On the morning of December 29, 1862, the Monitor was prepared for sea. She was to be transferred to another blockade and would be traveling south down the Atlantic seaboard. The turret was “keyed up” and a plaited tarred hemp gasket was placed between the turret and the brass deck ring in the recess. The gun ports had their huge iron pendulums secured in position. Wood bucklers were bolted to the outside of the turret covering the open gunports and then caulked tight. The turret was revolved so the gun ports were abeam, and then it was set down on the gasket. Everything loose inside of the turret was secured or stowed below for rough seas. The two massive 11-inch Dahlgren shell guns were slid to midships, their carriage compressors tightened, and all tackle drawn tight and secured. A temporary helm was rigged on top of the turret and tested.
On deck, the pilothouse view slits were caulked shut. There was no doubt that the ocean was going to roll across her low deck and right up the angled sides of the pilothouse. The deck lights over the officers quarters and the Wardroom had their iron covers secured in place. Every opening on deck would be inspected and secured before the ship head out to sea.
December 30, 1862, the Monitor was under tow of the 236 foot, sidewheel steamer USS Rhode Island. They were part of a four ship flotilla along with the USS State of Georgia and the new ironclad USS Passiac. As the ships skirted the Atlantic coastline, a severe storm had caught the ships by surprise and the seas began to pound the Monitor.
As the storm increased in strength, mountainous waves crashed over the Monitor’s decks, and the pilot house was almost continuously under water. They were crossing the waves at right angles. She would rise up on a huge wave and then slide down a watery mountain into a valley of water and plunge her bow under the water. Despite the pumps working at full capacity, the water below continued to rise. For fear of losing the Rhode Island, the tow lines to the Monitor were cut loose. The engine power, which was only about 20% at this point, was diverted to operate the pumps, and the Monitor was allowed to drift. However, when the water reached the furnaces, the ship’s fate was certain. The Captain ordered a red lantern hoisted on the turret as a sign of distress and his crew to abandon ship.
As the level of water increased in the engine room, the stern sank farther and farther into the Atlantic. She continued to rise and fall on the mountainous waves appearing, disappearing and then reappearing. The rescued crew that had made it over to the Rhode Island watched as the ship’s red lantern would be visible, then gone and then almost magically it would appear again. They wondered if the next time she might not come back up.
Once the stern slipped completely under, the water rushed into the ship through the air vents and smoke stack causing her to sink even faster. As she went down, the Monitor rolled toward her port side, and as with most turreted warships as they sink, she continued to roll over and her turret broke free.
The turret landed upside down in about 235 feet of sea water and the stern of the ship hit very near the turret. As she slowly settled to the bottom, she fell upside down and across the turret, trapping the turret under the port side armor belt. This left the whole ship resting up on the starboard armor belt to the bow with the port side angled up and with very little support, just a corner of the turret.
This is where she sat, undisturbed for the next 111 years. She was discovered on August 27, 1973 by the Alcoa Seaprobe Expedition. On October 11, 1974, the Monitor was put on the National Register of Historic Places, and on January 30, 1975, the Monitor became the first National Marine Sanctuary.
Four officers and twelve crewmen were lost when the Monitor sank, many of them washed overboard while attempting to reach the boats sent by the Rhode Island to rescue them.
Graphics by Curt Bowen of Advanced Diver Magazine.