By Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
The month of March marks the anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia. This naval engagement occurred early in the War Between the States; it was a two-day battle fought on March 8 & 9, 1862. Two “ironclad” ship prototypes were involved in the action at Hampton Roads, and the use of that experimental technology made the battle particularly significant.
This battle has associations with our area due the involvement of two men. One of them I have been well aware of for some time. The Union ship, Monitor, was commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden, an early nineteenth century native of Sparta, New York, just to the north of us. The second man was Commodore Hiram Paulding, one of the children of local Revolutionary War hero John Paulding. Hiram Paulding made an early name for himself in the Battle of Lake Champlain, during the War of 1812. By the time of the Civil War he was a seasoned and aged senior naval officer in his mid-sixties.
At the beginning of the Civil War and about a year before the battle of the ironclads, the Gosport Naval Base near Norfolk, Virginia lay idle. It was a major naval installation of the Union, and it was now effectively behind Confederate lines. Among the warships at risk of capture there was a relatively new, propeller-driven, frigate named the Merrimack. This was one of the largest, most powerful warships in the U. S. Navy, mounting forty guns. The Union commander of the naval base proved to be infirm and impaired by drink, not up to the task of evacuating the warships and personal from the vulnerable port. Finally, Commodore Hiram Paulding was sent with a relief force to put things in motion, but too late to save the base and its ships. The best Paulding could do, given the time and resources at his disposal, was to hastily destroy the base, the warships, the ammunition, and the guns. Paulding reported to headquarters that he had two choices, to leave the arms to the enemy, or attempt to destroy them. Roughly ten million dollars worth of munitions were burned or scuttled in an attempt to deny them to the Confederacy.
Upon the departure of Paulding’s forces, the South began to hurriedly salvage the sunken Merrimack and redesign her into a new style of armored ship. Several months later, in September 1861, Paulding was in Washington. As a senior officer on the naval board he met in conference with President Lincoln on the subject of a new armored ship for the North. A controversial design had been submitted by Swedish inventor, John Ericsson. It met with much opposition, but Paulding proved to be consistently supportive of Ericsson’s concept for the “Monitor.” While the Monitor was under construction at Greenpoint in Brooklyn, Paulding was appointed Commandant of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was he who ordered the completed vessel to the seat of battle at Hampton Roads in March 1862. The order he wrote was delivered to the commanding officer aboard the Monitor, Lieutenant John L. Worden.
In the first day of the famous battle, Saturday March 8, 1862, the Confederate ironclad, now renamed the Virginia, was unchecked, spreading destruction among the wooden warships of the Union blockade fleet. However, the second day was marked by a climatic confrontation between the Virginia and the Monitor, newly arrived from its homeport at New York.
John L. Worden was born on March 12, 1818, in today’s Scarborough. In nineteenth century accounts his place of birth is generally cited as “Sparta, Mount Pleasant Township”—a potentially confusing place name in modern context due to municipal changes. At the time of Worden’s birth, the name Sparta applied to a larger area than it does today. Sparta was an unincorporated hamlet in the Town of Mount Pleasant, embracing most of what is currently known as Scarborough. The home in which Worden was born was known as “Rosemont”. It once stood on the east side of Route 9, south of Scarborough Road. A New York State history sign visible from the highway has long marked the site.
Worden did not remain long in the locale of his birth; when he was still a child, his parents moved the family to Fishkill. In 1834, he became a midshipman, later attending the Naval School at Philadelphia. He was assigned to various tours at sea and to service at the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. At the commencement of the Civil War, Worden was sent by land bearing dispatches to the Union forces at Pensacola Florida. On the return trip he was captured near Montgomery Alabama. It is said that he may have been the first P.O.W. held by the South. After seven months of imprisonment he was “exchanged” and released in poor health.
While still recovering from his illness, Worden was assigned to command of the Union ironclad Monitor. He reported to Greenpoint, Brooklyn and supervised the final stages of the ship’s construction. The Monitor was completed on February 25th, 1862. Although the ship departed for Hampton Roads two days later, it was forced to return immediately for repairs. It departed a second time on March 6th, 1862, towed along by another vessel. The relatively unseaworthy Monitor barely survived its voyage to Virginia. Lieutenant Worden and his ship arrived at Hampton Roads on March 8, too late to participate in the action of that day, which had been highly destructive to the Union fleet.
The following day, Sunday, March 9, 1862, the Monitor and the Virginia met in battle—it was a four-hour contest that ended in a virtual draw, neither ship sustaining serious damage. At the three-hour mark, Worden, the commander of the Monitor, was wounded and partially blinded by a shell explosion. He ceded his command to the ship’s executive officer, Samuel Greene.
As fate would have it, neither ship saw battle again. The Virginia was intentionally scuttled by the South to avoid its capture, and the Monitor was to sink less than a year later, in a storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
In the North, Lieutenant Worden was acknowledged the Union hero of the battle at Hampton Roads, and his leadership was rewarded with proclamations and a promotion to the rank of commander. In December 1862, he assumed command of a new Union ironclad, the USS Montauk. After that assignment, Worden was ordered to supervise the building of ironclads at New York from 1863 to 1869. He was then appointed to a five-year tour of duty as the Superintendent of the United States Naval Academy. He was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, and he subsequently commanded the U. S. Navy’s European Squadron. Worden died in 1897, and his remains were interred at Pawling Cemetery in Dutchess County, New York.
One of the proclamations honoring Worden in the days after the famous battle came from his home state of New York. A valuable, ceremonial sword made by Tiffany & Company accompanied the legislative proclamation. Fifteen years after Worden’s death, the sword was donated by his son to the United States Naval Academy, but it was mysteriously stolen in 1931 and given up for lost. After seventy-three years missing, the sword was recovered by the FBI and restored to the Naval Academy in 2004.
[Copyright © 2012, 2018 Henry John Steiner]