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The Chloroform Plot To Hijack the Monitor!
Maurice S. Albin, M.D.
Anesthesiology, Univ. Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, Texas, United States
On March 8, 1862, a fearful apparition appeared off the waters of Hampton Roads, Virginia. It belched smoke from twin smokestacks and its sloping, black, iron-plated sides were punctuated by its batteries of heavy large-bore cannons situated fore and aft, port and starboard. It was the Confederate States Ship (CSS) Virginia, whose ironclad body was built over the captured hulk of the United State Ship (USS) Merrimac. In short order it challenged and terrorized the Union fleet of wooden (and mostly sail-driven warships) by destroying the USS Cumberland and USS Congress and then returned to Hampton Roads to resupply its stores of munitions and fuel. On the next day, March 9, 1863, another naval engagement occurred, which was to forever change the face of naval warfare. The CSS Virginia left its mooring in the early AM, expecting to continue on with its rampage against the Union fleet, when it found itself being attacked by another ironclad, the USS Monitor. The vessel, later dubbed by many as a "cheese box on a raft," had a cigar-shaped body, lay low in the water, and carried on it an armored rotating turret containing two guns capable of throwing a 100 pound projectile a considerable distance. The Monitor also had a pilot-house on deck where the navigator, steersman and Captain were stationed and also sported a screw propeller and a steam engine. This "Battle of the Ironclads" lasted for more than four hours, with both ships withdrawing virtually unscathed.

The flat deck of the USS Monitor floating very low in the water made it a potential target for capture, especially since almost all of the Monitor's crew were stationed below deck with only a small number working inside the turret and pilothouse. After the engagement between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia, an exciting plan was proposed to hijack the Monitor. This would then allow the Confederate Navy (now possessing 2 ironclad ships) to wreak havoc along the Atlantic coast, negating the Union blockade, destroying shipping and even threatening the ports of New York and Boston! (Southern Historical Society Society Papers, Vol. XIX Richmond VA. 1891, Echoes from Hampton Roads, R.C. Foute). The strategy called for a boarding party of 50 seamen distributed in four gunboats and equipped with grappling irons and lines, wedges and mallets, hand grenades and small arms and tarpaulins and CHLOROFORM. The basic idea "was for all four of these vessels to pounce down on the Monitor at the same time: on a given signal, and from different directions, all hands were to rush aboard, wedge the turret so as to prevent its revolving, then seal its sides, deluge the interior with CHLOROFORM by breaking the bottles on the upper deck, and then cover the turret and pilot house with tarpaulins and wait for the crew to surrender." This attempt to capture the Monitor took place on April 11, 1862, but could not be brought to fruition because the Monitor had sailed out of reach! The author of this report, Richard Chester Foute was an Acting Midshipman aboard the CSS Virginia during these battles and was cited for bravery by the Captain, Flag Office Franklin Buchanan, C.S. Navy. It would be interesting to speculate what might have happened to the outcome of the CivilWar had the CHLOROFORM plot to hijack the Monitor been successful! The use of chloroform was well known by the Southern medical establishment. Julian Chisolm, M.D., a Confederate Surgeon, published a textbook of surgery in 1861, in which he had a section dedicated to the use of chloroform. Dr. Chisolm was also the inventor of a chloroform nasal inhaler. (see Albin MS: The use of anesthetics during the Civil War, 1861-1865. Pharmacy in History, 42:99-114, 2000.)

Anesthesiology 2001; 95:A1168