Skip to main content

"I Fired The First Gun And Thus Commenced The Great Battle”

July 2024
13min read

When the Monitor and the Merrimac fought the world’s first engagement between ironclads at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 9, 1862, the executive officer of Monitor was the very junior Lieutenant S. Dana Greene, 22 years old and only three years out of Annapolis. When Monitor’s commander, Captain John L. Worden, was wounded during the engagement, Lieutenant Greene succeeded to the command; and a few days later he wrote to his family giving a detailed account of the battle.

That letter, with Lieutenant Greene’s slightly erratic punctuation and spelling preserved, is now the property of Warren C. Shearman of Los Angeles, by whose permission it is published here. The letter was written when battle fatigue and excitement were still felt; here is what the fight looked like to one of its principals, jolted down while Merrimac was still afloat and when another engagement was expected.

U. S. Steamer Monitor

Hampton Roads

March 14/62

I commence this now but I don’t know when I shall finish as I have to write at odd moments when I can find a few minutes rest. When I bid Charley good bye on Wednesday the 5th I confidently expected to see you the next day as I then thought it would be impossible to finish our repairs on Thursday but the mechanics worked all night and at 11 A.M. on Thursday, we started down the harbour in company with the Gun-boats Sachem and Currituck. We went along very nicely and when we arrived at Governors Island the Steamer Seth Low came alongside and took us in tow.

We went out, passed the Narrows with a light wind from the West, and very smooth water. The weather continued the same all Thursday night. I turned out at six o’clock on Friday morning and from that time until Monday at 7 P.M. I think I lived ten good years. About noon the wind freshened and the sea was quite rough. In the afternoon it was breaking over our decks at a great rate, and coming in our hawse pipe forward in perfect floods. Our berth deck hatch leaked in spite of all we could do, & the water came down under the tower [the tower: i.e., the revolving turret which was Monitor’s legacy to the navies of the world] like a waterfall. It would strike the Pilot House, & go over the Tower in beautiful curves. The water came through the narrow eye holes in the Pilot House, with such force as to knock the helmsman completely round from his wheel.

At 4 P.M. the water had gone down our smoke stacks and blowers to such an extent that the blowers gave out, and the Engine room was filled with gas. Then, Mother, occurred a scene I shall never forget. Our Engineers behaved like heroes, every one of them. They fought with the gas, endeavouring to get the blowers to work until they dropped down apparently dead as men ever were. I jumped into the Engine room with my men as soon as I could, and carried them on top of the Tower to get fresh air.

I was nearly suffocated with the gas myself, but got on deck after every one was out of the Engine Room just in time to save myself. Three firemen were in the same condition as the Engineers. Then times looked rather blue, I can assure you—we had no fear as long as the Engines could be kept going, to pump out the water, but when that stopped the water increased rapidly. I immediately rigged the hand pump on the berth deck, but as we were obliged to lead the hose out over the Tower, there was not force enough in the pump to throw the water out, our only resource now was to bail, and that was useless as we had to pass the buckets up through the Tower which made it a very long operation.

What to do now we did not know. We had done all in our power, and must let things take their own course. Fortunately the wind was off shore so we hailed the Tug Boat and told them to steer direct for the shore, in order to get in smooth water. After 5 hours of hard steering, we got near the land and in smooth water. At 8 P.M. we managed to get the Engines to go, & everything comparatively quiet again. The Captain had been up nearly all the previous night, and as we did not like to leave the deck without one of us being I here, I told him I would keep the watch from 8 to 12, he taking it from 12 to 4, and I would relieve him from 4 to 8; well the first watch passed off very nicely.

Smooth sea, clear sky, the moon out, and the old tank going along five or six knots very nicely. All I had to do was to keep awake & think over the narrow escape we had in the afternoon. At 12 o’clock things looked so favorable that I told the Captain he need not turn out. I would lay down with my clothes on, and if anything happened I would turn out, & attend to it. He said “very well” & I went to my room, & I hoped to get a little nap.

I had hardly got to my bunk, before I was startled by the most infernal noise I ever heard in my life. The Merrimac’s firing on Sunday last was music to it. We were just passing a shoal, and the sea suddenly became very rough, and right ahead. It came up with tremendous force through our anchor well, and forced the air through our hawse pipe, where the chain comes, and then the water would come through in a perfect stream, clear to our berth deck, over the ward room table. The noise resembled the death groans of 20 men & certainly was the most dismal awful sound I ever heard.

Of course the Captain & myself were on our feet in a moment and endeavouring to stop the hawse pipe. We succeeded partially, but now the water commenced to come down the blowers again, and we feared the same accident that happened in the afternoon. We tried to hail the Tug Boat, but the wind being directly ahead, they could not hear us, and we had no way of signalling them, as the steam whistle which father recommended had not been put on. We then commenced to think the Monitor would never see daylight.

We watched carefully every drop of water that went down the blowers, and sent continually to ask the fireman how the blowers were going. His only answer was “slowly”—but could not be going much longer unless we could stop the water from coming down—The sea was washing completely over our decks, and it was dangerous for a man to go on them, so we could do nothing to the blowers.

In the midst of all this our wheel ropes jumped off the steering wheel (owing to the pitching of the ship) & became jammed. She now commenced to sheer about at an awful rate, and we thought our hawser must certainly part. Fortunately it was a new one and held on well. In the course of half an hour we fixed the wheel ropes, and now the blowers were the only difficulty. About 3 o’clock on Saturday morning the sea became a little smoother though still rough and going down our blowers to some extent. The never failing answer from the Engine room: “Blowers going slowly but can’t go much longer.”

From 4 A.M. until daylight, was certainly the longest hour and a half I ever spent. I certainly thought old Sol had stopped in China and never intended to pay us another visit. At last however we could see and made the Tug Boat understand to go nearer in shore and get in smooth water, which we did about 8 A.M. Things again were a little quiet but everything wet and uncomfortable below. The decks and air ports leaked, & the water still came down the hatches and under the tower.

I was busy all day making out my station bills, and attending to different things that constantly required my attention. A 3 P.M. we parted our hawser, but fortunately it was quite smooth, and we secured it without difficulty. At 4 P.M. we passed Cape Henry, and heard heavy firing in the direction of Fortress Monroe, as we approached, it increased, and we immediately cleared ship for action.

When about 1/3 way between Fortress Monroe and Cape Henry we spoke [to] a pilot boat and were told that the Cumberland was sunk, and the Congress was on fire, and had surrendered to the Merrimac. We did not credit it at first, but as we approached Hampden Roads, we could see the fine old Congress burning brightly, and we knew it must be so. Sadly indeed did we feel to think those a fine old vessels had gone to their last homes with so many of their brave crews. Our hearts were so very full and we vowed vengeance on the Merrimac , if it should ever be our lot to fall in with her.

At 9 P.M. we anchored near the Frigate Roanoke, the flag ship, Captn Marston (the Major’s Brother). [Greene refers to Captain John Marston of U.S.S. Roanoke , then the senior U.S. naval officer at Hampton Roads.] Captain Worden immediately went on board, and received orders to proceed to Newport News, and protect the Minnesota, which was aground from the Merrimac. At 11 P.M. I went on board in our cutter, and asked the Captain what his prospects were of getting off. He said he should try to get afloat at 2 A.M. when it was high water. I asked him if we could render him any assistance, to which he replied no. I then told him we should do all in our power to protect him from the attack of the Merrimac. He thanked me kindly and wished me success.

Just as I arrived back to the Monitor, the Congress blew up, and certainly a grander sight was never seen, but it went straight to the marrow of our bones. Not a word was said, but deep did each man think and wish he was by the side of the Merrimac. At 1 A.M. we anchored near the Minnesota. The Captn and myself remained on deck waiting for the Merrimac. At 3 A.M. we thought the Minnesota was afloat, and coming down to us, so we got under way as soon as possible, and stood out of the Channel. After backing and filling about for an hour we found we were mistaken, and anchored again.

At daylight we discovered the Merrimac at anchor, with several vessels under Sewells Point. We immediately made every preparation for battle. At 8 A.M. on Sunday the Merrimac got under weigh accompanied by several steamers and steered direct for the Minnesota when a mile distant she fired 2 guns at the Minnesota. By this time our anchor was up, the men at quarters, the guns loaded, and everything ready for action.

As the Merrimac came closer the Captn passed the word to commence firing. I triced up the port run the gun out & fired the first gun and thus commenced the great battle between the Monitor & Merrimac.

Now mark the condition our men were in. Since Friday morning 48 hours, they had had no rest, and very little food, as we could not conveniently cook. They had been hard at work all night, had nothing to eat for breakfast except hard bread, and were thoroughly worn out. As for myself I had not slept a wink for 51 hours, and had been on my feet almost constantly. But after the first gun was fired we forgot all fatigue, hard work, and everything else—& went to work fighting as hard as men ever fought.

We loaded and fired as fast as we could—I pointed and fired the guns myself. Every shot I would ask the Captain the effect, and the majority of them were encouraging. The Captn. was in the Pilot House directing the movements of the vessel. Acting Master Stodder [L. N. Stodder, who was next in rank to Lieutenant Greene on the Monitor] was stationed at the wheel which turns the tower, but as he could not manage it he was relieved by Stimers. [A. C. Stimers, Monitor’s chief engineer.] The speaking trumpet from the Tower to the pilot house was broken, so we passed the word from the Captn. to myself, on the berth deck by Pay Master Keeler, and Captns Clerk Toffey.

Five times during the engagement we touched each other, and I will vouch the 168 lbs penetrated her sides. [An error: Merrimac’s armor was cracked, but no shots came through.] Once she tried to run us down with her iron prow, but did no damage whatever.

After fighting 2 hours, we hauled off for half an hour to hoist our shot into the Tower. At it we went again as hard as we could. The shot, shell, grape, canister, musket, and rifle, balls flew about in every direction, but did us no damage. Our tower was struck several times, and though the noise was pretty loud, it did not affect us any. Stodder & one of the men were carelessly leaning against the Tower, when a shot struck the Tower exactly opposite to them, and disabled them for an hour or two.

At about 11:30 the Captn. sent for me. I went forward, & there stood as noble a man as lives at the foot of the ladder, of the Pilot House. His face was perfectly black with powder & iron & he was apparently perfectly blind. I asked him what was the matter. He said a shot had struck the Pilot House exactly opposite his eyes, and blinded him, and he thought the Pilot House was injured. He told me to take charge of the ship, and use my own discretion, I led him to his room, and laid him on the sofa, and then took his position.

On examining the Pilot house, I found the iron hatch on top had been knocked about ½ way off, & the second iron log ∗

∗ 9 x 12 inches wrought iron

from the top on the forward side was completely cracked through. We still continued firing, the tower being under the direction of Stimers. We were now between two fires, the Minnesota on one side, & the Merrimac on the other. The latter was retreating, to Sewells point, and the Minnesota had struck us twice on the Tower, I knew if another shot should strike our pilot house in the same place, our steering apparutus would be disabled, & we would be at the mercy of the batteries on Sewells point. The Merrimac was retreating towards the latter place. We had strict orders to act on the defensive, and protect the Minnesota.

We had evidently finished the Merrimac as far as the Minnesota was concerned, [That is, the wooden Minnesota had been saved from destruction.] our pilot house was damaged, & we had strict orders not to follow the Merrimac up. Therefore after the Merrimac had retreated, I went to the Minnesota, and remained by her until she was afloat.

Gen Wool and Secy Fox have both complimented me very highly for acting as I did, and said it was the strict military plan, to follow. [Greene refers to Major General John E. Wool, U.S. army commander at Fortress Monroe, and to Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus V. Fox.] This was the reason we did not sink the Merrimac, & every one here capable of judging says we acted right.

The fight was over now, & we were victorious. My men & myself were perfectly black with smoke, and powder. All my underclothes were perfectly black, and my person in the same condition. As we ran alongside the Minnesota, Secretary Fox hailed us, & told us we had fought the greatest naval battle on record, and behaved as gallant as men could. He saw the whole fight.

I felt proud and happy then Mother, and felt fully repaid for all I had suffered. When our noble Captn. heard the Merrimac had retreated he said he was happy & willing to die since he had saved the Minnesota. Ah! how I love & venerate that man.

Most fortunately for him his classmate and most intimate friend Lieut. Wise saw the fight and was alongside immediately after the engagement. He took him on board the Baltimore boat and carried him to Washington that night. The Minnesota was still aground and we stood by her until she floated about 4 P.M. She grounded again shortly and we anchored for the night.

I was now Captn. & first lieut and had not a soul to help me in the ship as Stodder was injured & Webber was useless. I had been up so long, had had so little rest, and been under such a state of excitement, that my nervous system was completely run down. Every bone in my body ached, my limbs & joints were so sore that I could not stand. My nerves and muscles twitched as though electric shocks were continually passing through them and my head ached as though it would burst. Sometimes I thought my brain would come right out over my brows.

I laid down and tried to sleep but I might as well have tried to fly. About 12 o’clock acting Lieut Flye came on board and reported to me for duty. He lives in Topsham, opposite Brunswick and recollects Father very well. He immediately assumed the duties of 1st lieut & I felt considerably relieved, but no sleep did I get that night owing to my excitement.

The next morning we got under weigh at 8 o’clock and stood through our fleet. Cheer after cheer went up from frigates and small craft for the glorious little Monitor & happy indeed did we all feel. I was Captn. then of the vessel that had saved Newport News, Hampden Roads, Fortress Monroe (as Gen Wool himself said) and perhaps four Northern Ports. I am unable to express the joy and happiness I felt to think I had served my country & flag so well at such an important time. I passed Farquhars vessel and answered his welcome salute.

About 10 A.M. Gen. Wool & Sec. Fox came on board and congratulated me upon our victory etc. etc. We have a standing invitation to dine with Gen. Wool, but no officer is allowed to leave the ship until we sink the Merrimac. At 8 o’clock that night Tom Selfridge came on board and took command and brought the following letter from Fox to me.

U. S. Steamer Roanoke

Old Point Comfort

March 10/62

My dear Mr. Greene

Under the extraordinary circumstances of the contest of yesterday & the responsibilities devolving upon me, and your extreme youth, I have suggested to Captn. Marston to send on board the Monitor, as temporary commanding, Lieut Selfridge until the arrival of Com Goldsborough, which will be in a few days. I appreciate your position and you must appreciate mine & serve with the same zeal & fidelity. With the kindest wishes for you all.

Most truly (sgd) G. V. Fox

Of course I was a little taken aback at first but on a second thought I saw it was as it should be. You must recollect the immense responsibility resting upon this vessel. We literally hold all the property ashore & afloat in these regions as the wooden vessels are useless against the Merrimac. At no time during the war either in the navy or Army has any one position been so important as this vessel.

You may think perhaps I am exaggerating because I am in the Monitor. But the President, Secy, Gen Wool, all think and have telegraphed to that effect, for us to be vigilant etc. The Captn. receives every day numbers of anonymous letters suggesting plans to him & I think some north of Mason’s & Dixon’s line have a little fear of the Merrimac. Under these circumstances it was perfectly right and proper in Mr. Fox to relieve me from the command for you must recollect I had never performed but midshipmans duty before this.

But between you and me I would have kept the command with all its responsibility and either the Merrimac or the Monitor should have gone down in our next engagement. But then you know all young people are vain, conceited & without judgment. Even the President telegraphed to Mr. Fox to do so & so. Mr. President I suppose thinking Mr. Fox rather young he being only about 40. Mr. Fox had already done however what the President telegraphed to him several hours before. Selfridge was only in command two days until Lieut Jeffers arrived from Roanoke Island. Mr. Jeffers is everything desirable, talented, educated, energetic & experienced in battle.

Well I believe I have about finished. Battsy my old roommate [Lieutenant Walter Batt, of the Confederate Navy, an officer aboard Merrimac during the battle] was on board the Merrimac. Little did we ever think at the Academy we should be firing 150 Ib Balls at each other. But so goes the world.

Our pilot house is nearly completed. We have now solid oak extending from 3 inches below the eye holes in the pilot house to 5 feet out on the deck. This makes an angle of 24 degrees from the horizontal. This is to be covered with 3 inches of iron. It looks exactly like a Pyramid. We will now be invulnerable at every point.

The deepest indentation on our sides [from the impact of Merrirnac’s shot] is 4 inches. Tower 2 inches and deck ½ inch. We were not at all damaged except the pilot house. No one was affected in the tower by the concussion either by our own guns or the shots of the enemy.

This is a pretty long letter for me for you will recollect my writing abilities. With much love to you all

I remain

Your affect son & brother

(sgd) Dana

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.