There was only a small chance that the men who took the Merrimac into the channel would ever see their friends again. Death in the waves, or death in the hands of the Spaniards, was the prospect. Lieutenant Hobson said that he would not take one man more than was needed. A signal was put up on all the ships, to find out the men who were willing to go in the Merrimac. Hundreds of brave fellows sent in their names, begged to go, gave good reasons why they thought they ought to go, and were grieved to be refused. Lieutenant Hobson chose only six, but at the last minute a seventh man got his chance; so, counting Lieutenant Hobson, there were eight men going to almost certain death.
After the passing away of the old wooden ships of the navy, and before our war with Spain, it was often said that opportunities for individual bravery and daring had departed from the navy; but this was disproved in the case of Lieutenant Hobson and his men, and in many other instances. Every man in the fleet was ready to go on the Merrimac and do what he was told to do; and so long as such men man our ships our navy can never be conquered. They will fight to the uttermost and go down with their colors rather than strike them.
Thursday evening, the second of June, arrives, and the Merrimac is all ready for her last voyage. The men are on board, waiting for the time to start. Quietly and fearlessly they pass the night, but they do not sleep, they cannot sleep. Behind the Merrimac, farther out at sea, stand the faithful vessels of our fleet, huge, pale shadows in the night. The full moon lights up the channel that the Merrimac will enter after awhile when the moon is low. On both sides of the channel rise the high cliffs with their forts. Morro Castle frowns upon the scene. Beyond—far beyond, are the mountain tops.
A basket of food and a kettle of coffee had been sent on board by the flagship, and after midnight the men sit down on deck to eat their last meal on board the Merrimac.
A little before two o’clock, Friday morning, June 3d, the Merrimac starts for the channel. Each man is at his post; each knows his duty and intends to do it. The men are not wearing their naval uniforms, but are clad only in woolen underclothes, woolen stockings, with no shoes. Each man wears a life-preserver, and a belt with a revolver fastened to it.
On, on goes the vessel, swiftly, surely, heading for the channel. Suddenly shots begin to pour upon the Merrimac; the Spaniards in the forts have seen her approach. Still she plunges on, not heeding the fire from the forts. Lieutenant Hobson gives the signal to stop the engine, to turn the vessel in the right way across the channel, to fire the torpedoes, to drop the anchors. Shells from the forts are exploding all around, and the noise is terrible. But hard luck meets the Merrimac. A shot has broken her rudder, so she cannot be steered; a shot has broken the chain of one of her anchors, so the anchor is gone; some of the torpedoes will not go off, so not enough holes can be made to sink the Merrimac quickly; the tide is sweeping her into the channel farther than she ought to go.