Perfectly Black with Smoke and Powder: A Lieutenant’s View of the Clash of Ironclads
The night after his vessel’s epic engagement with the C.S.S. Virginia off Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene of the U.S.S. Monitor, despite being up for more than two days, couldn’t bring himself to sleep. “I had been up so long, had had so little rest and been under such a state of excitement that my nervous system was completely run down. Every bone in my body ached. My limbs and joints were so sore that I could not stand. My nerves and muscles twitched as though electric shocks were continually passing through them and my head ached as if it would burst. Sometimes I thought my brain would come right out over my eyebrows. I laid down and tried to sleep, but I might as well have tried to fly,” he wrote.
His mind was consumed with the battle. Events had reached a crisis point at around noon that day when Lieutenant Greene was summoned to see his captain, John L. Worden. “I went forward, and there stood as noble a man as lives, at the foot of the ladder of the pilot house. His face was perfectly black with powder and iron, and he was apparently perfectly blind. I asked him what was the matter? He said a shot had struck the pilot house exactly opposite his eyes and blinded him, and he thought the pilot house was damaged. He told me to take charge of the ship and use my own discretion. I lead him to his room and laid him on the sofa, and then took his position.”
At 23 years of age, Lieutenant Greene would command the Monitor for the rest of the afternoon in its battle against the C.S.S. Virginia. Greene had been awake for more than two days straight, but his youth and the excitement of battle kept him going. Several days after the engagement, he wrote the following letter describing the voyage from New York and giving a superb account of the first clash of ironclads.
Reading Lieutenant Greene’s account of the voyage of the U.S.S. Monitor to Hampton Roads, one gets the impression that the vessel was barely seaworthy. The Monitor left New York harbor under tow on March 6th and once to sea, a litany of problems arose. Water poured in from several points with such force as to knock the helmsman from wheel and went down the smokestacks and blowers such that the ship started to fill with gas. “Then Mother occurred a scene I shall never forget. Our engineers behaved like heroes every one of them. They fought with the gas, endeavoring to get the blowers to work, until they dropped down--apparently as dead as men ever were. I jumped in the engine room with my men as soon as I could and carried them on top of the tower to get fresh air. I was nearly suffocated with the gas myself but got on deck after everyone was out of the engine room just in time to save myself. Three firemen were in the same condition as the engineers. Then times looked rather blue I can assure you,” he wrote.
The vessel, after numerous other close calls, arrived at Hampton Roads two days later to a scene of horror. “As we approached Hampton Roads, we could see the fine old Congress burning brightly, and we knew then it must be so. Badly indeed did we feel, to think those two fine old vessels had gone to their last homes, with so many of their brave crews. Our hearts were very full and we vowed vengeance on the Merrimac, if it should ever be our lot to fall in with her,” Greene noted.
Lieutenant Greene’s letter, written to his parents (General George R. Greene of later 12th Army Corps fame) was originally published in Lydia Post Minturn’s 1865 work Soldiers’ Letters from Camp, Battlefield, and Prison.
U.S. Steamer Monitor, Hampton Roads, Virginia
March 14, 1862
My dear Mother and father,
I commence this now, but I don’t know when I shall finish, as I have to write it at odd moments, when I can find a few minutes rest. When I bid Charley good night on Wednesday the 5th, I confidently expected to see you the next day, as I then thought it would be impossible to finish our repairs on Thursday, but the mechanics worked all night and at 11 a.m. on Thursday we started down the harbor in company with the gun-boats Sachem and Currituck. We went along very nicely and when we arrived at Governor's Island, the steamer Seth Low came along side and took us in tow. We went out passed the Narrows with a light wind from the west and very smooth water. The weather continued the same all Thursday night.
I turned out at 6 o'clock on Friday morning, and from that time until Monday at 7 p.m. I think I lived ten good years. About noon the wind freshened and the sea was quite rough. In the afternoon, the sea was breaking over our decks at a great rate, and coming in our hawse pipe, forward, in perfect floods. Our berth deck hatch leaked in spite of all we could do, and the water came down under the tower like a waterfall. It would strike the pilot house and go over the tower in most beautiful curves. The water came through the narrow eye holes in the pilot house with such force as to knock the helmsman completely round from the wheel. At 4 p.m. the water had gone down our smokestacks and blowers to such an extent that the blowers gave out, and the engine room was filled with gas. Then Mother occurred a scene I shall never forget. Our engineers behaved like heroes every one of them. They fought with the gas, endeavoring to get the blowers to work, until they dropped down--apparently as dead as men ever were. I jumped in the engine room with my men as soon as I could and carried them on top of the tower to get fresh air. I was nearly suffocated with the gas myself but got on deck after everyone was out of the engine room just in time to save myself. Three firemen were in the same condition as the engineers. Then times looked rather blue I can assure you.
|Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene|
We had no fear as long as the engine could be kept going, to pump out the water, but when that stopped the water increased rapidly. I immediately rigged the hand pump on the berth deck, but we were obliged to lead the hose out over the tower; there was not force enough in the pump to throw the water out. Our only resource now was to bail, and that was useless as we had to pass the buckets up through the tower, which made it a very long operation. What to do now we did not know. We had done all in our power and must let things take their own course. Fortunately, the wind was offshore, so we hailed the tugboat, and told them to steer directly for the shore in order to get in smooth water. After five hours of hard steaming, we got near the land and in smooth water.
At 8 p.m. we managed to get the engines to go in everything comparatively quiet again. The Captain had been up nearly all the previous night, and as we did not like to leave the deck without one of us being there, so I told him I would keep the watch from 8 to 12, he takes it from 12 to 4, and I would relieve him from 4 to 8. Well, the first watch passed off very nicely, smooth sea, clear sky, the moon out and the old tank going along five and six knots very nicely. All I had to do was to keep awake and think over the narrow escape we had in the afternoon. At 12 o'clock things looked so favorable, that I told the Captain he need not turn out, I would lay down with my clothes on, and if anything happened, I would turn out and attend to it. He said very well and I went to my room and hoped to get a little nap. I had scarcely got to my bunk, when I was startled by the most infernal noise that I ever heard in my life. The Merrimac's firing on Sunday last was music to it.
We were just passing a shoal and the sea suddenly became very rough and right ahead. It came up with tremendous force through our anchor-well and forced the air through our hawse pipe where the chain comes and then the water would come through in a perfect stream clear to our berth deck over the wardroom table. The noise resembled the death groans of twenty men, and certainly was the most dismal, awful sound I ever heard. Of course, the Captain and I were on our feet in a moment and endeavoring to stop the hawse pipe. We succeeded partially but now the water commenced to come down our blowers again and we feared the same accident that happened in the afternoon. We tried to hail the tugboat, but the wind being directly ahead, they could not hear us, and we had no way of signaling to them as the steam whistle which father recommended had not been put on. We commenced to think then the Monitor would never see day light.
|"We commenced to think then the Monitor would never see daylight."|
We watched carefully every drop of water that went down the blowers and sent continually to ask the firemen how the blowers were going. His only answer was slowly but could not be kept going much longer unless we could stop the water from coming down. The sea was washing completely over our decks and it was dangerous for a man to go on them so we could do nothing to the blowers. In the midst of all this our wheel ropes jumped off the steering wheel (owing to the pitching of the ship) and became jammed. She now commenced to sheer about at an awful rate and we thought our hawser must certainly part. Fortunately, it was a new one and held on well. In the course of half an hour we fixed the wheel ropes and now our blowers were the only difficulty.
About 3 o'clock on Saturday morning, the sea became a little smoother, though still rough, and going down our blowers to some extent. The never-failing answer from the engine room, "Blowers going slowly, but can’t go much longer” from 4 a. m. until daylight, was certainly the longest hour and a half, I ever spent. I certainly thought old Sol had stopped in China and never intended to pay us another visit. At last, however we could see and made the tugboat understand to go nearer in shore and get in smooth water, which we did at about 8 a.m. Things were again a little quiet, but everything wet and uncomfortable below. The decks and air ports leaked and the water still came down the hatches and under the tower. I was busy all day, making out my Station Bills and attending to different things that constantly required my attention.
At 3 p.m. we parted our hawser, but fortunately it was quite smooth, and we secured it without difficulty. At 4 p.m. we passed Cape Henry and heard heavy firing in the direction of Fortress Monroe. As we approached it increased, and we immediately cleated ship for action. When about halfway between Fortress Monroe and Cape Henry, we spoke to a pilot boat. He told us the Cumberland was sunk and the Congress was on fire and had surrendered to the Merrimac. We did not credit it, at first, but as we approached Hampton Roads, we could see the fine old Congress burning brightly, and we knew then it must be so. Badly indeed did we feel, to think those two fine old vessels had gone to their last homes, with so many of their brave crews. Our hearts were very full and we vowed vengeance on the Merrimac, if it should ever be our lot to fall in with her.
|The U.S.S. Congress blazed just offshore and blew up in the early morning hours of March 9, 1862.|
At 9 p.m. we anchored near the frigate Roanoke, the flag ship, Captain Marston (the Major's brother.) Captain John L. Worden immediately went on board, and received orders to proceed to Newport News, and protect the Minnesota (which was aground) from the Merrimac. We immediately got underway and arrived at the Minnesota at 11 p.m. I went aboard in our cutter and asked the Captain what his prospects were of getting off. He said he should try to get afloat at 2 a. m. when it was high water. I asked him if we could render him any assistance, to which he replied, no. I then told him we should do all in our power to protect him from the attacks of the Merrimac. He thanked me kindly and wished us success.
"One of the grandest and most magnificent sights I ever witnessed was the burning of the Congress. She was fired about 8 p.m. and was seen completely enveloped in a lurid mass of angry, writhing flames. Pieces of sails, wreathed in the destroying element, would dart quickly to the height of several hundred feet and then separating in fragments, gently descend to the water like the sparkling remains of a bursted skyrocket. Now the destroyer mounts the riffing and for a moment it is all a sheet of flames; but soon consumed, the masts alone are seen pointing to the heavens like lofty spires of living fire. We watched and waited for the magazine to explode when boom! A loaded shell went bursting high in the air. Bang! A well-charged cannon is emptied of its contents. " ~ Unknown member of Co. M, 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry
Just as I arrived back to the Monitor, the Congress blew up, and certainly a grander sight was never seen, but it went straight to the marrow of our bones. Not a word was said, but deep did each man think, and wish he was by the side of the Merrimac. At 1 a.m. we anchored near the Minnesota. The Captain and I remained on deck, waiting for the Merrimac. At 3 a.m. we thought the Minnesota was afloat and coming down on us, so we got underway as soon as possible and stood out of the Channel. After backing and filling about for an hour we found we were mistaken and anchored again. At day light we discovered the Merrimac at anchor with several vessels under Sewall's Point. We immediately made every preparation for battle. At 8 a.m. on Sunday the Merrimac got underway, accompanied by several steamers, and started direct for the Minnesota. When a mile distant she fired two guns at the Minnesota. By this time our anchor was up, the men at quarters, the guns loaded, and everything ready for action. As the Merrimac came closer, the Captain passed the word to commence firing. I triced up the port, run the gun out, and fired the first gun, and thus commenced the great battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac.
Now mark the condition our men and officers were in. Since Friday morning, 48 hours, they had had no rest, and very little food, as we could not conveniently cook. They had been hard at work all night, and nothing to eat for breakfast except hard bread, and were thoroughly worn out. As for myself, I had not slept a wink for 51 hours, and had been on my feet almost constantly. But after the first gun was fired, we forgot all fatigues, hard work and everything else, and went to work fighting as hard as men ever fought.
We loaded and fired as fast as we could. I pointed and fired the guns myself. Every shot I would ask the Captain the effect, and the majority of them were encouraging. The Captain was in the pilot house directing the movements of the vessel. Acting Master Louis N. Stodder was stationed at the wheel which turns the tower, but as he could not manage it, he was relieved by Stimers. The speaking trumpet from the tower to the pilot house was broken, so we passed the word from the Captain to me on the berth deck, by Pay Master William F. Keeler and Captain's Clerk Toffey. Five times during the engagement we touched each other, and each time I fired a gun at her, and I will vouch the 168 lbs. shot penetrated her sides. Once she tried to run us down with her iron prow but did no damage whatever.
|Lieutenant Greene sits on the far right of the middle row in this image taken of the officers of the Monitor in July 1862.|
After fighting for two hours, we hauled off for half an hour to hoist shot in the tower. At it we went again as hard as we could. The shot, shell, grape, canister, musket, and rifle balls flew about us in every direction but did us no damage. Our tower was struck several times, and though the noise was pretty loud, it did not affect us any. Stodder and one of the men were carelessly leaning against the tower, when a shot struck the tower exactly opposite to them and disabled them for an hour or two. At about 11:30 the Captain sent for me. I went forward, and there stood as noble a man as lives, at the foot of the ladder of the pilot house. His face was perfectly black with powder and iron, and he was apparently perfectly blind. I asked him what was the matter? He said a shot had struck the pilot house exactly opposite his eyes and blinded him, and he thought the pilot house was damaged. He told me to take charge of the ship and use my own discretion. I lead him to his room and laid him on the sofa, and then took his position.
On examining the pilot house, I found the iron hatch on top, had been knocked about halfway off, and the second iron log from the top, on the forward side was completely cracked through. We still continued firing, the tower being under the direction of Stimers. We were between two fires. The Minnesota on one side and the Merrimac on the other. The latter was retreating to Sewell's Point and the Minnesota had struck us twice on the tower. I knew if another shot should strike our pilot house in the same place, our steering apparatus would be disabled and we should be at the mercy of the batteries on Sewall's Point. The Merrimac was retreating towards the latter place. We had strict orders to act on the defensive and protect the Minnesota. We had evidently finished the Merrimac as far as the Minnesota was concerned, our pilot house was damaged and we had strict orders, not to follow the Merrimac up; therefore, after the Merrimac had retreated, I went to the Minnesota and remained by her until she was afloat. The fight was over now and we were victorious. My men and myself were perfectly black with smoke and powder. All of my under clothes were perfectly black and my person was in the same condition.
General John Wool and Secretary Gustavus Fox both have complimented me very highly for acting as I did, and said it was the strict military plan to follow. This is the reason we did not sink the Merrimac, and everyone here capable of judging says we acted exactly right. As we ran alongside the Minnesota, Secretary Fox hailed us, and told us we had fought the greatest naval battle on record and behaved as gallantly as men could. He saw the whole fight. I felt proud and happy then mother and felt fully repaid for all I had suffered.
When our noble Captain heard the Merrimac had retreated, he said he was perfectly happy and willing to die, since he had saved the Minnesota. Oh, how I love and venerate that man. Most fortunately for him his classmate and most intimate friend, Lieutenant Wise saw the fight and was alongside immediately after the engagement. He took him on board the Baltimore boat and carried him to Washington that night. The Minnesota was still aground and we stood by her until she floated about 4 p.m. She grounded again shortly and we anchored for the night. I was now Captain and First Lieutenant and had not a soul to help me in the ship as Stodder was injured and J.N. Webber useless. I had been up so long, had had so little rest and been under such a state of excitement that my nervous system was completely run down. Every bone in my body ached. My limbs and joints were so sore that I could not stand. My nerves and muscles twitched as though electric shocks were continually passing through them and my head ached as if it would burst. Sometimes I thought my brain would come right out over my eyebrows. I laid down and tried to sleep, but I might as well have tried to fly.
About 12 o'clock Acting Lieutenant Flye came on board and reported to me for duty. He lives in Topsham, opposite Brunswick, and recollects father very well. He immediately assumed the duties of First Lieutenant and I felt considerably relieved. But no sleep did I get that night, owing to my excitement. The next morning at 8 o'clock we got underway and stood through our fleet. Cheer after cheer went up from the frigates and small craft for the glorious little Monitor and happy indeed did we all feel. I was Captain then of the vessel that had saved Newport News, Hampton Roads, Fortress Monroe (as General Wool himself said) and perhaps your Northern ports. I am unable to express the happiness and joy I felt, to think I had served my country and Flag so well, at such an important time. I passed Farquar's vessel and answered his welcome salute.
About 10 a.m. General Wool and Mr. Fox came on board and congratulated us upon our victory, etc. We have a standing invitation from General Wool to dine with him, but no officer is allowed to leave the ship until we sink the Merrimac. At 8 o'clock that night Tom Selfridge came on board and took command, and brought the following letter from Fox to me,
U.S. Steamer Roanoke
Old Point, March 10th
My dear Mr. Greene,
Under the extraordinary circumstances of the contest of yesterday, and the responsibility devolving upon me, and your extreme youth, I have suggested to Captain Marston, to send on board the Monitor as temporary Commanding Lieutenant Selfridge, until the arrival of Commodore Goldsborough which will be in a few days. I appreciate your position and you must appreciate mine and serve with the same zeal and fidelity. With the kindest wishes for you all.
G. A. Fox
Of course, I was a little taken aback at first, but (soon saw the) on a second thought, I saw it was as it should be. You must recollect the immense responsibility resting upon this vessel. We literally hold all the property, ashore and afloat in these regions, as the wooden vessels are useless against the Merrimac. At no time during the war either in the Navy or Army, has any one position been so important as this vessel. You may think I am exaggerating somewhat, because I am in the Monitor, but the President, Secretary, General Wool all think the same and have telegraphed to that effect, for us to be vigilant, etc.
|Map showing Hampton Roads and the sight of the clash of ironclads in March 1862.|
The Captain receives everyday numbers of anonymous letters from all parts of the Country, suggesting plans to him, etc. and I think some people North of the Mason and Dixon's line have a little fear of the Merrimac. Under these circumstances it was perfectly right and proper in Mr. Fox to relieve me from the command, for you must recollect I had never performed any but midshipman's duty before this: but between you and me, I would have kept the command with all its responsibility, if had my choice, and either the Merrimac or the Monitor should have gone down in our next engagement. But then you know all young people are vain, conceited and without judgement. Even the President telegraphed to Mr. Fox to do so and so, Mr. President I suppose thinking Mr. Fox rather young, he being only about 40. Mr. Fox however, had already done what the President telegraphed him several hours before.
Selfridge was only in command for two days, until Lieutenant Jeffers arrived from Roanoke Island. Mr. Jeffers is everything desirable. Talented, educated, energetic and experienced in battle. Well, I believe I have about finished. Buttsy, my old roommate, was on board the Merrimac; little did we ever think at the Academy, we should be firing 150 lbs. shot at each other, but so goes the world. Our pilot house is nearly completed. We have now solid oak, extending from three inches below the eye holes in the Pilot House, to 5 feet out on the deck. This makes an angle of 27 degrees from the horizontal. This is to be covered with 3 inches of iron. It looks exactly like a pyramid. We will now be invulnerable at every point. The deepest indentation on our sides was 4 inches; tower 2 inches; the deck 1/2 inch. We were not at all damaged except the pilot house. No one was affected by the concussion in the tower, either by our own guns or the shots of the enemy. This is a pretty long letter for me, for you recollect my writing abilities. Wish much love to you all, I remain.
Your affectionate son &
Post, Lydia Minturn. Soldiers’ Letters from Camp, Battlefield, and Prison. New York: Bunce & Huntington, 1865, pgs. 106-115
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