for the emergency.”[12]

Stanton inquired about the new vessel, of which he knew little. Welles explained: Had Monitor been completed within contract time, they would have sent her up to Norfolk to destroy the Rebel ironclad before she came out of drydock. When informed that Monitor was armed with two guns of large caliber, Stanton returned a “mingled look of incredulity and contempt.”[13]

Based on available information, Welles assured them, the converted Merrimack was “so cut down and loaded with armor,” she could not venture outside of the Capes. She could not pass Kettle Bottom Shoals in the Potomac to “ascend the river and surprise us with a cannon-ball.”

Certainly, she could not attack simultaneously every city and harbor on the coast or threaten Burnsides’s forces in the Carolina Sounds. “It would better become us,” he advised, “to calmly consider the situation, and inspire confidence by acting, so far as we could, intelligently, and with discretion and judgment.”[14]

Secretary Chase approved this suggestion but thought it might be well to telegraph Governor Morgan and Mayor Opdyke at New York to be on their guard. Welles questioned the propriety of sending abroad panic missives or adding to the general alarm.

A somewhat relieved Secretary Seward turned to Stanton and said they had, perhaps, given way too much to their apprehensions. He saw no alternative except to wait and hear what Monitor might accomplish. Welles noted that Seward’s sensitive nature could be easily depressed, but he would “promptly rally and catch at hope.” Stanton departed abruptly as the morning meeting petered out.[15]

Most of the Cabinet met again that sad Sunday afternoon. “A little time and reflection had brought a more calm and resolute feeling,” wrote Welles. Except for Stanton, who “spoke out with some fierceness . . . and said he had no expectation of any formidable resistance from any little vessel of two guns against a frigate clothed with iron, nor much confidence in naval officers for such a crisis. If not old fogies, their training was not for this state of things.”[16]

The war secretary had telegraphed governors and major cities of the North to take care of themselves, advising that rafts of timber and other obstructions should be placed at the mouths of harbors. John Hay: “The commandants of the harbor defenses at Boston and New York were ordered to stand to their guns, and [Lieutenant] Dahlgren went coolly to work at our Navy Yard here to make the proper preparations to receive the bold rover courteously if she decided to visit the Capital.”[17]

The chattering telegraph finally disgorged General Wool’s lost message of the night before: “The ironclad Ericsson battery Monitor has arrived and will proceed to take care of the Merrimac in the morning.” The president and his cabinet awaited the outcome.[18]


Adapted from Anything That Ever Floated: The Monitor and Virginia and the Battle Hampton Roads, March 8-9, 1862 by Dwight Hughes (Savas Beatie, 2021).

[1] William O. Stoddard, Inside the White House in War Times (New York, 1890), loc. 1622-1623 of 3309, Kindle.

[2] Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 2 series, 29 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1894-1922), series 1, vol. 7, 3-4; Michael Burlingame, ed., Lincoln’s Journalist: John Hay’s Anonymous Writings for the Press, 1860-1864 (Carbondale, 1998), 231.

[3] Stoddard, Inside the White House, loc. 1627-1645 of 3309, Kindle.

[4] Lucius E. Chittenden, Recollections of President Lincoln and His Administration (New York, 1901), 223-224.

[5] Burlingame, ed., Lincoln’s Journalist, 231.

[6] Gideon Welles, “The First Iron-Clad Monitor” in The Annals of The War Written By Leading Participants North and South (Philadelphia, 1879), 23-24. Hereafter cites as Annals of The War.

[7] John G. Nicolay and John Hay, Abraham Lincoln: A History, 10 vols. (New York, 1886), vol. 5, 226.

[8] William E. Gienapp and Erica L. Gienapp, ed., The Civil War Diary of Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy: The Original Manuscript Edition (Urbana, IL, 2014), loc. 15429-15431, 15397 of 18532, Kindle.

[9] Gienapp and Gienapp, ed., The Civil War Diary of Gideon Welles, loc. 15411-15413 of 18532, Kindle; Welles, “The First Iron-Clad Monitor,” 24.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, 226-227.

[12] Welles, “The First Iron-Clad Monitor,” 25.

[13] Gienapp and Gienapp, ed., The Civil War Diary of Gideon Welles, loc. 15423-15425 of 18532, Kindle.

[14] Welles, “The First Iron-Clad Monitor,” 25.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 26.

[17] Burlingame, ed., Lincoln’s Journalist, 231.

[18] John Emmet O’Brien, Telegraphing in Battle: Reminiscences of the Civil War (Wilkes-Barre, Pa, 1910), 67.

2 Responses to The Most Frightened Man and the Ironclads

  1. Another wonderful, thought-provoking contribution from Dwight Hughes… Isn’t it interesting how “fear of the unknown” can panic some people? While the Union had recently enjoyed victories at Forts Henry and Donelson, and Nashville was taken and the dreaded Fort Columbus was “turned,” on the Eastern seaboard a single iron-armoured warship had, presumably, tipped the scales. Were there more of “these monsters” building? Yes: at New Orleans, at Memphis… but no longer at Cerro Gordo, Tennessee, where the nearly complete CSS Eastport had been captured in February. And, so easily forgotten, the United States had half a dozen ironclads in operation on the Western rivers.
    Was this display put on by Edwin Stanton “some kind of show?” Was it theatre to gauge the reaction of Major General George McClellan? If not, the timing was fortuitous and coincidental: less than three days later, McClellan was removed as General in Chief of the Union Army, replaced by… Edwin Stanton and President Lincoln, operating as a sort of team. Was this “team General-in-Chief” experiment a success? Who was called to Washington in July 1862 to assume the role as General in Chief of the Union Army?

  2. thanks Dwight … great essay … i recall reading, years ago, about the terror that MERRIMACK struck up the east coast … so, it was nice to read your expanded treatment of this incident … and speaking of being frightened, i can’t imagine an open ocean voyage in the MONITOR — not enough freeboard!!!

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