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Lt. Augustus Davis Ayling

Eyewitness to the Monitor versus Merrimack battle - Centerville

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Augustus Ayling was not yet a Cape Codder when, at age       20, he answered President Lincoln’s call for volunteers. But the colorful diary the well-educated Lowellite kept during his Civil War service with Massachusetts’ 29th Infantry rests in Centerville’s Historical Museum. This pleasing Cape town was home to Elizabeth Cornish—the sea captain’s daughter whom Ayling married—as well as his own residence during his retirement years.

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In the 1990s, Centerville author Dr. Charles Herberger—aware that Ayling’s wife was an ancestor of his own wife—came across the diary gathering dust on a museum shelf. He decided to edit and publish it. “I realized its special significance to Civil War history,” says Herberger, now 92. “It is perhaps unique in that it records personal impressions from all the major theatres of battle with a vivid verisimilitude that brings the scenes of war—both in its routine and its excitement of conflict—to life.”

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One of Ayling’s compelling entries is his description of the iconic naval encounter between the uss Monitor and the Confederate Merrimack in Hampton Roads, Virginia, on March 8, 1862. Looking like giant tin cans afloat, these were the first ironclad vessels to do battle, and the struggle initiated modern naval warfare. On the previous day, the Merrimack—a scuttled frigate revitalized with iron armor—had sunk two Federal warships and was keen on destroying others to break the Union’s blockade. But she hadn’t counted on the arrival of the gunboat Monitor, fresh from New York with its own iron fittings. Ayling, stationed at nearby Fort Monroe, offers a firsthand account of the battle:

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