26 Aug 2019


Lost Capitol Hill: The USS Monitor

I have previously mentioned in passing the great Civil War ironclad USS Monitor and its (sometimes quite tenuous connections) to the Washington Navy Yard. What I never got around to writing about was the Monitor’s appearance in person at the Navy Yard.

After the Monitor’s famous battle against the CSS Virginia (and less famous Battle of Drewry’s Bluff) the ship spent most of the summer of 1862 on the James River, supporting actions by troops – but mainly waiting around for something to happen. What happened was that in September of that year it was determined that a complete overhaul of the vessel was necessary. And so, on September 30, the ship sailed for Washington.

On October 3, the Alexandria Gazette reported that “The U.S. iron clad steamer Monitor, or some other iron clad steamer, passed up to Washington this morning.” This was confirmed in the 3 PM edition of the Evening Star: “As the fact as been stated in a Baltimore paper that the “Monitor” gunboat left Hampton Roads for this place on Monday last, there can be no harm in saying that she has arrived at the Navy Yard wharf, where she is an object of no little interest just now.”

The latter phrase was an extreme understatement, as following reports would show. Similarly, the paper rather understated the extent of the need for repairs of the ironclad: “The object of her coming up is that a few slight repairs may be made.”

Men on the deck of the USS Monitor. Detail of stereograph taken July 9, 1862 on the James River. Damage from shells hitting the ship can be seen on right side of turret. (LOC)

The following day, the Star had another short item on the ironclad, ending with

In order to prevent disappointment, we would state that no visitors are allowed in the yard – the guard passing none through the gate but those having passes or business with the officers. Quite a number who went to see the iron-clad this morning were turned back at the gate.

People were apparently unpersuaded by this and on Saturday, October 6, the public was allowed on board. Paymaster William F. Keeler [pictured] of the ship described the scene in a letter to his wife later that day: “The docks were lined with carriages – & it was in fact a perfect jam – no caravan or circus ever collected such a crowd…”

Thereafter, a guard was posted and the Daily National Republican and Alexandria Gazette printed short articles reminding the public of the lack of access, though the latter added that “upon the completion of the work upon the vessel she will be thrown open to public inspection.” In general, there was great interest in the vessel, with the Star going as far as reporting where its captain was staying during the repairs.

While originally the newspapers had downplayed the repairs, even the brief articles in the news indicated that more than simple cosmetic repairs were happening. While the Gazette had written that “it will probably not be necessary to haul her out of the water” they wrote two days later that they had to “put that vessel upon the marine railway.” After that, the newspapers of the time seemed to lose interest. It was only after it was relaunched on October 26 that they began writing about it again. The following day, there was a tragic occurrence: Richard Carter, a watchman at the Navy Yard, stumbled over one of the ropes used by the Monitor, fell into the river and drowned. He was buried in Congressional Cemetery.

Next week: Visiting the Monitor

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