By Rear Adm. David M. Thomas, Jr., Commander, Naval Surface Force, Atlantic
On Dec. 29, at the Hampton National Cemetery, I participated in a memorial service and monument dedication in remembrance of the 16 Sailors of the USS Monitor who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to our nation on Dec. 31, 1862. We dedicated a monument to their memory and to the memory of all the Sailors of that historic ship. We remembered both the historic battle fought and the tragic end that cost the crew 16 shipmates.
Here in Hampton Roads, home to the world’s largest naval base and so near to the location of where the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia fought their famous battle, it is fitting that we placed a beautiful monument to help illuminate their memory and promote their legacy.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who took a lead role with the U.S. Navy in raising the USS Monitor’s turret from the waters off Cape Hatteras, coordinated the monument’s dedication at the cemetery with the U.S. Navy and the Veteran’s Administration.
The USS Monitor was indeed a technical marvel of its day. Designed by the Swedish engineer, John Ericsson, the USS Monitor was the first ironclad commissioned in the United States Navy. It was the first operational warship to include a 360-degree rotating armored gun turret. Finally, in a striking departure from the standard warship design of her day, all but 18 inches of the hull was under the waterline.
Despite the technical innovation inherent in Monitor, it was U.S. Navy Sailors who made this ship great.
The ship was notoriously unseaworthy in rough waters, and she experienced a very difficult journey from Brooklyn to Hampton Roads for her great battle that must have severely tested her Sailors.
Arriving on the night of the day that CSS Virginia had wreaked havoc on the U.S. Navy forces at Hampton Roads, Monitor was ordered to protect the USS Minnesota that had ran aground during the battle. Unfortunately, the Monitor’s crew discovered that sea water had rusted the turret’s rotating mechanism. Following their difficult journey, those Sailors went to work through the night lubricating and reworking the gears so the turret would turn smoothly.
Early the next morning, the ship sailed to intercept the Virginia as far as possible from the Minnesota. On little to no sleep, the 63 Sailors would fight a multi-hour long battle that saved the Minnesota while the Virginia sailed back to port without destroying other Union vessels.
The Sailors of the Monitor would face many more hardships in the months that followed. The USS Monitor would continue its service in the Hampton Roads area and on the rivers between Hampton Roads and Richmond throughout the summer. That summer heat would put a tremendous strain on the crew with temperatures exceeding 130 degrees inside the skin of the ship on numerous occasions. The innovative design that made it a powerful warship, also made ventilation, lighting and crew conditions difficult.
Ultimately, the ship was giving orders to sail for Beaufort, North Carolina, on Dec. 29, 1862. Despite knowing the issues with its sea worthiness, the crew was ready again and fearlessly took the ship back into open ocean. During that journey, an intense gale weakened the caulking at the base of the turret and led to the ships foundering, which cost 16 Sailors their lives.
The legacy of these Sailors is a shining example for today’s Sailors to follow and emulate. The Sailors of the Monitor were shipmates in the truest sense of the word. They fought together. They trained together. They sailed together in treacherous waters. Ultimately, four officers and 12 enlisted Sailors sacrificed their lives trying to save each other and their ship.
Today, we may have the most technologically advanced and most capable ships the world has ever seen, but like the Monitor, it is our Sailors that makes the US Navy great. Our Sailors achieve incredible successes every day through dedication, camaraderie and sacrifice. Despite the tremendous quality of today’s Sailors, we can still learn from the sacrifice and dedication of the Sailors of the USS Monitor. I was proud to take part in a ceremony to remember those worthy men– those true giants of Unites States Navy history.