Have you ever wondered how the bugle call “Taps” came to be used at memorial services for military personnel? As we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, I thought it would be fitting to explore how this practice began.
In an earlier blog post, I presented the history of “Taps” and discussed evidence that points to the fact that the crew of USS Monitor heard “Taps” being played at some point during July or August of 1862. This post is a continuation of the history of “Taps” and how it became a part of military funerals and memorials.
John C. Tidball served as Captain of Battery A, Second U.S. Artillery during the Seven Days’ Battles, June 25 through July 1, 1862. Battery A moved to Harrison’s Landing with the rest of the Union forces after the battle of Malvern Hill.
While at Harrison’s Landing, one of the men under his command died. Captain Tidball described him as “a most excellent man.” (1) He wished to bury him with full military honors but was refused permission for the customary firing of three guns over his grave.
Captain Tidball chose to have “Taps” played instead of the three-gun salute. This was the first time “Taps” was played at a military funeral. He said, “The idea was taken up by others, until in a short time it was adopted by the entire army and is now looked upon as the most appropriate and touching part of a military funeral.” (2)
The playing of “Taps” became standard for military funerals in 1891, although I think it is safe to say that it had been played unofficially for many years prior to 1891. John Tidball died on May 15, 1906. He was the last surviving member of his West Point class of 1848. He was laid to rest with the sounding of “Taps” just as it had been played forty- four years earlier at Harrison’s Landing.
Some of you may have seen this stained-glass window in the Chapel of the Centurion at Fort Monroe. It depicts the playing of “Taps” in 1862. It is a beautiful window, but the first time I saw it I could not understand why it was there. Fort Monroe seems a long way from Harrison’s Landing. I discovered that John Tidball became Commander of the Artillery School at Fort Monroe in 1883 and served there until 1889. The Chapel had been completed in 1858, but several stained-glass windows were designed as part of the centennial celebration in 1958. The commemoration of the playing of “Taps” was one of them.
John Tidball’s daughter, Mabel Tidball, was invited to the centennial celebration in 1958. At the age 83 and living in Charleston, S.C., she was unable to attend the celebration, but requested that “Taps” be performed to remember those who had died in the past 100 years.
In 2013, the United States Congress designated “Taps” as the national “Song of Remembrance,” under Public Law 112-239, Section 596.Read more
Did the crew of USS Monitor hear “Taps” when it was played for the very first time?
I will attempt to answer this question, but you may be wondering why I asked it in the first place. It all started with a bugle and a memorial service for my father. I will come back to the memorial service in a moment, but first let me show you the bugle that drew my attention.
This bugle from the Spanish Cruiser Vizcaya is on display in our Defending the Seas gallery. Vizcaya was sunk in 1898 during the Battle of Santiago, Cuba in the Spanish-American War. The bugle was recovered from the wreckage.
What was a bugle doing in a maritime museum, I asked? To some of you it may be obvious, but I had a lot of learning to do. Please come along with me on my journey from this bugle and my father’s memorial service to the bulge call we know as “Taps” and the crew of USS Monitor.
Bugle calls are musical signals that announce scheduled and certain non-scheduled events. They were also used in battle. We often associate bugle calls with the Army, but bugle calls were used on nineteenth century warships. The call below is found in the records of USS North Carolina and USS Columbus from 1825.
The Virginia Peninsula was already engaged in wartime work when President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany on April 6, 1917. Local military bases, shipyards, air fields, ports, and people turned their faces toward the nation’s crusade to make the world safe for democracy.
Headquarters, Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation
The US Army, in anticipation of America’s entry into the war, surveyed the Hampton Roads area in early 1917 to ascertain where to establish a port of embarkation. Newport News was selected over Norfolk as headquarters for the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation. Several geographical reasons influenced that decision. Norfolk was a congested port and already the center for many naval activities. Newport News offered good port facilities, a large harbor, excellent railroad connections, ship repair opportunities, and an abundance of available land.
The Army assumed operations of the port from the C & O Railroad in July 1917 and immediately began the construction of embarkation camps. The Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation was one of only two military ports (New York City was the other) created to ship doughboys overseas. In less than two years, 145 transports moved 261,820 soldiers from Newport News to France.
Colonel (later brigadier general) Grote Hutchinson was named commander of the port. He established his headquarters in the federal building in downtown Newport News. Camps were also needed in the outlying countryside to station and train men prior to shipment overseas. Thus, the Army acquired large tracts of property in Warwick County from the Old Dominion Land Company to build five troop cantonments.
Named for Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart, Camp Stuart was constructed on a 309-acre tract overlooking Hampton Roads. It was the Army’s largest embarkation camp during the war with almost 115,000 soldiers passing through en route to Europe. Hastily built between July and December 1917, Camp Stuart consisted of row after row of barracks, mess halls, and other support structures including a huge 50-ward hospital.
Camp Hill was constructed simultaneously with Camp Stuart. It was another exceptionally large installation covering acreage along the James River from Sixty-fourth Street to Newport News’s Huntington Park. The combined cost of these camps reached nearly $16 million. Like Camp Stuart, Camp Hill was also named for a Confederate general, A.P. Hill. Many military camps and bases throughout the South were named in honor of Confederate leaders. This tradition was instituted by the Army to alleviate any lingering bitterness in the South remaining from the Civil War and the Reconstruction era.
Camp Hill sent 63,887 men overseas. While the camp served as the port’s center for the Motor Truck Corps, it played an even greater role as the animal embarkation area. Camp Hill’s large veterinary hospital and livestock pen required 900 men to care for the horses and mules. The camp’s capacity was 10,000 animals. A total of 33,704 horses and 24,474 mules were shipped overseas through this camp. These animals consumed tremendous amounts of feed annually: 82,870,000 pounds of hay, 41,392,000 pounds of oats, and 7,273 pounds of bran.
The vast quantities of animals and supplies processed through the port prompted the Army to billet several African American stevedore and labor battalions at Camp Hill. This resulted in several incidents between Black and white soldiers. In particular, the quarters provided for African American soldiers proved to be inadequate. They suffered terribly during the winter of 1917-18. As many as 20 to 30 men were assigned to a tent. There were few blankets, heat was provided by open fires, and food was served outdoors.
The Army sought to correct these problems and constructed Camp Alexander to house African American labor battalions. Named in honor of Lieutenant John Hanks Alexander of the 6th US Cavalry, one of the first African American West Point graduates, Camp Alexander was completed in August 1918, It was located at the northeastern portion of Camp Hill along the C & O tracks. A total of 57,081 African Americans embarked from Camp Alexander.
An Air Service depot was organized along the C & O tracks in the Gum Grove section of Warwick County. The 295-acre site was named for Colonel J.S. Morrison, construction engineer of the Peninsula Division of the C & O Railroad. Camp Morrison served as the embarkation center for balloon units and aero squadrons. More than 10,000 men were processed through Camp Morrison en route to France. The camp included 24 warehouses built for storage of aviation equipment and supplies.
Endless Treads of the Soldiers’ Boots
The entire Peninsula was teaming with troops by summer 1918. Camp Stuart became the largest embarkation camp, both in size and number of troops processed, in the United States. In August 1918, a total of 46,130 men left Newport News aboard 31 vessels bound for France. Initially, the soldiers marched to their transports at night in order to avoid information leaks. Such secrecy was soon deemed unnecessary and units marched in grand parades, complete with bands playing martial music all the way to the piers.
Thomas Wolfe, a worker at Langley Field and Newport News Shipyard, wrote about the endless movement of troops in his book, Look Homeward, Angel:
“Twice a week the troops went through. They stood densely in brown and weary thousands on the pier while a council of officers, tabled at the gangways, went through clearance papers. Then, each below the sweating torture of his pack, they were filed from the hot furnace of the pier into the hotter prison of the ship. The great ships, with their motley jagged patches of deception, waited in the stream; they slid in and out in unending squadrons.”
Private Herbert G. Smith, later a Newport News judge, vividly remembered the arduous march from Camp Hill to the C & O piers. Smith said that it was “the hottest day I ever saw in my life. My colonel knew I was from Newport News and asked me when we got to Washington Avenue and Twenty-eighth Street, how much further it was. I said, ‘you just as well to keep walking now, we’re almost there.’” Instead, the commander stopped his regiment for a brief rest, and Smith recounted “he laid down on the street car tracks right in the middle of Washington Avenue and rested that morning.”
An Armed Camp
The Peninsula became one of the largest concentrations of military activity in the United States. Permanent installations, like Fort Monroe and Langley Field, expanded efforts to train and protect the lower Chesapeake Bay. Besides the four primary Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation camps, numerous other installations were created to support the war effort.
Camp Eustis, named for War of 1812 hero Bvt. Brigadier General Abraham Eustis, primarily serving as a coast artillery and observation balloon training base, was also utilized as an embarkation point for 20,000 men assigned to artillery and motor transport units. Other installations, such as the Yorktown Navy Mine Depot, were hurriedly constructed to support training and to organize war materiel required to wage war in Europe. Both the Yorktown Depot and Camp Eustis had special spur tracks constructed to facilitate the movement of troops and materiel.
Support for the Soldiers
Numerous organizations established facilities catering to the social, physical, mental, recreational, and moral well-being of the almost overwhelming influx of soldiers on the Virginia Peninsula. The entire community went out of its way to make the soldiers feel at home. During a single month in 1919, the Newport News YMCA provided 2,200 baths, slept 2,475, served 6,000 meals, mailed home $5,675, checked 2,385 parcels, and provided two pool tables where 486 hours of pool were played. A total of 26,255 men used the building. YMCA work was so important to the Newport News community. Thousands of soldiers virtually overwhelmed local volunteers. Consequently, the National War Work Council of the National YMCA had to supplement activities on the Peninsula.
The YMCA opened tent facilities at each embarkation camp until more adequate buildings could be erected. Eventually 10 entertainment huts were constructed: one at camps Morrison, Hill, and Alexander, as well as seven in Camp Stuart (five for whites and two for Blacks). A main facility was built on the Casino Grounds on the James River in downtown Newport News. The YMCA invested over $200,000 constructing, maintaining, and equipping these buildings.
Dance the Night Away
Dances were by far one of the most popular forms of entertainment. The YMCA reported it was often “hard to get enough girls” out to the remote camps like Camp Eustis. The Peninsula had been “doing the Dance of Death” for more than a year. Many citizens considered it their patriotic duty to volunteer. Even though the dances were chaperoned by grandmothers and married matrons, there were numerous cases of unchaperoned liaisons that resulted in a number of cases of venereal disease. Public health officials quickly tried to mitigate the problem. A free clinic and a home for “wayward, helpless, and straying girls” were established in downtown Newport News.
United War Work
The Red Cross, Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Board, American Library Association, and the Women’s Service League were some of the other associations that attended to the needs of the servicemen. It seemed everyone was busy helping soldiers. The owners of movie theaters in downtown Newport News provided free films on Sundays. The Jewish Welfare Board raised $70,000 for war work. These dollars were used to distribute 60,000 letterheads, 30,000 envelopes, and 10,700 packages of cigarettes at Camp Stuart’s hospital. Workers of the Jewish Welfare Board met 76 transports filled with troops and distributed 45,970 handkerchiefs and a countless quantity of matches, chewing gum, and cigarettes.
The Red Cross was perhaps one of the most active humanitarian organizations during the war. The Newport News Chapter was organized on June 2, 1917, and its members assumed the herculean task of providing canteen services for the troops moving through the port. The canteen’s primary purpose was distributing coffee, cake, chocolate, cigarettes, and other supplies to soldiers as they boarded transports, day and night. On June 18, 1918, nearly 8,000 men were fed between 4 a.m. and daylight.
The War is Over, ‘Over There’
When the Armistice ending the war was declared on November 11, 1918, a mixed sense of pride and relief was felt across the Peninsula. There was; however, little time to reflect upon peace. The embarkation camps were immediately transformed into reception centers welcoming home the doughboys.
Battle of Newport News
The Armistice Day celebrations in Newport News resulted in chaos. The day began as a jubilant occurrence, commemorated by an afternoon parade down Washington Avenue. More than 1,000 soldiers from camps Eustis, Morrison, and Stuart participated in the parade, and as they marched through town, they were heckled by some of the onlookers as “tin soldiers.” These taunts and jeers angered the soldiers, many of whom were already disappointed not to have had the chance to see action on the front. Some were simply disenchanted with several downtown merchants who had engaged in war profiteering and price gouging at the expense of the doughboys. Following the parade, the stage was set for the “Battle of Newport News,” when the soldiers received overnight passes. The men immediately returned to Newport News to enact their revenge.
Washington Avenue Melee
Thousands of soldiers descended upon downtown Newport News at nightfall and immediately turned Washington Avenue into a war zone. Local police were powerless to stop the riot centering on various shops that had overcharged soldiers. The enraged troops broke windows, looted stores, and generally caused mayhem. Pawnbrokers’ signs were used as bowling balls, and barber shops’ poles were turned into battering rams against shop doors that did not open quickly. The Jem Cigar Store suffered the destruction of $1,000 worth of goods, and witnesses watched soldiers dump candy in the street. The Palace Restaurant was virtually demolished.
Trolley service was suspended. A giant bonfire was lit in the center of Washington Avenue and fed with anything flammable the soldiers could find. The riot ended thanks to a wise tactical move by an Army major. A rumor was spread about a large fight between civilians and soldiers across the Twenty-eighth Street Bridge. When the marauders arrived on the other side of the bridge, they were met by 300 military police, who closed off the bridge behind them. Order was finally restored.
“Newport News Blues”
The riot was quickly forgotten despite the considerable damage along Washington Avenue. The soldiers were satisfied that they had survived suffering “the siege of Newport News.” Civilians cleaned up the streets and then simply redoubled their efforts at hospitality. While one poem was circulated declaring Newport News “the rottenest hole the wide world through,” a popular song, “Newport News Blues,” was written to express more of the homesick feelings the soldiers shared:
Oh! Newport News is the latest fad.
Newport News Blues will surely drive you mad,Read more
After the ironclad’s showdown with CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862, USS Monitor was considered the ‘little ship that saved the nation.’ The Monitor continued to serve in Virginia waters until September 30 when the ironclad was sent to Washington Navy Yard for much needed repairs. The ship’s complement changed due to desertion and re-assignment; nevertheless, it left the yard on November 8 to return to Hampton Roads. Having received a variety of improvements, Monitor was positioned off of Newport News Point, guarding against any excursion by the Confederate ironclad CSS Richmond.
While awaiting orders, Monitor’s crew enjoyed oysters and other good food in Hampton Roads. Ordinary Seaman Jacob Nicklis wrote home, “I am getting fat and look tough & hardy.”  The entire crew longed for action as they all wished to gain greater laurels for their ship. Acting Assistant Paymaster William Keeler knew that the Confederate ironclad, CSS Richmond, would never come down the James River. He, as others, continued to speculate where the Monitor might be sent to operate against a major Southern port. In actuality, the US Navy was considering two options: one against the blockade runners’ haven, Wilmington, North Carolina, or to recapture Fort Sumter in the hated home of secession, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.
On December 23, 1862, all hands were mustered, and an order from the War Department was read by Monitor’s captain, Commander John Pyne Bankhead, forbidding any army or navy personnel from communicating any news about military operations. The dictum sent a clear message to the crew that they would soon be headed south. Many thought it would be Charleston.
Christmas Day was celebrated in Hampton Roads in a most merry fashion. Visiting French and British warships traded salutes with Fort Monroe. The HMS Ariadne and USS Colorado commenced target practice with their heavy guns . Soon, according to William Keeler, the “powder smoke hung like a thick fog over the water & was so dense that at one time it was impossible to see a few yards distant.” There were celebrations everywhere along the shoreline.
The shipboard meals were fabulous. The officers supplemented their Christmas dinner with specialties sent from home, including raisins, oranges, pies, cakes, and nuts, which enhanced the variety of fish, fowl, and meats that were served. But First Class Fireman George Geer and others did not enjoy the day. Geer noted that he had paid one dollar for the cook to create a splendid meal; unfortunately, he thought it was poorly cooked.
Jacob Nicklis thought otherwise and described the meal: “We had chicken stew & then stuffed Turkey mashed potatoes & soft bread after this we had a plum pudding & some nice fruitcake with apples for desert[sic].” . Despite these differing opinions about their Christmas meal, the enlisted men still had to work most of the day preparing the ironclad for an ocean voyage. Bankhead had received orders on that festive day to take Monitor out to sea.
The Monitor’s Christmas Day orders detailed the ironclad to Beaufort, North Carolina. There it was to join two of the new Passaic-class monitors, the Passaic and Montauk, for a joint Army-Navy expedition against Wilmington, North Carolina. Eventually two other monitors, the Weehawken and Patapsco, would join this squadron in January 1863.
Union Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had sought to strike at Wilmington since the summer of 1862. Located near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, the port city was excellent for blockade running. Just 670 miles from Bermuda, the Cape Fear had two entrances — New Inlet and Old Inlet — into the river from the Atlantic Ocean. This situation made it difficult for the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron to stem the flow of materials in and out of Wilmington.
Welles’s concept was to move the monitors into the Cape Fear River via the Old Inlet and to bombard Fort Fisher, guarding the New Inlet, and Fort Caswell, guarding the Old Inlet, into submission. While the monitors were to subdue the Cape Fear forts, Major General John Foster’s army at New Bern, North Carolina, would move south and besiege Wilmington. Once the monitors had passed the forts, the port city would be shelled until surrendered. The plan had many merits; but unfortunately, the monitors had to steam from Hampton Roads down the coast to Beaufort to implement it.
News of the impending voyage south was not well received by the officers or enlisted men, particularly crew members who had experienced the ironclad’s harrowing trip from New York to Hampton Roads in March.
Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene warned, “I do not consider this steamer a seagoing vessel. She has not the steam power to go against a headwind or sea, and…would not steer even in smooth weather, and going slow she does not mind her helm readily.  Rumors of Monitor’s last sea voyage were heard by many of the new crew members, prompting Jacob Nicklis to write his father, “They say we have a pretty rough time around Hatteras, but I hope that it will not be the case.” 
Despite the fears associated with the trip, Bankhead prepared his ship for sea. The ship’s new surgeon, Dr. Grenville Weeks, noted that the “turret and sight holes were caulked and every possible entrance for water made secure, only the smallest hole being left in the turret top.”
George Geer worked on securing the hatches “with Red lead putty, and the Port Holes I made one inch thick and in fact had everything about the ship in a way of opening tight.”  Bankhead thoroughly followed the Navy Department’s instructions to guard the vessel against leaks. Unfortunately, once again, like when Monitor went south from New York to Hampton Roads and nearly sank, the Navy ignored the fact that John Ericsson had designed the turret to fit snugly onto a brass ring set into the deck. This design feature was rejected as not being watertight, and instead, Monitor’s turret was jacked out of its ring and oakum was packed around its base. Geer recalled that the men working on this task “did not put any Pitch over it and the sea soon washed the oakum out.”
The powerful 236-foot-long sidewheeler USS Rhode Island, captained by Commander Stephen Decatur Trenchard, had recently arrived in Hampton Roads following a refit in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard. It was detailed to tow USS Monitor to Beaufort. Trenchard’s ship had run aground entering the Chesapeake Bay on December 19, but was declared undamaged. Both the Rhode Island and Monitor were to be accompanied on their voyage south by USS State of Georgia towing the Passaic.
The expedition was delayed by a heavy storm that struck Hampton Roads on December 27 and 28. William Keeler thought the storm was a good omen and commented that Monitor “shall hold on here till the storm is over & take advantage of the calm that follows for our trip down the coast.” The day of December 29 began clear and pleasant with every prospect of good weather continuing for the trip to Beaufort. Accordingly, Trenchard began to prepare Rhode Island for the voyage. At 2:30 p.m., the sidewheeler took up two towlines attaching Rhode Island to Monitor and steamed past the Virginia Capes south to North Carolina.
The first evening at sea was pleasant. Keeler noted that “a smooth sea & clear skies seemed to promise a successful termination of our trip & an opportunity of once more trying our metal against the rebel works & making the ‘Little MONITOR’ once again a household name.”
The next morning, clouds were seen off to the south and west. Commander Bankhead later reported: “We began to experience a swell from the southward with a slight increase of wind from the southwest, the sea breaking over the pilothouse forward and striking the base of the tower, but not with sufficient force to break over it. Found that the packing of oakum under and around the base of the tower had loosened somewhat from the working of the tower as the vessel pitched and rolled. Speed at this time was about five knots, ascertaining from the engineer of the watch that the bilge pumps kept her perfectly free, occasionally sucking. Felt no apprehension at this time.
George Geer remembered the waves washing the oakum out beneath the turret, where the water “came down on the Berth Deck in Torents [sic]. But, our pumps were sufficient.”  Shortly thereafter, Monitor made a signal to Rhode Island to stop. Bankhead wanted to make adjustments to the tow line; this was safely accomplished, and the two ships proceeded on course.
The winds increased as Monitor steamed southward. By midday, the sea began to break over the ironclad and wash up against the turret in a fearful rush. By 1:00 p.m., Rhode Island and Monitor passed Cape Hatteras Lighthouse and began to work their way around the Cape itself. The winds continued to increase as the two vessels made little headway against the storm. Many thought that as soon as Monitor passed the Cape, the storm would pass. Instead, the storm increased. Winds reached gale force, and the sea had grown very rough. Bilge pumps were started to remove the small amounts of water coming into the ironclad.
Despite the storm, the officers sat down to dinner, as Keeler remembered, ”everyone cheerful and happy & though the sea was rolling and foaming over our heads the laugh & jest passed freely ‘round; all rejoicing that at last our monotonous, inactive life had ended & the ‘gallant little MONITOR’ would soon add fresh laurels to her name.” 
Meanwhile, Bankhead, using chalk messages written on a blackboard, informed Rhode Island that if Monitor needed help during the evening, a red lantern would be displayed next to the ironclad’s white running light. Bankhead recorded: “Toward evening the swell somewhat decreased, the bilge pumps being found simply sufficient to keep her clear of water that penetrated through the sight holes of the pilothouse, hawse hole, and the base of the tower (all of which had been well caulked previous to leaving.)” 
As darkness came, Rhode Island and Monitor were separated from Passaic and State of Georgia, andthe storm increased in its ferocity. Waves dashed across the deck and broke with tremendous force. Bankhead recalled that he “found the vessel towed badly, yawning very much, and with the increased motion making somewhat more water around the base of the tower. He ordered engineers to put on the Worthington pump and bilge injection and get the centrifugal pump ready and report to me immediately if he perceived any increase of water.” 
While the Worthington steam pumps temporarily stemmed the flow of water, Monitor was suddenly struck by a series of fierce squalls. The ironclad was now in “very heavy weather, riding one huge wave, plunging through the next, as if shooting straight to the bottom of the ocean.”
Landsman Francis Butts continued his description of the effects of the heavy gale on the ironclad, stating that the ship would drop into a wave “with such force that her hull would tremble, and with a shock that would sometimes take us off our feet. 
When the Worthington pumps failed to stem the rising water, the call came from the engine room, “the water is gaining on us, sir.” This report “sounded ominously” to William Keeler; however, Bankhead ordered the large Andrews centrifugal steam pump into action. This pump was capable of removing 3,000 gallons a minute. Unfortunately, this pump also proved inadequate to stop the flow of water, which had by 9:00 p.m., had risen over a foot deep in the engine room.
As the storm increased in its fury, Bankhead put the crew to work on the hand pumps and organized a bucket brigade. The bailing served little purpose other than to lessen the panic among the crew. “But our brave little craft struggled long and well,” wrote William Keeler. “Now her bow would rise on a huge billow and before she could sink into the intervening hollow, the succeeding wave would strike her under her heavy armor with a report like thunder and violence that threatened to tear apart her thin sheet iron bottom and the heavy armor which it supported.”
Unfortunately, the water was rising rapidly. When it reached above the engine room floor, Keeler noted that it “was the death knell of MONITOR. Bankhead later wrote: “The sea about this time commenced to rise very rapidly causing the vessel to plunge heavily completely submerging the pilothouse and washing over and into the turret and at times into the blower pipes. Observed that when she rose to the swell, the flat under surface of the projecting armor would come down with great force, causing considerable shock to the vessel and turret, thereby loosening still more packing around its base.”
Leaks appeared everywhere. The Monitor was going “head on” into the storm, and the constant pounding of the waves forced the upper deck to begin separating from the lower hull.
Acting Master Louis Napoleon Stodder believed that the situation was exacerbated by “the RHODE ISLAND, being a powerful steam ship, towed us faster than our engines could keep up with, and the sea beating under our 15-foot overhang at the bow ripped us apart.”  Every time the ironclad crashed down into the sea, more water was forced into every hole, gap, crevice, and crack.
The situation had become desperate aboard the ironclad. Nothing seemed to arrest the influx of water. By 10:00 p.m., furnace fires were extinguished by the ever-rising seawater, rendering Monitor helpless. Second Assistant Engineer John Watters reported that when the boilers lost steam, “the main engines stopped, the Worthington and centrifugal pumps still working slowly, but finally stopped.” The foundering ironclad appeared isolated in a sea of hissing, seething foam. Bankhead ordered the red lantern displayed and thus tried to signal Rhode Island for assistance. Signal flares were launched, yet the big sidewheeler did not notice Monitor’s dilemma. “Send your boats immediately, we are sinking,” Bankhead shouted at the paddler.
“Words cannot depict the agony of those moments as our little company gathered at the top of the turret, stood with a mass of sinking iron beneath them, gazing through the dim light, over the raging waters and an anxiety amounting almost to agony for some evidence from the only source to which we could look for relief,”  Keeler painfully remembered. Even though Monitor had been fitted with two new ship’s boats while being overhauled at the Washington Navy Yard, those “lifeboats” had been stored aboard Rhode Island for the voyage south. The crew was helpless to save themselves without assistance from Rhode Island. When all seemed lost, “the clouds now began to separate, a moon of about half-size beamed out upon the sea,” Frank Butts remembered, “and the RHODE ISLAND, now a half mile away, became visible. Signals were exchanged, and I felt that the MONITOR would be saved.”
When Bankhead realized that Rhode Island was finally responding to his pleas for assistance, he immediately recognized that the towline to the Rhode Island could be the end for both vessels. He feared that when the ships hove together, Monitor could surge forward and pierce the sidewheeler’s hull with its iron bow. Accordingly, Bankhead ordered several men forward to cut the cables connecting the two vessels.
Quarter Gunner James Fenwick attempted it but was swept overboard. Then Boatswain’s Mate John Stocking took an ax and frantically chopped at the cable until he, too, was washed into the sea. Finally, Acting Master Louis Stodder rushed forward to cut the 13 inch-thick line. “It was not an easy job,” Stodder recalled, “and while I was hacking at it a big sea came over the bow.”. Somehow, Stodder held on and finished the job. Once the line was parted, Bankhead ordered the anchor dropped in order to stop the ironclad’s pitching. While this action was somewhat successful, dropping the anchor also loosened the watertight packing around the anchor well, allowing still more sea water to flow into the wallowing ironclad.
As the Rhode Island backed towards Monitor, one of the towlines tangled the port paddlewheel. This caused the sidewheeler to temporarily lose control and it almost collided with the sinking ironclad. The Rhode Island’s crew worked furiously to stabilize the steamer and then launched lifeboats to retrieve Monitor’s crew.
The ironclad’s crewmen anxiously waited for the boats from Rhode Island to arrive. Keeler was placed in charge of a bailing party to try to staunch the flow of water. Frank Butts was in the turret to pass bails up and down to the hatch of the turret. Butts claimed that he became so annoyed by the wailing of a cat that he placed the feline into a barrel of one of the XI-inch Dahlgrens and stuffed a wad in after it. Unfortunately, this did not stop the cat’s mournful howling.
Finally, the Rhode Island’s rescue boats were seen nearing the ironclad with the sidewheeler following close behind them. The rough seas forced the steamer towards the Monitor and nearly crushed the lifeboats between the two ships. The Rhode Island managed to pull away and stood off the Monitor, a quarter mile away.
In the meantime, Bankhead readied the crew to abandon Monitor. The ironclad’s captain and several other officers went through the ship to make sure all were ready to enter the lifeboats. According to Frank Butts, Third Assistant Engineer Samuel Augee Lewis was so seasick that he was unable to get out of his bunk. Lewis had been aboard the ironclad only 60 days, and this was his first sea voyage; it is no wonder he had become so ill.
William Keeler went to his stateroom to recover his books and papers and found “the water nearly to my waist & swashing from side to side with a roll of the ship.” Keeler groped his way through the “thick darkness rendering more dense if possible by the steam, heat & gas which was finding its way from the half-extinguished fires of the engine room”. The paymaster quickly realized that he could not retrieve his files without endangering his own life. Therefore, Keeler started to make his perilous way back to the turret top.
“Everything was enveloped in a thick murky darkness, the waves dashing violently across the deck over my head; through the wardroom where the chairs & tables were surging violently from side to side, threatening severe bruises if not broken limbs; then up a ladder to the berth deck; across that & up another ladder into the turret around the guns & over the gun tackle, shot, sponges & rammers we’ve been broken loose from their fastenings & up the last ladder to the top of the turret.”
George Geer had finally abandoned his pump when it stopped working and waded through the knee-deep water towards the turret. He realized that everyone was ready to leave the ship as there was no one left to pass a bail on to.
It seemed like an eternity to the Monitor’s crew as they waited for Rhode Island’s boats to come alongside the Ironclad. “It was a scene well calculated to appall the boldest heart,” Keeler wrote, adding, “Mountains of water were rushing across our decks & foaming against our sides; the small boats were pitching & tossing about on them or crashed against our sides mere playthings on the billows; the howling of a tempest the row & dash of waters; the hoarse orders through the speaking-trumpet of the officers; the response of the men the shouts of encouragement & the words of caution the bubbling cry some strong swimmer in his agony & the whole scene lit up by the ghastly glare of the blue lights burning on our consort, formed a panorama of horror which time will never efface from my memory.”
Many crew members weakened as they waited. George Fredrickson returned a watch he borrowed from Peter Williams, stating, “Here this is yours; I may be lost.”  A statement made in simple fear proved to be uncannily prophetic.
Bankhead finally ordered Keeler to lead the first party to the boats. This meant the men had to descend a ladder down the side of the turret and then move across the wind- and wave-swept deck to the waiting rescue craft. Keeler was hit by a strong wave and tossed into the sea as he crossed the deck. Somehow, the waves threw him back against the sinking ironclad, which enabled him to grab a line from one of the deck stanchions. He held on and successfully made his way safely into a boat.
Once the two craft were filled, they rowed toward Rhode Island. Keeler later noted: “dangers were not over yet. We were in a leaky, overloaded boat, through whose crushed sides the water was rushing in streams & had nearly a half mile to row over the storm tossed sea before we could reach the RHODE ISLAND.” When the boats finally reached the pitching ship, the men had to climb or be pulled up by ropes onto the steamer’s deck. Keeler, who had hurt his hand, was hauled up by a loop of rope. As Keeler reached the deck, he and the others received the “congratulations & hospitalities of her officers, & I assure you they were not deficient in either.” 
When the unloading was accomplished, the boats made ready for a return to the Monitor. One vessel was crushed by the Rhode Island, and only a single remaining craft, commanded by Acting Master’s Mate G. Rodney Browne, made its way back to the ironclad.
Bankhead stood on the deck and held the painter of the craft close to the Monitor as others struggled towards the Rhode Island’s rescue boat. Butts watched from the turret as men before him made their way across the deck and into the boat. Many misjudged the rise and fall of the waves as they jumped towards a lifeboat and fell, lost into the sea. Butts then crossed the deck to help Bankhead, leaving behind him men too terrified to take their chances. These men appeared resigned, hoping they might survive with the ironclad if it were to last out the storm.
Seaman Peter Truscott was the last to leave the turret. His friend ahead of him was washed overboard as he jumped towards the lifeboat and then disappeared beneath the waves, exclaiming, “Oh God!” George Geer dashed across the deck and watched his shipmate Daniel Moore, being forced into the sea and then disappearing. Geer was washed across the deck, but he waited for another wave and this time reached the boat and was saved. Bankhead and Butts were then carried into the ocean by a wave; however, each of them were pulled into the boat by Lt. Samuel Dana Greene. Greene himself had been saved in a similar fashion by Dr. Weeks, who had thrown the executive officer a line, saving his life.
As Browne ordered his loaded craft back to Rhode Island, Bankhead pleaded with those who remained to come with him, but they refused. Browne promised to return for them. “As we pulled away,” Peter Truscott remembered, “I saw the darkness some black forms clinging to the top of the turret.”
When they reached the steamer, the rescue boat was thrown against the towering steamer by a wave. Dr. Grenville Weeks instinctively used his right arm in an attempt to keep the lifeboat from crashing into the larger ship. His arm was caught between the ship and the lifeboat and was dislocated and three of his fingers were crushed by the collision. He never regained use of his arm, a dreadful injury for a practicing surgeon. However, he remained stoic about his destiny. An arm, Weeks would later write, was a small price to pay for a life.”
The rescued men were taken aboard the Rhode Island and given blankets, coffee, food and other necessary comforts. Joseph Watters remembered that he “was about played out,” by the experience and that he “was taken by the Chief Engineer of the RHODE ISLAND who gave me a dry set of clothes, he also gave me his room and treated me very kindly indeed.” 
Weeks immediately received medical attention. The steamer’s surgeon quickly amputated three of the doctor’s fingers and reset his arm. Weeks then rejoined his shipmates on the sidewheeler’s deck to watch Monitor’s light shine above the raging sea. “It was half past twelve, the night of 31st of December, 1862,” remembered Frank Butts, “when I stood on the forecastle of the RHODE ISLAND, watching the red and white lights that hung from the pennant staff above the turret, and which now and then were seen as we would perhaps both rise on the sea together until at last, just as the moon had passed below the horizon, they were lost, and the MONITOR…was seen no more.” 
The nation was shocked by the loss of the USS Monitor. Of the 63 men aboard the ironclad when it sank on December 31, sadly 16 were lost. It was miraculous that 47 were saved in such dangerous conditions. Aboard the Rhode Island, the ironclad’s survivors were thankful that they had survived the storm. They acknowledged the sidewheeler’s crew, particularly Commander Stephen Decatur Trenchard and Acting Master’s Mate Rodney Browne, for their fearless determination to rescue everyone they could.
Once back in Hampton Roads, the ‘Monitor Boys’ sent messages home to assure loved ones that they had not gone down with the ironclad. “I am sorry that I have to write you that we had lost the MONITOR,” George Geer reflected to his wife, “but do not worry, I am safe and well.” William Keeler wrote his wife several times about the events off Cape Hatteras, noting in one that the “telegraph has properly informed you before this of the loss of the MONITOR & also of my safety. My escape was a very narrow one…I have been through a night of horrors that would have appalled the stoutest heart.” 
Of course it fell on the shoulders of Bankhead and other officers to write the relatives of those who had perished with USS Monitor. Despite his injury, Dr. Grenville Weeks wrote to the sister of Jacob Nicklis stating, “I am too unwell to dictate more than a short sad answer to your note. Your brother went down with other brave souls, and only a good providence prevented my accompanying him. You have my warm sympathies, and the assurance that your brother did his duty well, and has gone to a brighter world, where storms do not come.” 
1 Letters of Jacob Nicklis, The Mariners’ Museum and Park, Newport News, Virginia.
2 Robert W. Daly Jr., Aboard the USS Monitor, 1862: The Letters of Acting Assistant William Frederick Keeler, US Navy, to His Wife, Anna, Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 139-40.
3 Letters of Jacob Nicklis.
4 New York Historical Society, Samuel Dana Greene Papers.
5 Letters of Jacob Nicklis.
6 Grenville M. Weeks, “The Last Cruise of the Monitor,” Atlantic Monthly, 11 (March 1863), 367.
7 William Marvel, ed., The Monitor Chronicles, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000, 235.
8 Daly, Aboard the USS Monitor, 251.
10 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion (Hereinafter cited as ORN), Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901, Series I, Volume 8: 349.
11 Marvel, The Monitor Chronicles, 235.
12 Daly, Aboard the USS Monitor, 254.
13 ORN, 8:350.
15 Francis B. Butts, “The Loss of the Monitor,” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol.2, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, New York: The Century Co., 1887, 745.
17 Daly, Aboard the USS Monitor, 254.
18 Ibid., 255.
19 ORN, 8:350.
20 Louis N. Stodder, “Aboard the Monitor,” Civil War Times Illustrated, 1, 1963, 31.
21 ORN, 8:350.
22 Daly, Aboard the USS Monitor, 257.325
23 Butts, 746.
24 Stodder, 31.
25 Daly, Aboard the USS Monitor, 257.
26 Ibid., 257-58.
27 Ibid., 248.
28 David Robert Ellis, The Monitor of the Civil War, Anneville, PA: 1900, 35.
29 Butts, 747.
30 Samuel Lewis, “Life on the Monitor: A Seaman’s Story of the Fight with the Merrimac; Lively Experiences Inside the Famous ‘Cheesebox on a Raft, ’” in Campfire Sketches and Battlefield Echoes of ‘61-’65, edited by William C. King and William P. Derby, Springfield, MA: 1883, 261.
31 Weeks, “The Last Cruise of the Monitor,” 368.
32 Edward A. Woolen, ed. Woollen/Woolen Family Biographical and Historical Records and Genealogy of Edmund/Edward Woolen of Dorchester County, Maryland, and Richard Woolen of Maryland. Decorah, IA: Anundsen Publishing Company, 1984.
33 Butts, 747.
34 Marvel, The Monitor Chronicles, 231.
35 Daly, Aboard the USS Monitor, 252.
36 Letters of Jacob Nicklis.
Butts, Francis B. “The Loss of the Monitor, ” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 2, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel. New York: Century Co., 1887.
Daly, Robert W., ed. Aboard the USS Monitor, 1862: The Letters of Acting Assistant Paymaster William Frederick Keeler, US Navy, to His Wife, Anna. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1964.
Ellis, David Robert. The Monitor of the Civil War. Anneville, PA: 1900.
Greene, Samuel Dana. Greene Papers, New York Historical Society.
Lewis, Samuel. “Life on the Monitor: A Seaman’s Story of the Fight with the Merrimac: Lively Experiences Inside the Famous ‘Cheesebox on a Raft.’” In Campfire Sketches and Battlefield Echoes of ‘61-’65. William C. King and William P. Derby, eds. Springfield, MA: 1883.
Marvel, William, ed. The Monitor Chronicles. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Nicklis, Jacob. The Papers of Jacob Nicklis. The Mariners’ Museum and Park, Newport News, VA.
Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion, Series 1, Volume 8, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1901.
Stodder, Lewis N. “Aboard the Monitor.” Civil War Times Illustrated, January 1963.
Weeks, Grenville M. “The Last Cruise of the Monitor,” Atlantic Monthly 11 (March 1863).
I’d like to take a minute to encourage you to view a great item that has just been posted on our Library website. It is a full-text, PDF version of a spec book from 1862! This item is usually restricted from public view due to its fragility, but, since we like you so much, we’ve made it accessible here!
The 74-page book, handwritten by Warren E. Hill, includes the specifications of the ironclads of the Passaic class. As a draftsman and engineer, he documents the specifications in a lengthy narrative, so I won’t go into too much detail there.
For those who are interested in some of the nitty-gritty, the book mentions the specifications for vessels like the Passaic, Montauk, Kaatskill, Patapsco, and Weehawken, as it is noted in the last two lines of the image below: