Lincoln Honors Monitor Commander on H Street

A memorial has been dedicated at the Hampton National Cemetery in Virginia on the 150th anniversary of the sinking of the U.S.S. Monitor, December 31, 1862.  It had been only eleven months since the tiny ironclad, derided as “a cheesebox on a raft,” had been launched at Brooklyn, NY.  After being quickly sea-tested, it was towed to Hampton Roads in time to confront and defeat the Confederate ironclad, C.S.S Virginia, in a contest that would revolutionize naval warfare.

Lincoln respected Gustavus V. Fox for his naval expertise and his personal bravery. Mrs. Fox kept a diary that related stories of many Lincoln visits to their home.

Lincoln respected Gustavus V. Fox for his naval expertise and his personal bravery. Mrs. Fox kept a diary that related stories of many Lincoln visits to their home.

President Lincoln had come to rely on Assistant Secretary of the Navy Gustavus Fox to keep the army offensive in the spring of 1862 well-supported. Fox was guiding the Navy’s transport of Burnside’s army to capture Roanoke Island off North Carolina, supplying McClellan’s movement to the Peninsula below Richmond, and the construction of the new iron warship, the Monitor. Lincoln called frequently at Fox’s new residence at 491 17th Street for progress reports. The President was there waiting for Gus on March 7 when Secretary of State William Seward stopped by. Seward was hoping to meet the famous British actress Fanny Kemble who was then living upstairs in the Foxes’ building. When Gus arrived, Lincoln asked him to go to Hampton Roads to select ships to help McClellan. 1,2

John L. Worden had already volunteered for other dangerous assignments before agreeing to command the untested Monitor.

John L. Worden had already volunteered for other dangerous assignments before agreeing to command the untested Monitor.

Fox took along his old friend Lt. Henry A. Wise, the assistant chief of Navy ordnance. The two arrived at Hampton Roads the night of March 8 to learn that the dreaded C.S.S. Virginia had finally come out and demonstrated its awesome power by sinking or damaging several of the greatest ships in Union fleet. Fox and Wise learned that the Monitor had also arrived that night, unexpectedly. They were able to witness the entire “Battle of the Ironclads” the following morning. The two naval observers also had a deeply personal interest in the outcome of the battle.  As teenagers, they had served as midshipmen together on their first vessel with the commander of the Monitor,      Lt. John L. Worden. 4

Rumors of the invincibility of the Virginia, built on the hull of the captured U.S.S. Merrimac, had alarmed the Lincoln administration.  Capt. John Dahlgren, commandant of the Navy Yard at Washington, recalled that he was sitting in his office that Sunday morning, March 9, 1862, when the President appeared at his door.  Mr. Lincoln brought the news of the previous day’s carnage wrought when the Virginia first emerged from the Gosport Yard on the Elizabeth River.  The Union’s most powerful wooden-hulled warships had been easily handled by the the Confederate ironclad.

Print of the Battle of the Ironclads produced from an eyewitness account.  The C.S.S Virginia was significantly larger than the Monitor.

Print of the Battle of the Ironclads produced from an eyewitness account. The C.S.S Virginia was significantly larger than the Monitor.

Lincoln had come to take Dahlgren to an emergency war council on the matter at the White House.  The captain described the scene that he found there:

“The Secretaries of State and War and Navy … and private secretary Nicolay were in his (the President’s) private room. McClellan was also present. There was a hasty and very promiscuous emission of opinions from everyone, without much regard to rank, and some inter-talking which rather confused. Meigs looked desponding and was silent. McClellan was concerned about the troops at Newport News. Seward was composed. I suggested… vessels be loaded and be got ready to block the Potomac.” 5

The next day (March 10), Dahlgren went to the Navy Department where Secretary Welles said that the crisis had passed and ordered him to stop preparations to block the Potomac. Gen. Meigs came in to insist that the work continue.  They all went to see the President, “and met (Lt. Henry A.) Wise at the front door, who had just arrived and brought up (Lt. John L.) Worden, said to have been the only one hurt on the Monitor. We ascended to the President’s Cabinet… where Wise gave a very spirited account of the battle.” He reported that one of the last shots fired by the retreating Virginia had struck the pilot house on the bow of the Monitor, temporarily blinding its commander, Lt. Worden. 6

When Wise concluded, Lincoln stood up and said, “Well, gentlemen, I am going to shake hands with that man.” He walked the two blocks to the Wise home at 225 H Street, three doors east of 18th, where Worden was laying in bed, his scorched eyes covered with bandages. As Lincoln was introduced to Worden, the lieutenant said, “you do me great honor, Mr. President, and I am only sorry that I can’t see you.” He seemed puzzled when Lincoln didn’t respond.  He could not see that the President had become overwhelmed with emotion and was choking back tears at the sight of the wounded hero. He soon composed himself and replied, “No, sir, you have done me and your country great honor. We owe to you, sir, the preservation of our navy.” 7,8

Sites near the White House that are mentioned here include (counterclockwise from the upper right) Navy Secretary Welles' home on Lafayette Square, Gustavus Fox home on 17th St. above H, The Henry Wise home on H St., near 18th, and the Navy Department on 17th St., next to the White House. The map is a detail of the Boschke 1859 map of the District of Columbia.

Sites near the White House that are mentioned here include (counterclockwise from the upper right) Navy Secretary Welles’ home on Lafayette Square, Gustavus Fox home on 17th St. above H, The Henry Wise home on H St., near 18th, and the Navy Department on 17th St., next to the White House. The map is a detail of the Boschke 1859 map of the District of Columbia.

President Lincoln visited the Monitor twice. Two months after the battle, on May 10, John Nicolay noted that Lincoln left Washington for the first time since his inauguration to travel to Hampton Roads to congratulate the officers and crew of the ironclad. The following month, he escorted Lt. John Worden back to be reunited with his ship and crew. 9,10 

The new monument at Hampton National Cemetery is dedicated to the memory of the brave sailors who lost their lives during the sinking of the U.S.S. Monitor. The ironclad warship heralded the transition from wood and sail to iron and steam. Lincoln’s secretary William O. Stoddard wrote that this was possibly “the costliest sea-fight ever fought, for it compels all the old nations to put away their old navies and build new ones.” 11  The unveiling and dedication of the monument took place on Dec. 29, 150 years from the day the Monitor left Hampton Roads in tow of the U.S.S. Rhode Island, bound for Beaufort, S.C. The ship encountered rough seas off the coast of Cape Hatteras and took on water so fast that her pumps could not keep pace. In the early hours of Dec. 31, 1862, the Monitor sank with 16 sailors aboard. 12

The Monitor Center in Newport News is restoring the salvaged ironclad. It has outstanding interpretive exhibits on the the “Battle of the Ironclads” and the beginnings of the iron ships era.   www.marinersmuseum.org/ussmonitorcenter

Wise home today is at the entrance to a pizza shop in a modern office building on H St.

Wise home today is at the entrance to a pizza shop in a modern office building on H St.

1.  Hoogenboom, Ari, Gustavus Fox of the Union Navy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 113

2.  Boyd’s Directory of the City of Washington and Georgetown, 1862

3.  Hoogenboom, 113

4.  Hoogenboom, 5

5.  Dahlgren,Madeline V. (ed), Memoir of Admiral John A. Dahlgren (Cambridge, Mass: University Press, 1882) 358

6.  Dahlgren, 360

7.  Boyd’s City Directory, 1862

8.  Burlingame, Michael, Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) 307

9.  Burlingame, 308

10. Burlingame, Michael (ed), With Lincoln in the White House: Writings of John G. Nicolay (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000) 77

11. Stoddard, William O., Inside the White House in War Times, Michael Burlingame (ed.), (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2000) 70

12. National Cemeteries Website

 

 

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About John O'Brien

My name is John and I brake for roadside historical markers. The Civil War has been a particular interest since my dad took me to the 100th Anniversary re-enactment at Gettysburg. Since then, I have toured battlefield sites throughout the eastern theatre. My three daughters can mark their growth by the fortifications and cannons they were posed against. Living in the Washington, D.C. metro area since 2005 has allowed me access to the amazing resources here for studying the Lincoln Administration and the National Capital during the Civil War. I started looking for a guide to President Lincoln's life in Washington, but nothing available seemed to capture enough of the story to satisfy me. So I created my own. You can buy the beautifully illustrated map on this website. I put a high personal value in trying to settle confusion in the professional literature as to where Lincoln did what. So I spent a lot of time going to source documents to verify my sites. This website will share more detail about the Lincoln sites and will continue to update the research. I want to help the reader experience Washington as Lincoln did, as if through his eyes. This is about exploring the public life of Abraham Lincoln and the civil war history of Washington, DC.
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