March 9, 1862. 7:00 AM
As my fellow crew members and I saw sat wearily eating our breakfasts of hardtack and coffee, the events of the last few hours raced through my mind. The day before had been fraught with tension thanks to the menace of the rebel ironclad Merrimac. No one had ever seen anything quite like her before. Armored like a turtle with metal impervious to our shelling and belching black smoke through her large smokestack, she reminded me most of the coal trains back in Pennsylvania. But the ship known to the rebels as the Virginia was instead a deadly machine of war. Our ship, the USS Minnesota, managed to avoid the Merrimac's wrath by heading for shallower waters, but we accidently grounded ourselves near the banks of the James River in the process. Fortunately, darkness fell before she could attack and she and her companions returned to port in rebel-controlled Norfolk, Virginia. We spent most of the night with the aid of some tugboats trying to unmoor our Minnesota, but to no avail.
At some point during the early morning, we had been told another ironclad, one of ours, had arrived to help us fend off the Merrimac, but it was only so comforting when your ship was still firmly stuck on a shoal in the river.
I was brought back from my reverie by my friend Jenkins, who had been sitting immediately to my left. He rose, brushed the crumbs off his lap, and indicated to me, "Want to go above deck?" It would be somewhat of a respite from the ever-present heat inside the ship, so I followed him.
It was indeed cooler above deck, but the humidity of the Virginia lowlands failed to make the conditions any more bearable. The fog that had been so dense earlier this morning had begun to dissipate and Jenkins and I looked out over the water to see the ironclad known as the USS Monitor for the first time. The first thing I noticed upon seeing the vessel was its size, or more specifically, its lack thereof. It just looked like a little black drum sitting atop a shingle. I didn't even notice any guns at first.
Jenkins laughed out loud, "That is supposed to be our savior? We're done for!" I didn't exactly feel safe with that
thing standing guard either, but there wasn't much choice. The situation seemed so hopeless that we both laughed for a moment. I took my eyes from the Monitor and looked behind me. In the distance lay the shoreline of Newport News, Virginia. It looked nothing like the familiar hills of Pennsylvania. "Sure is flat, ain't it?" asked Jenkins, as if he had read my mind. I nodded silently. I remembered that Jenkins originally hailed from eastern Kentucky, which was hilly as well. He was the only Unionist in his family, not to mention his entire town, so he was probably homesick for a place that did not miss him in return. What was he doing here, on some stranded wooden boat such a fair piece from home, fighting for some vague ideal of country? What was I doing here, for that matter?
I looked up at our mast where the American flag flapped back and forth without any real energy, and thought again of yesterday. The rebels had forced our sister ship to lower her colors. Would there be a white flag on our mast by this time tomorrow? I shook my head to clear the thought and turned to Jenkins, who had been staring listlessly into space. "This is what we're fighting for, right?" I asked, pointing up toward Old Glory herself.
He rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. "Reckon so." We both stood for a moment in the suffocating silence, thinking about everything and nothing. Jenkins ultimately broke it, saying, "We should get back, I suppose."
Once we descended below deck, we were immediately conscripted in the task of throwing some of our guns overboard, in the highly probable event that we would need to evacuate the ship. Fortunately, the task was labor-intensive, so it took my mind off what we were actually doing. Before long, we received word that the Merrimac had been sighted, so we hastened to the remaining broadside cannons for another seemingly useless day of firing at the rebel ironclad. The ship in question moved closer to us and began to fire which we returned until we were all but deaf thanks to the thundering of the cannons. Shortly thereafter, our Monitor and their Merrimac moved closer to each other and soon become partially obscured thanks to the smoke from their cannons and smokestacks. Neither ship seemed to sustain any serious damage as they continued firing. Nearly an hour passed in this manner with the two ironclads locked in combat while we periodically fired from our stationary position in the James. We even hit our own ship, Monitor, once, but fortunately it seemed to cause no damage. Then, for reasons unknown, the Monitor backed off slightly and the Merrimac seized the opportunity to try to move closer to us.
"Say your prayers, boys," I heard someone say softly. I personally don't like thinking that way, so I busied myself with the cannon once more.
"Looks like we're out of shell," observed Jenkins, "I'd better get some more right quick." He hurried off. His return was signaled by a "goddamn!" as the tripped over a discarded length of hawser used to attach a tugboat to the Minnesota the night before. He miraculously caught himself and his cargo in time and I held out my arm to steady him.
"You alright?" I asked over the deafening boom of cannon fire that had started once more. He nodded but looked daggers at the hawser. This discarded piece was only about eight feet in length, so I volunteered to put it away and avoid another incident like the one that just transpired. I picked up the hawser and made my way to put it with the other rope. No sooner had I wrenched open the door to the boatswain's room than I felt myself thrown against the doorframe to my right-hand side. I remember a blast of light and heat, then nothing more.
It was with great difficulty that I pulled my eyes open and found myself in the sick bay. I squeezed my eyes shut at the presence of the light and blinked a few times.
"Ah, you're awake, I see," the surgeon observed from across the room, striding over to check on me. I shifted to look at him and winced. My body ached all over, and I felt bruised and sore on my right-hand side in particular. "Good thing you hadn't taken another step into the boatswain's room," the surgeon said, lifting the sheet to examine me. "You'll be alright before too long," he said, clearly with no intention of finishing his previous thought. "I did have to pull quite a few nasty splinters out of you, though."
"What time is it?" I asked, shifting to try to make myself more comfortable.
"Quarter 'til noon, I reckon," he replied, replacing the sheet. So it hadn't been too long, but at least we were still here.
"What's going on now?" I asked.
"I don't know. Do I look like the captain?" he snapped irritably. I drew back. Upon seeing the look on my face, he softened. "More of the same since you came in. The shell that injured you was by far the worst damage inflicted on our ship. That shell actually started a fire, but it's out now. The two other ships are still fighting, from what I understand."
At least we had held out for the time being. I lay numbly for what seemed like a long time, driving thoughts of surrender to the Merrimac from my mind. I thought of Jenkins and his piercing blue eyes. He was my best friend here on the Minnesota; how I would hate for anything to happen to him! Gingerly, I pushed myself into an upright position and scooted so I could use the wall behind me as a backrest.
There was a soft but urgent knock, and the face of one of my crew mates appeared through a crack in the door. He noticed the surgeon and hurried over to where he sat and whispered something into the surgeon's ear. The surgeon's brow puckered with concern and they both looked at me.
"What? What's the matter?" I asked, growing more concerned by the moment.
They both paused until the surgeon finally asked, "How well do you think you could walk under your own power if you needed to?"
Alarmed, I lifted the sheet and swung my legs over and sat on the edge of the bed. "I-I'm not sure," I admitted. One by one I tested each of my limbs for functionality.
"Easy now," the surgeon cautioned. Turning to my mate, he said "Thank you. I will call if I need help." After my mate had left the sick bay, the surgeon turned his attention back to me. "Try not to fret so much. There's no evacuation at this time. However, it is a very real possibility, so we need to see if you can walk or if you will have to be carried."
As the surgeon had said, I wasn't too badly injured, just really sore and bruised was all. The surgeon brought over some water and I helped myself to a drink, and splashed the remains on my face in an attempt to wake myself up fully. After a moment of mental preparation, I placed my feet on the floor and pushed myself off the bed. Gripping the surgeon's arm for support, I took a few tentative steps, and was relieved to find that I was ambulatory. Although walking was slightly painful, I made my way across the sick bay to my shoes. I dropped into a chair and allowed the surgeon to help me put them on. I was closer to the door and noticed that the cannons had stopped firing. I looked at the surgeon desperately.
"Wait here. I will find out the current situation." He pulled open the door of the sick bay as a great cheer rang out. Moments later, we saw hordes of jubilant faces as our crew members danced past us on their way above deck. I stood and grabbed my shirt off the back of a nearby chair, anxious to join them and ask what had transpired.
With the surgeon's help, I followed the crowd and emerged above deck in what had turned out to be intensely beautiful day, with nary a cloud in the sky. The deck swarmed with grimy and cheerful men. Jenkins saw me and cried out. Soon there was a small crowd gathered around me.
"What happened?" I tried to ask, but my question was drowned out by my fellow crew members, who were talking all at once.
"How are ya, chum?"
"We licked her good!"
"That was a close call you had there! Gave us all a fright!"
Finally, Jenkins waved his arms to silence the group. I repeated my question before anyone else had the chance to speak.
"The Monitor chased that blasted rebel ship clear back to Norfolk!" someone cried jubilantly.
"Look, see?" asked Jenkins excitedly, pointing across the river. Sure enough, the Merrimac had receded to a mere spot of black smoke on the horizon, and the Monitor was inching her way back toward our ship.
My legs all but collapsed with relief. We were going to be okay. We would not die here today, mired in this God-forsaken flat rebel country. I quietly pulled myself away from the animated and jovial group and gingerly craned my neck to look up at the mast once more. The American flag waved proudly in the presence of a stronger wind. We had not surrendered. Here flew the flag of our country, as proud as ever through all our struggles.