Of Bookkeepers and Engineers on the U.S.S. Monitor
Updated: Aug 4, 2022
by Gordon Thorsby
Front row, from left: Robinson W. Hands 20, Edwin V. Gager-47, not at Hampton Roads (HR); second row, Louis N. Stodder- first soldier injured at HR, George Frederickson 27, William Flye (not at HR), Daniel C. Logue surgeon, Samuel Dana Greene; standing, Albert B. Campbell, Mark T. Sunstrom 19, William F. Keeler 40, and A. Munroe Newman 42 (Master of the USS Galena.)
The Confederacy had lost New Orleans two weeks prior, and it was the largest city in the South. In separate actions Ft. Donelson and New Madrid had also just been taken. The North was also demonstrating effectively that they lacked military leaders in the east, and Lincoln was realizing that the Confederacy would never re-enter the Union so it was total victory or two countries.
As the sun set on Hampton Roads on 8 March, the sight of U.S.S. Cumberland was only of its topmasts protruding from the water and the flames from the U.S.S. Congress lit in the evening sky. C.S.S. Virginia had done significant damage. The telegraph wires had been busy sending a flurry of messages and in the White House Lincoln and his cabinet met to try to figure out a solution.
President Lincoln’s secretaries John Hay and John Nicolay considered the cabinet meeting discussing the fight at Hampton Roads as the “most excited and impressive” cabinet meeting of the entire war. For Lincoln, he had to contend with Maj. General George McClellan who was difficult to get moving to attack on any day. The C.S.S. Virginia problem was about to torpedo the Peninsular Campaign. Figuratively speaking, Secretary of War Stanton’s “hair was on fire” in a panic that all was lost. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles sat pensively and above it all, but he was worried. Virgina was a problem. Stanton demanded to know the location and status of John Ericsson's ironclad battery. Welles had no idea where the ironclad was and Ericsson was overdue on delivery of the contract. Furthermore, it had a performance feature in that contract, so the Monitor was technically still owned by Ericsson and the ironclad’s investors when it entered the fight on March 9th.
As the Cabinet debated the issue, Monitor was struggling its way south from Brooklyn Navy Yard to the Chesapeake nursed along by three tugs. Atlantic sea water poured into the cabins below and commander, Lt. John Worden ordered a bucket brigade to bail water to assist the hand pumps. The 64 officers, engineers, and sailors had serious concerns that Monitor was not going to survive the trip. Sailors on the accompanying tugs possessed no doubts. Monitor would most certainly sink before reaching its destination. Fortunately, when the night was over, Worden and his experienced crew made it and pulled beside the Minnesota and Monitor's exhausted crewmen nervously rested.
Among the crew’s commissioned officers and engineers were men who were instrumental in Monitor’s construction and next day’s performance.
There was Mark Trueman Sunstrom, 19, born and raised in Baltimore and a bookkeeper employed at what may have been a steel foundry. At the time, the city of Baltimore was a
very tense place with strong secessionist sentiment within. On February 1, he signed onto the vessel and was given the rank of Fourth Assistant Engineer. A bookkeeper as an engineer? No, he was by no means an engineer, but he had some background in the skill. Besides, Ericsson had three other engineers. Two were eminently qualified and the third was capable. Sunstrom was an excellent bookkeeper and well educated. Ericsson didn’t need another engineer. He needed to track his expenditures because the Monitor investment would financially make him or break him. Sunstrom could pick up the needed skills while on board.
Robinson Hands (top picture) was 20, a friend and a fellow Baltimorean. He was in New York studying mechanical engineering as a profession and he joined up the same day as Sunstrom. Hands was as rated Third Engineer. He would be busy on 9 March because the bugs in the ship kept coming up and at the worst time. (Hands’ father was in the shipbuilding business and he had a brother who was serving as captain in a Confederate regiment at the time.)
William F. Keeler (top picture), 40 signed on to the officer’s crew on January 4th while Monitor was under construction. He owned a steel foundry and was a supplier for Ericsson's ship. Keeler’s foundry was the likely place of Sunstrom’s employment. Keeler was the ship’s paymaster and would be the man who spent a month closing the books on Monitor for its turnover to the U.S. government. Sunstrom assisted him.
George Frederickson, 27 was appointed acting master’s mate on the Monitor. A resident of Philadelphia and with a Danish accent, he was promoted to Ensign on the Monitor on October 31,1862, a great honor. Two months to the day later, he would go down with the ship. His last words after giving his watch to a seaman, “Here, this is yours; I may be lost.” He left a wife.
The sun was barely up on 9 March when smoke was seen in the distance from Virginia and its escorts. At about 7:20 the vessel started forward moved across the bow of the Minnesota to face its foe. Everything was in confusion and panic on Minnesota’s decks as men were tossing barrels and bags overboard to lighten the ship. Tugs were tending to her to try to push get her off the bar. Paymaster Keeler and Surgeon Logue were on Monitor's deck observing Virginia in the distance when a puff of smoke was seen, a several second delay and then the howl from a shell was heard overhead and the two ran below. The rest is a story we all know.
There were a series of photographs taken by Gibson in July,1862 on the James River.
In December,1862 on Christmas Day, the ship received orders to sail to North Carolina to participate in the planned attack on Wilmington. To the men of the Monitor, it was news not well received. They remembered what their past experience had been, and several wrote home with worries but with assurances to loved ones that they could endure the December seas and the winter gales of Hatteras.
It was on New Year's Eve that the gales struck Monitor. Hand pumps were again insufficient in heavy seas and the bucket brigade was employed but the Atlantic won this time. Monitor foundered and sank 15 miles off of Cape Hatteras along with sixteen souls. Forty-seven men were rescued from the icy waters by lifeboats from the Rhode Island. Unfortunately, Robinson Hands and George Frederickson were two officers along with 14 other sailors who went down with her.
Engraving Courtesy of Library of Congress
For the crew of the U.S.S. Monitor, they left a mark on American and World History. In just three hours, 55 men and nine officers and engineers trapped in an experimental vessel changed where the war was about to go. If not for Monitor, the Peninsula Campaign would not have happened, Robert E. Lee would not have taken command of the Confederate Army in May, the Emancipation Proclamation might have been delayed, the war would be different and global naval warfare would be different.
Mark Sunstrom went onto other ships after Monitor. He was transferred to the U.S.S. Unadilla in mid-1863 where it took part in the blockade of Charleston and in 1864, to the U.S.S. Pontoosuc where it participated in the bombardment of Ft. Fisher in January,1865. Seven of its crewmembers earned Medals of Honor in the bombardment. Sunstrom took leave in July 1865, due to a severe cough aggravated by damp air on oceangoing vessels. It had all of the appearances of Consumption. The leave turned into a permanent discharge for disability. Sunstrom married in 1866 but his cough worsened and spread to his throat passing on Oct. 24,1875 at 31. The name of Mark Sunstrom was just a small part of something that left a huge mark on history. Nobody could be more proud for the contribution.
Note: Hands’ cenotaph and Sunstrom’s grave are both buried in Baltimore a couple of miles from one another.
The Monitor Boys, by Quarstein, John V., Arcadia Publishing, 2014.
Unlike Anything that Ever Floated, by Hughes, Dwight Sturtevant, Savas Beatie Emerging Civil War Series, 2021.
Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War © Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War 2022. http://suvcwdb.org/.
Special thanks to James Lamm, Sunstrom was an ancestor