Saturday, March 8, 1862

The following is taken from Catesby ap Roger Jones's (Executive Officer of the CSS Virginia) publication for the Southern Historical Society, October, 1874. [Mabry]


The frigates Congress and Cumberland temptingly invited an attack. It was fixed for Thursday night, March 6th, 1862; the pilots, of whom there were five, having been previously consulted. The sides were slushed, supposing that it would increase the tendency of the projectiles to glance. All preparations were made, including lights at obstructions. After dark the pilots declared that they could not pilot the ship during the night. They had a high sense of their responsibility. In justice to them it should be stated that it was not easy to pilot a vessel of our great draft under favorable circumstances, and that the difficulties were much increased by the absence of lights, buoys, etc., to which they had been accustomed.

The attack was postponed to Saturday, March 8th, 1862. The weather was favorable. We left the Navy Yard at 11 A. M., against the last half of the flood tide, steamed down the river past our batteries, through the obstructions, across Hampton Roads, to the mouth of James River, where off Newport News lay at anchor the frigates Cumberland and Congress, protected by strong batteries and gunboats. The action commenced about 3 P. M. by our firing the bow gun[2] at the Cumberland, less than a mile distant. A powerful fire was immediately concentrated upon us from all the batteries afloat and ashore. The frigates Minnesota, Roanoke and St. Lawrence, with other vessels, were seen coming from Old Point. We fired at the Congress on passing, but continued to head directly for the Cumberland, which vessel we had determined to run into, and in less than fifteen minutes from the firing of the first gun we rammed her just forward of the starboard fore-chains. There were heavy spars about her bows, probably to ward off torpedoes, through which we had to break before reaching the side of the ship. The noise of crashing timbers were distinctly heard above the din of battle. There was no sign of the hole above water. It must have been large, as the ship soon commenced to careen. The shock to us on striking was slight. We immediately backed the engines. The blow was not repeated. We here lost the prow, and had the stem slightly twisted. The Cumberland[3] fought her guns gallantly as long as they were above water. She went down bravely, with her colors flying. She went down bravely, with her colors flying. One of her shells struck the sill[E8] of the bow-port and exploded; the fragments killed two and wounded a number. Our after nine-inch gun was loaded and ready for firing, when its muzzle was struck by a shell, which broke it off and fired the gun. Another gun also had its muzzle shot off; it was broken so short that at each subsequent discharge its port was set on fire. The damage to the armor was slight. Their fire appeared to have been aimed at our ports. Had it been concentrated at the water-line we would have been seriously hurt, if not sunk. Owing to the ebb tide and our great draft we could not close with the Congress without first going up stream and then turning, which was a tedious operation, besides subjecting us twice to the full fire of the batteries, some of which we silenced.

We were accompanied from the yard by the gunboats Beaufort, Lieutenant-Commander W. H. Parker, and Raleigh, Lieutenant-Commander J. W. Alexander. As soon as the firing was heard up James River, the Patrick Henry, Commander John R. Tucker, Jamestown, Lieutenant-Commander J. N. Barney, and the gunboat Teaser, Lieutenant-Commander W. A. Webb, under command of Captain John R. Tucker, stood down the river, joining us about four o'clock. All these vessels were gallantly fought and handled, and rendered valuable and effective service.

The prisoners from the Congress state that when on [board[E9]] that ship it was seen that we were standing up the river, that three cheers were given under the impression that we had quit the fight. They were soon undeceived. When they saw us heading down stream, fearing the fate of the Cumberland, they slipped their cables, made sail, and ran ashore bows on. We took a position off her quarter, about two cables' length distant, and opened a deliberate fire. Very few of her guns bore on us, and they were soon disabled. The other batteries continued to play on us, as did the Minnesota, then aground about one and one-half miles off. The St. Lawrence also opened on us shortly afterwards[E10]. There was great havoc on board the Congress. She was several times on fire. Her gallant commander, Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, was struck in the breast by the fragment of a shell and instantly killed.[4] The carnage was frightful. Nothing remained but to strike their colors, which they did. They hoisted the white flag, half-masted, at the main and at the spanker gaff. The Beaufort and the Raleigh were ordered to burn her. They went alongside and received[E11] several of her officers and some twenty of her men at prisoners. The officers urgently asked permission to assist their wounded out of the ship. It was granted. They did not return. A sharp fire of musketry from the shore killed some of the prisoners and forced the tugs to leave. A boat was sent from the Virginia to burn her, covered by the Teaser. A fire was opened on them from the shore, and also from the Congress, with both of her white flags flying, wounding Lieutenant Minor and others. We replied to this outrage upon the usages of civilized warfare by reopening on the Congress with hot shot and incendiary shell. Her crew escaped by boats, as did that of the Cumberland. Canister and grape would have prevented it; but in neither case was any attempt made to stop them, though it has been otherwise stated, possibly from our firing on the shore or at the Congress.

We remained near the Congress to prevent her recapture. Had she been retaken, it might have been said that the flag officer permitted it, knowing that his brother[5] was an officer of that vessel.

The Patrick Henry received a shot from the shore in one of her boilers and had to be towed out of the fight; she, however, soon returned and was again hotly engaged.[E13]

A distant and unsatisfactory fire was at times had at the Minnesota. The gunboats also engaged her. We fired canister and grape occasionally in reply to musketry from the shore, which had become annoying.

About this time the flag-officer was badly wounded by a rifle ball, and had to be carried below. His bold bearing[E14] and intrepid conduct won the admiration of all on board. The executive and ordnance officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, succeeded to the command.

The action continued until dusk, when we were forced to seek an anchorage. The Congress was riddled and on fire. A transport steamer was blown up. A schooner was sunk and another captured. We had to leave without [making[E15]] a serious attack on the Minnesota, though we fired on her as we passed on the other side of the Middle Ground, and also at the St. Lawrence.[6] The latter [frigate[E16]] fired at us by broadside, not a bad plan for small calibres against ironclads, if concentrated. It was too dark to aim well. We anchored off our batteries at Sewell Point. The squadron followed.

The Congress[7] continued to burn; "she illuminated the heavens, and varied the scene by the firing of her own guns and the flight of her balls through the air," until shortly after midnight, "when her magazine exploded, and a column of burning matter appeared high in the air, to be followed by the stillness of death" (extract from report of General Mansfield, U. S. A.) One of the pilots chanced, about 11 P. M., to be looking in the direction of the Congress when there passed a strange-looking craft, brought out in bold relief by the brilliant light of the burning ship, which he at once proclaimed to be the Ericsson. We were therefore not surprised in the morning to see the Monitor at anchor near the Minnesota. The latter ship was still aground. Some delay occurred from sending our wounded out of the ship; we had but one serviceable boat left. Admiral Buchanan was landed at Sewell Point.


[2] It killed and wounded ten men at the after pivot gun of the Cumberland. The second shot from the same gun killed and wounded twelve men at her forward pivot gun. Lieutenant Charles C. Simms pointed and fired the gun.[E7]

[3] She was a sailing frigate of 1,716 tons, mounting two ten-inch pivots and twenty-two nine-inch guns. Her crew numbered 376; her loss in killed and wounded was 121.

[4] His sword was sent by flag of truce to his father, Admiral Joseph Smith.

[5] One of the sad attendants of civil war--divided families--was here illustrated. The flag-officer's brother was paymaster of the Congress. The first and second lieutenants had each a brother in the United States army. The father of the fourth lieutenant was also in the United States army. The father of one of the midshipmen was in the United States navy.[E12]

[6] A sailing frigate of fifty guns and 1,726 tons.

[7] A sailing frigate of 1,867 tons, mounting 50 guns. She had a crew of 434 of whom 120 killed and missing.


Transcription Notes:

[E7] Footnotes 2 and 3 (as numbered here) are swapped in the United Service version.

[E8] "still" in the United Service version.

[E9] "board" in the United Service version, omitted in the Mabry version.

[E10] "after" in the United Service version, "afterwards" in the Mabry version.

[E11] "secured" in the United Service version, "received" in the Mabry version.

[E12] Mabry marked this footnote but omitted the text for it. The text here is taken from the United Service version.

[E13] This paragraph was missing in the United Service version.

[E14] "daring" in the United Service version, "bearing" in the Mabry version.

[E15] "making" is inserted here in the United Service version.

[E16] "frigate" is inserted here in the United Service version.


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