Transcribed from The New England Magazine Vol XXXVI, No. 5, July, 1907, p 548-553.

How I Saw the Monitor-Merrimac Fight

as told by

Joseph McDonald, Readville, Mass.

and written down by

Herbert McCrillis

Nearly forty-six years ago, July 19, 1861, I shipped on board the old receiving-ship Ohio at the Navy-yard in Boston, Mass. On this ship there were then, some 1,800 men.

At that time about five hundred of us were drafted and put on board a transport under orders for Washington. We supposed we were going aboard the new steam sloop-of-war Pensacola, but orders were changed and after we had stayed at Washington a few days we were ordered to Alexandria.

Over night there only; and the next morning orders cam for us to go to Fort Ellsworth, situated on a high bluff in the outskirts of the city. This fort was named after Colonel Ellsworth of the New York Zouaves, who was killed at Alexandria.

It was thought the we "Blue Jacks" could handle the twenty-one heavy guns, that had been mounted there, better than the soldiers; and it was then rumored and feared that the Confederates would try again for Washington, as it was not so very long after the first battle of Bull Run.

For about two months we camped at the fort, where we had regular drill and routine as on board a man-of-war.

One night an order came for another change, and, bag and hammock on shoulders, away we went to Alexandria, wondering what next.

We marched to the wharf to take a transport again, and found that our destination was now Hampton Roads, where, on our arrival, we found five United States warships, the steam-frigates Minnesota and Roanoke, and the sailing-ship St. Lawrence, near Fortress Monroe; while further up, near Newport News, lay the sailing frigate Congress and the sloop-of-war Cumberland.

Passing the three lying near the fortress we steamed up to the old Cumberland first, where about one third of our men were called aboard; then back to the Congress where more left us. I was glad they left me for one of those to go aboard the steam frigate, for I preferred the latter to a sailing vessel, as I thought I might get a position as fireman and better pay, and would not have to climb the rigging. I wanted to be where there was machinery.

The Minnesota was one of the class of vessels considered, until the battle of which I am telling the story, very powerful. Her tall sides, pierced for forty-four guns, towering masts and spars, gave her a majestic appearance.

The Minnesota, Roanoake, Wabash, and Merrimac were sister ships, so called, and the latter, of which I am to tell more a little later, was such a beauty that she was sent to Europe on an exhibition-trip.

The entire force then at Hampton Roads were fine vessels of their class, but the Roanoke was practically useless on account of a broken shaft, which had, however, been left so for a long time --several months, I think.

We sailors could n't understand why the government should leave such a powerful ship in a condition like that.

I did n't serve long on the Minnesota, for there was a call for a fireman on the Dragon, a small steamer which was intended for use as a dispatch and picket boat; so I volunteered as fireman, and was transferred to the Dragon.

We all knew there that the Confederates were fitting up the old Merrimac into some kind of a battery. Every one was guessing as to when she would come out and what she would do, and every ship was held in readiness for the battle sure to come, night or day. So, after dark every night our Dragon would steam very quietly out toward Sewall's Point and lie up as close to the fort there as we dared. There were twenty-one heavy guns mounted there, as well as more further up towards Norfolk.

One night when it was foggy we got up so near the fort that we were alarmed, and the engineer said, "Captain! Captain! We are right up under the fort; don't you hear the dogs barking? The Rebs will blow us out of the water."

We turned around quickly, and then got so far in the fog that at daylight we found ourselves very near the point we started from the evening before, and were laughed at by the boys.

The Merrimac had to come around Sewall's Point, so we were always ready to signal the fleet by a rocket if we saw her coming, slip our anchor, and run.

So things went on for some moths; but the thing we expected was n't to come off in the night after all.

We had a warning, though, as to the time to expect the Merrimac.

There were many folks wanting to go North (Union folks), and the Confederate truce-boat used to notify us of this by coming out with a white flag up to a certain line beyond which it was not safe to go. When we saw this we would start up immediately with our boat to meet them, and bring the people to Fortress Monroe.

Well, when the boats were made fast and the officers were busy with their very formal and dignified manners to each other in transferring the passengers and attending to any other business there might be, the men were trading newspapers, tobacco, etc., on the quiet.

Why, they were ready to pay us big prices for Boston or New York papers.

We got some news sometimes, too. And that is how we found out when to look for the Merrimac; for about a week before that memorable Saturday we went out and our engineer said to the engineer of their boat, with a wink and a nod toward the Navy-yard, "How about this old Merrimac?"

"Oh," he said, "she's all right. Did n't you hear the guns the other day when we tested her?" (We had heard them distinctly.) "You look out," he said. "She may be out in about a week."

"Oh no," our man said; "she draws too much water, too heavy."

"Never mind," he replied; "she 's all right; and they've got me here, but I'm going to get away as soon as I can."

She did come out on Saturday afternoon, March 8, 1862, just about as he said she would.

I shall never forget that day, nor the next, either. It was bright and clear. We were placed just as we had been for months, the Cumberland and Congress near Newport News, the others further down.

There was no wind, so the sailing-ships must fight as they lay.

About one o'clock we saw black smoke coming down the river from the Navy-yard and knew something unusual was happening. Pretty soon that great black thing, different from any vessel ever seen before, poked her nose around Sewall's Point and came directly for the two ships, followed by the Yorktown and two or three other small gunboats, just like an old duck and her brood.

My, did n't orders ring out sharp, and men jump lively! We started for the Roanoke to tow her up, as we had standing orders to do, and the Minnesota got under way to join in the battle we saw coming.

The Merrimac came right along. She came straight over to the Cumberland, although the Congress lay nearer. She passed close to her, and fired a few shots into her as she did so, as if to say, "Prepare!"

It seemed to us that she had a spite against the Cumberland for the part she took when she left the Navy-0yard at Norfolk, for it was the shot from the Cumberland's guns that blew up a part of the yard and burned more.

This frigate Merrimac was there at the time, and was scuttled, burned, and sunk, as well as the "line-o'-battle-ship" Pennsylvania.

The Confederates raised the Merrimac and made her over.

When the Merrimac got close to the Cumberland Commodore Buchanan called out, "I command you to surrender that ship, sir, in the name of Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy."

"No surrender," answered Morris, the acting commander of the Cumberland.

"Then I will sink you," cried Buchanan.

"Sink and be ----", came the answer; and, turning to his men, Morris said, "Boys, stand by! Elevate your guns amidship, and let's give them one good broadside."

And it was given with a cheer. The shot stuck fair, but they glanced off the iron sides of the Merrimac like marbles from a brick wall.

We found out afterward that she was covered with heavy railroad-iron, with plates over that.

The great force of the Cumberland's broadside stopped the Merrimac for an instant Then she came directly for the bow of the Cumberland and drove her sharp prow twice through the side of the ship.

When in 1872 I visited Norfolk I was told that this ram was of steel and about twelve feet long.

The second time she rammed the Cumberland she did n't get away easily. There they were, like two mad bullocks with their horns locked together. The water was pouring into the great holes in the Cumberland's side and she was settling, slowly but surely; and, mark you, she was dragging down the Merrimac with her. That great weight made the Merrimac settle to her port-holes when, suddenly, the steel prow broke and up she came. If it had not broken it is safe to say that the Cumberland would have pulled the Merrimac partly under water, at least.

The boys on the old Cumberland were pouring in their shot as long as the gun was above water, and the last was fired just as she went down.

They were cheering, cheering; the decks were covered by those mangled and dying by the shot of the Merrimac.

Cutlasses in hand, the Cumberland boys tried to board; but oh, it was impossible to get at the Confederates! Shut up in that iron box, they were safe.

So the Cumberland went down, fighting, cheering, her flag still flying proudly, defiantly. No surrender! No, never! Some of the boys jumped into the water on the other side, but many went down with the ship.

When Captain Van Brunt of the Minnesota saw the fate of the Cumberland he determined, as it seems, to run the Merrimac on to the mud flats with his powerful ship, as the channel was very narrow, even though he should lose his ship in doing it; but in so doing he got into the mud himself, and there lay the Minnesota rocking back and forth, firing vigorously at the Confederate craft.

The companions of the Merrimac could not stand the fire, so got away to a safe distance.

While this was going on we had got the Roanoke nearly up, but she was almost unmanageable, so big and heavy, and seemed to be of little use against the iron sides of the Merrimac.

So when the Minnesota went aground, we were ordered to let go and hitch on to her to help get her off.

Now the Merrimac was ready for the Congress, which had all the time been firing at her. It was brother against brother, for Commodore Buchanan's brother was purser of the Congress. I must not forget to tell here that when his ship ran aground Captain Van Brunt ordered his heaviest anchor run up to the long, projecting yard-arm. Two sailors with axes were stationed at the cable, holding it. If the Merrimac got near enough, these men, at the order, "Cut away," were to cut the rope and send this terrible weight crashing through the roof or deck of the rebel ship.

When the men of the Congress saw what the Merrimac was doing with the Cumberland they put powerful springs on their cable and warped the ship into shallower water, so as to keep the Merrimac from striking her with her prow; but her shot could do nothing.

It was terrible to see that fine ship riddled. We knew her men were falling, being butchered, and their shot from powerful and well-served guns never made the slightest impression on the monster's sides, of railroad-iron.

The Merrimac took up a position astern of the Congress and raked her fore and aft through her port-holes. Fast as the men took their stations at the guns they were cut down. Here was a terrible loss of life. Finally, she struck, but the fellows on the lower deck did n't know it, and fired into a boat sent aboard by the Merrimac.

Then the Confederate craft raked her again.

Some of the men jumped overboard and swam for shore.

The Confederates, some of them, came aboard, and in the confusion one of them called out to a Yankee sailor, "Here I want you, you are mein brisoner. Gif me dot pistol and cutlass, queek!"

Handing these quickly to the German, the Yankee said, "Oh, yes, I'll go down and bring you up a lot of them."

So down he ran and said, "Boys, jump for your lives, the Merrimac is alongside;" and, throwing overboard as many arms as possible, they too jumped into the chilly March water.

The guns were left spiked and shotted, and it was reported that our boys put the match to the ship. Anyway, she soon began to burn. This was about dusk.

Then one more ship was left, the great steam-frigate Minnesota.

There she was, at the mercy of the Merrimac. We thought her time had come. But the Confederates must have been satisfied with their destruction. It seemed as though they thought they had done a good day's work. It was getting dusk, and the Merrimac drew as much water as the Minnesota and did not want to get too near her, for the Confederates are reported to have said, "We will leave her until morning; then we'll blow the spar deck off her, take her to Norfolk, and fix her up for another Merrimac."

They felt sure of us, anyway. They said, "All can pass up here that want to, but let's see them get down again."

So the Merrimac only steered toward us and gave us a few shots, then made for Sewall's Point with her brood, where they lay all night, read for us Sunday morning.

That was a pretty sorry night for us fellows, now I tell you. The Congress burned and burned; and over there in the dark water fluttered the stars and stripes on the Cumberland's mast over as gallant a ship and as gallant a crew as ever sailed.

It was moonlight, and the water was as still as a mill-pond; sullen and black, we could just make out the form of the Merrimac through the darkness.

We had seen the fate of our comrades. We felt sure ours would be the same tomorrow.

The boys were saying, "There won't be so many at mess after to-morrow, Jack, will there?"

"No, I'm afraid there won't. See here, I've got a little gold in this ditty-bag here, and there's a picture of my wife. If anything happens to me will you see that she gets it, if you get through?"

As the case seemed hopeless for saving the Minnesota, the men's bags and hammocks were placed on the armed ferry-boat Whitehall, held ready to land the men at Newport News at midnight that night, as it was intended to put a fuse to the ship and blow her up at that time, which would be high tide, if we could not pull her off.

Occasionally, a shot from the Congress would come near us, as she lay broadside toward us and her guns kept going off. By chance we escaped injury, however.

The Confederates below were having a great time, for we could hear their rejoicings. They were making considerable noise celebrating their victory over the Yankees with their new ironclad.

They felt sure that night that the whole North was at their mercy and the South was on top and must win. They did n't feel any more certain of it than we did.

We could not hope to do any better than the Cumberland and Congress had done. All around us was destruction and death. No deliverance seemed possible.

About nine o'clock we commenced to hear a faint sound on the water away seaward. Flip-flip-flop! flip-flop; flip-flip-flop! flip-flop -- like a steamer's paddles. It got louder. Every one was listening. Whatever it was, it was coming toward us. We all shivered with dread of some horrible thing coming on to us out of the dark.

The drum beat to quarters on the Minnesota. "Stand by," was the order, and every one stood at his post, from powder-boy to chaplain. Shot was piled up, and they waited, grim enough, all ready to fire.

"O boys, I'd rather go to Davy's Locker in the daytime," said one.

Pretty soon we could make out the form of a craft coming. Nearer and nearer came the sound of the paddle-wheels. Then they stopped. An officer on the Minnesota, I think it was Commodore Goldsborough (he was a big, tall man), raised his trumpet and hailed the stranger: "Ship ahoy! What ship is that?"

I tell you for a few seconds we actually stopped breathing. Then we heard the answer: "United States Steamer Rancocas, sir."

"Come aboard with your papers."

"Aye, aye, sir."

You never saw a more relieved set of men than we were then.

Pretty soon we heard the steady strokes of the oars and a boat came alongside; the officer climbed aboard, saluted, and said, "We've come to help you out a little, sir. We've got the Monitor with us."

"Monitor! Where is she?"

"Oh, over there with the Rancocas."

Looking sharp, our commander was able to make out something down there astern of the steamer, but just what it was he could n't tell. It looked like a hogshead on a raft.

"That thin?" he said. "Why, the Merrimac will sink her with one broadside!"

"Well, we think not, sir. We hope she will do better than you think she will."

We were all glad the "ghost" had turned out to be a friend and not an enemy; but as for help from what had come, not a man felt secure because of it. We could n't see any help in that thing.

About midnight the Congress blew up. She had been burning steadily. I never saw such brilliant fireworks. It was beautiful, but sad. There were several distinct explosions, and the whole of the bay was lighted up for a bit.

The next morning (Sunday) was a fine one, clear and bright.

There was the little Monitor flat on the water, like a turtle.

We all commenced to comment on her and make fun. "Pshaw! That thing? Why, we could lick her ourselves!"

We began to look for the Merrimac, and, sure enough, we saw again the black smoke, and saw her start with the small gunboats about eight o'clock.

I was on the Dragon all this time, up close to the Minnesota.

She came straight for us and commenced to fire. She came for the stern of the Minnesota, as of course only two guns could then bear on her, perhaps intending to rake the ship as she did the Congress. Her first shot struck the water and bounded toward us, but fell short. The next went through the flag.

Then the little Monitor sailed right out, around the Minnesota, right in between her and the Merrimac, and let go with her two guns as if to say, "Hold on! Stop a minute!"

The Merrimac did stop all of a sudden, to see what it was down there in the water bold enough to venture out. She did not notice at first, evidently.

Then they opened on each other, and they had it together. The other craft had retreated in different directions.

When the Monitor fired she planted her shot square on the Merrimac, and when she got up close the Merrimac could n't depress her guns enough to hit her.

Those two ships circled about each other, firing all the time, until into the afternoon.

All the other ships and forts in range were firing, too.

The Minnesota did not receive much attention from the Merrimac; twice she made for us, but each time the Monitor got between us and stopped her fun.

The gunners of the Minnesota were sure they put one shot through a port-hole of the Merrimac, and Brady struck the paddle-box of the Yorktown, making her like a duck with a broken wing.

We began to think more of the Monitor.

The Merrimac could n't get away from her, or do her any damage.

We could n't see that the Merrimac was being damaged, either. She tried to lead the Monitor over toward the forts, so they could help; also tried to run her down, but failed. Finally in her dodging around, she got caught just a little on a mud-bank -- just enough to maker her heel a bit.

Then the Monitor got in some good shots near the stern and at the water-line, where the armor was a little thinner. That probably settled it. Not long after (a little after noon) the Merrimac turned tail and steamed for Norfolk. It was reported on good authority that she had several feet of water in her when she got back. Anyway, she had to go in dray dock for a lot of repairing, but the Monitor could have fought right along, for all the damage she had received, though she had but few shot remaining after the battle.

What we feared certainly would have happened if that little turtle, or cheese-box, or call it what you will, had n't been there to slide out from behind the Minnesota that Sunday morning and fight for us, though when she came out not a man of us had faith in her. "Why," we said, "she has only two guns and the Merrimac has ten."

This is my story of the Hampton Roads fight; but I did n't see it quite all. Oh, no! I'll tell you why.

I was on the Dragon, as I said at the beginning of this story.

We were close to the side of the tall Minnesota all of Saturday night, doing all we could to get her off the mud; also during the battle of Sunday.

The upper guns of the frigate were roaring above us. Toward noon the order came, "Cast off!" We were in the way of the lower tier of guns. I sprang for one of the lines to cast it off. Just then I met my fate. One of the Merrimac's shells went directly through our boiler. The explosion that followed drove a board with a great force against my shoulder and head, partly stunning me, and throwing me toward the shell. A pice of that go me, ripping up my left leg and splitting the thigh-bone. The air was so full of burning powder, steam, and smoke that in my half-stunned condition I though I was suffocating in the water, and struck out as if to swim; but strong hands pulled me through a port-hole of the Minnesota and laid me out on the deck.

The roar of the battle continued, but my fighting was over. The long and the short of it is, that one of my burial-places is in Old Virginia, as I told a friend,--there is where I left my leg. Other poor fellows on the Dragon were frightfully scalded.

In the account of the battle in Harper's Weekly of March, 1862, I was reported as being scalded; but it was worse than that.

It would n't seem as if there could be anything to laugh at in all this terrible experience, but it had a funny side.

One of the men on the Dragon had very long hair and whiskers. In the explosion those were burnt completely off in an instant, but in the great commotion he did not miss them, and was unhurt. When he came to speak to me as I lay there on the Minnesota's deck I looked up at him and said, "Joe, where's your hair?" He looked more bewildered than ever as he put his hands up to find only a bald pate in place of his flowing locks of a few moments before.

Now, in looking back over the many years since the battle, I can't see what there was to hinder the Merrimac, after sinking two of our brave ships, from slipping back to the Navy-yard at Norfolk, a half-dozen miles or so away, getting a fresh supply of cola, shot, and shell, and starting on a deadly trip out to sea to sink all our ships she met, and to drop into Baltimore, Philadelphia, or New York to blaze away, burn, and destroy a large part of either place.

What the end would have been if this had happened only Good knows; and it might well have been so but for the little Monitor arriving that night of the eight of March, after our ships were sunk.

Many thanks to the little "cheese-box on a raft" with her two guns against the monster with ten. Was she not God-sent? She saved the nation. And the world was told, that Sunday, the ninth of March, 1862, that their wooden ships of live-oak two feet thick were of no more use to give battle to steel and iron.

Thus this ever-memorable fight was the cause of changing the navies of the whole world.

In closing, I quote a bit of an old song of that day, which seems to express the appreciation of the Monitor and her crew:

Said brave Worden to his crew,
"Boys, let's see what we can do;
If you take that iron rebel,
You're the dandies, O!"

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Transcription copyright 2002 by Mabry Tyson