The Wet March: USS Monitor Almost Sinks

That monitors were not good sea-going craft is illustrated by a later Passaic-class monitor in moderate seas (Naval History and Heritage Command)

If by “on the march,” we mean the exercise of rapidly shifting a combat unit from behind the lines to where the action is while overcoming formidable obstacles of terrain and weather, then the U.S. Navy had its own wet marches.

Deployment of the revolutionary ironclad USS Monitor from New York to Hampton Roads in March 1862 just it time to counter the CSS Virginia (aka Merrimack) was one. She almost didn’t make it. The terrain was mountainous seascape, and the weather was a mighty nor’easter.

The story of Monitor’s loss in a similar gale off Cape Hatteras on New Year’s Eve 1862 is familiar. This less-well-known first encounter with Neptune’s wrath was a precursor that might have ended her career before it started leaving the fearsome Virginia free to wreak havoc on the Union wooden fleet.

Monitor steamed out of New York harbor towed by the steam tug Seth Low and escorted by two gunboats. Paymaster William F. Keeler wrote to his wife Anna: “4 o’clock P.M. We have just parted with our pilot & may consider ourselves at sea. . . . We have a fine westerly wind, a smooth sea & as fair a sky as we could expect.”[1]

The little vessel—173 feet long, 41.5 feet in beam—was much more buoyant than Keeler anticipated. Only a bit of water sloshed across the flat expanse of deck, which rested barely a foot and a half above the surface. The deck, girded by a thick armored belt, was essentially an iron-plated raft. The cylindrical iron gun turret—21 feet in diameter, 9 feet tall—squatted in the middle encapsulating two huge 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannons.

Sixty-five men were encased in the lower hull below the waterline. Deck hatchways were closed and secured to exclude water. The only safe and dry external vantage point was atop the turret, accessed via ladders from the berth deck below, up through gratings in the turret floor, and up again through hatches in the turret top.

To mid-nineteenth century mariners, this enclosed, cramped, artificial space—foreshadowing future submarines—was a radical departure from sailing and fighting on open decks and in the high rigging of a traditional man-of-war, and not a little intimidating.

Illustration by J. M. Caiella

That evening, Keeler mounted the turret to view the scene: “The moon is shining bright, the water smooth & everything seems favorable.” Green lights glowed from the nearby gunboat while 400 feet ahead, the tug was “pulling lustily” at the big hawser. Several sets of white sails glistened farther off. “Not a sea has yet passed over our deck, it is as dry as when we left port. We had a merry company at the supper table.”[2]

A moderate breeze arose during the night, and by morning the vessel’s motion was livelier. Keeler awoke in his dimly lit, closet-like cabin in the forward section of the ship. Just above his head, green water sloshed across the small, round glass window set in the main deck (a “deck light”), the only source of natural illumination.

Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene

Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene—executive officer and second in command—turned out of his bunk at 6:00 that morning. Of the next three days, he recalled: “I think I lived ten good years.” Keeler noted this intimidating young officer with “black hair & eyes that look through a person” and did not doubt that all would obey him.[3]

As the vessel wallowed, some, including Captain John Worden and Surgeon Daniel C. Logue, complained of nausea, and were laid out on the turret top for fresh air. The escorting gunboats were rolling heavily, occasionally dousing their gun muzzles in the waves and looking very uncomfortable, but Monitor’s open deck surface, low profile, and deep center of gravity brought relative stability.

“Her roll was very easy and slow, and not at all deep,” reported Greene. “She pitched very little, and with no strain whatever. She is buoyant, but not very lively. The inconveniences we experienced can be easily remedied.” He concluded, however, that Monitor was not a sea-going craft. She did not steer well; she did not have the steam power to make headway against wind or sea, and they were unable to work the guns with the gun ports—just 5 feet above water—closed and caulked.[4]

By noon, a full gale blasted in from the northeast. “Now the top of every sea that breaks against our side rolls unobstructed over our deck dashing & foaming at a terrible rate,” wrote Keeler. “Our decks are constantly covered with a sea of foam pouring from one side to the other as the deck is inclined, while at short intervals a dense green sea rolls across with terrible force, breaking into foam at every obstruction.”[5]

Water blew through pilothouse eye slits, recorded Lieutenant Greene, knocking the helmsman from the wheel. It flowed under the base of the turret “like a waterfall” inundating sailors in their hammocks below. It squirted through the anchor chain port “in perfect floods,” dripped around deck lights, and leaked through the berth deck hatch despite all efforts to prevent it.[6]

It was, continued Keeler, “wet & very disagreeable below” in stuffy, lantern-lit spaces in unremitting motion. “The accumulative weight [of water] seeming sufficient to bury us forever. The steady & monotonous clank, clank, of the engines assures us that they are still at work & the tug ahead is still pulling at the hawser, but as the day advances some anxious faces are seen.”[7]

About 4:00 p.m., Keeler gingerly descended the turret ladder to the berth deck where he encountered an engineer climbing up—pale, black, wet, staggering, gasping for breath and asking for brandy. Sailors hauled up other engineers and firemen, apparently lifeless. The door in the amidships bulkhead stood open, spewing steam, gas, and smoke, blinding and stifling everyone. This iron bulkhead supported the turret and separated engines, boilers, galley, and coal bunkers aft from crew and officers’ quarters, magazine and shell room forward.

Keeler hurried to shut the door but was told someone was still in there. Almost suffocating himself, the paymaster rushed in over heaps of coal and ashes followed by another crewman. They found a man lying insensible, dragged him out, closed the door, and lugged him up, but he was nearly gone.

Sailors relax on deck of USS Monitor. Note smokestack left center and open hatch leading down to the engine room.

Waves breaking over the short exhaust and intake stacks above the engine room rained torrents down on the machinery, bursting into steam in the boiler fires. Below the intake stacks, centrifugal forced-draft blowers provided the only source of fresh air for the engine room, the boilers, and the entire vessel interior.

The blowers, powered by leather drive belts from small auxiliary steam engines, pushed 7,000 cubic feet of air per minute. But the belts became soaked and started slipping, cutting off all draft.

Starved of oxygen, “the fires burned with a sickly blaze out of the ash pan doors, converting all the air in the engine and fire-rooms into carbonic-acid-gas, a few inhalations of which are sufficient to destroy animal life,” wrote Chief Engineer Alban Stimers. Steam pressure plummeted; main engines stopped; the propeller ceased rotating; steam pumps would not operate. Monitor began to fill as she rolled.

This view of the engine room of a later monitor, the USS Catskill, displays a typically constrained machinery space (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Engineer Stimers ordered the men out but remained himself struggling with the blower belts until he began to get “very limber in the legs” and struggled up the ladder. “I managed to reach [the top] just as my strength gave out and I tumbled over upon the turret deck at full length.”[8]

In the best of circumstances, engine and boiler rooms were cramped and dusky domains of darkness and fire, intense heat and noise, smells of steel, steam, oil, coal, and sweat. The steam engine was a whirring, huffing, puffing, hissing, clanking, slick and oily, clamorous monster with blindingly fast gears, shafts, and rods surrounded by imperfectly insulated scalding hot water and steam pipes, not to mention intense boiler fires. It was an encapsulated environment of impersonal, raw, self-generated power, and a dangerous and unpleasant place to work.

Lieutenant Greene never forgot the scene: “Our Engineers behaved like heroes every one of them.” Greene assisted the evacuation, nearly suffocating himself. Sailors rigged an old piece of sail as an awning over the turret top for protection from wind and spray. “It was a sorry looking company which crowded the only habitable spot on our vessel,” noted Keeler.[9]

Water kept rising. Hand pumps lacked power to force water through canvas hoses up and out the turret top, the only available point of discharge. Passing up heavy buckets proved impossible in the plunging vessel. “Then times looked rather blue I can assure you,” wrote Greene. “What to do now we did not know. We had done all in our power and must let things take their own course.” “We might have to ‘give up the ship,’” reported Keeler.[10]

They flew the ensign upside down from the turret as a universal signal of distress, but the escorting gunboats, rolling heavily themselves, could not approach. Captain Worden hailed the tugboat and instructed her to steer directly for smoother water nearer shore. Finally, after five hours of struggle, the seas quieted; the vessel settled down.

By 8:00 p.m., engineers had mended blower belts, restoked boiler fires, and restarted main engines and blowers; pumps dewatered the engine room. With fresh air restored, the sick moved below. “My mechanical genius came in play,” Keeler wrote to Anna. He took charge of the engines till morning when engineers were sufficiently recovered. But, “of course there was no sleep on board that night.” Supper consisted of crackers, cheese, and water.[11]

The next evening, USS Monitor entered Hampton Roads for her fateful encounter with the CSS Virginia.


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

[1] Robert W. Daly, ed., Aboard the USS Monitor: 1862: The Letters of Acting Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, U. S. Navy to His Wife, Anna (Annapolis, MD, 1964), 27.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dana Greene to parents, March 14, 1862, in “Voyage to Destiny,” Naval History Magazine vol. 21 (April 2007), Number 2, 2; Daly, ed., Aboard the USS Monitor, 9.

[4] Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, 29 vols. (Washington, DC, 1894-1921), Series 1, vol. 70, page 170.

[5] Daly, ed., Aboard the USS Monitor, 28.

[6] Dana Greene, “In the ‘Monitor’ Turret,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, 4 vols. (New York, 1884-1888), vol. 1, 720.

[7] Daly, ed., Aboard the USS Monitor, 27-28.

[8] Alban C. Stimers, “An Engineer Aboard the Monitor,” in Civil War Times Illustrated, vol 9 (April 1970), Number 1, 30.

[9] Greene to parents, March 14, 1862; Daly, ed., Aboard the USS Monitor, 30.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Keeler to Anna, March 6, 1862, in Daly, ed., Aboard the USS Monitor, 30.

3 Responses to The Wet March: USS Monitor Almost Sinks

  1. The best description of the claustrophobic conditions on the monitors I have ever read, as well as the heroism and professionalism of a crew not under fire! Almost read like a submarine under depth charge story. Wonderful use of primary sources..

  2. these sailors definitely earned their sea pay … sounds like combat with VIRGINIA was a welcome relief from the transit to Hampton Roads … great post, thanks!!!

  3. Thanks for the kind words, John. That’s what we like to hear. I try to let the participants speak for themselves. Fortunately, they were great writers. And having spent some time below decks, encased in steel, I know something of how they felt.

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