John Lorimer Worden was born on March 12, 1818, at Mount Pleasant Township, Westchester County, New York. He became a beloved naval officer during the Civil War, ending his career in 1886 as a rear admiral.
John Lorimer Worden was the son of Ananias Worden and Harriet Graham. His formative years were spent in Mount Pleasant and then in Fishkill, Dutchess County, New York. Before entering the Navy, he lived with his mother’s relatives in New York City. He married Olivia Akin Toffey, of Quaker Hill, Dutchess County, New York, in 1844. When not at sea, he lived with Olivia and their four children: John Lorimer Worden Jr. (1845-1873), born in Washington, D.C.; Daniel Toffey Worden (1848-1914), born in New York City; Grace Worden (1852-1905), born in Washington, D.C.; and Olivia Steele Worden (1856-1933), born in Brooklyn, New York. In retirement, he and Olivia lived at their homes in Washington, D.C., and Quaker Hill.
Worden’s naval career began when he was appointed a midshipman in the U.S. Navy in January 1834 at the age of fifteen. He first served on the USS Erie as part of the Brazilian Squadron, followed by the USS Cyane in the Mediterranean. He then attended the Philadelphia Naval School from 1839 to 1840. He was assigned to the USS Relief and the USS Dale before he was detailed to the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., in 1844. There he was promoted to master and then lieutenant.
During the Mexican-American War, Worden was the executive officer on board the USS Southampton on the West Coast. He then served on the USS Independence, Warren, and Ohio as part of the Pacific Squadron. He spent another two years at the Naval Observatory from 1850 to 1852; then served in the Mediterranean Squadron and the Caribbean Squadron from 1852 to 1855. He was again assigned to the Naval Observatory before he was transferred to Brooklyn Navy Yard for two years. He was the first lieutenant on the USS Savannah as part of the Home Squadron from 1858 to 1860.
As the prospect of the Civil War loomed, he reported to Washington, D.C., and on April 6, 1861, at the age of 43, he accepted a mission to take secret orders to reinforce Fort Pickens, Florida. While he accomplished the mission, he became the Union’s first prisoner of war and was arrested on April 13. He spent seven months in a Montgomery, Alabama, jail before he was exchanged on November 11, 1861.
He returned to duty on January 13, 1862, and reported to oversee construction of what became known as the USS Monitor. “After a hasty examination of her,” Worden accepted his command and was “induced to believe that she may prove a success.” He stated, “at all events, I am quite willing to be an agent in the testing of her capabilities.” He officially accepted command of the ship on January 16, 1862. He was selected for command of this experimental ship because he was considered a scientific officer based upon his prior service. He supervised the ironclad’s completion at Greenpoint, Long Island, and was on board the vessel January 30, 1862, when it was launched. The Monitor was ordered to Hampton Roads, Virginia, at the end of February, but because of needed repairs and bad weather, the ship did not leave the Brooklyn Navy Yard until March 6, 1862.
Because of severe weather, Worden was seasick during the voyage. The ship almost sank before it ever saw battle. Nevertheless, the vessel survived and arrived in Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862, late on the first day of the battle of Hampton Roads. When the ironclads Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merimack) engaged on March 9, the Monitor proved to be a match for the Confederate ironclad that sank four and damaged four other Union ships the day before. Worden ordered the ship to engage the Virginia on the morning of March 9, without hesitation, in order to protect the USS Minnesota, which was grounded on a nearby shoal.
Captain Gershom J. H. Van Brunt, commander of the Minnesota, recalled that the Monitor, “much to my astonishment, laid herself right alongside the Merrimac [sic] and the contrast was that of a pygmy to a giant.” Worden stayed in the pilot house during the battle action on March 9, taking time to check the damage on deck while the turret was being resupplied. While the Virginia had dented the ship’s armor there were no cracks to be found. The Virginia took this opportunity to steam toward the Minnesota, but also ran aground. The Monitor proceeded to come so close to the Virginia that the Confederate ironclad could not position its guns at an angle to fire back. Eventually, the Virginia’s often unreliable engines were able to pull the ship off the shoal. The two ships continued to maneuver and fire, even attempting to ram each other. During the Monitor’s attempt to ram the Virginia’s fantail, Worden was wounded when a shell exploded against the pilot house. He received a concussion, burns, shrapnel wounds, and was permanently blinded in his left eye. He relinquished command of Monitor to his executive officer, Lieutenant Samuel Dana Greene, for the remainder of the battle, which ended in a draw, but is considered a strategic victory for the Union since it held the CSS Virginia at bay.
Worden was taken to the home of his friend, Lieutenant Henry Wise, in Washington, D.C., for more advanced medical care and to recover. When he was moved from the Monitor to a tug to take him to shore, the crew cheered for their commander. President Lincoln visited Worden in Washington, D.C., escorted by Lt. Wise and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Wise said, “Jack, here’s the President, who has come to see you.”
“You do me a great honor, Mr. President, and I am only sorry that I can’t see you,” Worden replied as he reached up from his bed for the President’s hand.
Lincoln answered, “You have done me more honor, sir, than I can ever do to you.” Then the President sat on the edge of Worden’s bed and asked the injured man about the events of the battle.
Also honored by the New York State Legislature, Worden was presented a Charles Tiffany ceremonial sword, created by David J. Millard and Edward C. Moore, for his role in the battle of the ironclads.
His former crew had hoped that Worden would resume his command of the Monitor once he had recovered from his wounds. They sent him a passionate, yet rough hewn letter, addressing “Our Dear and Honored Captain…Hoping to God that we will soon have the pleasure of welcoming you back to us again soon…Since you left we have had no pleasure on board of the Monitor.” The request was signed, “We remain until Death your affectionate crew, The Monitor Boys.”
Once recovered, Worden was sent to Brooklyn to supervise the building of new ironclad vessels. He was given command of the USS Montauk, a Passaic-class monitor, to participate in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
He led the Montauk on several expeditions against Fort McAllister, a Confederate earthen fort on the Ogeechee River below Savannah, Georgia. On January 27, 1863, Worden positioned the Montauk off Fort McAllister and, for three hours, bombarded the fort with 450-pound shells. Although ironclad was hit 13 times, mostly by 10-inch and rifled solid shot, it sustained minimal damage. To further test the Montauk‘s armor, on February 1, Worden brought the Montauk within 700 yards of the fort and commenced firing while taking 61 hits from the Rebels during a fierce four-hour battle. On February 28, 1863, despite being unable to damage the earthen fort with the ships’ guns, Worden concentrated his fire on the grounded blockade runner Rattlesnake, formerly the commerce raider CSS Nashville, near Fort McAllister. After a 20-minute bombardment, the Rattlesnake was ablaze from stem to stern and soon exploded. Worden noted that the moment was “the final disposition of a vessel which had so long been in the minds of the public as a troublesome pest.”
As the tide was falling, Worden headed the Montauk back down river. It struck a torpedo which fractured the hull. The Montauk was only saved because of Worden’s quick thinking: he ordered the ship to run aground; sand sealed the hole before the ship returned to Port Royal Sound.
Worden also commanded the Montauk during Admiral Samuel Francis DuPont’s May 7, 1863, attack on Charleston Harbor before he was detailed to Washington, D.C., to advise the development of new monitors until the war’s conclusion.
After the war, Worden commanded the USS Idaho and the USS Pensacola before being detailed as the superintendent of the United States Naval Academy from 1869 to 1874. There, he was promoted to rear admiral on November 20, 1872. He was commander of the European Squadron from 1874 to 1877, where he concentrated forces in Turkish waters after Russia declared war on Turkey. He served on the Naval Retiring and Examining Boards until his retirement in 1886. Through an act of Congress in recognition of his valiant service, he retired at full sea pay.
Worden died in Washington, D.C., on October 18, 1897, at the age of 69, from pneumonia. A state funeral, attended by President William McKinley and his cabinet, was held at St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House. He was buried in the Worden-Toffey plot in Pawling Cemetery in Pawling, Dutchess County, New York. The pall bearers included several former Monitor Boys such as Patrick Hannan and Wilhelm Durst. Many of the men he served with wanted to be recognized in association with their beloved commander. Several —too many to have been needed— told stories of carrying him after he was wounded at the battle of the Ironclads. His bravery, valor, and excellent leadership have been recognized by the US Navy having named four ships in his honor: USS Worden (torpedo boat destroyer #16), 1902-1920; USS Worden (destroyer #288), 1920-1931; USS Worden (DD-352), 1935-1944; and USS Worden (DLG-18), 1963-2000. The parade field at the United States Naval Academy is also named in his honor.