The following account is from Putnam's The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, Vol 4, (1862) on pages 266-267.
HAMPTON ROADS, March 9, 1862
To Hon. Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy:
SIR: I have the honor to inform you that yesterday, at one o'clock, one of the lookout vessels reported, by signal, that the enemy was coming out. I immediately ordered the Minnesota to get under way, and as soon as the two tugs appointed to tow this ship came alongside, I slipped our cable. The Merrimac was soon discovered passing out by Sewall's Point, standing up toward Newport News, accompanied by several small gunboats.
Every exertion was made by us to get all the speed on the Roanoke that the two tugs were capable of giving her, but in consequence of our bad steerage, we did not get ahead as rapidly as we desired to.
The Merrimac went up and immediately attacked the Congress and Cumberland, but particularly the latter ship, which was hid from us by the land.
When about seven or eight miles from Fortress Monroe, the Minnesota grounded. We continued to stand on, and when we came in sight of the Cumberland, we saw that she had careened over, apparently full of water.
The enemy, who had been joined by two or three steamers from James River, now devoted himself exclusively to the Congress, but she being aground, could bring but five guns to bear on him, and at ten minutes before four o'clock we had the mortification of seeing her haul down her flag. I continued to stand on until we found ourselves in three and a half fathoms of water, and was on the ground astern. Finding that we could go no further, I ordered one of the tugs to tow us round, and as soon as the Roanoke's head was pointed down the bay, and I found she was afloat again, I directed the tugs to go to the assistance of the Minnesota, under the hope that, with the assistance of the two others which had accompanied her, they would be able to get her off; but up to the time that I now write, have not succeeded in doing so.
At five o'clock the frigate St. Lawrence, in tow of the Cambridge, passed us, and not long after she also grounded, but by the aid of the Cambridge she was got afloat again, and being unable to render any assistance to the Minnesota, came down the harbor.
In passing the batteries at Sewall's Point, both going and returning, the rebels opened fire on us, which was returned from our pivot-guns, but the range was too great for them, while the enemy's shot fell far beyond us. One shot went through our foresails, cutting away two of our shrouds, and several shell burst over and near the ship, scattering their fragments on the deck.
Between seven and eight o'clock we discovered that the rebels had set fire to the Congress, and she continued to burn till one o'clock, when she blew up. This was a melancholy satisfaction to me, for as she had fallen into the hands of the enemy, it was far better to have her destroyed than she should be employed against us at some future day.
It was the impression of some of my officers that the rebels hoisted the French flag, but I heard that the Monitor had arrived, and soon after Lieut. Commanding Worden came on board, and I immediately ordered him to go up to the Minnesota, hoping she would be able to keep off an attack on the Minnesota till we had got her afloat again.
This morning the Merrimac renewed the attack on the Minnesota, but she found, no doubt greatly to her surprise, a new opponent in the Monitor.
The contest has been going on during most of the day between these two armored vessels, and most beautifully has the little Monitor sustained herself, showing herself capable of great endurance. I have not received any official accounts of the loss of the Congress and Cumberland, but no doubt shall do so, when it will be transmitted to you.
I should do injustice to this military department did I not inform you that every assistance was freely tendered to us--sending five of their tugs to the relief of the Minnesota, and offering all the aid in their power. I would also beg leave to say that Capt. Poor, of the Ordnance Department, kindly volunteered to do duty temporarily on this ship, and from whom I have received much assistance.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
Captain and Senior Officer.