The following account is from Putnam's The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, Vol 4, (1862) on pages 269-270.  


Lieut. Pendergrast states that, "owing to the death of the late commanding officer, Joseph B. Smith, it becomes my painful duty to make a report to you of the part which the United States frigate Congress took in the efforts of our vessels at Newport News to repel the attack of the rebel flotilla on the eighth instant." The report says that "when the Merrimac, with three small gunboats, was seen steaming down from Norfolk, and had approached near enough to discover her character, the ship was cleared for action. At ten minutes past two the Merrimac opened with her bow-gun with grape, passing us on the starboard side at a distance of about three hundred yards, receiving our broadside and giving one in return. After passing the Congress, she ran into and sunk the Cumberland. The smaller vessels then attacked us, killing and wounding many of our crew. Seeing the fate of the Cumberland, we set the jib and topsail, and with the assistance of the gunboat Zouave, ran the vessel ashore. At half-past two, the Merrimac took a position astern of us, at a distance of about one hundred and fifty yards, and raked us fore and aft with shells, while one of the smaller steamers kept up a fire on our starboard quarter. In the meantime, the Patrick Henry and the Thomas Jefferson, rebel steamers, appeared from up the James River, firing with precision, and doing us great damage. Our two stern-guns were our only means of defence. These were soon disabled, one being dismounted, and the other having its muzzle knocked away. The men were knocked away from them with great rapidity and slaughter by the terrible fire of the enemy."

Lieut. Pendergrast first learned of the death of Lieut. Smith at half-past four o'clock. "The death happened ten minutes previous. Seeing that our men were being killed without the prospect of any relief from the Minnesota, which vessel had run ashore in attempting to get up to us from Hampton Roads, not being able to get a single gun to bear upon the enemy, and the ship being on fire in several places, upon consultation with Commander William Smith, we deemed it proper to haul down our colors, without any further loss of life on our part. We were soon boarded by an officer of the Merrimac, who said he would take charge of the ship. He left shortly afterward, and a small tug came alongside, whose captain demanded that we should surrender and then get out of the ship, as he intended to burn her immediately. A sharp fire with muskets and artillery was maintained from our troops ashore upon the tug, having the effect of driving her off. The Merrimac again opened upon us, although we had a peak to show that we were out of action. After having fired several shells into us, she left us, and engaged the Minnesota and the shore-batteries, after which, Lieut. Pendergrast states, the wounded were taken ashore in small boats, the ship having been on fire from the beginning of the action, from hot shot fired by the Merrimac, He reports the death of the following officers: Lieut. Joseph B. Smith, Acting Master Thomas Moore, and Pilot Wm. Rhodes.

CSS Virginia
Transcription copyright 1997 by Martha H. Tyson and Mabry Tyson