On the morning of December 29, 1862, Commander John Bankhead, recently appointed commanding officer while Monitor repaired at the Washington Navy Yard, ordered his crew to prepare to put to sea. The weather finally clear, Monitor departed Hampton Roads that afternoon in the tow of the sidewheel steamer Rhode Island to join the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron in offensive operations against Confederate ports.
After Monitor rounded Cape Hatteras at approximately 7:30 in the evening on the 30th, the starboard tow hawser gave way in reaction to the pounding waves and current rubbing the rope against the hull. At 9pm, Commander Bankhead signaled Rhode Island to halt her engines to better ride out the storm, but by this time water poured into Monitor at a pace greater than the bilge pumps could evacuate. A large steam pump arrested the rising water within the vessel, but the respite proved to be temporary. At approximately 10:30pm, the situation hopeless, Monitor asked that Rhode Island send rescue boats.
Bankhead ordered the remaining towline connecting his vessel to Rhode Island cut, but a wave swept two of the three volunteers for this duty overboard to their deaths before Master Louis Stodder hacked the hawser in two with a hatchet. Unfortunately, the severed hawser became entangled in one of Rhode Island’s paddle wheels which left the large wooden ship drifting toward Monitor and threatening to crush one of the rescue boats. The rope that fouled the paddle wheel was cleared with an axe, but not before Rhode Island slammed into the first lifeboat and barely avoided a potentially calamitous collision with Monitor. The two ships got so close, that five or six sailors attempted to climb ropes to safety on Rhode Island; but only three reached their destination. Despite being damaged by Rhode Island, the first lifeboat took on survivors as the waves swept several of the ironclad’s crew overboard to their death. The heavy seas had grown so violent that the second lifeboat nearly struck the first as it made the treacherous, now nearly half-mile, return passage.
Some of the sailors in Monitor heroically remained in the engine room stoking the boilers that powered the pumps as they fought a losing battle against the incoming water. At about midnight, the water extinguished the boilers and the last of the men inside scrambled to the top of the turret as a second lifeboat was taking on survivors and a third approached. Traversing the short distance to the lifeboats proved a treacherous task and several men lost their lives in the attempt. Some, perhaps unable to swim, petrified by the gruesome spectacle, or waiting for others to be saved first, continued to cling to the turret even as the third lifeboat filled to capacity. For those fortunate enough to make a lifeboat, the danger was far from over as several men lost their lives attempting to board the paddle wheel steamer. Rodney Browne, skipper of the second lifeboat, made one last gallant attempt to save those remaining on Monitor, but failed to reach the vessel before it disappeared beneath the waves around 2 o’clock on morning of the 31st. Despite the rough seas, his boat managed to survive the night and was rescued by another ship mid-morning.
In all, four officers and twelve sailors from Monitor lost their lives. The heroism of the volunteers from Rhode Island who manned the rescue boats kept the human toll from being much worse.