“Sponge, load, fire.”
Yesterday the Civil War Monitor presented another segment in the magazine’s “Voice from the Past” series, this one highlighting the account of Samuel Dana Greene, Monitor‘s executive officer, who commanded in that ship’s turret until forced to take over command of the ship when his captain, John L. Worden, was temporarily blinded by a shot from C.S.S. Virginia.
What follows here is another account of the action, this one from the Acting Chief Engineer of the Confederate ironclad, Henry Ashton Ramsay (1835-1916). Ramsay’s perspective on the action is unique; he probably knew the ship better than anyone else aboard, have spent most of the previous three years operating, maintaining, repairing and rebuilding the ship’s machinery. He’d joined U.S.S. Merrimac as Second Assistant Engineer at Panama in 1859, and sailed with her around Cape Horn. During this passage he reported to Merrimac‘s Chief Engineer, Alban C. Stimers. Engineer Stimers would later assist John Ericsson in constructing Monitor, and would serve as that ship’s Chief Engineer during the Battle of Hampton Roads.
Upon Merrimac‘s return to Norfolk, her engines were condemned and the ship laid up. There she remained until the spring of 1861, when she was burned to the waterline during the evacuation of the Navy Yard. When the war came, Ramsay cast his lot with the Confederacy, and soon found himself in Norfolk, working to convert the burned-out hull of Merrimac into a casemate ironclad.
While steaming out into Hampton Roads on the morning of March 8, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, commander of the rebuilt ironclad, now rechristened Virginia, called Ramsey up to the pilothouse and asked him how secure the ship’s machinery was in the event of a hard collision. When Ramsay assured him that the boilers and engine well-braced, Buchanan replied, “I am going to ram the Cumberland.” Fifty years later, in an article for Harper’s Weekly, Ramsay described what happened next:
The crux of what followed was down in the engine room. Two gongs, the signal to stop, were quickly followed by three, the signal to reverse. There was an ominous pause, then a crash, shaking us all off our feet. The engines labored. The vessel was shaken in every fiber. Our bow was visibly depressed. We seemed to be bearing down with a weight on our prow. Thud, thud, thud, came the rain of shot on our shield from the double-decked battery of the Congress. There was a terrible crash in the fire-room. For a moment we thought one of the boilers had burst. No, it was the explosion of a shell in our stack. Was anyone hit? No, thank God. The firemen had been warned to keep away from the up-take, so the fragments of shell fell harmlessly on the iron floor-plates.
We had rushed on the doomed ship, relentless as fate, crashing through her barricade of heavy spars and torpedo fenders, striking her below her starboard fore-chains and crushing far into her. For a moment the whole weight of her hung on our prow and threatened to carry us down with her, the return wave of the collision curling up into our bow port.
The Cumberland began to sink slowly, bow first, but continued to fight desperately for the forty minutes that elapsed after her doom was sealed, during which we were engaged with both the Cumberland and the Congress, being right between them.
We had left our cast-iron beak in the side of the Cumberland. Like the wasp we could sting but once, leaving the sting in the wound.
Our smoke-stack was riddled, our flag was shot down several times and was finally secured to a rent in the stack. On our gun-deck the men were fighting like demons. There was no thought or time for the wounded and dying as they tugged away at their guns, training and sighting their pieces while the orders rang out: “Sponge, load, fire.”
Virginia pulls away from U.S.S. Congress after setting her afire, March 8, 1862. Painting by Tom Freeman.
Virginia‘s score for the day included U.S.S. Cumberland, sunk, and Congress, abandoned and fully ablaze. Two more Federal vessels, St. Lawrence and Roanoke, had grounded themselves in trying to escape the guns of the ironclad. U.S.S. Minnesota had moved into shallow water where Virginia could not pursue, so the Confederate ironclad hauled off to her mooring at at Sewall’s Point. Ramsay continues:
All the evening we stood on deck watching the brilliant display of the burning [U.S.S. Congress]. Every part of her was on fire at the same time, the red-tongued flames running up shrouds, masts, and stays, and extending out to the yard arms. She stood in bold relief against the black background, lighting up the Roads and reflecting her lurid lights on the bosom of the now placid and hushed waters. Every now and then the flames would reach one of the loaded cannon and a shell would hiss at random through the darkness. About midnight came the grand finale. The magazines exploded, shooting up a huge column of firebrands hundreds of feet in the air, and then the burning hulk burst asunder and melted into the waters, while the calm night spread her sable mantle over Hampton Roads.
U.S.S. Congress explodes around midnight on the night of March 8-9, 1862. Battles and Leaders.
The Monitor arrived during the evening and anchored under the stern of the Minnesota, her lighter draught enabling her to do so without danger. To us the ensuing engagement was in the nature of a surprise. If we had known we were to meet her we would at least have been supplied with a solid shot for our rifled guns. We might even have thought best to wait until our iron beak, lost in the side of the Cumberland, could be replaced. Buchanan was incapacitated by his wound and the command devolved upon Lieutenant Jones.
Monitor arrives alongside U.S.S. Minnesota, late on the evening of March 8, 1862. Battles and Leaders.
We left our anchorage shortly before eight o’clock next morning and steamed across and up stream toward the Minnesota, thinking to make short work of her and soon to return with her colors trailing under ours. We approached her slowly, feeling our way cautiously along the edge of the channel, when suddenly, to our astonishment, a black object that looked like the historic description, “a barrel-head afloat with a cheese-box on top of it,” moved slowly out from under the Minnesota and boldly confronted us. It must be confessed that both ships were queer-looking craft, as grotesque to the eyes of the men of ’62 as they would appear to those of the present generation.
Virginia steams out into Hampton Roads, past the Confederate batteries on Craney’s Island. Battles & Leaders.
And now the great fight was on, a fight the like of which the world had never seen. With the battle of yesterday old methods had passed away, and with them the experience of a thousand years “of battle and of breeze” was brought to naught. The books of all navies were burned with the Congress, by a conflagration as ruthless as the torch of Omar. A new leaf had been turned, a virgin page on which to transcribe and record the art of naval warfare.
We hovered about each other in spirals, gradually contracting the circuits, until we were within point-blank range, but our shell glanced from the Monitor’s turret just as hers did from our sloping sides. For two hours the cannonade continued without perceptible damage to either of the combatants.
On our gun-deck all was bustle, smoke, grimy figures, and stern commands, while down in the engine and boiler rooms the sixteen furnaces were belching out fire and smoke, and the firemen standing in front of them, like so many gladiators, tugged away with devil’s-claw and slice-bar. inducing by their exertions more and more intense heat and combustion. The noise of the crackling, roaring fires, escaping steam, and the loud and labored pulsations of the engines, together with the roar of battle above and the thud and vibration of the huge masses of iron being hurled against us, altogether produced a scene and sound to be compared only with the poet’s picture of the lower regions.
Inside Virginia’s casemate during the action. From Blue Jackets of ’61: A History of the Navy in the War of Secession.
And then an accident occurred that threatened our utter destruction. We stuck fast aground on a sandbar.
Our situation was critical. The Monitor could, at her leisure, come close up to us and yet be out of our reach, owing to an inability to deflect our guns. In she came and began to sound every chink in our armor–every one but that which was actually vulnerable, had she known it.
The coal consumption of the two days’ fight had lightened our prow until our unprotected submerged deck was almost awash. The armor on our sides below the water-line had not been extended but about three feet owing to our hasty departure before the work was finished. Lightened as we were, these exposed portions rendered us no longer an ironclad, and the Monitor might have pierced us between wind and water had she depressed her guns.
Fearing that she might discover our vulnerable “heel of Achilles,” while she had us “in chancery,” we had to take all chances. We lashed down the safety valves, heaped quick-burning combustibles into the already raging fires, and brought the boilers to a pressure that would have been unsafe under ordinary circumstances. The propeller churned the mud and water furiously, but the ship did not stir. We piled on oiled cotton waste, splints of wood, anything that would burn faster than coal. It seemed impossible the boilers could long stand the pressure we were crowding upon them. Just as we were beginning to despair there was a perceptible movement, and the [Virginia] slowly dragged herself off the shoal by main strength. We were saved.
Before our adversary observed we were again afloat we made a dash for her, catching her quite unprepared, and tried to ram her, but our commander was dubious about the result of a collision without our iron-shod beak and gave the signal to reverse the engines long before we reached the Monitor. As a result I did not feel the slightest shock down in the engine-room, though we struck her fairly enough.
1886 chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, by J. O. Davidson.
The carpenter reported that the effect was to spring a leak forward. Lieutenant Jones sent for me and asked me about it.
“It is impossible we can be making much water,” I replied,” for the skin of the vessel is plainly visible in the crank-pits.”
A second time he sent for me and asked if we were making any water in the engine room.
“With the two large Worthington pumps, beside the bilge injections, we could keep her afloat for hours, even with a ten-inch shell in her hull.” I assured him, repeating that there was no water in the engine and boiler rooms.
We glided past, leaving the Monitor unscathed, but got between her and the Minnesota and opened fire on the latter. The Monitor gallantly rushed to her rescue, passing so close under our submerged stern that she almost snapped off our propeller. As she was passing, so near that we could have leaped aboard her, Lieutenant Wood trained the stern-gun on her when she was only twenty yards from its muzzle and delivered a rifle-pointed shell which dislodged the iron logs sheltering the Monitor’s conning tower, carrying away the steering-gear and signal apparatus, and blinding Captain Worden. It was a mistake to place the conning tower so far from the turret and the vitals of the ship. Since that time it has been located over the turret. The Monitor’s turret was a death-trap. It was only twenty feet in diameter, and every shot knocked off bolt-heads and sent them flying against the gunners. If one of them barely touched the side of the turret, he would be stunned and momentarily paralyzed. Lieutenant Greene had been taken below in a dazed condition and never fully recovered from the effects. One of the port shutters had been jammed, putting a gun out of commission, and there was nothing for the Monitor to do but to retreat and to leave the Minnesota to her fate.
Captain Van Brunt, of the latter vessel, thought he was now doomed and was preparing to fire his ship when he saw the [Virginia] also withdrawing forward Norfolk.
It was at this juncture that Lieutenant Jones had sent for me and said: “The pilots will not place us nearer to the Minnesota and we cannot afford to run the risk of getting aground again. I am going to haul off under the guns of Sewall’s Point and renew the attack on the rise of the tide. Bank your fires and make any necessary adjustments to the machinery, but be prepared to start up again later in the afternoon.”
I went below to comply with his instructions, and later was astonished to hear cheering. Rushing on deck I found we were passing Craney Island on our way to Norfolk, and were being cheered by the soldiers of the battery.
Our captain had consulted with some of his lieutenants, and explained afterward that as the Monitor had proved herself so formidable an adversary he had thought best to get a supply of solid shot, have the prow replaced, the port shutters put on, the armor belt extended below water, and the guns whose muzzles had been shot away replaced, and then renew the engagement with every chance of victory. I remember feeling as if a wet blanket had been thrown over me. His reasoning was doubtless good, but it ignored the moral effect of leaving the Roads without forcing the Minnesota to surrender.
One of C.S.S. Virginia’s ensigns. This ensign was reportedly replaced with a variant with 11 stars during the March 9, 1862 action against U.S.S. Monitor. Time-Life, Arms and Equipment of the Confederacy.
As the [Virginia] passed up the river, trailing the ensign of the Congress under the stars and bars, she received a tremendous ovation from the crowds that lined the shores, while hundreds of small boats, gay with flags and bunting, converted our course into a triumphal procession.
We went into dry-dock that very afternoon, and in about three weeks were ready to renew the battle upon more advantageous terms, but the Monitor, though reinforced by two other ironclads, the Galena and the Naugatuck, and every available vessel of the United States Navy, was under orders from Washington to refuse our challenge and bottle us up in the Roads. This strategy filled us with rage and dismay, but it proved very effective.