— excerpt from "The Loss of the Monitor," by Francis Butts, a survivor of the Monitor's crew (pdf, 2.2 MB)
The crew of the USS Lehigh, an ironclad like the USS Monitor, posed on deck on the James River, Virginia, in 1865. The inset image shows a sailor holding one of the ship's mascots, a cat. Did a black cat trapped in one of the Monitor's cannons go down with the ship when it sank in December 1862?
NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary protects the wreck of the iconic Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, best known for its face-off with the Confederate ironclad Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 9, 1862.
The battle was considered a virtual draw and was, in fact, the only action that the Monitor ever saw. Only nine months later, on December 31, 1862, the Monitor was under tow by another vessel to Beaufort, North Carolina, when it sank in a nor'easter off of Cape Hatteras.
Nevertheless, the "little cheesebox on a raft," as the ship was perkily nicknamed, and its single military adventure are forever moored in the naval history books, because they proved that the mighty ironclads were technological marvels heralding the design of modern warships.
A research diver surveys a collapsed portion of the USS Monitor on the seafloor in 2006.
When a recent New York Times article on the Monitor inspired some commentary on the NOS Facebook page, one fan wondered, "Did they ever find the cat that was supposed to be inside the turret?"
"A mystery worth pursuing!" the investigative team at NOS agreed. This led to a discussion of the odd places that cats manage to get into but not out of, including, in one colleague's recent experience, a congested culvert inundated by Hurricane Irene.
So they contacted Jeff Johnston, the Monitor Sanctuary's historian-in-residence, who was on the team that raised the Monitor's 16-gun, 120-ton rotating turret from its mid-Atlantic resting place in 2002. A Tidewater native and a cat lover himself, Johnston spun a sea tail (er, make that a tale) of wartime intrigue, indeed.
The USS Monitor gun turret being pulled out of the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 5, 2002, for the first time in 140 years.
"Ah yes, the cat in the cannon," Johnston chuckled when confronted with the kitty query.
"That story was written by a man named Francis Butts, a former heavy artilleryman from Rhode Island who joined the U.S. Navy not long before the Battle of the Ironclads in March of 1862.
"His recollection of his time on board the Monitor included some pretty interesting claims, but they're hard to support if you know how the Navy actually worked in the 19th century.
"Butts was a landsman — someone who joins the Navy with no maritime experience. He was at the Washington Navy Yard when the Monitor came in for repairs in October 1862, and got assigned to the crew when she sailed in early November. So Butts spent less than a month on board before the Monitor went down, shortly after midnight on New Year's Eve.
"There was a horrendous storm that night — what we call a nor'easter, when a coastal storm comes up from the south and strong winds blow in from the northeast — and the waters off Cape Hatteras are infamously rough and hard to navigate. Butts claimed to have put a black cat inside one of the cannons for its protection, along with some of his clothing to keep it dry."
The USS Monitor turret after it was brought onboard the Derrick Barge Wotan in 2002.
"Now, pets were a common occurrence aboard warships, so it wasn't out of the question for a cat to have been on board the Monitor," Johnston explained. "For me, though, the facts and historical material didn't seem to support Butts's story."
"In fact, I disputed Butts's claim about a cat in the turret long before our expedition to raise the turret in the summer of 2002. A black cat stowed in one of the Monitor's cannons during the Battle of Hampton Roads would have gained significant notoriety! Yet no one besides Butts ever mentioned that a feline stowaway inhabited the famous ironclad.
"One could argue that the crew may have adopted the cat after the battle, which took place in March, but I didn't think so. The ship's paymaster, William Keeler, wrote letters home to his wife and documented daily life on the ship in incredible detail. He never mentioned a cat, though. Surely he, or someone, would have noticed a furry black kitty padding around on board?
"Also, as a cat owner myself, I have a hard time stuffing one into a kitty carrier for a routine trip to the vet. So I found it hard to believe that no one noticed this man trying to stuff a wet, agitated cat into a cannon with an 11-inch opening.
"Then again, Butts claimed to have been steering the ship, and to have been the only one in the turret, as the ship was sinking. In his accounts, this landsman basically described himself as Captain John Bankhead's right-hand man. Well, if that was the case, didn't any of his crewmates notice his clawed-up arms and shredded shirtsleeves?"
"So I never believed Butts's story. In fact, I told John Broadwater [former Monitor sanctuary manager] that I would work for free for a year if we found a cat in any of the cannon barrels. Obviously, I was a bit anxious to see what was in there after we recovered the turret. I had my fingers crossed!" Johnston recalled.
"It took a few years before we got the barrels cleared out and were finally able to verify that neither the remnants of a feline skeleton nor any clothing was inside of them. Nothing was in them at all except mud, crud, concretions, and a little coal.
"Francis Butts's recollections of his time aboard the Monitor were written many years after the fact, and it's clear that he survived a horrific night at sea. He certainly earned the right to tell sea stories, and he deserves credit for spinning a good yarn about ‘the kitty in the cannon'.
"Fortunately, I kept getting my paycheck," Johnston concluded.
Johnston's inquiring colleagues at NOS agree, and think he deserves credit for spinning a great yarn about "the landsman on the Monitor" himself.