Transcribed from The Southern Historical Society Papers, v. 41 (1916), pp 166-178.
Being one of the lieutenants of the Virginia (Merrimac) during the whole of her career under the Confederate flag, I give the following account from my own knowledge of what took place in that famous naval battle of the Confederacy, for it is as fresh in my mind as if it happened yesterday.
When the Federals evacuated the Norfolk Navy-Yard immediately after the passage by Virginia of the ordinance of secession, they set fire to the public property there. This included the largest battleship then in the world, viz: the Pennsylvania, of 120 guns, used as a receiving ship, and several valuable vessels lying in ordinary--that is, stripped of their rigging and spars and roofed over and put in charge of caretakers. Among these was the frigate United States, which, under command of Decatur, had captured the British frigate Guerriere, and the then modern steam frigate Merrimac. For some reasons the Federals did not set fire to the old frigate, and when the Confederates afterward tried to sink her as an obstruction in the channel below Norfolk, it was found impossible to cut through her hard live oak timbers. I shall tell later what use we made of her.
The Merrimac, with her sister ships, the Minnesota, the Colorado, the Roanoke and the Wabash, represented the highest type of naval architecture reached at that time. She was a full rigged sailing vessel and steamer combined, of about 3,000 tons displacement, and carried a battery of forty nine-inch Dahlgren guns.
Before she had been completely destroyed by the fire lit by the retreating Federals, the Confederates succeeded in sinking her in order to save what was left. Subsequently the hull was raised and converted into the formidable ironclad destined to revolutionize naval architecture and tactics.
The following description of the completed ironclad is from the pen of her executive officer, Lieutenant Catesby Jones:
"The hull was 275 feet long. About 160 feet of the central portion was covered by a roof of wood and iron, inclining about 36 degrees. The wood was two feet thick. It consisted of oak plank four inches by twelve laid up and down next the iron, and two courses of pine, one longitudinal of eight-inch thickness, the other twelve inches thick. The intervening space on top was closed by permanent gratings of two-inch square iron, two and one-half inches apart, leaving openings for four hatches, one near each end and one forward and one abaft the smokestack. The roof did not project beyond the hull.
"The armor, consisting of two courses of two-inch solid iron plates, was bolted to the wooden backing, the inner course longitudinally, the outside course up and down, making the thickness of armor four inches. The hull, extending two feet beyond the roof, was plated with one-inch iron.
"The prow was of cast iron, wedge-shaped, and weighted 1,500 pounds. It was about two feet under water, and projected about two feet from the stem. It was not well fastened. The rudder and propeller were unprotected.
"The battery consisted of ten guns, four single-barreled Brooks rifles and six nine-inch Dahlgren shell guns. Two of the rifles, bow and stern pivots, were seven-inch, the other two, on the broadside, 6-4-inch guns, one on each side, near the furnaces, were fitted for firing hot shot. The only solid shot used in the fight were those that had been cast for this special purpose.
"The engines were radically defective, and had been condemned as such by the United States government a few months before.
"The crew, numbering 320 men, had been hard to obtain. They were made up mostly of volunteers from the various regiments stationed about Norfolk at the time. I think the Georgians among them were in the majority. There was a sprinkling of old man-of-war's men, whose value at the time could not be overestimated. Leaving these latter out of the reckoning, we had a crew that had never even seen a great gun like these they were soon to handle in a battle against the greatest of odds ever before successfully encountered."
We drilled this crew at the guns of the old frigate United States every day for about two weeks, while the Merrimac was undergoing her remodeling. The first and only practice of these men behind the guns of the Merrimac herself was in actual battle.
We had all been brought up in the United States Navy, and had recently resigned it. Captain Franklin Buchanan, of Maryland, had stood second to none among the officers of the old navy. Here for the information of laymen, I will say that a captain in the navy ranks with a colonel in the army; a lieutenant in the navy with a captain in the army. etc.
Buchanan was a typical product of the old-time quarter-deck, as indomitably courageous as Nelson, and as arbitrary. I don't think the junior officer or sailor ever lived with nerve sufficient to disobey an order given by the old man in person. On the Japan expedition, under Commodore Perry, Buchanan commanded the steam frigate Mississippi. While going up the Canton River in charge of a Chinese pilot the vessel struck the ground, Buchanan, who was standing by the pilot, turned on him so fiercely that the Chinaman jumped overboard.
Lieutenant Catesby Jones bore a high reputation in the old navy as an ordnance officer. The selection of the battery and equipment generally of the marines had been left entirely to him.
All the other commissioned officers had borne good reputations in the navy.
When the Merrimac was put in commission she was rechristened the Virginia. Shortly after Captain Buchanan came down to Norfolk and assumed command of the Virginia and the several small vessels in the water about Norfolk.
AT 11 A. M. on Saturday, March 8, we started on our trial trip down the Elizabeth River, which lies between Norfolk and Portsmouth. The population of both cities seemed to have massed along the wharves on both sides, bidding us godspeed with others, and waving handkerchiefs. But all the people were not there. The churches were thronged with women and children, many belonging to those who were going into battle. They were praying for our success and the preservation of their loved ones.
Leaving the Virginia for a moment let us glance at the force that "our friends, the enemy," had at their disposal for our reception. Off Newport News, blocking the mouth of the James River, were the frigate Congress, of 450 men and fifty guns; the Cumberland, 360 men and twenty-two guns of much heavier calibre than those of the Congress; one small gunboat and formidable land batteries within point blank range of the vessels we were about to attack.
A few miles distant, and in full view of Old Point Comfort, lay the steam frigates Minnesota and Roanoke, each with 550 men and forty guns, and the sailing frigate St. Lawrence, with 450 men and fifty guns, making in the aggregate about 3,000 men and 230 guns.
Accompanying the Virginia as tenders were two tugboats, each mounting one 32-pounder on the bow. They were the Beaufort, Lieutenant Parker, and the Raleigh, Lieutenant Alexander. Blockaded up the James River were three Confederate vessels, viz: the Patrick Henry, with six guns, commander, John R. Tucker; the Jamestown, two guns, Lieutenant Barney, and the tugboat TenzerE1, one gun, Lieutenant Webb. The first two vessels named were walking-beam bay boats, with boilers above the water line.
Let us re turn to the Virginia as she is threading her way through the channel leading into Hampton Roads. Dead ahead is Fortress Monroe and the Rip Raps guarding the channel that leads past the mouth of Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic Ocean. Off about two points on the port bow the two Federal vessels, Congress and Cumberland, are quietly laying out their anchors.
Saturday is the day in which the sailors of a man-of-war wash their clothes in the morning watch, and the washed clothes of the Congress are now stretched upon horizontal lines between the main and mizzen rigging--the clothes of over 400 men--the white clothes on the starboard side, the blue on the port, according to naval custom.
Many a poor fellow who scrubbed his shirt or his trousers, spread on the white deck this morning, shall have no more use for them after their day's work shall have been done.
I had served on both ships as midshipman. The Cumberland had been altered beyond recognition from a fifty-gun fighter to a sloop of war, but the Congress looked as she did when she was my floating home for nearly three years. Little did I think then that I should ever lift a hand for her destruction.
Only the commander and the executive officer knew the point of attack that had been decided upon, but all at once the ship is headed for the two vessels off Newport News, and the drum and fife are sounding the call to quarters. We see the washed clothes of the Congress lowered to her deck and hear over the water her drum and fife in the identical notes as our own calling her crew to quarters.
We go quietly to our stations, cast loose the guns, and stand ready for the next act in the drama.
I commanded the two hot-shot guns directly under the main hatch, and just over the furnace. All great guns then were muzzle-loaders. The hot shot was hoisted from below in an iron bucket, placed by means of tugs in the muzzle of the gun, slightly elevated and allowed to roll against the well-soaked wad that rested against the powder. Another soaked wad kept the shot in place.
The view from my station was restricted to the gun port, some three by four feet. For a time only the wide waters of the bay and the distant shores were visible, till suddenly the port became the frame of the picture of a great ship.
It was the Congress only about a hundred yards distant. But for an instant was she visible, for suddenly there leaped from her sides the flash of thirty-five guns, and as many shot and shell were hurled against our armor only to be thrown from it high into the air. As by a miracle, no projectile entered into the wide-open ports. But some time during the action, the muzzle of two of our guns were shot away, resulting in the loss of two men killed and twelve wounded.
Lieutenant Davidson, in direct command of the disabled guns, continued to fight with what was left of them while the battle lasted.
We had returned with four guns the broadside from the Congress, and scarcely had the smoke cleared away when I felt a jar as if the ship had struck ground. A few seconds later Flag Lieutenant Bob Minor passed rapidly along deck waving his cap, calling out: "We've sunk the Cumberland."
The Cumberland lay higher up the river than her consort, and, while carrying fewer guns than the latter, was really the more formidable vessel of the two. We particularly dreaded her two eleven-inch guns on pivot at bow and stern. It is for that reason Buchanan selected the Cumberland for the first victim. The blow was preceded by a shot fired with his own hands by Lieutenant SimmonsE2 from the seven-inch rifle in the bow. It was said that this shot almost annihilated the crew of the Cumberland's eleven-inch pivot gun.
She sank rapidly after she had been struck, dragging with her the great iron prow from our bow. I have often thought since that if the prow had been held fast we would have gone to the bottom with our victim.
There is another afterthought that I wish to record. While I am sure that the officers and crew of the Cumberland were as gallant a set of men as ever lived, it is not certain that they merit the compliment paid them, even by Buchanan, of "going down with flying colors." It is more reasonable to suppose that on a rapidly sinking ship no one in the rush to save his life paused long enough to perform the quite unnecessary task of pulling down a flag upon which no enemy was firing.
After disposing of the Cumberland, we ascended the river for some distance, in order to find a place wide enough to turn. In doing so we exchanged shots, going and coming, with the shore batteries. Past their very batteries, the Confederate vessels I have alluded to as being blockaded in the James boldly dashed at the first sound of our guns, and threw themselves into the midst of the fray. A shot striking the exposed boiler of the Patrick Henry had killed and wounded a dozen men.
We were afterward told by the prisoners that when the Congress people saw us again up the irverE0 they gave three cheers, under the belief that we were running away. But when we made directly for her, the Congress slipped her cables and tried to escape under sail. She ran aground in the attempt. We then took position under her stern, and a few raking shots brought down her flag.
The surrendered frigate was now lying under our guns, protected by three white flags from her peak and masts. Buchanan had ascended to the upper deck. Parker, in the Beaufort, had by order gone alongside the prize to take off the prisoners, preparatory to setting the vessel on fire. Sharpshooters on shore opened fire on him, killing several of their own men, prisoners on the Beaufort, and Parker was forced to draw off.
Flag Lieutenant Minor then volunteered to board the Congress in one of the ship's boats. He had reached a point a little over 100 yards from the Congress, his boat also bearing a white flag, when suddenly Buchanan, in a ringing voice I can never forget, called down the hatchway under which I was standing:
"Destroy that ------ ship! She's firing on our white flag!"
It was even so, incredible as it may seem. Minor was shot through the stomach, and one of his men had an eye shot out.
Soon after Buchanan himself was shot in the thigh from the same treacherous source. We had thought that this last shot had been fired by a sharpshooter on shore, but a few years ago I received a letter from an ex-Federal officer in Boston, saying that a man there, a former marine in the Congress, boasted of having shot Buchanan, while himself protected by a white flag.
Dearly did they pay for their unparalleled treachery. We raked her fore and aft with hot shot and shell, till out of pity we stopped without waiting for orders.
The loss of the Congress in killed and wounded was 121--more than 25 per cent. With us of the navy it was real civil war. On both sides we were fighting men with whom we had lately intimately associated in a common profession. We all knew one another personally or by reputation. When Parker stepped on the deck of the Congress he saw there the dead body of her commanding officer, Lieutenant Joe Smith. The two men had been classmates at Annapolis, and intimate friends and messmates for more than one long cruise at sea.
On our way back across the by that night we gathered about the stateroom in which our wounded commander was lying. In a voice filled with emotion, he said: "My brother, Paymaster Buchanan, was on board the Congress." In the border States families were often divided.
After the fight was over, Catesby Jones, who had succeeded to the command, passed my station while on his rounds about the ship. "A pretty good day's work," I said to him.
"Yes." Was his answer, "but it is not over. The Minnesota, the Roanoke and the St. Lawrence are on the way up to engage us."
But when these great ships saw what had happened to their consorts, they had no stomach for the fight, but as we pressed them at long range, on our way over to our batteries at Sewell's Point, they shook the heavens and the earth with the thunders of their broadsides. The St. Lawrence fired seventy-two shots, and her commander reports and says that one of our shells passed through the starboard quarter of his ship, doing considerable damage.
Arriving off Sewell's Point, we sent our dead and wounded on shore. Our little wooden vessels had anchored near us, and an impromptu reunion was held on board the Virginia by the officers of the several vessels. I noticed that the uniform of Webb, of the TenzenE1, was riddled by minnie balls.
That night, as officer of the deck, I had the middle watch from 12 to 4.
At about two bells (1 o'clock), there was a sudden lighting up the sky, followed by a heavy explosion in the direction of Newport News. The fire had reached the magazine of the Congress.
With the first light of the morning of Sunday, march 9, 1862, we looked eagerly out over the bay. There was the Minnesota lying aground where she had struck the evening before, and near her was the strangest looking craft we had ever seen before. A cheese on a raft, as she was designated by a correspondent, James Barron Hope.
We "piped" to early breakfast, and when it was over we weighed anchor and steamed toward the Minnesota to renew the battle. The Monitor came boldly out to meet us, and then began the first battle between ironclads.
In the narrow channel the Monitor had every advantage, for she drew only ten feet of water, and the Virginia twenty-three feet. Her two eleven-inch guns, thoroughly protected, were really more formidable than our ten guns of from six to nine-inch calibre, and pointing through open ports. We never got sight of her guns except when they were about to fire into us. Then the turret slowly turned, presenting to us its solid side, and enabled the gunners to load without danger.
The first shots exchanged were at long range, but the vessels soon came to close quarters, as near at times as fifty yards. The Monitor circled around and around us, receiving our fire as she went, and delivering her own. We saw our shells burst into fragments against her turret.
Once I called Jones' attention to my men standing at rest. "It is a waste of ammunition," I said, "to fire at her."
"Never mind," he said, as he passed on, "we are getting ready to ram her."
We did ram her, but whether because our prow was gone or because we eased up too soon. we did not do her any apparent injury. However, about that time the Monitor gave up the fight and retreated out of our range into shoal water, where she was safe from our pursuit. She was not only whipped, but she stayed whipped, as will be shown in the sequel.
The Virginia, in undisputed possession of the ground, after the flight of the Monitor, turned her undivided attention to the Minnesota, still hard aground, about a mile away, and out of range of the direct fire of our smooth-bore guns. I was firing mine at ricochet--that is, with the gun level--so that the shot would skip along the surface like pebbles the boys "skell" along a pond. But Davidson, with his rifle guns, just forward of me as actually "plumping" the target by direct fire, as we learned later by the enemy's official report. At the time, we could not see that we were inflicting any serious damage on her.
The Monitor had fought us gallantly for over three hours, and we had continued our attack on the Minnesota for nearly another hour, when Jones, pausing at each division as he passed along the deck, held n informal council of war with his lieutenants. This is what he said to me in effect:
"The Monitor has given up the fight and run into shoal water; the pilots cannot take us any nearer to the Minnesota; this ship is leaking from the loss of her prow; the men are exhausted by being so long at their guns; the tide is ebbing, so that we shall have to remain here all night unless we leave at once. I propose to return to Norfolk for repairs. What is your opinion?"
I answered: "If things are as you say, I agree with you." So did the other lieutenants, with the exception of Lieutenant John Taylor Wood. He stepped over from his gun to mine for a moment, and said, "I proposed to Jones to run down to Fortress Monroe and clean up the Yankee ships there or run them out to sea."
This alternative course suggested by Wood shows that the Monitor was no longer a factor in the situation. As for the proposition on its merits, to attack a vastly superior naval force, protected by the guns of one of the greatest fortresses in the world, was too hazardous to be considered by a cool-headed commander like Jones, with all the responsibility on his shoulders.
While writing at the age of seventy-five, necessarily with a flying pen, this, my last article on this subject, let me pay one passing tribute to the memory of my gallant old friend, my classmate at Annapolis, my messmate on the Virginia, the late Commander John Taylor Wood, C. S. A., a grandson of General Zachary Taylor. He had inherited the indomitable pluck of that old hero. During the fight with the Monitor he had called for volunteers to go with him to board that vessel from an open boat, and try to wedge her turret to prevent her from turning it. The withdrawal of the Monitor frustrated the attempt.
Subsequently during the war Commander Wood received the joint thanks of the Confederate Congress for capturing at different times and places, by boarding them, sword in hand, eight vessels belonging to the Federal navy.
That to the dead; this to the living: To my former messmate and senior on the Virginia, the gallant Hunter Davidson, commander C. S. A., now living in Paraguay, at an age exceeding eighty, the world owes to the Confederate States the use of the torpedo in war, and the Confederate States owe it to Davidson. He received the thanks of the Confederate States of America Congress for attacking the Minnesota with a torpedo carried at the end of a pole in an open boat.
The main object of this article is to fix in the minds of the younger generation the fact that the Virginia (Merrimac) defeated the Monitor in her encounter with that vessel, instead of being defeated by the Monitor, as is falsely stated by Northern writers. I will conclude this article by heaping "Pelion on Ossa" in the shape of proofs. The two opposing armies on each side of the bay say the Monitor ran away. I have before me the written words of three eye-witnesses of her fight, via: my brother officers Jones, Simms and Davidson. I, myself, saw her run twice. But in case such testimony be impeached as being from interested parties, here is a statement from the other side:
Captain G. J. Van Brunt, in command of the Minnesota, bore the reputation in the United States Navy second to none. Here are his words: "For some time after the rebels concentrated their whole battery upon the tower and pilot-house of the Monitor, and soon after, the latter stood down for Fortress Monroe, and we thought it probable she had exhausted her supply of ammunition or sustained some injury. Soon other steamers headed for my ship."
Soon after her return to Norfolk the Virginia went into dock for repairs. Flag Officer TatumE3 had been ordered to take command of her. From the time she came out of dock until she was destroyed by her own people, that is for about two months she was "cock of the walk" in the waters of Norfolk. Repeatedly she offered battle to the enemy, but no single Federal vessel, nor any number combined, ever ventured within range of her guns.
On the 8th of May, 1862, we were lying anchored off Norfolk when we heard a terrific bombardment going on down the bay. We ran down at full speed and discovered that a squadron of Federal vessels, led by the Monitor, was encircling around in front of Sewell's Point and throwing their broadsides into our works there as they passed. We hard later that it was a show for the benefit of Mr. Lincoln, who was on a visit to Fortress Monroe. At our approach they fled ignominiously and huddled for safety under the guns of Fortress Monroe. The Jamestown went in and cut out transport vessels almost under their guns, and they pocketed the insult. The British ship of war Rinaldo was lying in the Roads, and as we passed her on our return, her crew mounted the riggings and gave us three cheers.
The career of the famous ship was now drawing to a close. She had
never been the effective fighting machine that the hopes of her
friends and the fears of her enemies had made her. I am sure she
could not have repeated her exploit during her fights of two days
with as little injury as she actually received. She never was more
than a floating battery, forming part and parcel of the
fortifications of Norfolk. She was utterly unseaworthy, and could not
ascend the James River without first lightening her so that with the
exposure of her wooden hull she would no longer be an ironclad.
E0 As spelled in the document.
E1 Actually, the CSS Teaser.
E2 Actually, Lt. Simms.
E3 Actually, Flag Officer Tattnall.