L. E. (Lucius Eugene) Chittenden.

Recollections of President Lincoln and his administration online

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vessel ought to do ; that she had no stability, that she
would not stand up, that she would not answer her rud-
der, that she would not resist even grape-shot, that she
would sink like a bar of lead the moment she was launched.
The President and Secretary Fox were the only officers
of the government who would speak a good word for
the Galena. Even the contractor was despondent, and
almost lost faith in the vessel.

It was at this time that the name of Captain Ericsson
was first heard in connection with an iron-clad vessel.
The rumor was that he had pronounced in favor of the
Galenas plans, her stability, and her ability to resist a
six-pound shot, etc., and had furnished contractor Bush-
nell with plans for a vessel which would resist the im-
pact of any projectile which could be thrown by any


gun then invented. It was called a floating battery.
Mr. Bushnell had presented these plans to the Board of
Construction, and the board had rejected them. He had
then carried them to the President, whose decision upon
them was expressed in a very pointed story, many times
since repeated, but almost invariably with the point
omitted. What the President said, after the plans were
exhibited and explained to him, was, "As the darkey
said, in putting on his boot, into which some one had
put a Canada thistle, ' I guess dar's something in it.' "

There is no doubt that, after Captain Ericsson's plans
had been submitted to the Board of Construction, and
the captain had been induced to visit Washington and
explain them, that the President became the warm ad-
vocate of the construction of his proposed battery, as it
was then called. Captain Fox was the adviser upon
whom he principally relied. There were several ses-
sions of the Board of Construction ; Captain Davis, who
had strongly opposed the project, finally gave way, mak-
ing the board unanimous, and the contract was awarded
to Mr. Bushnell, and Messrs. Corning, Winslow, & Gris-
wold, his associates. It is only just to Mr. Bushnell to
say that, in all the preliminary work of clearing away the
obstructions, securing the co-operation of the President,
and overcoming the objections of the board, he alone
was known, and that when the contract was awarded
it was understood in Washington to have been secured
through the labor and energy of Mr. Bushnell. The
contract required the greatest practicable expedition in
completing the vessel, and the contractors pushed the
work with great energy. The Monitor, with her en-
gines on board, was launched on the 30th of January,
and, to the great disappointment of those who had op-
posed the experiment, instead of sinking, as they had


predicted, she drew less water by some inches than Cap-
tain Ericsson had calculated.

Her battery was put on board, and she was fitted for
sea with the greatest possible expedition. Captain Fox
had daily reliable reports from Norfolk. The Merrimac
was also rapidly approaching completion, and when she
was reported to be ready for use the Monitor was still
in the waters of New York harbor. It was not until
the 27th of February that she put to sea, in an unfin-
ished state, without having made the usual trips, for some
unknown destination.

Early on Friday morning, March 7th, Secretary Fox
invited me to accompany him in a call he was about to
make, by appointment, upon President Lincoln. Captain
Fox was an officer of infinite coolness and self-command.
He did not exhibit the slightest evidence of emotion or
apprehension while unfolding to me a story which gave
me great uneasiness during the next three days. No
one else was present at our interview with the President,
and I cannot now undertake to give the precise words
used, but the substance of the conversation I shall prob-
ably never forget. It was obvious that the President
had received a recent communication from Captain Fox,
and had been informed of the object of his visit. The
latter observed that, from his latest information, which
he believed was reliable, he did not expect that the Mer-
rimac would make her appearance before Sunday, the
9th of March. She might, however, come out at any
time, for her engines appeared to be working well at the
dock, and, so far as his agent could discover, her armor
was completed, and the work still going on was not con-
nected with her motive-power or with her batteries. He
said that he intended to leave the city immediately, for
he wanted to be there when she made her attack. He


asked the President whether he had any further sugges-
tions or instructions, and received a negative reply. Af-
ter some general conversation, in which the President
said but few words, Captain Fox, quite in his ordinary
tone, observed that he supposed that the President was
prepared for very disastrous results from the expected
encounter. "No," said Mr. Lincoln; "why should I
be ? We have three of our most effective war-vessels in
Hampton Roads, and any number of small craft that
will hang on to the stern of the Merrimac like small
dogs on the haunches of a bear. They may not be able
to tear her down, but they will interfere with the com-
fort of her voyage. Her trial-trip will not be a pleasure-
trip, I am certain."

" I think you do not take into account all the possi-
bilities of the Merrimac" said Captain Fox. " True, she
may break down, she may accomplish nothing, she may
not be shot-proof, but she will be commanded by a skilled
naval officer. The engineers who have had charge of
her construction are as competent as any in their pro-
fession. If they risk her in action, you may be sure she
will do good work."

" Suppose she does. Have we not three good ships
against her ?"

" But if she proves invulnerable ?" persisted the cap-
tain. " Suppose our heaviest shot and shell rebound
from her armor as harmless as rubber balls? Suppose
she strikes our ships, one after the other, with her ram,
and opens a hole in them as large as a barn-door or a
turnpike gate ? Suppose they are powerless to resist her,
and she sinks them all in a half -hour ?"

"You are looking for great disasters, captain," said
the President, with a smile. " We have had a big share
of bad luck already, but I dp not believe the future


has any such misfortunes in store for us as you antici-

" I anticipate nothing which may not happen from
the coming encounter," said Captain Fox, "nor have
I mentioned the worst possibilities. If the Merrimac
proves invulnerable, if she meets the expectations of her
officers, although she may not be able to go outside the
capes, she can do an immense damage without going to
sea. If she sinks our ships, who is to prevent her drop-
ping her anchor in the Potomac, where that steamer lies,"
pointing to a steamer at anchor below the long bridge,
" and throwing her hundred-pound shells into this room,
or battering down the walls of the Capitol ?"

"The Almighty, captain," answered the President,
decidedly, but without the least affectation. " I expect
set-backs, defeats ; we have had them, and shall have
them. They are common to all wars. But I have not
the slightest fear of any result which shall fatally impair
our military and naval strength, or give other powers
any right to interfere in our quarrel. The destruction
of the Capitol would do both. I do not fear it, for this
is God's fight, and he will win it in his own good time.
He will take care that our enemies do not push us too

" I do most sincerely hope you are right, Mr. Presi-
dent," said Captain Fox, " but it is my duty, as one of
your officers, to use to the best advantage my own judg-
ment as well as the materials which the country places
in our hands. The iron-clad is a new element in naval
warfare. We know neither its power nor its effective-
ness. It is prudent to fear what we do not understand.
It is perfectly natural for naval officers to distrust the
iron-clad. Frankly, we cannot even guess what the
Merrimac will do."


" Speaking of iron-clads, you do not seem to take our
little Monitor into the account," said the President.
"I believe in the Monitor, and her commander. If
Captain Worden does not give a good account of the
Monitor and of himself, I shall have made a mistake in
following my judgment for the first time since I have
been here, captain. I have not made a mistake in fol-
lowing my clear judgment of men since this war began.
I followed that judgment when I gave Worden the com-
mand of the Monitor. I would make the appointment
over again to-day. The Monitor should be in Hampton
Koads now. She left New York eight days ago."

" It is not prudent to place any reliance on the Moni-
tor" responded the captain; " she is an experiment, wholly
untried. She may be already at the bottom of the ocean.
She may be at anchor somewhere, disabled. We know
nothing about her. She may not have stood heavy
weather at all, and we have had strong gales since she
sailed. She is very liable to break down ; she went to
sea without one thorough trial-trip, when she should
have had several. We ought not to be disappointed if
she does not reach the mouth of the James. If she ar-
rives, she may break down with the firing of her first
gun, or be sunk or disabled by the first gun from the
enemy. The clear dictate of prudence is to place no
reliance on her, and if she proves of service, give the
credit to our good fortune."

" No, no, captain," said the President, with more em-
phasis than he had previously used ; " I respect your
judgment, as you have good reason to know, but this
time you are all wrong. The Monitor was one of my
inspirations ; I believed in her firmly when that ener-
getic contractor first showed me Ericsson's plans. Cap-
tain Ericsson's plain but rather enthusiastic demonstra-


tion made my conversion permanent. It was called a
floating battery then ; I called it a raft. I caught some
of the inventor's enthusiasm, and it has been growing
upon me. I thought then, and I am confident now, it
is just what we want. I am sure that the Monitor is
still afloat, and that she will yet give a good account of
herself. Sometimes I think she may be the veritable
sling with a stone that shall yet smite the Merrimao
Philistine in the forehead."

There was more of the conversation, but I do not
know that it would further illustrate the attitude or the
confidence of the President. We took our leave, and
walked to the west entrance of the Treasury slowly
and in silence. At the door the assistant secretary said,
" Is not our Lincoln the truest man, an example of the
most genuine manhood, you have ever seen of whom
you have ever read ? How sincere he is ! He seems to
have imparted some of his faith to me. I have avoided
reliance upon the Monitor. Perhaps she may yet prove
the good angel who will take us out of the Slough of

"We separated ; I to the labors of forty-eight slow and
anxious hours, he to witness the battle which changed
all the conditions of naval warfare.



SATURDAY, March 8th, was a day of calamities. The
news came over the wires that the Merrimac had come
out of Norfolk, attended by a numerous body-guard of
smaller vessels, and at one o'clock was leisurely entering
upon her brief career of destruction. Within two hours
we knew that projectiles from our heaviest guns had re-
alized the apprehensions of Captain Fox, by rebounding
from her uninjured side like rubber balls ; that she had
sent the fine sloop-of-war, the Cumberland, to the bot-
tom of the James Eiver ; that she had torn the frigate
Congress in pieces with her shot and shell, and left her
a grounded wreck on the shore ; that two brave ships'
companies had been immolated to the demon of rebel-
lion, and that the iron-clad destroyer, satisfied with her
labors for that afternoon, had retired into the harbor of
Norfolk, leaving our third and most valuable frigate,
the Minnesota, aground and ready for the next morning's
sacrifice. There had been no former day of such disas-
ter. As I left the Treasury I involuntarily walked in
the direction of the War Department, where I supposed
the President would be found. At the door I met him
returning to the Executive Mansion.

He was as cheerful as he had been on the morning of
the previous day. The battle was over for the day, he
said, and the Merrimac had gone into port, probably to


repair some temporary damages. Nothing had been
heard from Captain Fox or the Monitor. He regretted
deeply the loss of so many brave men ; our first lesson
in the value of iron-clads for fighting purposes had been
costly, but the Almighty ruled, and it would all come
right somehow. I remember most distinctly, for it made
a deep impression at the time, that he said that we should
probably find that the Merrimac was at the end of her
destructive mission, and would not sink another vessel.

Aware that it would be useless to expect sleep that
night, and anxious for news from Captain Fox, I returned
late in the evening to the Navy Department. It was
nearly midnight before his despatch came. It was in
cipher, and, being translated, informed us that he reached
Newport News about nine o'clock, and went immediately
on board the Minnesota. Every one on the vessel was
demoralized. She had been stripped; it had been de-
cided to burn her, and in a few moments more the torch
would have been applied. Captain Fox's arrival had saved
the vessel. His inquiry whether it would not be wiser
to wait until it was seen whether the Merrimac came out
of Norfolk again before setting on fire the finest ship in
the navy, and destroying property to the value of a mill-
ion and a half of dollars, recalled the officers to their
senses, and the conclusion to defer the application of the
torch was speedily reached. I remained at the Depart-
ment until after two o'clock, when, receiving no news
from the Monitor nor any further despatches from Cap-
tain Fox, all left the Naval Office for their respective

The next Sunday forenoon was as gloomy as any that
"Washington had experienced since the beginning of the
war. There was no excitement, but all seemed to be
overwhelmed with despondency and vague apprehen-


sion. I went to Dr. Gurley's church, where his audience
was made still more uncomfortable by a very gloomy
sermon. After service I called upon Secretary Chase.
He had no news, and could give me no comfort. Since
the President seemed to be the only officer of the gov-
ernment who could see any hope in the future, I went
to the War Office, where he was usually to be found
when any serious fighting was going on. There I found
him with quite a large party, including two members of
his Cabinet.

It was evident, from the general excitement, that news
had been received from the James River. As I entered
the room some one was saying, " Would it not be for-
tunate if the Monitor should sink her?" "It would be
nothing more than I have expected," calmly observed
President Lincoln. "If she does not, something else
will. Many providential things are happening in this
war, and this may be one of them. The loss of two good
ships is an expensive lesson, but it will teach us all the
value of iron-clads. I have not believed at any time
during the last twenty-four hours that the Merrimac
would go right on destroying right and left without any
obstruction. Since we knew that the Monitor had got
there, I have felt that she was the vessel we wanted." I
then learned that the Monitor had arrived at Fortress
Monroe on Saturday evening ; without waiting for any
preparation, she had steamed up to Newport News,
and laid herself alongside the grounded Minnesota. The
Merrimao had made her appearance shortly after day-
light ; Captain Worden had promptly advanced to make
her acquaintance, and had ever since been sticking to her
closer than a brother. It was also reported that the two
fighters had ever since been pounding each other terrific-
ally, and that the Monitor as yet showed no signs of


weakness. Time passes quickly in such an excitement.
Very soon came a message that evoked cheers from
everybody. Its substance was that the Merrimac had
withdrawn, and was again steaming for Norfolk. Even
this news, which stirred the enthusiasm of every one
else, so that all burst into a long - continued volley of
applause, did not seem to elate the President. " I am
glad the Monitor has done herself credit for Worden's
sake for all our sakes," was all he said. He then
walked slowly to the White House.

When Captain Fox returned, his graphic account of the
battle was given to the press, and seemed to settle the
policy of the country in relation to armored vessels. He
gave the highest credit to Captain Worden and his second
in command, Lieutenant Green. The fearlessness with
which they advanced the Monitor to the attack, the persist-
ence with which she clung to her enemy during all that
long forenoon, turning away from her in a circuit only just
large enough to give time to load her guns, he said was a
grand exhibition of judgment, courage, and seamanship,
beautifully responded to by the vessel in the ease with
which she answered her helm, and the even, regular
movement of her power. He had ordered the Monitor
to Washington for repairs, he said, and convenience of
inspection, for henceforth the energies of the Navy De-
partment would be largely devoted to the building and
equipment of monitors.

Some weeks later we were the witnesses of a dramatic
scene at the Navy Yard, on board the Monitor. The
vessel came to Washington unchanged, in the same con-
dition as when she discharged her parting shot at the
Merrimac. There she lay until her heroic commander
had so far recovered from his injuries as to be able to re-
join his vessel. All leaves of absence had been revoked,


the absentees had returned, and were ready to welcome
their captain. The President, Captain Fox, and a limited
number of Captain Worden's personal friends had been in-
vited to his informal reception. Lieutenant Green received
the President and the guests. He was a boy in years,
not too young to volunteer, however, when volunteers
were scarce, and to fight the Merrimac during the last
half of the battle, after the captain was disabled. Then,
when the success and safety of the Monitor were both
proved, an officer was promoted over his head, on the
ground that he was too young to bear so great a re-
sponsibility. This was a most unjust act, for which the
Navy Department was never forgiven by the American

The President and the other guests stood on the deck,
near the turret. The men were formed in lines, with
their officers a little in advance, when Captain "Worden
ascended the gangway. The heavy guns in the Navy
Yard began firing the customary salute when he stepped
upon the deck. One side of his face was permanently
blackened by the powder shot into it from the muzzle of
a cannon carrying a shell of one hundred pounds' weight,
discharged less than twenty yards away. The President
advanced to welcome him, introduced him to the few
strangers present, the officers and men passed in review
and were dismissed. Then there was a scene worth wit-
nessing. The old tars swarmed around their loved cap-
tain, they grasped his hand, crowded to touch him,
thanked God for his recovery and return, and invoked
blessings upon his head in the name of all the saints in
the calendar. He called them by their names, had a
pleasant word for each of them, and for a few moments
we looked upon an exhibition of a species of affection that
could only have been the product of a common danger.


When order was restored, the President gave a brief
sketch of Captain Worden's career. Commodore Paul-
ding had been the first, Captain Worden the second offi-
cer of the navy, he said, to give an unqualified opinion
in favor of armored vessels. Their opinions had been
influential with him and with the Board of Construc-
tion. Captain Worden had volunteered to take the
command of the Monitor, at the risk of his life and
reputation, before her keel was laid. He had watched
her construction, and his energy had made it possible to
send her to sea in time to arrest the destructive opera-
tions of the Merrimac. What he had done with a new
crew, and a vessel of novel construction, we all knew.
He, the President, cordially acknowledged his indebted-
ness to Captain Worden, and he hoped the whole country
would unite in the feeling of obligation. The debt was
a heavy one, and would not be repudiated when its nat-
ure was understood. The details of the first battle be-
tween iron-clads would interest every one. At the request
of Captain Fox, Captain Worden had consented to give
an account of his voyage from New York to Hampton
Koads, and of what had afterwards happened there on
board the Monitor.

In an easy conversational manner, without any effort
at display, Captain Worden told the story, of which the
following is the substance :

" I suppose," he began, " that every one knows that
we left New York Harbor in some haste. We had in-
formation that the Merrimac was nearly completed, and
if we were to fight her on her first appearance, we must
be on the ground. The Monitor had been hurried from
the laying of her keel. Her engines were new, and her
machinery did not move smoothly. Never was a vessel
launched that so much needed trial trips, some of them


to sea, to test her machinery, and get her crew accus-
tomed to their novel duties. We went to sea practically
without them. No part of the vessel was finished ; there
was one omission that was serious, and came very near
causing her failure and the loss of many lives. In heavy
weather it was intended that her hatches and all her
openings should be closed and battened down. In that
case all the men would be below, and would have to
depend upon artificial ventilation. Our machinery for
that purpose proved wholly inadequate.

" We were in a heavy gale of wind as soon as we
passed Sandy Hook. The vessel behaved splendidly.
The seas rolled over her, and we found her the most
comfortable vessel we had ever seen, except for the ven-
tilation, which gave us more trouble than I have time to
tell you about. We had to run into port and anchor on
account of the weather, and, as you know, it was two
o'clock in the morning of Sunday before we were along-
side the Minnesota. Captain Yan Brunt gave us an ac-
count of Saturday's experience. He was very glad to
make our acquaintance, and notified us that we must be
prepared to receive the Merrimac at daylight. We had
had a very hard trip down the coast, and officers and
men were weary and sleepy. But when informed that
our fight would probably open at daylight, and that the
Monitor must be put in order, every man went to his
post with a cheer. That night there was no sleep on
board the Monitor.

" In the gray of the early morning we saw a vessel
approaching, which our friends on the Minnesota said
was the Merrimac. Our fastenings were cast off, our
machinery started, and we moved out to meet her half-
way. We had come a long way to fight her, and did not
intend to lose our opportunity.


" Before showing you over the vessel, let me say that
there were three possible points of weakness in the
Monitor, two of which might have been guarded against
in her construction, if there had been more time to per-
fect her plans. One of them was in the turret, which,
as you see, is constructed of eight plates of inch iron on
the side of the ports, nine set on end so as to break
joints, and firmly bolted together, making a hollow cyl-
inder eight inches thick. It rests on a metal ring on a
vertical shaft, which is revolved by power from the boil-
ers. If a projectile struck the turret at an acute angle,
it was expected to glance off without doing damage.
But what would happen if it was fired in a straight
line to the centre of the turret, which in that case would
receive the whole force of the blow? It might break
off the bolt-heads on the interior, which, flying across,
would kill the men at the guns ; it might disarrange

Online LibraryL. E. (Lucius Eugene) ChittendenRecollections of President Lincoln and his administration → online text (page 16 of 35)