USS Monitor Officers (USN Photo)
By Bill Edwards-Bodmer
The events during the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 8 and 9, 1862 are well-known. From an objective viewpoint, the battle was tactically a draw. Neither ship was disabled to the point of being unable to continue the fight. A misinterpretation of each other’s movements caused both ships to withdraw. Beginning in the 1870s, however, the Monitor’s officers and crew wouldn’t remember events in quite this way. The sailors fashioned their own memory of the battle in an attempt to collect prize money. This clever use of memory fit into larger patterns of events occurring in American society and politics at the time.
The crux of the Monitor crew’s claim centered on whether or not the Virginia was disabled in battle to the point of not being serviceable as an effective fighting warship. In his original 1874 petition to Congress submitted on behalf of his former officers and crewmen, John Worden stated categorically that the Monitor “succeeded in defeating his adversary and driving her back to Norfolk, in a condition so absolutely crippled and disabled that she was not afterwards fit for active or efficient service.” In light of the Monitor’s service to the nation, Worden argued, the crew of the ironclad should be awarded prize money equal to the value of CSS Virginia, which equated to approximately $200,000 at the time.
There would have been nothing unusual about Worden’s efforts to secure prize money for his crew—such claims were common in the nineteenth century U.S. Navy during times of war—except for the fact that the Virginia was neither permanently disabled nor destroyed as a direct result of the fight with the Monitor. If fact, statements from the immediate aftermath of the battle illustrates that the Virginia was not thought to have been put out of commission, and was, indeed, still viewed as a serious threat after her clash with the Monitor.
The day after the battle, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox, who was at Fort Monroe and witnessed the battle, wrote to Alban Stimers, chief engineer aboard Monitor, urging him to keep the ship for another encounter with the Virginia, as it was Fox’s “impression that the Merrimac is not much injured.” In a statement that sheds light on the Monitor’s generally ineffective fire, Fox urged Stimers to “fire a little lower next time.”
USS Monitor vs. CSS Virginia, 9 March 1862 Painting by Rear Admiral John W. Schmidt, USN(Retired), 1967-68, located at the Marine Midland National Bank, Troy, New York. Courtesy of the Marine Midland National Bank. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.
Two days after the Battle of Hampton Roads, Monitor
paymaster William Keeler wrote to his wife, “Our steam is kept up day & night & a most vigilant watch is maintained that our old foe do not attack us unawares.”
Throughout the spring of 1862, the Virginia continued to loom as a serious threat to the Union war effort. Monitor crewman George Geer wrote in late March that “people down here have a dreadful fear of the Merrimack…” This is after the Virginia was supposed to have been rendered disabled and in sinking condition by the Monitor during the battle. When the Confederate ironclad steamed out of Norfolk towards Federal forces near Fort Monroe later in April, Keeler described Virginia as a “huge gladiator just entering the vast watery arena of the amphitheater.” To Keeler, the Confederate ship was a “formidable looking thing.” This is certainly not the description of warship that had been disabled and whipped. By the end of April, then, it was clear that the Virginia was not destroyed and had not been permanently disabled by the Monitor. Just a few weeks later, though, the Virginia was finally destroyed: not by Union forces, but by the ship’s own crew.
In the years after the Civil War ended, the outcome of the Battle of Hampton Roads seemed to be mostly settled and confined to history. However, Worden’s petition to Congress in 1874 ignited a debate over who “won” the famous duel of the ironclads. After some debate, Worden’s 1874 petition was not acted upon. The matter was taken up again in 1882 by the House Committee on Naval Affairs. On January 9, 1882, John Robert Thomas, Republican representative from Illinois and former captain in the Union army, submitted a report that urged the passing of a bill to award prize money to the Monitor crew. Thomas’ report relied on four key pieces of evidence to support the awarding of prize money to the Monitor crew: 1) Worden’s original petition from 1874; 2) a list of twenty-one previous cases where a ship’s crew was awarded prize money; 3) former Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles’ 1862 annual report; and 4) testimony from James Byers, a tug boat captain who claimed to have witnessed the battle and to have seen the Virginia up-close afterwards.
The examples of previous cases where prize money was awarded would have been a solid precedent for the crew’s claims, except for the fact that in each of the cases listed the U.S. vessel either captured or destroyed the enemy vessel. The Monitor did neither. Instead, Thomas argued that the damage inflicted on the Virginia during the battle prevented her from coming out to do battle again and directly caused Confederate forces to destroy the Virginia two months later.
The most damning piece of evidence Thomas seemed to rely on was the testimony of tug boat captain James Byers. In his sworn statement, Byers claimed to have witnessed the battle from his boat in Hampton Roads. At the end of the conflict, Byers stated that the Virginia “came back into the river badly disabled, and almost in a sinking condition.” Byers then made the incredible claim that on the next day he was allowed on board the Virginia and claimed the Confederate ship was badly crippled and in no condition for further fighting. If this were true, why did Fox tell Stimers to aim “a little lower” next time. One also has to ask why a Confederate naval officer in a time of war would let a northern civilian stuck behind enemy lines board his ship to make a “personal examination?”
Thomas’ report goes on to exaggerate the power of the Virginia and repeats fears that the rebel ship would lift the blockade and attack cities along the east coast: “Our whole fleet of wooden ships, and probably our whole sea-coast, would have been at the mercy of a terrible assailant.” Only the Monitor prevented this dooms-day scenario from unfolding to a terrible conclusion. At the end of his report, Thomas stated defiantly that “the Merrimac was undoubtedly destroyed as a result of her encounter with the Monitor.”
Although the 1882 bill stalled, the matter was taken up again in 1884. Eugene Hale, Republican representative from Maine, reintroduced Thomas’ report from 1882 to the House Committee on Naval Affairs. This time, Committee Chairman John Ballentine, a Democratic representative from Tennessee, submitted a counter-report that disputed the claims made by Thomas and Hale. Ballentine, who also happened to be a former Confederate colonel, provided as evidence portions of Virginia commander Franklin Buchanan’s report of the battle, as well as war-time dispatches and statements from Union officials.
John Goff Ballentine (1825-1915)
One of the most intriguing pieces of evidence Ballentine provided is the battle report from G.J. Van Brunt, who commanded the Minnesota at the time. Van Brunt stated that “For some time…the rebels concentrated their whole battery upon the tower and pilothouse of the Monitor, and soon after the latter stood down for Fortress Monroe.” According to Ballentine, in an interesting turn of events, it was not the Virginia but rather the Monitor who fled the battlefield. With the addition of Ballentine’s report, the collision of opposing memories of a single event is apparent. Ballentine’s report, which was that of the Democratic majority, also signaled the end of the debate: the Monitor crew’s request for prize money was not approved.
By the time of the prize-money episode, military service pension issues were becoming a major force in American politics. Those congressmen who favored awarding prize money were Republicans, while those who opposed it were Democrats. The most vocal proponent of prize money was a Union veteran, while the most prominent opponent was a Confederate veteran. This pattern aligns itself with the overall political pattern of Republicans supporting more liberal pension programs and Democrats opposing any expansion of benefits. The mid-1880s also saw Democrats gaining ground in almost every level of government. It is in this political environment, one that was unfavorable to pensions or other forms of government support, that the debate over prize money must be seen.
The Monitor crew made their claims before Congress during a time of frustration for all pension applicants. The prize-money episode must be seen in the context of this environment, in which many veterans were applying for pension support and being rejected. Since early pension claims were approved or denied based on disability as a direct result of war-time service, most the officers and crew of the Union ironclad experienced difficulty gaining approval. The Monitor crew, for the most part, was largely protected in battle and was not directly exposed to the forces that caused pension-eligible disability, that is, enemy fire. Did the Monitor crew, in this period before universal service pensions, attempt to collect prize money because most of them were not eligible for pension support? The circumstances surrounding their claims make such a scenario plausible.
The efforts of the Monitor crew to collect prize money also illustrate how many Union veterans were conscious of how the war was portrayed and were anxious to promote an absolute and nationalist view of the conflict. The account of the Battle of Hampton Roads described in the reports favoring prize money left no room for doubt as to the differences between Federal and Confederate forces and who was right and who was wrong. If the battle was described as a draw, with no clear-cut winner, how could the Monitor have saved the Union and be awarded prize money? The crew’s shaping of memory fit into a nationalistic view of the war and served a practical purpose as evidence of actions deserving of prize money.
By the late nineteenth century, memory of the Civil War had penetrated and infused American society and politics. The Monitor crew’s claims for prize money illustrate how Civil War memory could be employed in an attempt to secure concrete material gains. By the time of the Monitor claims, however, the war for most Americans was becoming heavily romanticized. In the eyes of many Union veterans and their Republican supporters, the Monitor saved the nation at the Battle of Hampton Roads. At the same time, however, the Virginia had to be destroyed to fit into this nationalistic and patriotic narrative. This is precisely where we see history and memory collide; with the construction of such black and white narratives where good invariably triumphs over evil. As a shining force of good, the Monitor had to emerge from the smoke of battle with its foe vanquished and victory complete. Only then could the Union ironclad, in the minds of its crew and congressional backers, establish itself on the right side of history.
Bill currently works as IT Trainer at Slover Library in Norfolk, VA. Before coming to Slover, Bill worked at Old Dominion University and The Mariners’ Museum Library. He has also taught United States history at ODU and Tidewater Community College. Bill received his Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts degrees, both in History, from Old Dominion University.