By summer 1862, the USS Monitor had become one of the nation’s most famous vessels. The U.S. Navy’s first ironclad ship, the Monitor had successfully held off the Confederate ironclad Virginia on 9 March 1862, in the waters of Virginia’s Hampton Roads, and had helped to usher in a new era in naval warfare. The vessel’s unique design, which featured a rotating gun turret, would inform future warships into the 21st century. But the Monitor would not survive the year 1862. She met her end 16 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C., in the teeth of a moderate gale. There she lay, untouched, until discovered in 1973. To protect this iconic American vessel, Congress authorized the creation of America’s first National Marine Sanctuary, which would be administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA-led and/or sanctioned expeditions of the wrecksite have resulted in the recovery of over 200 tons of material, including the vessel’s propeller, engine, condenser, and gun turret. These artifacts are all undergoing long-term conservation treatment at the USS Monitor Center, located at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
On Christmas Eve 1862, orders came in for Captain John Pine Bankhead to “Proceed in tow of the Rhode Island, with the Monitor under your command, to Beaufort, N.C., and wait further orders. Avail yourself of the first favorable weather for making the passage.” But favorable weather was a few days away.
On December 28, seaman Jacob Nicklis wrote to his father in Buffalo, New York: “Do not answer this letter until you hear from me again, which I hope will be shortly. They say we will have a pretty rough time a going around Hatteras, but I hope it will not be the case.” The following day, Nicklis and his and crewmates departed from Fortress Monroe in Virginia’s Hampton Roads aboard the USS Monitor.
At 6 p.m. on the 29th the Monitor and its consort, the Rhode Island, passed Cape Henry and entered the Atlantic Ocean. Just before dawn on the 30th, Bankhead recalled that the two ships began to “experience a swell from the southward.” As the day progressed the clouds increased “till the sun was obscured by their cold grey mantle.” The officers and crew amused themselves by watching three sharks swim alongside the ship. Soon, however, the sea began to break over the vessel, the waves white with foam. As the weather grew worse the men were forced to go below decks. At 5:00 p.m. the officers sat down to dinner in the wardroom, joking about being free from their “monotonous inactive life,” recalled Paymaster William Keeler.
As the Monitor prepared to round Cape Hatteras, waves hit the turret so hard it trembled. At first crew was elated that they were “the first iron-clad that ever rounded Cape Hatteras!” But the air temperature began to rise into the 70s, while the barometer was falling. By 7:30 p.m. one of the hawsers snapped and the Monitor began rolling wildly.
Mountainous waves crashed over the Monitor’s deck as the storm intensified. The situation below deck became serious. Water began pouring into the vessel, and Captain Bankhead ordered the large centrifugal water pump into action.
By 10 p.m. the water was more than a foot deep in the engine room—so deep that the blowers providing the draught for the boiler fires were spitting water. The pumps stopped working. The men organized a bucket brigade, but this did no good except to lessen the crew’s panic.
For his part of the bailing, landsman Francis Butts stood in the turret, passing buckets from the lower hatchway to the men on top of the turret. Butts later recalled, “A black cat was sitting on the breech of one of the guns, howling one of those hoarse and solemn tunes which no one can appreciate who is not filled with the superstitions which I had been taught by the sailors, who are always afraid to kill a cat.” Despite his fearful apprehensions, Butts grabbed the cat and shoved it into one of the guns, capping it off with wadding and a tampion. As he exited the turret a few moments later he “could still hear that distressing yowl.”
At 11:00 p.m. the captain sent the signal to the Rhode Island, “Send your boats immediately, we are sinking!” Watching from the deck of the Monitor, surgeon Grenville Weeks felt gratitude to the men of the Rhode Island for the danger they voluntarily placed upon themselves: “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 of human nature?”
To get to the rescue boats, the men had to cross the rolling, storm-swept deck. Paymaster William Keeler later told his wife that “the small [rescue] boats were pitching & tossing about on them or crashing against our sides, mere playthings on the billows” while “the whole scene [was] lit up by the ghastly glare of the blue lights burning on our consort, formed a panorama of horror which time can never efface from my memory.”
Men jumped from the deck of the Monitor into the rescue boats, but as the water swelled some missed their target and soon were swept beneath the waves. Others were badly injured during the escape. Surgeon Weeks would lose three fingers, but he later wrote that this injury “was a small price to pay for a life.” Some of the men refused to leave—or simply couldn’t. Francis Butts recalled that one engineer was too seasick to leave his berth.
Desperate men clung to the top of the turret until the lifeboats returned. Many of them threw shoes, clothing and possessions back into the turret so they would be able to swim if they needed to. Those same possessions were found by conservators and archaeologists following the recovery of the turret in 2002; however, the remains of Butts’s alleged black cat have yet to be discovered.
On board the Rhode Island, surgeon Samuel Gilbert Webber reset Weeks’s arm and amputated parts of three fingers. Weeks came back to stand on deck with his Monitor shipmates, watching the sad drama unfold. “For an hour or more we watched from the deck of the Rhode Island the lonely light upon the Monitor’s turret,” he wrote; “a hundred times we thought it had gone forever,—a hundred times it reappeared, till at last… it sank and we saw it no more.”
Forty-seven men were rescued from the USS Monitor before she slipped beneath the waves. Sixteen were lost—either washed overboard while trying to reach the rescue boats or trapped inside the foundering vessel. One of those who drowned was Jacob Nicklis, the sailor from Buffalo who had written to his father just two days before. Surgeon Weeks dictated a letter to Nickis’s sister shortly after the sinking, assuring her that “yr brother did his duty well, & has I believe gone to a brighter world, where storms do not come.”