The following account is from the Baltimore American as recorded in the Putnam's The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, Vol 4, (1862) on pages 273-275.
The Merrimac made her appearance, coming out from Elizabeth River about noon on Saturday. She stood directly across the roads toward Newport News. As soon as she was made out and her direction ascertained, the crews were beat to quarters on both the Cumberland and Congress, and preparations made for what was felt to be an almost hopeless fight, but the determination to make it as desperate as possible. The Merrimac kept straight on, making, according to the best estimates, about eight miles an hour. As she passed the mouth of the Nansemond River, the Congress threw the first shot at her, which was immediately answered. The Merrimac passed the Congress, discharging a broadside at her, (one shell from which killed and disabled every man except one at gun No. Ten,) and kept on toward the Cumberland, which she approached at full speed, striking her on the port side near the bow, her stem knocking port No. One and the bridle-port into one, whilst her ram cut the Cumberland under water. Almost at the moment of collision, the Merrimac discharged from her forward gun an eleven-inch shell. The shell raked the whole gun-deck, killing ten men at gun No. One, among whom was master mate John Harrington, and cutting off both arms and legs of quarter-gunner Wood. The water rushed in from the hole made below, and in five minutes the ship began to sink by the head. Shell and solid shot from the Cumberland were rained on the Merrimac as she passed ahead, but the most glanced harmlessly from the incline of her iron-plated bomb-roof.
As the Merrimac rounded to and came up she again raked the Cumberland with heavy fire. At this fire the sixteen men at gun No. Ten were killed or wounded, and were all subsequently carried down in the sinking ship.
Advancing with increased momentum, the Merrimac struck the Cumberland on the starboard side, smashing her upper works and cutting another hole below the water line.
The ship now began to rapidly settle, and the scene became most horrible. The cockpit was filled with the wounded, which it was impossible to bring up. The former magazine was under water, but powder was still supplied from the after-magazine, and the firing kept steadily up by men who knew that the ship was sinking under them. They worked desperately and unremittingly, and amid the din and horror of the conflict gave cheers for their flag and the Union, which were joined in by the wounded. The decks were slippery with blood, and arms and legs and chunks of both were strewed about. The Merrimac laid off at easy point-blank range, discharging her broadsides alternately at the Cumberland and the Congress. The water by this time had reached the after-magazine of the Cumberland. The men, however, kept at work, and several cases of powder were passed up and the guns kept in play. Several men in the after shell-room lingered there too long in their eagerness to pass up the shell, and were drowned.
The water had at this time reached the berth or main gun-deck, and it was felt hopeless and useless to continue the fight longer. The word was given for each man to save himself, but after this order, gun No. Seven was fired, when the adjoining gun No. Six was actually under water. This last shot was fired by an active little follow named Matthew Tenney, whose courage had been conspicuous throughout the action. As his port was left open by the recoil of the gun, he jumped to scramble out, but the water rushed in with so much force that he was washed back and drowned. When the order was given to cease firing, and to look out for their safety in the best way possible, numbers scampered through the port-holes, whilst others reached the spar-deck by the companion-ways. Some were incapable to get out by either of these means, and were carried by the rapidly sinking ship. Of those who reached the upper deck, some swam off to the tugs that came out from Newport News.
The Cumberland sank in water nearly to her cross-trees. She went down with her flag still flying, and it still flies from the mast above the water that overwhelmed her, a momento of the bravest, most daring, and yet most hopeless defence that has ever been made by any vessel belonging to any navy in the world. The men fought with a courage that could not be excelled. There was no flinching, no thought of surrender.
The whole number lost of the Cumberland's crew was one hundred and twenty.
The Cumberland being thoroughly demolished, the Merrimac left her--not, to the credit of the rebels it ought to be stated, firing either at the men clinging to the rigging, or at the small boats on the propeller Whildin, which were busily employed rescuing the survivors of her crew--and proceeded to attack the Congress. The officers of the Congress, seeing the fate of the Cumberland, and aware that she also would be sunk if she remained within reach of the iron beak of the Merrimac, had got all sail on the ship, with the intention of running her ashore. The tug-boat Zouave also came out and made fast to the Cumberland and assisted in towing her ashore.
The Merrimac then surged up, gave the Congress a broadside, receiving one in return, and getting astern, raked the ship fore and aft. This fire was terribly destructive, a shell killing every man at one of the guns except one. Coming again broadside to the Congress, the Merrimac ranged slowly backward and forward, at less than one hundred yards distant, and fired broadside after broadside into the Congress. The latter vessel replied manfully and obstinately, every gun that could be brought to bear being discharged rapidly, but with little effect upon the iron monster. Some of the balls caused splinters of iron to fly from her mailed roof, and one shot, entering a port-hole, is supposed to have dismounted a gun, as there was no further firing from that port. The guns of the Merrimac appeared to be specially trained on the after-magazine of the Congress, and shot after shot entered that part of the ship.
Thus slowly drifting down with the current and again steaming up, the Merrimac continued for an hour to fire into her opponent. Several times the Congress was on fire, but the flames were kept down. Finally the ship was on fire in so many places, and the flames gathering such force, that it was hopeless and suicidal to keep up the defence any longer. The National flag was sorrowfully hauled down and a white flag hoisted at the peak.
After it was hoisted the Merrimac continued to fire, perhaps not discovering the white flag, but soon after ceased firing.
A small rebel tug that had followed the Merrimac out of Norfolk then came alongside the Congress, and a young officer gained the gun-deck through a port-hole, announced that he came on board to take command, and ordered the officers on board the tug.
The officers of the Congress refused to go on board, hoping from the nearness to the shore that they would be able to reach it, and unwilling to become prisoners whilst the least chance of escape remained. Some of the men, supposed to number about forty, thinking the tug was one of our vessels, rushed on board. At this moment the members of an Indiana regiment at Newport News, brought a Parrott gun down to the beach and opened fire upon the rebel tug. The tug hastily put off, and the Merrimac again opened fire upon the Congress. The fire not being returned from the ship, the Merrimac commenced shelling the woods and camps at Newport News, fortunately, however, without doing much damage, only one or two casualties occurring.
By the time all were ashore, it was seven o'clock in the evening, and the Congress was in a bright sheet of flame fore and aft. She continued to burn until twelve o'clock at night, her guns which were loaded and trained, going off as they became heated. A shell from one struck a sloop at Newport News and blew her up. At twelve o'clock the fire reached her magazines, and with a tremendous concussion her charred remains blew up. There were some five tons of gunpowder in her magazines, and about twenty thousand dollars in paymaster Buchanan's safe,
The loss of life on board the Congress is not over one hundred and twenty, and possibly may not exceed a hundred. The crew consisted of two hundred and seventy-seven blue jackets, eighty-eight of the coast-guards, forty-seven marines, and twenty-two officers--in all, a total of four hundred and thirty-four. At the muster at Newport News, one hundred and ninety-six blue jackets and coast-guards and twenty-two marines appeared; about forty went on board the rebel tugs and are prisoners, and about forty, it is estimated, left before the muster and made their way to Fortress Monroe. About one hundred are thus unaccounted for, and are undoubtedly killed.
After sinking the Cumberland and firing the Congress, the Merrimac, with the Yorktown and Jamestown, stood off in the direction of the steam-frigate Minnesota, which had been for some hours aground, about three miles below Newport News. This was about five o'clock on Saturday evening. The rebel commander of the Merrimac, either fearing the greater strength of the Minnesota, or wishing, as it afterward appeared, to capture this splendid ship without doing serious damage to her, did not attempt to run the Minnesota down, as he had run down the Cumberland. He stood off about a mile distant, and with the Yorktown and Jamestown threw shell and shot at the frigate. The Minnesota, though from being aground unable to manoeuvre or bring all her guns to bear, was fought splendidly. She threw a shell to the Yorktown, which set her on fire, and she was towed off by her consort the Jamestown. From the reappearance of the Yorktown next day, the fire must have been suppressed without serious damage. The after-cabins of the Minnesota were torn away in order to bring two of her large guns to bear from her stern-ports, the position in which she was lying enabling the rebels to attack her there with impunity. She received two serious shots: one, an eleven-inch shell, entered near the waist, passed through the chief engineer's room, knocking both rooms into ruins, and wounding several men. Another shot went clear through the chain-plate, and another passed through the main-mast. Six of the crew were killed outright, on board the Minnesota, and nineteen wounded. The men, though fighting at great disadvantage, stuck manfully to their guns, and exhibited a spirit that could have enabled them to compete successfully, with any ordinary vessel.
About nightfall, the Merrimac, satisfied with her afternoon's work of death and destruction, steamed in under Sewall's Point. The day thus closed most dismally for our side, and with the most gloomy apprehensions of what would occur the next day. The Minnesota was at the mercy of the Merrimac, and there appeared no reason why the iron monster might not clear the Roads of our fleet, destroy all the stores and warehouses on the beach, drive our troops into the Fortress, and command Hampton Roads against any number of wooden vessels the Government might send there. Saturday was a terribly dismal night at Fortress Monroe.
About nine o'clock, Ericsson's battery, the Monitor, arrived at the Roads, and upon her performance was felt that the safety of their position in a great measure depended. Never was a greater hope placed upon apparently mere insignificant means, but never was a great hope more triumphantly fulfilled. The Monitor is the reverse of formidable; lying low on the water, with a plain structure amidship, a small pilot house forward, a diminutive smoke-pipe aft, at a mile's distance she might be taken for a raft, with an army ambulance amidship. It is only when on board that her compact strength and formidable means of offensive warfare are discoverable.
When Lieut. Worden was informed of what had occurred, though his crew were suffering from exposure and loss of rest from a stormy voyage from New-York, he at once made preparations for taking part in whatever might occur next day.
Before daylight on Sunday morning, the Monitor moved up, and took a position alongside the Minnesota, lying between the latter ship and the Fortress, where she could not be seen by the rebels, but was ready, with steam up, to slip out.
Up to now, on Sunday, the rebels gave no indication of what were their further designs. The Merrimac laid up toward Craney Island, in view, but motionless. At one o'clock she was observed in motion, and came out, followed by the Yorktown and Jamestown, both crowded with troops. The object of the leniency toward the Minnesota on the previous evening thus became evident. It was the hope of the rebels to bring the ships board the Minnesota, overpower here crew by the force of numbers, and capture both vessels and men.
As the rebel flotilla came out from Sewall's Point, the Monitor stood out boldly toward them. It is doubtful if the rebels knew what to make of the strange-looking battery, or if they despised it. Even the Yorktown kept on approaching, and a thirteen shell from the Monitor sent her to the right about. The Merrimac and the Monitor kept on approaching each other, the former waiting until she would choose her distance, and the latter apparently not knowing what to make of her funny-looking antagonist. The first shot from the Monitor was fired when about one hundred yards distant from the Merrimac, and this distance was subsequently reduced to fifty yards, and at no time during the furious cannonading that ensued, were the vessels more than two hundred yards apart.
It is impossible to reproduce the animated descriptions given of this grand contest between two vessels of such formidable offensive and defensive powers. The scene was in plain view from Fortress Monroe, and in the main facts all the spectators agree. At first the fight was very furious, and the guns of the Monitor were fired rapidly. As she carries but two guns, whilst the Merrimac has eight, of course she received two or three shots for every one she gave. Finding that her antagonist was much more formidable than she looked, the Merrimac attempted to run her down. The superior speed and quicker turning qualities of the Monitor enabled her to avoid these shocks, and to give the Merrimac, as she passed, a shot. Once the Merrimac struck her near midships, but only to prove that the battery could not be run down nor shot down. She spun round like a top and as she got her bearing again, sent one of her formidable missiles into her huge opponent.
The officers of the Monitor, at this time, had gained such confidence in the impregnability of their battery, that they no longer fired at random and hastily. The fight then assumed its most interesting aspects. The Monitor ran round the Merrimac repeatedly, probing her sides, seeking for weak points, and reserving her fire with coolness, until she had the right shot and the exact range, and made her experiments accordingly. In this way the Merrimac received three shots, which must have seriously damaged her. Neither of these shots rebounded at all, but appeared to cut their way clear through iron and wood into the ship. Soon after receiving the third shot, the Merrimac turned toward Sewell's Point, and made off at full speed.
The Monitor followed the Merrimac until she got well inside Sewall's Point and then returned to the Minnesota. It is probable that the pursuit would have continued still further, but Lieut. Worden, her commander, had previously had his eyes injured, and it was also felt that, as so much depended on the Monitor, it was imprudent to expose her unnecessarily. Lieut. Worden, at the time he was injured, was looking out of the eye-holes of the pilot-house, which are simply horizontal slits, about half an inch wide. A round shot from the Merrimac struck against these slits as Lieut. Worden was looking through, causing some scalings from the iron, and fragments of the paint to fly with great force against his eyes. The injury was necessarily very painful, and it was once feared that he would lose one of his eyes. Before, however, he left Old Point, it was thought this danger had been removed.