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The Last Cruise of the Monitor - The Atlantic

An actor in the scenes of that wild night when the Monitor went down craves permission to relate the story of her last cruise.

Her work is now over. She lies a hundred fathoms deep under the stormy waters off Cape Hatteras. But "the little cheese-box on a raft" has made herself a name which will not soon be forgotten by the American people.

Every child knows her early story,—it is one of the thousand romances of the war,—how, as our ships lay at anchor in Hampton Roads, and the army of the Potomac covered the Peninsula, one shining March day,—

  "Far away to the South uprose
    A little feather of snow-white smoke;
  And we knew that the iron ship of our foes
      Was steadily steering its course
      To try the force
    Of our ribs of oak."

Iron conquered oak; the balls from the Congress and Cumberland rattled from the sides of the Rebel ship like hail; she passed on resistless, and

"Down went the Cumberland, all a wrack."

The Congress struck her flag, and the band of men on the Peninsula waited their turn,—for the iron monster belched out fire and shell to both sea and land. Evening cut short her work, and she returned to Norfolk, leaving terror and confusion behind her.

The morning saw her return; but now between her expected prey, the Minnesota, and herself, lay a low, black raft, to the lookers-on from the Merrimack no more formidable than the masts of the sunken Cumberland, or the useless guns of the Congress, near whose shattered hulks the Monitor kept guard, the avenger of their loss.

As the haughty monster approached the scene of her triumph, the shock of an unexampled cannonade checked her career. That little black turret poured out a fire so tremendous, so continuous, that the jubilant crew of the Merrimack faltered, surprised, terrified. The revolving tower was a marvel to them. One on board of her at the time has since told me, that, though at first entirely confident of victory, consternation finally took hold of all.

"D—n it!" said one, "the thing is full of guns."

An hour the contest raged, and then the iron scales of the invincible began to crumble under repeated blows thundered from that strange revolving terror. A slaughtering, destroying shot smashing through the port, a great seam battered in the side, crippled and defeated, the Merrimack turned prow and steamed away.

This was the end of her career, as really as when, a few weeks later, early morning saw her wrapped in sudden flame and smoke, and the people of Norfolk heard in their beds the report which was her death-knell.

So fear ended for a time, and the Monitor saw little service, until at Fort Darling she dismounted every gun, save one, when all her comrades failed to reach the mark. Then, a little worn by hard fighting, she went to Washington for some slight repairs, but specially to have better arrangements made for ventilation, as those on board suffered from the confined air during action.

The first of September a fresh alarm came, when she went down to Hampton Roads to meet the new Merrimack, said to be coming out, and stationed herself at the mouth of the James River, between the buried Congress and Cumberland, whose masts still rose above water, a monument of Rebel outrage and Union heroism. Here she remained expectant for more than two months, all on board desiring action, but thinking the new year must come in before anything could be done.

The last week in December found her lying under the guns of Fortress Monroe, and busily fitting for sea. Her own guns had been put in perfect working order, and shone like silver, one bearing the name of Worden, the other that of Ericsson. Her engineer, Mr. Campbell, was in the act of giving some final touches to the machinery, when his leg was caught between the piston-rod and frame of one of the oscillating engines, with such force as to bend the rod, which was an inch and a quarter in diameter and about eight inches long, and break its cast-iron frame, five-eighths of an inch in thickness. The most remarkable fact in this case is, that the limb, though jammed and bruised, remained unbroken,—our men in this iron craft seeming themselves to be iron.

The surgeon who examined the limb, astonished at the narrow escape, thought at first that it might, by energetic treatment, be cured in a few days; and as the engineer, who had been with the vessel from her launching, was extremely anxious to remain on board, he was disposed at first to yield to his wishes, but afterwards, reflecting that confined air and sea-sickness would have a bad effect, concluded to transfer him to the hospital, the engineer remarking, as he was carried off,—"Well, this may be Providential."

It was Providential indeed!

His place was filled, and the preparations went on briskly. The turret and sight-holes were calked, and every possible, entrance for water made secure, only the smallest openings being left in the turret-top, and the blower-stacks, through which the ship was ventilated. On the afternoon of December 29, 1862, she put on steam, and, in tow of the Rhode Island, passed the fort, and out to sea under sealed orders.

General joy was expressed at this relief from long inaction. The sick came upon deck, and in the clear sky, fresh air, and sense of motion, seemed to gain new life.

The Rhode Island, like all side-wheel steamers, left in her wake a rolling, foaming track of waves, which the Monitor, as she passed over it, seemed to smooth out like an immense flat-iron. In the course of the afternoon, we saw the Passaic in tow of the State of Georgia, like a white speck, far in advance of us.

As we gradually passed out to sea, the wind freshened somewhat; but the sun went down in glorious clouds of purple and crimson, and the night was fair and calm above us, though in the interior of our little vessel the air had already begun to lose its freshness. We suffered more or less from its closeness through the night, and woke in the morning to find it heavy with impurity from the breaths of some sixty persons, composing the officers and crew. Sunrise found us on deck, enjoying pure air, and watching the East.

  "Where yonder dancing billows dip,
    Far off to Ocean's misty verge,
  Ploughs Morning, like a full-sailed ship,
    The Orient's cloudy surge.
  With spray of scarlet fire, before
    The ruffled gold that round her dies,
  She sails above the sleeping shore,
    Across the waking skies."

During the night we had passed Cape Henry, and now, at dawn, found ourselves on the ocean,—the land only a blue line in the distance. A few more hours, and that had vanished. No sails were visible, and the Passaic, which we had noticed the evening before, was now out of sight. The morning and afternoon passed quietly; we spent most of our time on deck, on account of the confined air below, and, being on a level with the sea, with the spray dashing over us occasionally, amused ourselves with noting its shifting hues and forms, from the deep green of the first long roll to the foam-crest and prismatic tints of the falling wave.

As the afternoon advanced, the freshening wind, the thickening clouds, and the increasing roll of the sea gave those most accustomed to ordinary ship-life some new experiences. The little vessel plunged through the rising waves, instead of riding them, and, as they increased in violence, lay, as it were, under their crests, which washed over her continually, so that, even when we considered ourselves safe, the appearance was that of a vessel sinking.

"I'd rather go to sea in a diving-bell!" said one, as the waves dashed over the pilot-house, and the little craft seemed buried in water.

"Give me an oyster-scow!" cried another,—"anything!—only let it be wood, and something that will float over, instead of under the water!"

Still she plunged on, and about six thirty P.M. we made Cape Hatteras; in half an hour we had rounded the point, and many on board expressed regret that the Monitor should not have been before the Passaic in doing so. Our spy-glasses were in constant use; we saw several vessels in the distance, and about seven P.M. discovered the Passaic four or five miles astern to the north of us, in tow of the steamer State of Georgia.

A general hurrah went up,—"Hurrah for the first iron-clad that ever rounded Cape Hatteras! Hurrah for the little boat that is first in everything!" The distance between ourselves and the Passaic widened, and we gradually lost sight of her.

At half-past seven a heavy shower fell, lasting about twenty minutes. At this time the gale increased; black, heavy clouds covered the sky, through which the moon glimmered fitfully, allowing us to see in the distance a long line of white, plunging foam, rushing towards us,—sure indication, to a sailor's eye, of a stormy time.

A gloom overhung everything; the banks of cloud seemed to settle around us; the moan of the ocean grew louder and more fearful. Still our little boat pushed doggedly on: victorious through all, we thought that here, too, she would conquer, though the beating waves sent shudders through her whole frame. Bearing still the marks of one of the fiercest battles of the war, we had grown to think her invulnerable to any assault of man or element, and as she breasted these huge waves, plunging through one only to meet another more mighty, we thought,—"She is stanch! she will weather it!"

An hour passed; the air below, which had all day been increasing in closeness, was now almost stifling, but our men lost no courage. Some sang as they worked, and the cadence of the voices, mingling with the roar of waters, sounded like a defiance to Ocean.

Some stationed themselves on top of the turret, and a general enthusiasm filled all breasts, as huge waves, twenty feet high, rose up on all sides, hung suspended for a moment like jaws open to devour, and then, breaking, gnashed over in foam from side to side. Those of us new to the sea, and not appreciating our peril, hurrahed for the largest wave; but the captain and one or two others, old sailors, knowing its power, grew momentarily more and more anxious, feeling, with a dread instinctive to the sailor, that, in case of extremity, no wreck yet known to ocean could be so hopeless as this. Solid iron from keelson to turret-top, clinging to anything for safety, if the Monitor should go down, would only insure a share in her fate. No mast, no spar, no floating thing, to meet the outstretched hand in the last moment.

The sea, like the old-world giant, gathered force from each attack. Thick and fast came the blows on the iron mail of the Monitor, and still the brave little vessel held her own, until, at half-past eight, the engineer, Waters, faithful to the end, reported a leak. The pumps were instantly set in motion, and we watched their progress with an intense interest. She had seemed to us like an old-time knight in armor, battling against fearful odds, but still holding his ground. We who watched, when the blow came which made the strong man reel and the life-blood spout, felt our hearts faint within us; then again ground was gained, and the fight went on, the water lowering somewhat under the laboring pumps.

From nine to ten it kept pace with them. From ten to eleven the sea increased in violence, the waves now dashing entirely over the turret, blinding the eyes and causing quick catchings of the breath, as they swept against us. At ten the engineer had reported the leak as gaining on us; at half-past ten, with several pumps in constant motion, one of which threw out three thousand gallons a minute, the water was rising rapidly, and nearing the fires. When these were reached, the vessel's doom was sealed; for with their extinction the pumps must cease, and all hope of keeping the Monitor above water more than an hour or two expire. Our knight had received his death-blow, and lay struggling and helpless under the power of a stronger than he.

A consultation was held, and, not without a conflict of feeling, it was decided that signals of distress should be made. Ocean claimed our little vessel, and her trembling frame and failing fire proved she would soon answer his call; yet a pang went through us, as we thought of the first iron-clad lying alone at the bottom of this stormy sea, her guns silenced, herself a useless mass of metal. Each quiver of her strong frame seemed to plead with us not to abandon her. The work she had done, the work she was to do, rose before us; might there not be a possibility of saving her yet?—her time could not have come so soon. We seemed to hear a voice from her saying,—"Save me, for once I have saved you! My frame is stanch still; my guns may again silence the roar of Rebel batteries. The night will pass, and calm come to us once more. Save me!" The roar of Ocean drowned her voice, and we who descended for a moment to the cabin knew, by the rising water through which we waded, that the end was near.

Small time was there for regrets. Rockets were thrown up, and answered by the Rhode Island, whose brave men prepared at once to lower boats, though, in that wild sea, it was almost madness.

The Monitor had been attached to the Rhode Island by two hawsers, one of which had parted at about seven P.M. The other remained firm, but now it was necessary it should be cut. How was that possible, when every wave washed clean over her deck? what man could reach it alive? "Who'll cut the hawser?" shouted Captain Bankhead. Acting-Master Stodder volunteered, and was followed by another. Holding by one hand to the ropes at her side, they cut through, by many blows of the hatchet, the immense rope which united the vessels. Stodder returned in safety, but his brave companion was washed over and went down.

The men were quiet and controlled, but all felt anxiety. Master's-Mate Peter Williams suggested bailing, in the faint hope that in this way the vessel might be kept longer above water. A bailing party was organized by John Stocking, boatswain, who, brave man, at last went down. Paymaster Keeler led the way, in company with Stocking, Williams, and one or two others; and though the water was now waist-deep, and they knew the vessel was liable to go down at almost any moment, they worked on nobly, throwing out a constant stream of water from the turret.

Meanwhile the boat launched from the Rhode Island had started, manned by a crew of picked men.

A mere heroic impulse could not have accomplished this most noble deed. For hours they had watched the raging sea. Their captain and they knew the danger; every man who entered that boat did it at peril of his life; and yet all were ready. Are not such acts as these convincing proof of the divinity in human nature?

We watched her with straining eyes, for few thought she could live to reach us. She neared; we were sure of her, thank God!

In this interval the cut hawser had become entangled in the paddle-wheel of the Rhode Island, and she drifted down upon us: we, not knowing this fact, supposed her coming to our assistance; but a moment undeceived us. The launch sent for our relief was now between us and her,—too near for safety. The steamer bore swiftly down, stern first, upon our starboard quarter. "Keep off! keep off!" we cried, and then first saw she was helpless. Even as we looked, the devoted boat was caught between the steamer and the iron-clad,—a sharp sound of crushing wood was heard,—thwarts, oars, and splinters flew in air,—the boat's crew leaped to the Monitor's deck. Death stared us in the face; our iron prow must go through the Rhode Island's side, and then an end to all. One awful moment we held our breath,—then the hawser was cleared,—the steamer moved off, as it were, step by step, first one, then another, till a ship's-length lay between us, and then we breathed freely. But the boat!—had she gone to the bottom, carrying brave souls with her? No, there she lay, beating against our iron sides, but still, though bruised and broken, a life-boat to us.

There was no hasty scramble for life when it was found she floated; all held back. The men kept steadily on at their work of bailing,—only those leaving, and in the order named, whom the captain bade save themselves. They descended from the turret to the deck with mingled fear and hope, for the waves tore from side to side, and the coolest head and bravest heart could not guaranty safety. Some were washed over as they left the turret, and, with a vain clutch at the iron deck, a wild throwing-up of the arms, went down, their death-cry ringing in the ears of their companions.

The boat sometimes held her place by the Monitor's side, then was dashed hopelessly out of reach, rising and falling on the waves. A sailor would spring from the deck to reach her, be seen for a moment in mid-air, and then, as she rose, fall into her. So she gradually filled up; but some poor souls who sought to reach her failed even as they touched her receding sides, and went down.

We had on board a little messenger-boy, the special charge of one of the sailors, and the pet of all; he must inevitably have been lost, but for the care of his adopted father, who, holding him firmly in his arms, escaped as by miracle, being washed overboard, and succeeded in placing him safely in the boat.

The last but one to make the desperate venture was the surgeon; he leaped from the deck, and at the very instant saw the boat being swept away by the merciless sea. Making one final effort, he threw his body forward as he fell, striking across the boat's side so violently, it was thought some of his ribs must be broken. "Haul the Doctor in!" shouted Lieutenant Greene, perhaps remembering how, a little time back, he himself, almost gone down in the unknown sea, had been "hauled in" by a quinine rope flung him by the Doctor. Stout sailor-arms pulled him in, one more sprang to a place in her, and the boat, now full, pushed off,—in a sinking condition, it is true, but still bearing hope with her, for she was wood.

Over the waves we toiled slowly, pulling for life. The men stuffed their pea-jackets into the holes in her side, and bailed incessantly. We neared the Rhode Island; but now a new peril appeared. Right down upon our centre, borne by the might of rushing water, came the whale-boat sent to rescue others from the iron-clad. We barely floated; if she struck us with her bows full on us, we must go to the bottom. One sprang, and, as she neared, with outstretched arms, met and turned her course. She passed against us, and his hand, caught between the two, was crushed, and the arm, wrenched from its socket, fell a helpless weight at his side; but life remained. We were saved, and an arm was a small price to pay for life.

We reached the Rhode Island; ropes were flung over her side, and caught with a death-grip. Some lost their hold, were washed away, and again dragged in by the boat's crew. What chance had one whose right arm hung a dead weight, when strong men with their two hands went down before him? He caught at a rope, found it impossible to save himself alone, and then for the first time said,—"I am injured; can any one aid me?" Ensign Taylor, at the risk of his own life, brought the rope around his shoulder in such a way it could not slip, and he was drawn up in safety.

In the mean time the whale-boat, nearly our destruction, had reached the side of the Monitor, and now the captain said,—"It is madness to remain here longer; let each man save himself." For a moment he descended to the cabin for a coat, and his faithful servant followed to secure a jewel-box, containing the accumulated treasure of years. A sad, sorry sight it was. In the heavy air the lamps burned dimly, and the water, waist-deep, splashed sullenly against the wardroom's sides. One lingering look, and he left the Monitor's cabin forever.

Time was precious; he hastened to the deck, where, in the midst of a terrible sea, Lieutenant Greene nobly held his post. He seized the rope from the whale-boat, wound it about an iron stanchion, and then around his wrists, for days afterward swollen and useless from the strain. His black body-servant stood near him.

"Can you swim, William?" he asked.

"No," replied the man.

"Then keep by me, and I'll save you."

One by one, watching their time between the waves, the men filled in, the captain helping the poor black to a place, and at last, after all effort for others and none for themselves, Captain Bankhead and Lieutenant Greene took their places in the boat. Two or three still remained, clinging to the turret; the captain had begged them to come down, but, paralyzed with fear, they sat immovable, and the gallant Brown, promising to return for them, pushed off, and soon had his boat-load safe upon the Rhode Island's deck.

Here the heartiest and most tender reception met us. Our drenched clothing was replaced by warm and dry garments, and all on board vied with each other in acts of kindness. The only one who had received any injury, Surgeon Weeks, was carefully attended to, the dislocated arm set, and the crushed fingers amputated by the gentlest and most considerate of surgeons, Dr. Webber of the Rhode Island.

For an hour or more we watched from the deck of the Rhode Island the lonely light upon the Monitor's turret; a hundred times we thought it gone forever,—a hundred times it reappeared, till at last, about two o'clock, Wednesday morning, it sank, and we saw it no more.

We had looked, too, most anxiously, for the whale-boat which had last gone out, under the command of Master's-Mate Brown, but saw no signs of it. We knew it had reached the Monitor, but whether swamped by the waved, or drawn in as the Monitor went down, we could not tell. Captain Trenchard would not leave the spot, but sailed about, looking in vain for the missing boat, till late Wednesday afternoon, when it would have been given up as hopelessly lost, except for the captain's dependence on the coolness and skill of its tried officer. He thought it useless to search longer, but, hoping it might have been picked up by some coasting vessel, turned towards Fortress Monroe.

Two days' sail brought us to the fort, whence we had started on Monday with so many glowing hopes, and, alas! with some who were never to return. The same kindness met us here as on the Rhode Island; loans of money, clothing, and other necessaries, were offered us. It was almost well to have suffered, so much beautiful feeling did it bring out.

A day or two at the fort, waiting for official permission to return to our homes, and we were on our way,—the week seeming, as we looked back upon it, like some wild dream. One thing only appeared real: our little vessel was lost, and we, who, in months gone by, had learned to love her, felt a strange pang go through us as we remembered that never more might we tread her deck, or gather in her little cabin at evening.

We had left her behind us, one more treasure added to the priceless store which Ocean so jealously hides. The Cumberland and Congress went first; the little boat that avenged their loss has followed; in both noble souls have gone down. Their names are for history; and so 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.