John L. Worden was born in Westchester County, New York, in 1818. In 1834, he was appointed midshipman, and served in the Brazil Squadron before attending the Philadelphia Naval School. During the 1840s, he was assigned to the Pacific Squadron and the Naval Observatory before serving on a storeship and other vessels on the West Coast during the Mexican War. After the war, he had duties at the Naval Observatory, cruised the Mediterranean, and served in the Home Squadron. He was stationed in Washington during the secession crisis, when Lincoln sent him to Pensacola with secret orders to reinforce Fort Pickens. Arrested on his return journey, he was held prisoner until his exchange seven months later.
During the Civil War, Worden was assigned to command the ironclad Monitor. He supervised her completion as well as commanded her in the famous battle against the Merrimac. He was wounded and nearly blinded during the battle, and his conduct during the action gained him national fame. In appreciation, Congress gave him a vote of thanks and promoted him to captain in February 1863. At that time, he was commanding the Montauk, as part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.
In the last year of the war, Worden was engaged in ironclad construction work at New York. He was promoted to commodore and, in 1872, to rear admiral. He also served as superintendent of the Naval Academy from 1869-1874. After leaving the Academy, he commanded the European Squadron and served as a member of various navy boards until his retirement in December 1886. He continued to live in Washington, D.C., where he died in 1897.