January 16, 1862 (Thursday)
The war had not started easily for John Worden, a forty-four year old career Navy-man, who was a midshipman at age sixteen. He had the dubious distinction of becoming one of the prisoners of war in the operations to reinforce Fort Pickens just as Sumter was being fired upon.
While Worden sat out the next seven months, Gosport Navy Yard was put to the torch, sacrificed for the Union war effort. This was done to keep any of the Union ships from falling into Rebel hands. It was a valiant effort, but ultimately a failure, as the Confederates were able to raise the USS Merrimack.
Finding her hull and machinery intact, the Rebels began to reconstruct her, turning the old wooden frigate into a casemate ironclad. This fact was not entirely lost upon the Union Navy, who went about with plans to construct their own ironclad. After the Navy advertised for contracts and the contracts were submitted, they chose two designs. One would eventually become the USS Galina, the other, from a design submitted by a Swedish inventor named John Ericsson, would become the USS Monitor. Construction began in October and by this date, she was afloat, but not yet finished.1
On January 11, Lt. John Worden received his orders. “I have only time to say I have named you for the command of the battery under contract with Captain Ericsson, now nearly ready at New York,” wrote Joseph Smith of the Naval Ironclad Board. He also added a bit of a warning: “This vessel is an experiment. I belief you are the right sort of officer to put in command of her.”2
Worden, who was in New York, went to take a look at Ericsson’s work. In his reply to Smith, he seemed cautiously optimistic, writing that he was “induced to believe that she might prove a success.” Worden officially reported for duty in command of the ship, which was, at this point, unnamed, on this date.3
Perhaps Worden’s caution arose from the strange design of Ericsson’s vessel. It was like no other ship ever seen. Much of the craft was held under the waterline. Only the deck and the pivoting gun turret were exposed. The turret was wrapped in nine layers of inch-thick iron.
At this stage of construction, the gun turret was empty. Originally, Ericsson had wanted two 12″ guns to be housed inside, but they were not available. With a bit of scrounging, Worden borrowed two 11″ Dahlgren guns from a couple of other ships in the harbor.
It would take another two weeks to see her launch.4
Cedar Keys Taken and Burned by USS Hatteras
Nearly a year had passed since the Union had seized Fort Jefferson off the Florida Keys. With the tightening blockade, Jefferson, and the nearby Key West, were instrumental in relaying news to the blockading squad operating in the Atlantic and Gulf.
In December, two bits of news filtered through. First was that the Confederate force at Cedar Key had been greatly reduced in the believe that an Atlantic port was the next Union target. Second, and most importantly, was that there were several ships being loaded with contraband at Cedar Key, a small port 100 miles up the coast from Tampa, hoping to run the blockade. Though it was only a rumor, the USS Hatteras, commanded by George Emmons, was dispatched to check things out.5
By the 15th of January, the Hatteras had pulled into the harbor. On this date, they easily took the port.
Figuring they would be safe, the Confederates left only twenty-two men from the 4th Florida Infantry to guard Cedar Key. They were mostly there acting as a police force, protecting the eighty or so residents from thieves.6
When the Hatteras pulled into view with the obvious intention of taking the port, the small Rebel force beat a hasty retreat. Most of them, including four who were sick with the measles, boarded a flat-bottomed ferry boat and began to pole their way towards the railroad depot. All seemed to be going fairly well until they reached the middle of the channel. There, they discovered to their horror that their pole was too short. The small flatboat was left to the mercy of the tides and current.
Meanwhile, the crew of the USS Hatteras busied themselves with the task at hand. First, they disabled three cannons, which, according to the Confederate report, didn’t work anyway, and then they set to work on the blockade runners. They set afire five schooners and three sloops, all ready to sail, filled with cotton and turpentine. The Union troops burned the railroad depot, seven rail cars, a storehouse filled with turpentine, and the telegraph office.
One ship, the schooner Fanny, escaped over the reef during the night. She was only partially laden with turpentine.
As the harbor was aflame, the members of the 4th Florida, set adrift aboard their flatboat, were discovered and rescued. Seven of the 4th must have escaped through some other means, perhaps aboard the Fanny, as only thirteen were found on the ferry. This set not only included their lieutenant, but also the four sick with measles, who were released after swearing an oath not to take up arms against the United States.7
During the excitement, three slaves had escaped and went to the Hatteras, seeking their freedom. For some reason or another, they were sent back to Cedar Key. This act endeared the Hatteras‘ commander to the Confederate commander in Florida, who wrote that the “circumstance reflects high credit upon Commander Emmons.”8
- Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads by James L. Nelson, HarperCollins, 2005. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p515. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p517; 522. [↩]
- Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History by Craig L. Symonds, Oxford University Press, 2006. [↩]
- The Civil War and Reconstruction in Florida by William Watson Davis, 1913. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p76-77. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 17, p48-50. [↩]
- Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 6, p77. [↩]