The following was transcribed from a copy at the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA.   

The original pamphlet contains many typographical and spelling errors. These have been reproduced as in the original document.


HISTORY

of the Famous Battle Between the Iron-Clad

MERRIMAC

C. S. N.

and the Iron-Clad

MONITOR

and the Cumberland and Congress, of the U. S. Navy

RICHARD CURTIS
THE WRITER
(OF NORFOLK, VIRGINIA.)
MARCH THE 8TH AND 9TH, 1862
AS SEEN BY A MAN AT THE GUN


P R E F A C E

Some time in January, 1862 the writer of this book was transferred from Co. A, 32nd Regt., Va. Vols., then stationed at Yorktown, Va., to the C.S. Navy, and for the "Merrimac" I am the only enlisted man of her crew now living in Norfolk or its vicinity. Mr. Wesley Messick, now living on Back River, Va., was also one of her crew.

The reader of this book will certainly notice the difference between the two Commanders; the writer gives both sides.


PART 1.

The "Merrimac." The First Engagement.

- - - -

As there have been so many articles written about the right between the Confederate Iron Clad "MERRIMAC" and the "CUMBERLAND," "CONGRESS" and Iron Clad "MONITOR" of the Federal Navy; many of them are misleading and out of place, some of them written by men who were not there.

It will look quite strange at this date to read an article written by an Enlisted Boy at the gun, one who was on the "Merrimac" from the time she came out of the dry dock until she was destroyed by her crew in the Light of Craney Island.

In writing this article I do not pretend to tell every thing that happened in that fight for that would be impossible, as we were all--with the exception of Capt. Buchanan and the Pilots--housed in and could only see through the ports, and only a few had that privilege; a full crew was stationed at every gun and the Officer in Command would not have allowed any man outside of the gun crew to be looking around the different ports. Every man had his place and there was no time to be running around the ship, the writer knows this to be a fact; in the forward part of the ship as he was stationed at the bow gun, and no one officer or man outside of the gun crew attempted such a thing, so in taxing my memory the many years back I will only give things as I saw them.

The 8th day of March, 1862, was a memorable day in the history of the American Country, it was going to revolutionise[E1] the American Navy of the future. It was a beautiful morning and continued so throughout the day, laying at the wharf of the Gosport Navy Yard was the newly constructed Iron Clad "Merrimac," the former U. S. Steam Frigate "Merrimac" after she had been burned to the waters edge, gotten up by the Confederates, refitted and ironed over, it was a busy morning, men were hurrying about showing that preparation were being made for some kind of a move, you did not have to wait long, for soon Capt. Buchanan was on board and four of Virginia's best Pilots, and the order soon rang out "cast off the moorings" and under the management of the Pilots this new construction steamed slowly down the Elizabeth River; she looked very much like a house all submerged under water but its roof.

Great crowds lined both sides of the river cheering us on to battle, our men were ordered on deck and responded to these greetings. A little distance down the river the Confederates had placed some obstruction and as our ship was of very heavy draft, drawing nearly all the water in the Elizabeth River, it took some little time in getting through, but our Pilots were equal to the occasion and slowly she steamed for Hampton Roads, we soon passed Craney Island, then Newport News was opened to our view, also the "Cumberland" and "Congress", two large battle ships of the U. S. Navy quietly laying at anchor just inside the mouth of James River and opposite Newport News, we continued down passing Sewells Point, this opened to our view Fortress Monroe and the Rip Raps, the first mentioned was on the north side and the other on the south side of Hampton Roads, where were lying at anchor several ships of the U.S. Government. These scenes were very familiar to the writer, as he had often sailed over them being born in Hampton, Va. and a sailor boy. Now, having gotten out of the Elizabeth River we struck the south channel of Hampton Roads and steamed towards the mouth of James River, where the two doomed vessels lay--the "Congress" being the nearest, the "Cumberland" a little higher up. Our crew was called to quarters and buckled on their side arms all ready and anxious to fight; no one can appreciate this position unless he was there. The writer belonged to the first division and was stationed at the bow gun and second man to the bow port, giving him a good view, as we approached the enemy this division was commanded by Lieutenant Charles C. Simms: of Va., a brave officer as I had occasion to see.

Hampton Roads, with its fine sheet of water, was indeed beautiful, not a ripple on its surface, a day too beautiful to be bathed in blood of our fellow man, but thus it was so.

While the men stood at their guns that old fighter, Capt. Buchanan, spoke to the men encouraging them, telling them just what he was going to do; when within 1,000 yards of the "Cumberland" our gun belched forth its first shot and struck the "Cumberland" just about her fore chains on the starboard side; the Capt. of this gun was named James Cuhill, of New Orleans, and as brave a man as ever stood behind a gun. Soon the fight became general and thence was one continual roar of cannons; as we passed the "Congress"--which was said to be a 54 gun ship--gave us a full broadside--and it was a terrible noise, and most of us gave a start when our Commander, Charles C. Simms, said "be quiet, men, I have received as heavy a fire in open air;" this broadside had no effect on the iron sides of our ship.

Several of the enemy's ships started up from Fortress Monroe to join in the Battle, among them was the large Steam Frigate "Minnesota," which taking up the North channel went hard aground--a lucky shot for her--if she had gotten there she would have certainly been destroyed. We were getting close down to the "Cumberland" and all the ships battering hard; I heard the voice of Capt. Buchanan, say "lookout men, I am going to Ram that ship," meaning the "Cumberland," when I heard that like a flash I looked out of the port and just as we ramed[E1] her I saw a sight that has been ever since indelibly stamped on my mind: all on the starboard side of the "Cumberland" was lined with officers and men with rifles and boarding pikes, all ready to repel us, thinking we intended to board her; I saw an officer, hat off and his sword raised, cheering on his men; this was the sight of a moment, then came the terrible crash and at the same time our gun was fired, adding to the terrible hole in her side, as the gun recoiled back the Capt. of the gun cried "sponge," and then Brave Dunbar, one of our gun crew and a good friend of the writer, jumped over the breechin, threw his head partly out of the port and was instantly killed by being shot in the head from the deck of the "Cumberland"--he fell at my feet--and was the first man killed. Our ship swung away from the "Cumberland" and with the flood-tide went some little distance up James River, although the "Cumberland" was rapidly sinking, yet her officers and men kept up the fight until she sank beneath the water of James River.

The U. S. Government should never be ashamed of the action of her officers and men on that memorable day they fought nobly. It took some little time for the Pilots to get our ship around so that she could head down stream. About this time the Cutter was called away--this was a small boat belonging to our ship: the writer was a member of her crew and went on deck to get in with others of the crew to row an officer to the "Congress" to take her surrender, as she had hoisted a white flag; a canon ball had passed through the bottom of our Cutter and she was of no use, consequently we did not have the pleasure of going to the "Congress." After being housed up for some hours it was quite refreshing to stand on the upper deck of our ship, and the writer fully appreciated it; he saw the "Cumberland" at the bottom of James River, men up on her rigging and small boats from both sides taking them off; we saw the enemy on shore running in all directions; the "Congress" had slipped her cable and gone ashore with her bow on.

Lieutenant Minor, of our ship, was sent by Captain Buchanan, in the only boat fit for use, to take the surrender of the "Congress"; while approaching this ship men on the "Congress" and from the shore fired into the approaching boat, shooting Lieutenant Minor through the body and also wounding one of the men in the boat with him; the boat was towed back to our ship and Lieutenant Minor and his crew was taken on board. Capt. Buchanan became thouroughly[E1] mad and ordered the Pilots to place ship in position to rake the "Congress," which was quickly done; we lay under her stern and pounded hot shot and incendiary shells into her until we set her afire; after this two of our little gunboats went along side of the "Congress," but accomplished very little, as the fire from the shore was terrific.

Capt. Buchanan had remained on deck of our ship all the evening firing his rifle at the enemy's officers whenever he could get a chance; by too much exposure he was shot in the leg by some one from the shore, then fell one of the bravest officers of the Confederate Navy. Lieutenant Catesby Jones, of Va., then took command of the "Merrimac," and as darkness began to gather around us our ship was headed towards Sewells Point; on our way down one of the enemy's ships gave us a broadside, striking us on our port side and knocking off the mouth of our port bow gun, killing one man by the name of Gansmere, making it the second man killed on our ship during the fight.

We arrived at Sewells Point and dropped anchor and lay there all night. The "Congress" was a grand sight, being all ablaze from her deck to her top. Thus ended the 8th day of March, 1862, with the destruction of two of the finest Battle Ships of the U. S. Navy. The writer got a chance and went to sleep and slept without rocking until broad day on the morning of the 9th.


PART 2.

The Second Engagement.

- - - -

The 9th of March (Sunday), 1862, was ushered in as bright and beautiful as the day preceeding[E1] it, the broad waters of Hampton Roads were as smooth as glass, not a ripple on its surface, an ideal day to go to Church, but alas it was soon to be broken by the roar of canon and angry men seeking each others lives. The Old Fighter lay quietly at anchor, while the officers and men were getting ready for the day's work; no one on our Ship had any idea what we would have to contend with before the day closed. The James River Fleet and also the small vessels from Norfolk lay close by, towards Newport News lay the large Steam Frigate "Minnesota" hard and fast aground, where she went Saturday evening; to the right of us was Fortress Monroe and the Rip Raps, with several U. S. War Ships laying at anchor.

Capt. Buchanan having been wounded the Command of the "Merrimac" fell on Lieutenant Catesby Jones, and Lieutenant Charles C. Simms, of our division, on Saturday became Executive Officer of the ship. Lieutenant Hunter Davidson, of Virginia, one of the smartest and bravest officers on the "Merrimac," took charge of our division.

About 9 o'clock on the morning of the 9th everything being ready we weighed anchor and steamed towards the "Minnesota" and at range of 1,000 yards we opened up the fight; the enemy was quick to respond, and then commenced a fine artilery[E1] duel between the two ships. Every shot we fired struck the "Minnesota:" the first shot passed through her side, exploding on the inside of the ship, causing considerable destruction and setting the ship on fire; the next shot went through the boiler of the Tugboat "Dragon" and exploded her boiler--this boat was laying alongside of the "Minnesota."

The "Minnesota" had fine gunners and many of her shots struck our Ship, one of them struck the edge of our bow port and part of it came inside of our ship and badly wounded one of the men at the bow gun. Right abaft the bow gun the Galley pipe ran through the upper deck; this pipe had been taken down and a man could get his head through, whereby getting a full view of the enemy; this position was occupied by Mr. Davidson, with a pair of marine glasses he could see and report every shot from our ship and its effect on the enemy. This duel had been going on some time when I heard Lieutenant Davidson say that they were leaving the "Minnesota" on a raft; this caused me to look through the bow port and I saw something like a raft coming from the starboard side of the "Minnesota" and crossing her bow; after she had gotten in full view Lieutenant Davidson came down from his position and said to the men, "by george, it is the Erricon[E1] Battery, look out for her hot work," which soon came.

Quite a number of men in the past have undertaken to write up this fight, and it has been universally believed that the Federal Gunboat whipped the "Merrimac" in that fight, and afterwards destroyed her; the writer, without any animosity whatever, emphatically denies this statement; it would have been just as much impossible for the little "Monitor" to have whiped[E1] the "Merrimac" as it would for the "Merrimac," if she was living to-day, to whip one of the Government Battleships of this present day.

The "Monitor" steamed slowly towards us and soon opened fire; she lay flat with the water and looked exactly like a cheese box on a flat table; nothing could be seen except her turret. The fight between the two Ironclads became general; they drew very near together, in fact our bow struck the "Monitor" just a little forward of her turret, just before this happened Lieutenant Davidson , the commander of our division, said to me "take one of those guns and shoot the first man that you see on board of that Ship,: meaning the "Monitor." The quarter gunner had placed all along the side of our ship loaded Springfield Rifles and the writer took one of these, and a quarter gunner by the name of Sheriff, from Baltimore, Md., another and we both took our positions at the bow port, the writer on the starboard side and Sheriff on the port side, both on our knees, but not in prayer. By this time we had struck the "Monitor" and I was looking right into port of the "Monitor" for that man, Sheriff kept saying to me look out Curtis, look out Curtis, which I was doing with all my might; while looking for that man I saw one of her guns coming slowly out of her ports and looking me squarely in the face, Sheriff and myself thought it was time to move, which we did quickly. Saw no man, fired no gun; the "Monitor" fired her gun and the ball came very near coming in our port. After this she fell along our port side, then the writer and every one else in the forward part of our ship lost sight of the "Monitor." Now our Port Battery had full sway, and the terrible firing went on; we stood waiting for further developments, the "Monitor" having worked herself down our port side, rounding the stern of the "Merrimac" came up along her starboard side, both ships fighting hard, it was then that the writer looked once more through the port and saw the "Monitor" going as fast as she could toward Fortress Monroe, she had given up the fight. Our Old Fighter still ready for battle stood bows on "MONARCH OF ALL SHE SURVEYED," all her boats had been stove in, her smoke stack riddled with shot and shell, one of her shots struck our port side forcing in the iron and knocking splinters from the wood work on the inside of our ship, slightly wounding a Signal Quarter Master named Rice, from Richmond, Va.; she looked somewhat delapidated[E1] but still able to successfully combat with all of the U. S. Government War Fleet lying around Fortress Monroe. Soon the Old Fighter turned her bow towards Norfolk and triumphantly steamed away, thus ended the second day fight.

The U. S. Frigate "Congress" burned to the waters edge; the sloop of war "Cumberland" sunk to bottom of the James River; the steam frigate "Minnesota" badly battered and the brave little "Monitor," with its Commander disabled, seeks protection under the guns of Fortress Monroe.

I want to say right here, as an eye witness and participant, that the U. S. Government never had any braver or better fighter than Lieutenant JOHN L. WORDEN and his CREW OF MEN, of the U. S. Ironclad "Monitor," and if there is any honor in battle then this Government of the U. S. of America should never fail to bestow all honor on Lieutenant Worden and his brave crew. The writer was on the poor side and when his Country's flag went down he ceased to be a sailor or soldier.

The second day's battle had been bravely fought by both sides and the conqueror, the "Merrimac," had returned to the Navy yard about 4 o'clock Sunday, March 9th, 1862, there to remain for some time, repairing the damage received.

In the judgment of the writer it would have been better for the "Merrimac" to have sunk out of sight at the Navy Yard wharfs than to have come to such an untimely end. Her refitting consumed about a month and then she was in fine condition, better than she had ever been; a fine set of officers and men, who had tested this ship and knew just what she could do, and were anxious for battle.

Now comes one of the unexplainable arrangements made by Officers of the Confederate Government, I say unexplainable, because no one could understand why such brave men as

Lieutenant Catesby Jones.
          "         Charles C. Simms.
          "         John Taylor Wood.
          "         Hunter Davidson.

The last two named made a reputation for bravery for themselves some little later in the war, should have been ignored and a very old gentleman, who had to be helped up the side of the ship, put in Command. The writer has no intention to reflect on the character of Commodore Tatnall,[E2] and would not detract anything from his former career as a Naval Officer, but it is an undisputable[E1] fact that he should have been at home, where he would have had proper attention, these are facts that should be thoroughly understood by every Virginian, old or young, as the "Merrimac" was designed by a Virginia and constructed by a Virginian on Virginia soil, therefore she was a Virginian construction.

About the 11th of April, 1862, accompanied by our small wooden vessel's the "Merrimac" started once more for Hampton Roads; the weather was fine and the waters smooth, we went down just about where the bell buoy now stands in Hampton Roads and opposite Hampton Creek, and the writer went on the upper deck and looked over to his old home, Hampton; the "Monitor" with the other federal vessels lay at anchor under the guns of Fortress Monroe. A large steamer said to be the "Vanderbilt" lay at anchor just outside of the Rip Raps: it was said that she was fitted with a very long iron prow to run us down, if such was the case she failed to come near our ship. There were some two or three sailing vessels laying becalmed just inside of what is known as head of Hampton Bar, about 4 or 5 miles from Fortress Monroe, one of our Gunboats went in there and took them in tow for Norfolk; one of the Federal Gunboats came up from Fortress Monroe on the inside of Hampton Bar, said to be the "Naugatuck," with one gun, when opposite our ship fired a shot at us, which I think went over our ship. The enemy also fired at us from the Rip Raps, all this time the writer stood on the upper deck and was an eye witness to all these things. Never was there a better time for this great fighting ship to have won greater laurels than at that present time, there she lay almost in gun shot of Fortress Monroe--the weather beautiful, Hampton Roads smooth and calm plenty of water for our ship, and if there was any torpedos the old officers and men of our ship were not afraid of them.

In the judgment of the writer and from what he learned when he went home after the war, the "Merrimac" could have driven every soul out of Fortress Monroe and whipped all the enemy's fleet around it.

I do not want to boast but the "Merrimac" had gone through two day's of fearful canonading and at this present time she was in far better condition than at first, wooden vessels were not more than paper to her, as she had already been proven the only thing that the enemy had that could have offered any resistance at all was the "Monitor," and she showed no inclination to fight.

Now comes the question, whose fault was it that the "Merrimac" did not do those things which she could have done, but on contrary turned back for Sewells Point, where we lay all night, the enemy rejoicing at our departure?

For some purpose the next morning we came up to Norfolk and anchored at the usual anchorage of Naval vessels off Town Point and lay there some time, with our Commander at the hotel in Norfolk. Finally our ship went up to the Navy Yard and lay there until 8th of May, 1862; on this day news was brought to the Navy Yard that the enemy's ships were shelling Sewells Point and most all of the workingmen in the Yard were knocked off from their work and sent to wind our ship, which was laying head up the stream, it took some little time to do this, as our ship was very heavy, finally we got her around and we started at once for Sewells Point. After passing Craney Island the crew was called to quarters, buckled on their side arms already for battle, and the prospect was very good for a lively tussle. The writer was at the Bow Port and had a good view of the enemy, and it was a pretty sight, four of the Federal Ships namely: the "Monitor," "Semmeole," "Naugatuck" and "St. Lawrence," pouring a continued stream of fire into the Batteries at Sewells Point. To our disgust all of the Federal Ships turned tail and made for Fortress Monroe; our ship continued down some little distance and then turned back and anchored inside of Sewells Point, and one of our small boats came alongside and took Commodore Tatnall to Norfolk to his hotel. Some time later in the day the "Monitor" came up from Old Point and when near Sewells Point fired a gun, inviting us to come out and fight, which every one on our ship was anxious to do. The Ex. Officer signaled up to Norfolk to Commodore Tatnall, explaining matters; the answer came back, "don't fight unless you are pressed."

There lay the finest Ironclad Ship in American waters invited to fight but could not do so because the Commander was ashore. The writer is not after any notoriety or any praise: his war days are over with enemity[E1] to none and a kind feeling for all men, is his sentiments, but he is only stating facts as he saw them.

The next day the Commander came on board and in the morning of May the 11th, 1862, after we had breakfast the writer and others of the Cutter's crew with, I think, Lieutenant John Pembrook Jones, of Elizabeth City Co., Va., rowed up to the Navy yard and as we passed the Portsmouth ferry the Confederates were throwing stores overboard and several steamboats were on fire and had drifted over to the Berkley shores. We continued up to the Navy Yard, the officer got out of the boat and went up into the yard, very soon he came back and we rowed to Campbell's wharf in Norfolk, where the officer got out and walked to the Custom House, while we rowed around to Town Point; some one standing on the wharf said that the enemy was coming into the City and was then on Church street. From Town Point we rowed to Pinners Point and thence to our ship; I think it was about 4 o'clock in the evening, some little time after the boat's crew had their dinner, all were called to work; I soon found out that they were going to lighten Ship for the purpose of taking her to Richmond, she drawing too much water to pass several shoal points in James River. Notwithstanding what has been said the "Merrimac" could not have stood an ordinary storm in Chesapeake Bay; we worked until after dark throwing overboard pig iron; about this time the Boatswain Mate blew his whistle, saying all hands splice the main brace, this meant two grog tubs, one forward and one after, the men quickly responded to this call--when I had taken my drink I went back to the forward part of the ship, very soon our ship was in motion, she had slipped her cable and was soon hard and fast aground in the light of Craney Island. There was great confusion on our ship, there was no discipline, no one seemed to have any control and there was many things done that the writer will not speak about. The writer went down on the berth deck and got some of his clothes, came on deck, got into one of the boats and went ashore, landing on the main land inside of Craney Island and about daylight the officers and men, with a few exceptions, made their way to Suffolk. Thus the finest fighting ship that ever floated on American waters at that time came to an untimely end at the hands of her friends, with no enemy within 8 or 10 miles of her--a sad finish for such a bright beginning.

It is said that an Investigation was held in Richmond, Va., some time later in regard to the destruction of the "Merrimac," and to smooth things over to suit themselves they threw the blame on the Pilots, which was a shame to such worthy men as Wm. Parrish, Hezekiah Williams, Geo. Wright and Wm. Clarke--the last named was a cousin of the writer--and they were all first class Pilots in Va. waters, all Virginians by birth, men who stood at the front those two days of heavy fighting and managed that heavy draft ship in a narrow channel were no cowards and did not authorize the destruction of the "Merrimac," their memory should be highly praised by all Virginians.

THE END.



[E1]  As (mis)spelled in the original.
[E2] The crew of the Virginia universally spelled this as "Tatnall."  However, it appears that "Tattnall" is the accepted spelling.


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Transcription copyright 1997 by Martha H. Tyson and Mabry Tyson