Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles on the Sinking of the USS Monitor

The battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (a.k.a. Merrimack) was the most famous Naval action of the Civil War. They fought to a draw on March 9th, 1862 in the first battle between ironclad warships in history. Although they both survived the battle, neither ship would make it through the year. Virginia was scuttled on May 11th to prevent it from falling into Union hands. Monitor saw action a few days later at the Battle of Drewry’s Bluff, and patrolled the James River during the Peninsula campaign in the summer.

The Monitor and Merrimack by Louis Prang

On December 29th, the sidewheeler USS Rhode Island took the Monitor under tow, leaving Hampton Roads, Virginia bound for the Carolinas, for attacks on Fort Caswell, North Carolina, and then Charleston, South Carolina. Monitor was not designed for the high waves of storms on the open sea, and as the ships sailed into a heavy winter storm off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina on December 30th, Monitor was in serious trouble. Lifeboats from Rhode Island were able, with difficulty, to rescue 46 crew members, but 16 lives were lost as the Monitor sank at 1:00 a.m. of December 31st.

USS Monitor Sinking December 31, 1862

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles kept a diary and recorded his often times frank observations throughout the war. Welles received word of the sinking of the Monitor on January 3rd, 1963, and wrote his impressions of the event as he learned more over the next few days. Welles had appointed a board of Naval officers to study the feasibility and consider plans for ironclad ships, and he gave credit to Admiral Joseph Smith, Chairman of the Board, for his part in making ironclads a reality. He also took the opportunity to take a few written shots at some of his critics:

January 3, Saturday. A word by telegraph that the monitor has floundered and over twenty of her crew, including some officers, are lost. The fate of this vessel affects me in other respects. She is a primary representative of a class identified with my administration of the Navy. Her novel construction and qualities I adopted and she was built amidst obloquy and ridicule. Such a change in the character of a fighting vessel few naval men, or any Secretary under their influence, would have taken the responsibility of adopting. But Admiral Smith and finally all the Board which I appointed seconded my views, and were willing, Davis somewhat reluctantly, to recommend the experiment if I would assume the risk and responsibility. Her success with the Merrimac directly after she went into commission relieved me of odium and anxiety, and men who were preparing to ridicule were left to admire.

Crewmen on Deck of USS Monitor, July 1862

When Bushnell of New Haven brought me the first model and plan, I was favorably impressed. I was then in Hartford, proposing to remove my family, but sent him at once to Washington, following myself within a day or two. Understanding that Ericcson, the inventor, was sensitive in consequence of supposed slight and neglect by the Navy Department or this Government some years ago, I made it a point to speak to Admiral Smith, Chairman of the Board, and specially request that he should be treated tenderly, and opportunity given him for full and deliberate hearing. I found Admiral Smith well disposed. The plan was adopted, and the test of her fighting and resisting power was by an arrangement between Admiral Smith and myself, without communication with any other, that she should, when completed go at once up Elizabeth River to Norfolk Navy Yard, and destroy the Merrimac while in dry dock, and the dock itself. Had she been completed within the contract time, one hundred days, this purpose would have been accomplished, but there was delay and disappointment, and her prowess was exhibited in a conflict with her huge antagonist under much more formidable circumstances. Her career since the time she first entered Hampton Roads is public history, but her origin, and everything in relation to her , from the inception, have been since her success designedly misrepresented.

Admiral Smith beyond any other person is deserving of credit, if credit be due any one connected with the Navy Department of this vessel. Had she been a failure, he, more than any one but the

Admiral Joseph Smith USN

Secretary, would have been blamed, and [he] was fully aware that he would have to share with me the odium and the responsibility. Let him, therefore, have the credit which is justly his.

January 5, Monday. Commander Bankhead arrived this morning and brings particulars of the loss of the Monitor. Its weakness was in herself, where we had apprehended, and not in an antagonist. This has been in some degree remedied in the new boats we are now constructing.

For months I have been berated and abused because I had not more vessels of the Monitor class under contract. Her success with the Merrimac when she was under trial as an experiment made men wild, and they censured me for not having built a fleet when she was constructed. Now that she is lost, the same persons will be likely to assail me for expending money on such a craft.

There is a set of factious fools who think it is wise to be censorious, and it is almost as amusing as it is vexatious to hear and read the remarks of these Solomons. One or two of these officious blockheads make themselves conspicuous in the New York Chamber of Commerce, and none more so than Mr. Charles H. Marshall, who attempts to show off his nautical knowledge by constantly attacking and slandering the Secretary of the Navy. Marshall was formally a shipmaster and it was his often expressed opinion that no man should be Secretary of the Navy who has not had command of, and the sailing of, a ship. Like many others as simple if not as egotistical, he would have the Secretary who administers the department a sailor and for the same reasons he should be an engineer, naval constructor, etc. On every occasion of disaster, no matter from what cause, this man Marshall imputes it to the fact that the Secretary of the Navy has never commanded a ship, and he never admits that any credit is due the Navy Department for intelligent and correct administration, or the Secretary of the Navy for any success of any kind, whether of a squadron or single ship, because he is not and never was a sea-captain. Marshall had had his prejudices sharpened by others and particularly by Moses H. Grinnell, who thinks a shipping merchant would make a good Secretary of the Navy. Both are disappointed men, and each wants to be at the head of the Navy Department.


By Sea And By River: The Naval History of the Civil War by Bern Anderson

Diary of Gideon Welles, Volume I by Gideon Welles

War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson

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