NORFOLK — Journalist Paul Clancy is offering new details and insight into the final storm-lashed voyage of the USS Monitor — the Union ironclad that nine months earlier engaged in a historic battle with the Confederate ship CSS Virginia.
The Monitor departed the Virginia coast for Beaufort, N.C., on a nearly calm, 58-degree day in December 1862, which lulled officers into expecting an easy trip, said Mr. Clancy in his new book, “Ironclad: The Epic Battle, Calamitous Loss and Historic Recovery of the USS Monitor.”
Based upon accounts of salvaging the revolving gun turret 140 years later, Mr. Clancy also questions the captain’s claim that the only men left were those who refused to come down from the ship’s high point, the gun turret.
Mr. Clancy, who covered the salvage expedition for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, found information in ship’s logs, crewmen’s letters and contemporary accounts.
He also asked Larry Atkinson, an Old Dominion University specialist in coastal oceanography, for help.
The Monitor’s great battle with the Virginia ended in a draw on March 9, 1862, and altered naval warfare by making wooden warships obsolete.
The Monitor was a river patrol ship not built for the open ocean, so it had to be towed by the side-wheel steamer USS Rhode Island. Though the weather when the ships left Dec. 29 was balmy, a slight wind had began to blow from the southwest the next morning.
“Felt no apprehension at the time,” skipper John Bankhead, reported.
Mr. Clancy said his reaction to the entry was: “They didn’t know what was coming.”
A letter from Monitor survivor William Keeler described the morning: “Cloud banks were seen rising in the South & West & they gradually increased till the sun was obscured by their cold gray mantle.”
The words “gray mantle” were the key because they pointed to a low-pressure system moving over the Carolinas and packing near gale-force winds, which is typical weather around Cape Hatteras, N.C., Mr. Atkinson said.
Mr. Clancy says Bankhead blundered by plowing forward through the gathering storm instead of returning or seeking shelter. Bankhead also decided to cut the towlines between the Monitor and the Rhode Island, which caused the ship’s paddle wheel to get caught in the cut lines and the two ships drifted miles apart, making rescue difficult.
The Monitor went down off Cape Hatteras on Dec. 31. Sixteen men died.