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Briarcliff’s Native Son & The Battle of the Ironclads

John L. WordenThis month marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle Of Hampton Roads, Virginia.  The naval engagement at Hampton Roads occurred early in the War between the States; it was a two-day battle fought on March 8 & 9, 1862.

Two “ironclad” proto-types were involved in the naval action at Hampton Roads, and the use of that experimental technology made the battle more significant than it might otherwise have been.  The Union ship was named the USS Monitor; the Confederate ship was named the CSS Virginia (otherwise known as the Merrimack).  The Monitor was commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden, an early 19th century native of what is today the Village of Briarcliff Manor.  On the first day of the famous battle, the Confederate ironclad was unchecked, spreading destruction among the wooden war ships of the Union blockade fleet.  The second day was marked by a climatic confrontation between the Virginia and the Monitor, newly arrived from its homeport at New York.

Earlier this month the Village of Briarcliff Manor observed the 150th anniversary of the battle, and the role of their native son, John L. Worden.  On March 7th, Philip Zegarelli, who has served as Briarcliff's Village Manager for the past three years, presented the members of the Village Board with a framed, limited-edition lithograph of the popular painting of the battle by J. O. Davidson.  The gift has been hung in the Village courtroom.
John L. Worden was born on March 12, 1818, in today’s Scarborough district of Briarcliff.  In 19th century accounts, his place of birth is generally cited as being “Sparta, Mount Pleasant Township” – a potentially confusing place name in a modern context.  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 has long marked the site.

The Monitor (right) and the Virginia (left)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 Navy midshipman, later attending the Naval School in 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 officer 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 command of the Monitor, a state-of-the-art warship commissioned by the War Department and designed by Swedish inventor, John Ericsson.  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 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.

The following day the Monitor and the Virginia met in battle – a four-hour contest that ended in a virtual draw, neither ship sustaining serious damage.  At the three-hour mark, John L. Worden, the commander of the Monitor, was wounded and partially blinded by a shell explosion.  He ceded his command to the ship’s second-in-command.

As fate would have it, neither ship saw action again.  The Virginia was intentionally scuttled by the South to avoid its capture, and the Monitor sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras.

In the North, Lieutenant Worden was acknowledged the Union hero of the battle, 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, he 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 superintendant of the U. S. Naval Academy.  During that period, 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.

One of the proclamations honoring Worden in the days after the 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 U. S. 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.

Henry John Steiner is the village historian of Sleepy Hollow and the managing broker of Steiner Real Estate Associates; This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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