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Ghosts of the USS Monitor

Modified: Tuesday, Mar 12th, 2013

March is a significant month for the Union ironclad USS Monitor. On March 9, 1862, it fought the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (also called the Merrimack) to a draw at Hampton Roads, Virginia; and on March 8, 2013 the remains of two unknown crewmen found when its sunken turret was raised in 2002 were laid to rest in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. Part of the delay in burial resulted from efforts to identify the men through DNA samples, with so far uncertain results. The ceremony included the playing of “Taps” which was written in 1862 during the Peninsula Campaign in Virginia ... the same year the Monitor sank.

The Monitor is personally significant to me because its commander when the ship went down was a relative named John Pyne Bankhead. My branch of the family settled in the Carolinas around 1765, and John Pyne was descended from cousins who settled in Virginia. The Civil War divided the Virginia Bankheads along with their state, with the western end becoming pro-Union West Virginia. Though John Pyne continued his 20-plus year career in the U.S. Navy, his younger brother Smith Pyne Bankhead joined the Confederate army.

After the Monitor’s original commander John Worden was badly injured and temporarily blinded by a shell burst during the Hampton Roads battle, the ship’s command eventually passed to John Pyne on Sept. 10, 1862. And on Dec. 29, 1862, the Monitor departed under tow of the USS Rhode Island to participate in a blockade of Charleston, South Carolina.

The Monitor was designed for service in calm waters, with sight holes and other openings leaving it little more watertight in high seas than a claw foot bathtub. And high seas were encountered on Dec. 31, 1862, as the Rhode Island with the Monitor in tow rounded Cape Hatteras through treacherous waters aptly nicknamed the graveyard of the Atlantic.

As evening descended, large waves flooded the ironclad’s coal bunker. With that, the ship was doomed. For lack of dry coal the boiler was lost. For lack of a boiler the pump was lost. For lack of a pump the Monitor was lost. While John Pyne signaled for rescue boats from the Rhode Island, the crew attempted hand bailing; but in rough seas, close quarters and frantic rush, the buckets sometimes reached topside with only a few cups of water.

Diary passages reflect the nightmarish scene ... an African-American cook shouting profanities to mobilize seasick and sluggish crew members ... Engineer G. H. Lewis, unable to rise from his sickbed watching the water rise towards him ... the ship’s mouser howling mournfully from its perch atop a turret cannon.

When the Rhode Island rescue boats arrived, the seas were battering the Monitor hard enough to knock crewmen from their feet. Huge waves swept several to their death the moment they ventured onto the deck, so some men made the fateful choice to remain in the temporary safety of the turret, desperately hoping the Monitor might somehow weather the storm.

John Pyne behaved honorably enough. After evacuating all crew members willing to leave, he was the last to enter a lifeboat, urging other men to climb aboard ahead of him ... but he wasn’t heroic to any foolish extent. Family records indicate that amid the chaos and calamity, he had the presence of mind to stop briefly in his cabin “taking with him a jewel box containing his treasures.”

Once safely aboard the Rhode Island, the survivors stared through the darkness at a red lantern atop the Monitor’s pennant staff, which rose and fell in and out of sight with the swells. As midnight and New Year’s Day arrived, the light descended once more into the Atlantic and was gone.

Though John Pyne survived, he suffered from exposure and his health never fully recovered. After the war, he was promoted to captain in 1866, and placed in command of the USS Wyoming where it served as part of the Asiatic Squadron. His health declined again and he died April 27, 1867, off the Arabian Peninsula. According to family records he was buried in Aden.

So, in addition to being the last skipper of the Monitor, Captain Bankhead was probably also one of the first American servicemen to die in the Middle East. Considering the horror of modern weaponry, I wish my moving finger had the power to write a reversal of that history, making him the first skipper of the Monitor, and the last American soldier to die in that unhappy corner of the world.


Steve Bankhead is a resident of Watsonville and a frequent contributor to the Register-Pajaronian. His opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Register-Pajaronian.

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