Monitor and Merrimack faced off as Washington Worries

March 9, 1862

The Lincoln Administration’s entire day is consumed by anxiety over the expected confrontation between the Confederate armored Merrimac and the newly arrived Union armed Monitor at Hampton Roads, Virginia. It would come to be called the “Battle of Hampton Roads.”  If the Merrimac was not defeated, the Lincoln Administration worried that it might attack Washington.  Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles wrote: “When intelligence reached Washington on Sunday morning, the 9th of March, that the Merrimac had come down from Norfolk and attacked and destroyed the Cumberland and Congress, I called at once on the President, who had sent for me.  Several members of the Cabinet soon gathered.  Stanton was already there, and there was general excitement and alarm.  Although my Department and the branch of the Government entrusted to me were most interested and most responsible, the President ever after gave me the credit of being, on that occasion, the most calm and self-possessed of any  member of the Government.  The President himself was so excited that he could not deliberate or be satisfied with the opinions of non-professional men, but ordered his carriage and drove to the navy yard to see and consult with Admiral Dahlgren and other naval officers, who might be there.  Dahlgren, always attentive and much of a courtier, had, to a great extent, the President’s regard and confidence; but in this instance Dahlgren, who knew not of the preparation or what had been the purposes of the Department, could give the President no advice or opinion, but referred him to me.  The inability of Dahlgren to advise seemed to increase the panic. General Meigs, who was of much the same temperament with Dahlgren, was also sent for by the President, Stanton, or Seward. The latter had great confidence in Meigs on all occasions, and deferred to him more than to his superior, in all matters of a military character.”

As presidential aide John G. Nicolay reported: “Today has been eventful.  Hardly had Mr. Blair been gone when Mr Watson, Asst Sec. War, brought in a despatch from Gen. Wool saying the Merrimack was out – had sunk the Cumberland, compelled the Congress to surrender, and that the Minnesota was aground and about being attacked by the Merrimac, Yorktown and Jamestown.  Two other dispatches soon came along from the Captain of a vessel arrived at Baltimore which had left Ft. Monroe at 8 P.M. yesterday, and another from the N. Y. Tribune, giving more details.  The Sec. of War came in very much excited, and walked up and down the room like a caged lion.  The Sec. Navy, of State, Gen. McClellan –  Watson — Meigs – Totten –  Com. Smith, and one or two more were sent for.  The Presidents carriage being just ready, he drove to the Navy Yard and brought up Capt Dahlgren.  For a little while there was a great flutter and excitement –  the President being the coolest man of the party.   There were al sorts of suggestions – all sorts of expressions of fear .  One thought she would go to New York and levy tribute – another to Phila – a third to Baltimore, or Annapolis where a large flotilla of transports had been gathered – another that she would come up and burn Washington.  Several concluded it was part of a plan and the beginning toward moving down the Army at Manassas to invest and take Fort Monroe.  After much rambling discussion, it was determined and ordered that the restrictions upon the telegraph be suspended and that all news concerning the affair should be permitted to go.  Messages were sent to Balt. Phila. N.Y. and all the seaboard cities apprising them of the fats and urging what preparations could be hurriedly made. Messages were sent to the Governors of N.Y. Mass. &Y Maine, that naval men here thought timber rafts the best temporary defence and obstruction against her.  Gen. McC. went to his Head Quarters to give orders to have the transport flotillas at Annapolis moved as far as possible out of danger, up into shoal water, also to prepare a number of vessels to be sent down to the ‘Kettle bottoms’ to be sunk as obstructions in the channel in case of necessity.

Great anxiety was felt to hear further news, when at about 4 P.M. it was announced that a cable had been laid across the bay giving us a telegraphic connection with Ft. Monroe.  Soon news came that the Merimack did not get out to sea.  Then a dispatch was received from Capt. Fox who went to Old Point yesterday, informing us that the ‘Monitor’ our new iron-clad gunboat had arrived at the Fort at about 10 o’clock last night – had gone up immediately to where the Minnesota was still aground to defend her – that at 7 A.M today the Merrimack, and two other steamers and several tugs had come out to attack the Minn.  That the Monitor met and engaged them – the wooden boats withdrew at once.  The Merrimack and monitor fought from 8 A M until 12 M. the Merimack withdrew, it was thought disabled.
Much other important news had come in today.  From Gen. Hooker we learn that the Potomac batteries are reported about to be abandoned.  Later dispatches from him confirm this.  They have spiked their guns, burned their camps and tents blow up their magazines, and burned the little steamer ‘Page’ which had been blockaded in Aquia Creek all the fall and winter.  Reporters also come in brought by contrabands that the rebels are retreating from Manassas.  Gen. McC. went over the river this afternoon to satisfy himself as to their truth.
Tonight he telegraphs that we have Fairfax Court House, and Sangster’s station – that he has ordered movements to cut off as far as possible the retreat of the rebels.  It seems now certain from the occupation of Leesburg, the abandonment of Potomac batteries – we have dispatch that the flotilla has actually raised our flag over Cockpit point, and McClellan’s dispatches of tonight, that Manassas is being abandoned.

Writing of the secretary of War, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles complained:  “Mr. Stanton, impulsive, and always a sensationalist, was terribly excited, walked the room in great agitation, and gave brusque utterances, and deprecatory answers to all that was said, and censured everything that had been done or was omitted to be done.  Mr. Seward, usually buoyant and self-reliant, overwhelmed with the intelligence, listened in responsive sympathy to Stanton, and was greatly depressed, as, indeed were all the members, who, in the meantime, had arrived, with the exception of Mr. Blair, as well as one or two others — naval and military officers — among them, Commander Dahlgren and Colonel Meigs.

‘The ‘Merimac,’ said Stanton, who was vehement, and did most of the talking, ‘will change the whole character of the war; she will destroy, seriatim, every naval vessel; she will lay all the cities on the seaboard under contribution.  I shall immediately recall Burnside; Port Royal must be abandoned.  I will notify the Governors and municipal authorities in the North to take instant measures to protect their harbors.’  It is difficult to repeat his language, which was broken and denunciatory, or to characterize his manner, or the panic under which he labored, and which added to the apprehension of others.  He had no doubt, he said, that the monster was at this moment on her way to Washington, and, looking out of the window, which commanded a view of the Potomac for many miles, ‘not unlikely we shall have a shell or cannon-ball from one of her guns in the White House before we leave this room.’  Most of Stanton’s complaints were directed to me, and to me the others turned — not complainingly, but naturally for information or suggestion that might give relief.  I had little to impart, except my faith in the untried ‘Monitor’ experiment, which we had prepared for the emergency; an assurance that the ‘Merrimac,’ with her draught, and loaded with iron, could not pass Kettle Bottom Shoals, in the Potomac, and ascend the river and surprise us with a cannon-ball; and advised that, instead of adding to the general panic, it would better become us to calmly consider the situation, and inspire confidence by acting, so far as we could, intelligently, and with discretion and judgment.  Mr. Chase approved the suggestion, but thought it might be well to telegraph Governor Morgan and Mayor Opdyke, at New York, that they might be on their guard.  Stanton said he should warn the authorities in all chief cities.  I questioned the propriety of sending abroad panic missives, or adding to the alarm that would naturally be felt, and said it was doubtful whether the vessel, so cut down and loaded with armor, would venture outside of the Capes; certainly, she could not, with her draught of water, get into the sounds of North Carolina to disturb Burnside and our forces there; nor was she omnipresent, to make general destruction at New York, Boston, Port Royal, etc., at the same time; that there would be general alarm created; and repeated that my dependence was on the ‘Monitor,’ and my confidence in her great.  ‘What,’ asked Stanton, ‘is the size and strength of this ‘Monitor?’  How many guns does she carry?’  What I replied two, but of large calibre, he turned away with a look of mingled amazement, contempt, and distress, that was painfully ludicrous.  Mr. Seward said that my remark concerning the draught of water which the “Merrimac’ drew, and the assurance that it was impossible for her to get at our forces under Burnside, afforded him the first moment of relief and real comfort he had received.  It was his sensitive nature to be easily depressed, but yet to promptly rally and catch at hope.  Turning to Stanton, he said we had, perhaps, given away too much to our apprehensions.  He saw no alternative but to wait and hear what our new batter might accomplish.
“Stanton left abruptly after Seward’s remark.  The President ordered his carriage, and went to the Navy Yard to see what might be the views of the naval officers.

Illinois Senator Orville Browning, a frequent visitor to the White House, wrote in his diary: “At 10 O’clock A.M. the President sent his carriage down for Mrs Browning, Emma and myself — We went up.  I went directly to the Presidents and found the Secretary of War, with a telegram in his hand from Fortress Monroe giving information the Rebel Iron Clad steamer had come down from Norfolk, and sunk the Cumberland, and captured the Congress — Mr Seward and Genl. McClelland soon came in.   They all seemed a good deal excited, but Mr Seward said nothing.  They were apprehensions that the Merrimac might come here and destroy the Town, but none of the persons present knew her draft of water.  It was also apprehended that she might get out t sea and destroy all our transports now on their way to Annapolis with supplies, and also Annapolis with all our accumulations of store &c.”

The President and myself got in his carriage and drove to the Navy yard to see Capt Dahlgren — took him in the carriage and carried him to the White House with us.
He said there was nothing to prevent the Merimac [sic] from coming here as she drew only 21 feet water, and any vessel drawing not more than 22 feet could come here.  He also said she could go to New York, lie off the City, and levy contributions at will.
“When we got back to the White House I left the President and Capt Dahlgren, who went to the Presidents office where there were several members of the Cabinet, and various Genl’s and Commodores — I went to Dr Gurley’s Church   After my return from Church Secretary Stanton met me in the Hall opening into the Presidents Office — we walked to the end of the Hall, and talked for sometime. He told me that he had telegraphed to New York to have an iron Clad boat, with a powerful Engine, immediately constructed, at whatever cost, to run down and sink the Merimac.  That he also had sent a steamer down the Potomac to give notice of the approach of the Merimac if she should attempt to come up, and had 30 canal boats loading with stone to be sunk in the Channel of the River about 40 miles below the City, in the event of the Merimac attempting to ascend the River.
He spoke in terms which clearly indicated his want of confidence in McClelland — said Genl Cass had written to try one after another of the Genls till he found one equal to the emergency, and that he wished to do so Try one, and if we wouldn’t do try another &*c At 5 PM Mrs. Browning, Emma and myself returned to our lodgings.

Welles wrote: “On the evening of that memorable Sunday, I received from Dahlgren, who was in command of the Navy yard, a message, stating that he, and all the force he could command, were employed in loading and preparing the boats which had been sent to the yard.  He supposed by my order and with my approval, although he had received no word from me.  I replied that I had purchased no boats, given no orders, and that if I, rightly apprehended the object and intention of the work in which he was engaged, I did not approve it.  When I called on the President the next  morning, Stanton was already there, stating some grievance, and, as I entered, he turned to me and inquired my reason for countermanding his orders.  He proceeded to state that he had directed the purchase of all the boats that could be procured in Washington, Georgetown and Alexandria, which were being laden with stone and earth, under the direction of Colonel Meigs and Dahlgren, with a view of sinking them at Kettle Bottom Shoals, some fifty miles or more below, in order to prevent the ascension of the ‘Merrimac.’  That while the officers whom he had detailed, he supposed with my approval, were actively engaged, they had been suddenly stopped by an order from me to Dalhgren.  He was still complaining when Dahlgren, and I believe Meigs also, came in, and I then learned that great preparations had been made to procure a fleet of boats, which were to be sunk at Kettle Bottom, to protect Washington.  I objected, and said I would rather expend money to remove obstacles than to impede navigation; that the navy had labored through the fall and winter to keep open this avenue to the ocean; that the army had not driven the rebels from the Virginia shore, nor assisted us in this work, though they had been greatly benefited by our efforts of the transportation of their supplies, forage.; that to our shame there was but a single railroad track to the Capital, though we had here an army of more than one hundred thousand to feed, and that I should not consent to take any of the naval appropriation to cut off water communication, unless so ordered by the President; but should protest against obstructing the channel of the river.  Our conversation was very earnest, and the President attentively listened, but with an evident inclination to guard in every way against the ‘Merrimac,’ but yet unwilling to interrupt ocean communication, so essential to Washington.  Giving the interview a pleasant turn, he said that it was evident that Mars no only wanted exclusive control of military operations (Stanton had manifested much dissatisfaction with McClellan as General-in-Chief,) but that he wanted a navy, and had begun to improve one.  Having already got his fleet, the President thought he might as well be permitted to finish his work but he must not destroy communication on the Potomac, or cripple Neptune.  The boats purchased might be loaded and sent down the river, but not sunk in the channel until it was known that the Merrimac’ had entered the river, or was on its way hither.  Whatever expense was incurred must be defrayed by the War Department.  With this understanding, Dahlgren was authorized to supervise and assist Stanton’s squadron.”

Gideon Welles reported: “Most of the Cabinet met again that sad Sunday at the White House, but not by appointment.  A little time and reflection had brought a more calm and resolute feeling.  Stanton, whose alarm had not subsided, said he had telegraphed to the North to take care of themselves; asked what I proposed to do to check the ‘Merrimac,’ and prevent her from reaching Washington.  I replied, nothing more till I knew more.  I told him she could not get over Kettle Bottom Shoals and come to Washington; thought we ought not to be frightened; not to make a general panic, but act deliberately, and with a knowledge of what was best.”  Welles wrote admiringly of his own contribution to the crisis: “In all that painful time my composure was not disturbed, so that I did not perhaps as fully realize and comprehend the whole   impending calamity as others, and yet to me there was throughout the whole day something inexpressibly ludicrous in the wild, frantic talk, action, and rage of Stanton as he ran from room to room, sat down and jumped up after writing a few words, swung his arms, scolded, and raved.  He could not fail to see and feel my opinion of him and his bluster,–that I was calm and unmoved by this rant, spoke deliberately, and was not excited by his violence.

The President, though as uncomfortable as any of us, and having his alarm increased by the fear and scary apprehensions of Stanton, manifested much sympathy and consideration for me.  My composure and the suggestions and views I presented were evidently a relief to him, but Stanton’s wailings and woeful predictions disturbed him.  Both he and Stanton went repeatedly to the window and looked down the Potomac – the view being uninterrupted for miles – to see if the Merrimac was not coming to Washington.  It was asked what we could do if she were now in sight.  I told the President she could not, if in the river, with her heavy armor, across the Kettle Bottom Shoals.  This was a relief.  Dahlgren was consulted.  He thought it doubtful if she could reach Washington, if she entered the river.

Published in: on March 9, 2012 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

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