Early in the Civil War, the Union Navy developed ironclad warships, the most unique of which was the USS Monitor (with a single rotating turret), launched in October 1861. Following the Monitor’s success against the Confederate ironclad “Merrimack” (known by the Confederate Navy as the CSS Virginia), the Union Navy built several additional ironclads, based on the Monitors’ design. One of these new ironclads (known as monitors) was named the USS Montauk, in honor of the prominent lighthouse protecting the entrance to Long Island Sound. The Montauk (one of ten Passaic-class ironclad monitors) was built in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for a contract price of $400,000 (approximately $10 million in 2020 dollars).
Interior of the Montauk gun turret
U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph # NH58705. Line engraving of the Montauk after a sketch by W.T. Crane, published in "The Solider in Our Civil War", Volume II, page 188.
She was launched on October 9, 1862 and commissioned on December 17, 1862. With a speed 7 knots and a crew of 75 officers and enlisted men, her single turret was armed with two cannon, protected by 11” of armor. Ironically, the Montauk’s first Commander was John L. Worden, the commander of the USS Monitor during the battle with the Merrimack (Captain Worden was wounded in the face during the battle with the Merrimack, temporarily blinding him).
After departing New York on Christmas Eve 1862, the Montauk saw its first action on January 27, 1863 during the bombardment of Fort McAllister, on the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia. Although hit 13 times, Montauk was undamaged. On February 28, 1863, another bombardment mission against Fort McAllister too place when the Montauk spotted the Confederate commerce raider CSS Nashville. The Nashville was a side-paddle-wheel passenger steamer originally built for the United States Mail Service. In another twist of fate, the Nashville was also built at Greenpoint, launched in 1853. Captured by Confederate forces and fitted out as a cruiser, the Nashville ran the Union Navy blockade and was the first Confederate warship in European waters. After capturing several Northern merchant vessels, the Nashville returned to Beaufort, North Carolina on February 28, 1862. She later moved to Savannah and was re-commissioned as the privateer Rattlesnake.
Wash drawing by R.G. Skerrett, 1909, US Naval history and Heritage Command photo NH57824, courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, DC
Friday, February 27, 1863 was a cloudy and rainy day, perfect weather to attempt a break-out from Savannah. At dusk the Rattlesnake, loaded with cotton and tobacco, crept down the Ogeechee, but found the path blocked by Union ships. While running back to safety, the Rattlesnake ran aground on a mud bank. Although the Rattlesnake's crew tried to lighten her to float free, she was still aground when sighted by the Montauk. At about 7 am on February 28th, while anchored across a marshy bend in the river, the Montauk and the Rattlesnake exchanged cannon fire. The Rattlesnake’s lighter armor and smaller guns were no match for the Montauk. The Montauk’s guns set the Nashville afire and at 9:55 her magazine exploded, shattering her into smoking ruins. The Montauk’s captain recorded that “… her magazine exploded with terrific violence, shattering her in smoking ruins. Nothing remains of her.” By the time the Nashville blew up, the Montauk was also struggling to survive. While withdrawing from this action at about 8:30, the Montauk struck a torpedo (mine) which exploded under her. Quick action by the Montauk’s crew saved the ship from sinking and the damage was repaired. For destroying the Nashville, Captain Worden received prize money equal to one year’s salary.
From Savanah, the Montauk steamed to Charleston to bombard Fort Sumter on April 7th, during which action the Montauk was hit 20 times. The Union Navy returned to bombard Fort Sumter several times. One such bombardment occurred on August 17th and was probably witnessed by the 127th New York Infantry Regiment (which had a large number of men from Southampton) which had recently arrived in Charleston. The nickname of the 127th Regiment was the ‘Monitors”.
At the end of the war, the Montauk went to the Washington Navy Yard, where she served as a temporary morgue so that the body of President Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth could be identified. She also served as a floating prison for six of Booth’s accomplices. Decommissioned at Philadelphia in late 1865, the Montauk was eventually sold for scrap in 1904. Although the USS Montauk’s service to protect the Nation had ended, its namesake, the Montauk Point Lighthouse, continues to protect mariners.
Lithograph published by Currier and Ives
Currier & Ives was one of America’s most successful printers in the late 1800’s, publishing over seven-thousand images. Civil War battles were a popular subject for Currier and Ives, including this undated hand-colored lithograph of the USS Montauk, which resides in the Southampton History Museum. The subject of this lithograph was the bombardment mission against Fort McAllister, this time on February 28, 1863 (not February 27th as noted in the lithograph), when the Montauk spotted the Confederate commerce raider CSS Nashville. The USS Montauk is shown in the foreground, with smoke billowing following its attack on the CSS Nashville, as evident by the explosive impact which hit the vessel.