Sailing Aboard the Monitor: Reviews of Two Books about the USS Monitor

Reviewed by William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2002, 2007, All Rights Reserved

The March 9, 1862 clash of the ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) has always had a tenacious grip on the American imagination. It is easily the best-known naval engagement of the war. Many historians call the first-ever battle between two armored warships a draw; after all, neither warship was sunk or seriously damaged. However, when the battle was over, it was the larger, more heavily-armed Virginia which withdrew, and the smaller, more maneuverable Monitor which remained in place, having successfully guarded the vulnerable wooden warships of the U.S. Navy blockading fleet in Hampton Roads, Va.

With the raising of the Monitor’s turret this summer (2002), interest in the stalwart Union ironclad has perhaps never been stronger. Two recent books reexamine the Monitor’s origins, history and mythology in very different ways. Both The Monitor Chronicles : One Sailor’s Account. Today’s Campaign to Recover the Civil War Wreck, edited by William Marvel (Simon & Schuster, 2000), and War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor by David A. Mindell (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), are interesting and informative, and they’re complementary in the different approaches they take to the subject.

The Monitor Chronicles was published in conjunction with the Mariners’ Museum of Newport News, Va., the official repository of artifacts raised from the Monitor’s wreck. In the book, William Marvel selects and edits dozens of letters written by George S. Geer, a 25-year-old sailor. Born in Troy, N.Y., Geer joined the Navy on Feb. 15, 1862, “less to help save the Union than to earn some money and learn a reliable trade,” as Marvel writes. Geer served aboard the Monitor throughout her short career and, with erratic spelling, wrote to his wife Martha about virtually everything that happened aboard – particularly his tireless angling for promotion, his denunciation of liquor and its effect upon his shipmates, and his keen entrepreneurial spirit. His wife bought and sent him newspapers, small locks and keys (useful against shipboard thieves), silk and sewing notions, all of which Geer sold aboard at great profit.

George S. Geer

As a first-class fireman, Geer’s duties included working with the ship’s engines, heaving coal, and storing ammunition and supplies. He had every sailor’s concern for his own creature comforts. The pursuit of food, sleep and light duty was a major motivation for Geer, who in those days of more relaxed hygiene wasn’t too embarrassed to admit he’d once worn the same underwear for almost three weeks. Still, his thoughts were never far from home. Martha Geer raised their tight-knit family in a small Manhattan tenement, and depended on money her husband sent home to make ends meet. Geer worried about his family, and expressions of love and concern often appear in his letters. On March 2, 1862, just a week before the battle with the Virginia, Geer wrote: “Kiss both the Babys about 24 times apiece for me and don’t let them get sick and as for you I have got no love for you, you have it all.”

After the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Navy Department decided it could not take undue risks with the unique Monitor, and the ship stayed at anchor throughout the steamy summer of 1862 as a deterrent against further Confederate naval attack. Geer and his crewmates grew bored and weary in the heat. He wrote to Martha on August 13, “I do not wounder you are worid at what you read in the Papers…about the doings of the Monitor, but they are all bosh. We have not had our Anchor up, Fired a Gun, or been of the least use or service except to act as a scare crow, for most [of] one month.”

By the end of the year the Navy decided to send the Monitor south and, while being towed to Beaufort, N.C. in late December, she sank in a severe storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Geer barely escaped with his life, and wrote to Martha at the first opportunity, “I am sorry to have to write you that we have lost the Monitor, and what is worse we had 16 poor fellows drownded. I can tell you I thank God my life is spaired… do not worry. I am safe and well.” He later wrote her (in a turn of phrase I’d thought was from a century later), “You need not worry for me, as I am always looking out for No. 1 and am not going to get killed or drowned in this war.” He wasn’t, as it happened, but the book’s biggest shortcoming is that we don’t learn much more about Geer’s later life other than that he served almost another three years in the Navy, including service as an engineer aboard the USS Galena. Still, this is a worthwhile look at life aboard the Monitor through the eyes of one of her crew. The book concludes with an interesting account of current efforts to preserve what remains of the Monitor’s wreck.

By contrast, War, Technology and Experience aboard the USS Monitor is more academic in tone, exploring the broader significance of the Union’s most notable and technologically advanced ironclad. In author David A. Mindell’s conception, the ship’s story “provides a lens through which to see issues of …society, military technology, and the human implications of new machinery.”

This is an ambitious goal, and Mindell achieves it. He provides good background on the naval arms race in Europe in the mid-1800s, noting that U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had his eye on France and Britain at least as much as on the Confederacy when he set up an Ironclad Board to consider construction proposals. John Ericsson, the brilliant but mercurial designer of the Monitor, wrote in suggesting her name, “The impregnable and aggressive character of this vessel will admonish the leaders of the Southern Rebellion that the batteries on the banks of their rivers will no longer present barriers to the entrance of Union forces… but there are other leaders who will also by startled and admonished….To the Lords of the [British] Admiralty the new craft will be a monitor, suggesting doubts….On these and many similar grounds I propose to name the new battery Monitor.”

John Ericsson

Ericsson, Mindell writes, was not above altering his own public persona to fit the image of a hero of the Industrial Revolution, clashing with hidebound traditionalists in the Navy (some of whom insisted his ship would sink like a stone as soon as she was launched), insisting on his own grand vision and inventing – or re-inventing – himself along the way. Ericsson was distrusted by many for both his genius and his imperious manner, but what is now forgotten is that his private life was, by the standards of his day, rather scandalous. Mindell notes that Ericsson had a failed romance that resulted in the birth of an illegitimate child in his native Sweden. He was a poor businessman, declaring bankruptcy while working in England and spending some time in debtor’s prison. He later married, but left his wife Amelia behind in England when he came to America in 1839; he supported her financially but never saw her again. His work in designing the USS Princeton, and the blame wrongly heaped upon him when a cannon not of his design disastrously exploded aboard her in 1844 (killing several observers, including the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Navy), made Ericsson and the Navy mutually leery. However, the inventor learned his lessons well. Mindell writes pungently of the obstacles Ericsson overcame in getting the Monitor built, with all of the political wire-pulling and maneuvering that entailed: “Appearances count; demonstrations convince; nationality inspires; politics gets things done.”

William F. Keeler

While Marvel takes us aboard the Monitor in the company of fireman Geer, Mindell reintroduces us to one of the ship’s officers, Acting Assistant Paymaster William F. Keeler. Like Geer, Keeler was born in New York. He married the daughter of a prominent Connecticut politician, and became a small businessman with a flair for machinery. He had two years’ sea experience and was an ardent abolitionist. He was 41 when he came aboard the Monitor for service as a glorified clerk, the oldest man aboard but for the captain. On such a small ship, he and Geer knew one another; Keeler was blamed by the crew when the ship’s fund ran out of money or the captain decided to withhold pay; in one letter, Geer denounced Keeler a “devilish scoundrel.” Keeler disapproved of the crew’s excessive drinking and pranks, and kept his distance. As Mindell writes, “Amid the crew, Keeler had that tinge of social awkwardness that makes a good observer.” Keeler wrote 79 letters to his wife Anna while serving aboard the Monitor, and in them he provided a thorough description of ironclad shipboard life.

Mindell makes good use of Keeler’s letters and other documents in showing how sharp a break the Monitor made with maritime tradition. The role of engineers and staff officers was in flux; the Navy’s traditionalist deck officers considered them almost second-class citizens. Officers and crew also mixed and mingled much more aboard the compact ironclad than they would on a sailing ship, breaking down some social barriers that the officers might rather have maintained. The delicate but complex machinery of the Monitor needed constant watching, and the crew was “living on a technological frontier,” Mindell writes, with constant uncertainty as to what lay ahead. The Monitor’s crew prized physical courage, as did most Americans of that era, so fighting in an ironclad vessel seemed almost unsporting. After the clash with the Virginia, Keeler wrote, “I think we get more credit for the fight than we deserve – anyone could fight behind an impenetrable armor – many have fought as well behind wooden walls or none at all. The credit, if any is due, is in daring to undertake the trip and go into the fight in an untried experiment and in our unprepared condition.” Years later, John Worden, the Monitor’s commanding officer during her battle with the Virginia, agreed with Keeler, writing, “Here was an unknown, untried vessel, with all but a small portion of her below the waterline, her crew to live with the ocean beating over their heads – an iron coffin-like ship of which the gloomiest predictions were made, with her crew shut out from sunlight and the air above the sea, depending entirely on artificial means to supply the air they breathe. A failure of the machinery … would be almost certain death to her men.” Mindell persuasively argues that, for all of the successes of the Monitor and her sister ships, they were oversold by Ericsson, were almost as hazardous to their crews as to the enemy, and sank with disconcerting ease.

Paymaster Keeler, like Geer and the rest of the crew, chafed under the Navy’s cautious policy after the Virginia steamed away. Keeler wrote his wife in frustration that “the Government is getting to regard the Monitor in pretty much the same light as an over careful housewife regards her ancient china set – too valuable to use, too useful to keep as a relic, yet anxious that all shall know what she owns and that she can use it when the occasion demands, though she fears much its beauty may be marred or its usefulness impaired.” Keeler later wrote, “I believe the department [is] going to build a glass case to put us in for fear of harm coming to us.” However, Mindell acknowledges the tremendous risk Lincoln and Welles would run if the ship were lost or captured after her first battle: “The ironclad gained value as a symbol as well as a weapon, and an emblem of victory could quickly become an emblem of defeat.”

Although ultimately lost not in battle but in a storm at sea, the Monitor was the model for most of the ironclad warships built by the U.S. Navy during and just after the Civil War. Monitor-type ships remained on the Navy List until 1937. Mindell writes that Ericsson’s little ship and her progeny “sold the ideas that navies could build both ships and machines, that naval officers had to share their glory with designers and constructors, and that mechanical warfare, whatever its indignities, might also leave a place for human skill, and hence for heroism.”

In examining the Monitor phenomena from every angle, and putting it in context with the ever-changing nature of technological warfare up through the 1991 Gulf War, Mindell offers an offbeat and fascinating look at the broader issues surrounding perhaps the most influential warship ever built.


Related links:
The USS Monitor Center
Monitor National Marine Sanctuary
The Mariners’ Museum
NOVA: Lincoln’s Secret Weapon

The books reviewed in this article can be purchased below. Click the book title to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.

The Monitor Chronicles : One Sailor’s Account. Today’s Campaign to Recover the Civil War Wreck by William Marvel

War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor by David A. Mindell

A Report On: American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North” By John Oller

By Jean Rhodes
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2015, All Rights Reserved

Kate Chase

Katherine Jane Chase, the daughter of Ohio politician, Salmon P. Chase was the envy of the Washington social set during the war years and beyond.

By the time Kate was born on August 13, 1840, her father had already lost one wife and child. He was to lose two more children and Kate’s mother before the end of 1845. Chase’s third wife also died but not before giving Kate a sister, Nettie. He would never marry again.

Being widowed and heavily involved in Ohio politics, Salmon Chase would groom Kate to become his hostess and social secretary, sending her to Miss Haines School in New York City to prepare her for society. While there, she was exposed to the finer things in life to which she became accustomed. Her father’s expectations for her led him to become, it would seem, overcritical, filling his letters with advice and correcting her grammar whenever possible. Salmon Chase strove to be first and wanted the same for his daughter. One senses little warmth between father and daughter, although she idolized him. Their relationship was a symbiotic one: as time went on, Kate would help her father politically and he would never marry, with the expectation that Salmon Chase would become President and Kate would be his First Lady.

Kate returned to Columbus in 1855 as her father was running for Governor of Ohio. With his election, she became his First Lady and secretary. At age 16 she was already turning heads and was known as the “Belle of Columbus”. Salmon Chase campaigned for, and lost, the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, after which he became Lincoln’s Treasury Secretary. While disappointed at the loss, Kate learned valuable political lessons, among them the need to be proactive and the importance of strategy.

The Chase family moved to Washington and Kate soon became the premier hostess in the Capitol just as she had in Columbus. Kate and Mary Lincoln “competed” for the position until the Lincoln’s lost their son and Mary went into mourning. All of Kate’s social events, everyone who was invited, the details down to the seating arrangements, were designed to further her father’s career. Salmon had set his sights on the Presidency and Kate coveted the office as much as he did.

William Sprague, IV

Her many admirers included Carl Schurz, John Hay and James Garfield; however, the man who won her heart was William Sprague IV, boy Governor of Rhode Island and heir to a textile empire. They first met in Cleveland, Ohio at the dedication ceremony of the Oliver Hazard Perry Monument. Their wedding on November 12, 1863 was the wedding of the decade, although it was soon realized that the marriage would be a rocky one. Measured by the standards of the day, it would seem she had everything. She was attractive, intelligent and had married into a wealthy family. Unfortunately, she would experience much unhappiness. She was exacting and soon found that her husband, far from a perfect man, fell short of her ideal. She spent much of her married life in Washington helping her father politically while Sprague ran the family business in Rhode Island, travelling to Washington when Congress was in session as he had been elected to the U. S. Senate.

The one man that did measure up to her standards and shared her burning ambition, her father, would never achieve his ultimate goal. Chase was hopeful of a presidential bid in 1864, but Lincoln appointed him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, much to Kate’s chagrin.

The birth of Kate’s son, Willie, was a national event. Three daughters were to follow. Kate and her husband lived separate lives, she dividing her time between their mansion in Narragansett, Rhode Island, Washington and Europe.

With Lincoln’s death, Andrew Johnson entered the White House, allowing Kate to maintain her position as the most sought after hostess in Washington. In 1868, Salmon Chase again pursued the presidency. Kate was his campaign manager and held a level of political power unprecedented for a woman up to that time. Grant won the nomination, and Kate never forgave those on Chase’s staff whom she felt betrayed him.

During this time, Kate’s marriage to William declined further due, in part, to her absences from home and her husband’s drinking and unfaithfulness; she would not take her father’s advice to be more submissive. Salmon Chase died in 1873 depriving Kate of the one man she admired. Following the Panic of 1873, the Sprague financial empire collapsed amidst accusations of treasonous business relations with the Confederacy during the war.

Roscoe Conkling

Kate entered into a relationship with Roscoe Conkling, the powerful New York senator, which lasted for many years. He was her intellectual and political equal. Conkling sought her counsel and she actively campaigned to further his considerable political influence. She became a Stalwart and friend of Chester Arthur, remaining active in Washington politics.

Financial ruin, the social scandal of her affair with Conkling and a well-publicized, acrimonious divorce from Sprague would damage her reputation and emotionally traumatize her family. Paradoxically, it was only after she had lost many things that were once dear to her, did she find a measure of peace within herself.

Her last days were spent living in her father’s crumbling house, taking care of her mentally challenged daughter and eking out a living selling vegetables from her garden. It was said that as she drove her one-horse wagon with her soiled white gloves through the streets of Washington delivering produce, she held her head high and was kind to everyone she met.

Kate Chase died on July 31, 1899. As a woman of the nineteenth century, her opportunities were limited, but she followed her own agenda behind the scenes. Had Kate lived today, she would probably have run for office, or had a professional career. No matter how one interprets her historical legacy, Kate Chase was one of the most influential women of her time.


American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague, Civil War “Belle of the North”
By John Oller (Da Capo Press, October 2014, 416 pages)

From the publisher: Had People magazine been around during the Civil War and after, Kate Chase would have made its “Most Beautiful” and “Most Intriguing” lists every year.

Kate Chase, the charismatic daughter of Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary, Salmon P. Chase, enjoyed unprecedented political power for a woman. As her widowed father’s hostess, she set up a rival “court” against Mary Lincoln in hopes of making her father president and herself his First Lady. To facilitate that goal, she married one of the richest men in the country, the handsome “boy governor” of Rhode Island, in the social event of the Civil War. But when William Sprague turned out to be less of a prince as a husband, she found comfort in the arms of a powerful married senator. The ensuing scandal ended her virtual royalty, leaving her a social outcast who died in poverty. Yet in her final years she would find both greater authenticity and the inner peace that had always eluded her.

Set against the seductive allure of the Civil War and Gilded Age, Kate Chase Sprague’s dramatic story is one of ambition and tragedy involving some of the most famous personalities in American history. In this beautifully written and meticulously researched biography, drawing on much unpublished material, John Oller captures the tumultuous and passionate life of a woman who was a century ahead of her time.

Click on any of the book links on this page to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.

A Review of Pickett’s Charge: A New Look at Gettysburg’s Final Attack by Phillip Thomas Tucker

By Dennis Keating
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2017, All Rights Reserved


Historian Phillip Thomas Tucker claims about the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge on the third day at Gettysburg:

Lee’s complex battle plan on July 3 was more brilliant than Napoleon’s at Waterloo…Lee unleashed a sophisticated and complex, three-part tactical plan to split the Army of the Potomac in two. Despite the failure of Stuart’s cavalry to charge into the rear of Meade’s right-center, and the lack of Longstreet’s and Hill’s coordination of the offensive effort as Lee bitterly reflected for the rest of his days, the attack had nearly succeeded nevertheless. (p. 359)

George Pickett

According to Tucker, Lee’s plan was to have simultaneous assaults not only by the Pickett-Pettigrew force accompanied by flying artillery and follow-up reinforcements but also by Ewell’s corps on Culp’s Hill and by Lee’s cavalry under Jeb Stuart attacking from the rear of Meade’s center (p. XXIV). Tucker also claims that despite the failure of Ewell’s attack being coordinated with the charge in Meade’s front and the failure of Stuart breaking through on the East Cavalry Field, the charge almost succeeded.

Stuart’s horsemen (who belatedly arrived late on the second day) were confronted by David Gregg’s outnumbered Union cavalry. An heroic charge by George Armstrong Custer and his Michigan Wolverine brigade blunted Stuart’s advance. Tucker’s key Union hero at Gettysburg is Custer (and Union artillery commander Henry Hunt). Our October speaker Eric Wittenberg will talk about this cavalry battle.

Tucker’s argument about Lee’s plan (beyond just the frontal infantry assault on Cemetery Ridge) repeats the same hypothesis made by Army historian and lawyer Tom Carhart in his 2005 book entitled Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg-and Why It Failed. Carhart arrived at his conclusion without much in the way of any real evidence to support his argument. He concluded:

Finally, after reading, sifting, and absorbing all the evidence, it is the reader who must make the ultimate choice. Did Lee really just have a bad day, as the current revealed wisdom would have it? Or had he in fact concocted a plan for a three-pronged attack that, if successful, would have stunned the world? If the latter is chosen, then it becomes apparent that, had Jeb Stuart carried out his task, it probably would have resulted in a smashing victory for Lee, a victory that could have won recognition and acceptance of the Confederate States of America as an independent nation, an outcome with truly unimaginable consequences. (p. 267)

Eric Wittenberg critiqued Carhart’s theory in his Rantings of a Civil War Historian on September 25, 2005:

I wish I could say that Tom Carhart’s recent book, Lost Triumph: Lee’s Real Plan at Gettysburg-and Why It Failed, is a worthy piece of revisionist history that adds something to the existing body of knowledge. Sadly, I cannot. Carhart’s work is revisionism of the worst sort-it’s grossly irresponsible, and there is not a shred of evidence to support Carhart’s contentions. What astonished me most of all is that people who have been flocking to buy this piece of tripe and that prominent and well-respected historians like James McPherson and John Keegan have put their imprimatur on something that has no basis in fact.

Wittenberg concluded:

This book is an intellectually dishonest, poorly researched, fabricated piece of tripe that manipulates SOME of the available evidence to support foregone conclusions and which should be marked at fiction. It is certainly not history, and it constitutes revisionism of the worst variety.

I assume that Wittenberg would also label Tucker’s same argument in a similar negative vein.

I agree with Wittenberg’s criticism that there is little evidence to support Carhart and Tucker in their defense of Lee. Their criticism of James Longstreet, A. P. Hill, and Jeb Stuart for their failures on July 3 does seem justified. As for Tucker’s version, he repetitively makes his main argument. He also provides a painstaking account of the Pickett-Pettigrew attack which includes identifying the home and unit of seemingly most of the participants killed, wounded and captured during the fighting. Tucker has also written two other Gettysburg books, Barksdale’s Charge: The True High Tide of the Confederacy at Gettysburg and Storming Little Round Top: The 15th Alabama and Their Fight for High Ground, July 2, 1863.

Reference:

Eric Wittenberg. Protecting the Flank at Gettysburg: The Battles for Brinkerhoff’s Ridge and East Cavalry Field, July 2-3, 1863. 2013. Savas Beatie.


Pickett’s Charge: A New Look at Gettysburg’s Final Attack
by Phillip Thomas Tucker
Sky Horse Publishing (2016)

From the publisher: The Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War’s turning point, produced over 57,000 casualties, the largest number from the entire war that was itself America’s bloodiest conflict. On the third day of fierce fighting, Robert E. Lee’s attempt to invade the North came to a head in Pickett’s Charge. The infantry assault, consisting of nine brigades of soldiers in a line that stretched for over a mile, resulted in casualties of over 50 percent for the Confederates and a huge psychological blow to Southern morale.

Pickett’s Charge is a detailed analysis of one of the most iconic and defining events in American history. This book presents a much-needed fresh look, including the unvarnished truths and ugly realities, about the unforgettable story. With the luxury of hindsight, historians have long denounced the folly of Lee’s attack, but this work reveals the tactical brilliance of a master plan that went awry. Special emphasis is placed on the common soldiers on both sides, especially the non-Virginia attackers outside of Pickett’s Virginia Division. These fighters’ moments of cowardice, failure, and triumph are explored using their own words from primary and unpublished sources. Without romance and glorification, the complexities and contradictions of the dramatic story of Pickett’s Charge have been revealed in full to reveal this most pivotal moment in the nation’s life.


Click on any of the book links to purchase from Amazon. Part of the proceeds from any book purchased from Amazon through the CCWRT website is returned to the CCWRT to support its education and preservation programs.