Transcribed from the Southern Bivouac, March 1887, pp 598-608.

The Career of the Merrimac

Dinwiddie B. Phillips

Having been attached to the Virginia (or Merrimac) during her entire career, I propose to give, as briefly as I can, the essentials of her history. All persons who may be interested in her construction from a scientific standpoint will find a detailed account of her model in the March number of the Century Magazine for 1885. For the benefit of inland readers, however, who are not acquainted with nautical terms, it will probably be sufficient to say that the Virginia bore some resemblance to a huge terrapin, with a large round chimney about the middle of its back, and that she was so built as not to suit high winds and heavy seas; and therefore could not operate outside the capes of Virginia. In fact she was designed from the first as a defense for the harbor of Norfolk, and for that alone. Her armament consisted of ten guns, two of them seven-inch rifles, two six and four tenth-inch rifles, and the other six nine-inch smooth bores. The two nine-inch bores nearest the furnace were arranged for firing hot shot, for which purpose a few solid shot had been cast. In addition to our guns, we were armed with an iron ram or prow. The prow not being well put on, was twisted off, and lost in our first encounter with the Cumberland, which was a serious loss to us. Our speed with it on was, at best, but five miles an hour, and with it off it was reduced to three and a half or four miles an hour, on account of the greater resistance offered by our broad and blunt stem to the water. I am also satisfied that, had not our prow been lost, we would have sunk the Monitor when we rammed her on the 9th of March, 1862, As Admiral Worden (her commander at that time) thinks otherwise, I think it but right to give his reasons for doing so. In a private letter to me, dated March 13, 1882, he says:

"If the prow of the Merrimac had been intact at the time she struck the Monitor, she could not have damaged her a particle more by the blow with it than she did in hitting her with her stem; and for the following reasons: The hull of the Monitor was in breadth, at her midship section, thirty-four feet, and the armored raft which was placed on the hull was, at the same point, forty-one feet four inches in breadth, so that the raft extended on either side three feet eight inches beyond the hull. The raft was five feet deep and was immersed in the water three and a half feet. The Merrimac's prow, according to Jones, was two feet below the surface of the water. The prow, therefore, if on, would have struck the armored hull one and a half feet above its lowest part, and could not have damaged it. Further, the prow extended two feet forward from the stem, and had it been low enough to reach the armored raft, it could not have reached the hull by one foot eight inches."

Admiral Worden's theory, given above, like all untested ones, is speculation and nothing more, and I doubt not but the commander of the Cumberland, previous to its practical demonstration, would have thought it impossible for our prow to have first crushed its way through a strongly constructed raft projected in front of that vessel as a protection against torpedoes, and then to have penetrated her bow-the strongest part of the ship-and made a chasm in it large enough, according to Wood, to admit a "horse and cart." But it was not absolutely necessary to reach the Monitor's hull. A large fracture in any part of her raft would have so disabled the Monitor that she would have been left entirely at our mercy; and this, I am sure, would have resulted, had we struck her with the solid and penetrating iron prow instead of the blunt and soft timberheads of our stem. That my views are sustained by the admiral's own side, is evidenced by the following extract from a letter to me from Medical Director Charles Martin, United States Navy, written some twelve years ago, Martin says: "I feel sure that the Merrimac broke off her ram in the Cumberland the day before, and that loss prevented her sinking the Monitor."

Medical Director Martin was the surgeon of the Cumberland, and as the sick-bay of the vessel, where the surgeon was stationed, was the very spot where our prow entered, he had received practical demonstration of the terrible efficiency of that prow, and spoke from the solid stand-point of experience instead of the unstable one of hypothetical deduction.

The Virginia, as I have said, carried 10 guns, and her consorts, the Patrick Henry, Jamestown, Teaser, Beaufort, and Raleigh, mounted together 17 more; so that our whole number of guns never exceeded 27. Opposed to us were the Monitor (29), Roanoke (40, Minnesota (48), Congress (50), Cumberland (24), St. Lawrence (50), Brandywine (50), Cambridge (5), Whitehall (2), Mt. Vernon (3), Mystic (4), Dragon (1), Zouave (1), Mount Washington (4), Braziliera (6), S. R. Spaulding (3), Young America (2), Charles Phelps (1), and Delaware (2), making 385E1 guns afloat, besides the powerful batteries at Fortress Monroe, Newport News, and Rip Raps. My information in regard to the Union fleet is taken from a bombastic pamphlet, kindly sent me by Admiral Worden, United States Navy, and entitled "The first Monitor and its Inventor; a paper read before the Buffalo Historical Society, January 5, 1874, by Eben P. Dorr."

The commissioned officers of the Virginia were Captain F. Buchanan, Lieutenants C. Ap R. Jones, Charles C. Sims, Robert D. Minor, H. Davidson, J. T. Wood, J. Eggleston, and Walter Butt, Paymaster James Semple, Surgeon Dinwiddie B. Phillips, Assistant Surgeon A. S. Garnett, Captain of Marines Reuben Thom, Chief Engineer H. A. Ramsay, Captain Kevil (vol.), Norfolk United Artillery; Lieutenant D. Forrest (vol.), Confederate States Army; warrant officers, Assistant Engineers Tynan, Campbell, Hening,. Jack, and White, and Midshipmen Foute, Marmaduke, Littlepage, Craig, Long, and Rootes, and Clerk A. Sinclair; forward officers, Harker, Oliver, Lindsay, Sergeant Tabb, of signal corps, and pilots Parrish, Williams, Wright, and Cunningham.

Most of our crew being volunteers from the army and unused to ship-life (especially unfavorable to comfort and health on board the Virginia). About twenty per cent of our men were usually ashore at the hospital, and our effective force on the 8th of March was about two hundred and fifty or two hundred and sixty men.

About 11 A. M., March 8, 1862, the Virginia, accompanied by the Raleigh (one gun) and the Beaufort (one gun), left Norfolk Navy Yard for the purpose of making her first trial as a vessel of war upon the United States naval forces in and about Hampton Roads. As our engines were very weak and defective, having been condemned just before the war as worthless, we were fortunate in having favorable weather for our purpose. The day was unusually mild and calm for the season, and the water was smooth and glassy; and, except for the unusually large number of persons upon the shores watching our motions, there was nothing to indicate a serious movement on our part, or any thing out of the ordinary nature of affairs. Our vessel never having been tested before, and her model being new and unheard of, many of those who watched us predicted failure, and others pleasantly suggested that the Virginia was an enormous metallic burial case, and that we were conducting our own funeral, and saving our friends and the undertakers that trouble. After passing Craney Island, and coming in sight of the enemy, we saw the frigates Congress and Cumberland in the distance, lying quietly at anchor off Newport News. Their boats were fastened to the swinging booms, and the rigging on both ships was filled with the washed clothes of the men hung up to dry. Neither of the vessels seeming to take any active interest of our movements, I concluded that the rumors concerning torpedoes in the channel (which the enemy had every facility for placing there) were true, and that they were simply awaiting our approach to the proper spot before firing them, and sending us broadcast into the air, and afterward returning us as food for the fishes of the sea.

When we were about three quarters of a mile from the Congress, which was lying on our starboard bow (or east of us), Lieutenant Parker, of the Beaufort, fired the first shot at her. This was soon followed by our broadside delivered en passant at the same vessel, while we kept steadily on, heading for the Cumberland. It being flood-tide her bow was fairly presented to us, and we rammed her at that part, and at the same time fired into her with our bow pivot-gun, killing and wounding a large number of the enemy, and in return having one of our own crew killed and another seriously wounded. The guns of the two vessels were so near each other, and their muzzles so near touching, that, in the almost simultaneous explosions, the muzzles of two of our guns were very badly broken off, and shortened to such an extent that they could not be afterward used without firing the woodwork around their port-holes. Backing our engines and releasing our ship from the embrace of the Cumberland, we kept on up the James River in order to turn, the Virginia drawing too much water and being too long and unwieldy to do so in the narrow channel we then occupied. To effect our object we had to pass and repass the enemy's heavy batteries on shore, and we used our artillery upon them so well as to put a number of their own men hors du combat and to silence some of their guns. In about fifteen minutes after leaving the Cumberland, and before we had turned our head down the river again, that vessel filled and sank. To have gone down so speedily the breach we made in her must really have been, as Colonel Wood says, large enough "to admit a horse and cart." Catesby Jones says, in his official report, "There were heavy spars about her bows, probably to ward off torpedoes, through which we had to break before reaching the side of the ship. The noise of the crashing timbers was distinctly heard above the din of the battle." I once heard a crash like that when the United States steamer Mississippi ran down a fleet of Chinese junks in a dense fog in the East Indies.

The Congress, seeing us steaming on up the river, probably thought that we were on our way to Richmond, and remained quietly at her anchorage until she saw us returning and moving toward her. She then slipped her cable and tried to escape. The effort, however, was a failure, and she grounded several hundred yards from the shore, near Newport News. Taking a favorable position on her quarter, we opened upon her with our guns with such terrible effect that she soon struck her colors, and hoisted the white flag at half-mast at the main and also at the spanker gaff as a signal of her surrender. Buchanan ordered the Beaufort and Raleigh to run along-side of her and remove her officers and men, and then set her on fire. Her commander, Radford, was ashore, and her first lieutenant, Smith, having been killed, Lieutenant Pendergrast, her senior officer, by and with the counsel of Commander William Smith (temporarily on board as a visitor), surrendered to Lieutenant Parker, and he received from them the side-arms of those officers and the ship's colors. Messrs. Smith and Pendergrast, with some thirty other prisoners, were carried on board the Beaufort; but Commander Smith and Lieutenant Pendergrast, pleading earnestly to return to the Congress and aid in getting out her sick and wounded, were given that permission and made their escape.

A heavy fire being opened on our gun-boats from the shore while they were trying to save the enemy's sick and wounded, they hauled off without burning her. Captain Buchanan, not knowing why she was not fired, sent Lieutenant Robert D. Minor in a row-boat to perform the duty. As Minor approached the Congress his boat was fired upon both from ship and shore, her flags of surrender still flying, and he was seriously wounded.

When he saw this act of perfidy Buchanan ordered hot shot and incendiary shells to be poured into her, and, seizing a carbine himself, he commenced firing upon her from the hurricane deck. While thus exposed he was seriously wounded and handed below. In turning the command over to Lieutenant Jones, he enjoined it upon him "to fight it out, as long as a man was left to stand at the guns."

It was not very long before the Congress was all ablaze. She burned with increasing brilliancy and beauty until between 12 P. M. of the 8th and 1 A. M. of the 9th, when her magazine exploded, turning the almost brightness of noon to the pitch darkness of midnight. At least such was the effect upon our eyes, after so long gazing at her flames. While we were at work upon the Congress and Cumberland, the three large frigates, Minnesota, Roanoke, and St. Lawrence, had gotten underway, and were bearing down upon us. The Roanoke and St. Lawrence were so unfortunate as to strand themselves at too great a distance for us to pay them much attention, but the Minnesota, (under Captain G. J. Van Brunt) ran aground about a mile off and took an active part in the fight. We continued our fire upon her until about 7 P. M., when we ceased firing and went to our anchorage off Sewall's Point, leaving the last named vessel immovably aground. Our total loss on this day (there was none on the 9th) was two men killed, two officers and one man seriously wounded, and fourteen men so slightly injured as to be able to return to duty on the next day.

Our duties had kept us so constantly engaged that it was near midnight before we got our supper, the only meal we had taken since 8 A. M. and afterward the attractiveness of the burning Congress was such that we watched her until nearly 1 A. M., when she blew up, before we went to our rest, so that when we were aroused to resume the fight on Sunday morning, it seemed as though we had scarcely been asleep. After a hurried breakfast, and while the crew was getting up the anchor, I landed Captain Buchanan, Lieutenant minor, and the seriously wounded man at Sewall's Point, for transmission to the naval hospital in Norfolk. Returning, I pulled around the ship before boarding her, to see how she had stood the bombardment of Saturday and to what extent she had been damaged. I found all her stanchions, iron railings, boat davits, and light work of every description swept away, her smoke-stack cut to pieces, two guns without muzzles, and ninety-eight indentations on her plating, showing where heavy solid shot had struck, but glanced off without doing any injury. As soon as I had gotten on deck (about 6:25 A. M.) we started again for Hampton Roads, hoping to find the Minnesota still aground, so that we might destroy her before she could get afloat and escape us.

On our way to the Minnesota, and while we were still too far off to do her much damage, the Monitor came out to meet us. For some length of time we devoted our attention to her, but having no solid shot, and finding that our light shell were making but little impression upon her turret, Jones ordered the pilot to disregard the Monitor altogether, and carry out his first instructions by placing the Virginia as near to the Minnesota as possible. Instead, however, of taking us within a half mile of that ship, as we afterward learned he could have done, he purposely ran us aground nearly two miles off. This he did through fear of passing under the Minnesota's terrible broadside, as he confessed subsequently to Captain A. B. Fairfax, Confederate States Navy, and from whose lips I received it. The Virginia, like the Minnesota, drew twenty-three feet of water, and the Monitor only eleven, so that while we were stuck in the mud our antagonist, drawing so much less, could move with ease in any direction. Taking a position very close to us, and where none of our guns could be brought to bear upon her, she directed a succession of shots at the same section of our vessel, and some of them striking close together, started the timbers and drove them perceptibly in, but not enough to do any serious damage.

For fifteen or twenty minutes we remained stuck in the mud, but as soon as we were afloat again we sheered off from the Monitor in order to get a chance to turn and ram her. This was the time when Captain Van Brunt was under the impression we were in retreat and "the little battery chasing us." As soon as the move could be effected, we turned and ran into the Monitor, and at the same time gave her a shot from our bow pivot-gun. Had our iron prow been intact, as I have already said, we would have sunk her. As it was she staggered a while under the shock, and shearing off from us altogether, soon struck a direct course for Old Point, no more to return on that day. Nor did she ever afterward come within a mile of us. The Minnesota, so far as the Monitor was concerned, was now left entirely at our mercy, and but for the timidity of our pilot would have been destroyed. That Captain Van Brunt, her commander, looked upon his ship as lost, will be seen from his official report, given in full in this article.

The ramming of the Monitor and her retreat to Fortress Monroe took place about 11:30 A. M., and we continued our fire upon the Minnesota, as long range, for about half an hour longer, when we took advantage of the flood-tide and returned slowly to Norfolk.* That we did not destroy the Minnesota was due solely to the fact that our pilot assured us we could get no nearer to her than we then were without grounding again. The Monitor had no more to do with the saving of that vessel than the guns at Old Point or at the Rip Raps. It was pilot Blank's fear of the Minnesota's own broadside and our fear of being again hard and fast aground which saved Captain Van Brunt's vessel from destruction.

Having already stated our losses, by which I mean those on the Virginia only, and do not include her consorts', I will now sum up those of the enemy, so far as I am able to arrive at them from the public documents of the United States and other authentic sources. We had sunk the Cumberland, burned the Congress, ran the Roanoke, St. Lawrence, and Minnesota aground (the Minnesota very badly crippled), whipped the Monitor, and driven her in a damaged condition from the field, destroyed some small craft, and killed and wounded over four hundred men afloat, besides doing unknown damage to the batteries ashore.

I now propose to confirm the history thus far given, as well as that which will follow, by quoting the official reports and other published statements of our antagonists.

Lieutenant (now admiral) John L. Worden, who commanded the Monitor up to the time of his being wounded, has never, so far as the records show, made any official report of the part he took in the fight, and whatever I state upon his authority will be taken from the letter already alluded to, and from the Dorr pamphlet, presumably indorsedE2 by him as correct, inasmuch as I received it from him.

When the commander of the Monitor, Lieutenant John L. Worden, was wounded in the action of the 9th of March, he turned the command of that vessel over to Lieutenant S. Dana Greene, United States Navy. This gentleman has made two reports, one to his proper superior, and called an "official report," and another much more extended one in the Century Magazine of March, 1885, which may be called a public report or open statement. I will give them both first, and afterward comment on them as I find necessary. All the underscoresE3 are my own in his and the other reports which follow after.

In his official report Lieutenant S. Dana Greene says:

At 8:45 we opened on the Merrimac, and continued the action until 11:30 A. M., when Captain Worden was injured in the eyes, by the explosion of a shell from the Merrimac upon the outside of the eye-hole in the pilot-house exactly opposite his eye. Captain Worden then sent for me and told me to take charge of the vessel. We continued the action until 12:15 P. M., when the Merrimac retreated to Sewall's Point, and we went to the Minnesota, and remained by her until she was afloat.

In a subsequent article, written by Lieutenant Greene, and published in the Century Magazine of March, 1885, he says:

"Soon after noon a shell from the enemy's gun, the muzzle not ten yards distant, struck the forward side of the pilot-house, directly in the sight hole or slit, and exploded, cracking the second iron log and partly lifting the top, leaving an opening. Worden was standing immediately behind the spot, and received in his face the force of the blow, which partly stunned him, and, filling his eyes with powder, utterly blinded him. The injury was known only to those in the pilot-house and its immediate vicinity. The flood of light rushing through the top of the pilot-house, now partly open, caused Worden, blind as he was, to believe that the pilot-house was seriously injured if not destroyed; he therefore gave orders to put the helm starboard and "sheer off."

Thus the Monitor retired temporarily from the action, in order to ascertain the extent of the injuries she had received. At the same time Worden sent for me, and leaving Stimers the only officer in the turret, I went forward at once and found him standing at the foot of the ladder leading to the pilot-house. He was a ghastly sight, with his eyes closed and the blood apparently rushing from every pore in the upper part of his face. He told me that he was seriously wounded, and directed me to take command. I assisted in leading him to a sofa in his cabin, where he was tenderly cared for by Dr. Logue, and then I assumed command. Blind and suffering as he was, Worden's fortitude never forsook him; he frequently asked from the bed of his pain of the progress of affairs, and when told that the Minnesota was saved, he said, "Then I can die happy."

When I reached my station in the pilot-house I found that the iron log was fractured, and the top partly open, but the steering gear was still intact, and the pilot-house was not totally destroyed, as had been feared. In the confusion of the moment resulting from so serious an injury to the commanding officer, the Monitor had been moving without direction. Exactly how much time elapsed from the moment that Worden was wounded until I reached the pilot-house and completed the examination of the injury at that point, and determined what course to pursue in the damaged condition of the vessel, it is impossible to state, but it could hardly have exceeded twenty minutes at the utmost. During this time the Merrimac, which was leaking badly, had started in the direction of Elizabeth River, and on taking my station in the pilot-house and turning the vessel's head in the direction of the Merrimac, I saw she was already in retreat. A few shots were fired at the retiring vessel, and she continued on to Norfolk. I returned with the Monitor to the side of the Minnesota, where preparations were being made to abandon the ship, which was still aground."

Let us now compare these two statements of Lieutenant Greene and see how they accord with each other and with Captain Van Brunt's report.

In his official report Lieutenant Greene says "Worden was wounded at 11:30 A. M., and that he (Greene) continued the action until 12:15 P. M. (implying our presence up to that time), when we turned an fled." In his magazine articled, per contra, he says Worden was wounded "soon after noon," and that it was while he was "moving without direction" away from us, and attending to Worden, etc., that we retreated, and that he found out that we were running when he, in his unconscious flight, turned the Monitor's head around to look at us. In his official report he mentions no damage to his vessel. In the magazine article he speaks of her being seriously damaged. In his official report he does not intimate that he was absent from the field a moment. In his magazine article he says he "sheered off" and might have been gone for one third of an hour. (Long enough to have easily reached Fortress Monroe.) In his official report he says he returned to the Minnesota at 12:15, when, according to his magazine article, it was about that time Worden was so close to us as to be wounded "by a gun, the muzzle not ten yards off." He tells us he remained by the Minnesota until she was afloat; per contra, the captain of that vessel, in his official report, and while mentioning all the other movements of the Monitor, has strangely failed to speak of that one. Mr. Greene tells us that while he was attending to Worden, examining the injuries of the Monitor, and "determining what course to pursue in the damaged condition of the vessel," a period he thinks of twenty minutes, "the Monitor was moving without direction." Now, if "to move without direction" on water, where no sails are spread to the winds, means any thing, it means to drift with the current; and as Admiral Worden, in his letter to me, and Captain Van Brunt, by giving the hours of ebb and flow in his official report, both say the tide was at that time running flood, the Monitor was performing the unheard-of feat of drifting against the current. She was moving seaward toward Old Point, while at the same time and in the same channel the tide was bearing us inward toward Norfolk.

In his magazine article Mr. Greene goes on to say, "It has never been denied that the object of the Merrimac on the 9th of March was to complete the destruction of the Union Fleet in Hampton Roads, and that in this she was completely foiled and driven off by the Monitor; nor has it been denied that at the close of the engagement the Merrimac retreated to Norfolk, leaving the Monitor in possession of the field."

That Lieutenant Greene never saw his two assertions denied, simply shows the limited character of his reading. His statements have been denied so often and so publicly that I think it unnecessary to refer to the multitude of instances in which it has been done. The Philadelphia Times alone contains two or more. Our object in returning to the Roads on Sunday was to damage the Minnesota as much as possible before she could get afloat again and escape us. As for his retaining possession of the field, I have only to say that it has been so much a matter of doubt as to where that field was, I can not positively locate it. If, as it is generally supposed, it was under the immediate cover of Fortress Monroe, we were not rash enough to undertake the capture of that place, at least alone and also short of ammunition. If, again, the field which the Monitor retained was in the shoal waters near Hampton Roads, my reply would be, our model not being ethereal enough to navigate mud flats, sand spits, and spring branches, we were willing for him to retain that field in company with the bull-frogs, tadpoles, and sand-fiddlers, upon whose domain they so closely bordered. Let us now see how my statements are sustained by the commanding officer of the Minnesota, the vessel which Lieutenant Greene claims to have saved. Captain Van Brunt certainly ought to know to whom he was indebted for the salvation of his ship, and I give his report in full.

United States Steamer Minnesota,
March 10, 1862

Sir--On Saturday the 8th instant, at 12:45 P. M., three small steamers, in appearance. Were discovered rounding Sewall's Point, and as soon as they came into full broadside view, I was convinced that one was the iron-plated steam-battery Merrimac, from the large size of her smoke-pipe. They were heading for Newport News, and I, in obedience to a signal from the senior officer present, Captain J. Marston, immediately called all hands, slipped my cables, and got under way for that point to engage her. While rapidly passing Sewall's Point the rebels there opened fire upon us from a rifle battery, one shot from which going through and crippling my main-mast. I returned the fire from my broadside guns and forecastle pivot. We ran without farther difficulty within about one and a half miles of Newport News, and there, unfortunately, grounded. The tide was running ebb, and although in the channel there was not sufficient water for this ship, which draws twenty-three feet, I knew that the bottom was soft and lumpy and endeavored to force the ship over, but I found it impossible to do so. At this time it was reported to me that the Merrimac had passed the frigate Congress and ran into the sloop-of-war Cumberland, and in fifteen minutes after I saw the latter going down by the head. The Merrimac then hauled off, taking a position, and about 2:30 P. M. engaging the Congress, throwing shot and shell into her with terrific effect, while the shot from the Congress glanced from her iron-plated sloping sides without doing any apparent damage. At 3:30 P. M. the Congress was compelled to haul down her colors. Of the extent of her loss and injury you will be informed from the official report.

At 4 P. M. the Merrimac, Jamestown, and Patrick Henry bore down upon my vessel. Very fortunately the iron battery drew too much water to come within a mile of us. She took a position on my starboard bow, but did not fire with accuracy, and only one shot passed through the ship's bow. The other two steamers took their position on my port bow and stern, and their fire did most damage in killing. And wounding men, inasmuch as they fired with rifled guns; but with the heavy gun that I could bring to bear upon them, I drove them off, one of them apparently in a crippled condition. I fired upon the Merrimac with my pivot ten-inch gun without apparent effect, and at 7 P. M. she too hauled off, and all three vessels steamed toward Norfolk. The tremendous firing of my broadside guns had crowded me further upon the mud bank, into which the ship seemed to have made for herself a cradle. From 10 P. M., when the tide commenced to run flood, until 4 A. M., I had all hands at work with steam-tugs and hawsers endeavoring to haul the ship off the bank, but without avail; and as the tide had then fallen considerably I suspended further operations at that time. At 2 A. M. the iron battery Monitor, Commander John L. Worden, which had arrived the previous evening at Hampton Roads, came alongside and reported for duty, and then all on board felt that we had a friend that would stand by us in our hour of trial. At 6 A. M. the enemy again appeared, coming down from Craney Island, and I beat to quarters, but they ran past my ship and were heading for Fortress Monroe, and the retreat was beaten to allow my men to get something to eat. The Merrimac ran down near to the Rip Raps, and then turned into the channel through which I had come. Again all hands were called to quarters, and when she approached within a mile of us I opened upon her with my stern guns and made signal to the Monitor to attack the enemy. She immediately ran down in my wake right within range of the Merrimac, completely covering my ship as far as was possible with her diminutive dimensions, and much to my astonishment laid herself right alongside of the Merrimac, and the contrast was that of a pigmy to a giant. Gun after gun was fired by the Monitor, which was returned with whole broadsides by the rebel with no more effect apparently than so many pebble stones thrown by a child. After a while they commenced maneuvering, and we could see the little battery point her bow for the rebels with the intention, as I thought, of sending a shot through her bow porthole; then she would shoot by her and rake her through the stern. In the meantime the rebels were pouring in broadside after broadside, but almost all her shot flew over the little submerged propeller, and when they struck the bomb-proof tower the shot glanced off without producing any effect, clearly establishing the fact that wooden vessels can not contend with iron-clad ones; for never before was any thing like it dreamed of by the greatest enthusiast in maritime warfare. The Merrimac, finding she could make nothing off the Monitor, turned her attention once more to me.

In the morning she had put an eleven-inch shot under my counter near the water line; and now on her second approach I opened upon her with all my broadside guns and ten-inch pivot--a broadside which would have blown out of water any timber-built ship in the world. She returned my fire with her rifled bow-gun with a shell which passed through the chief engineer's state-room, through the engineers' mess-room amidships, and burst in the boatswain's room, tearing four rooms all into one in its passage, and exploding two charges of powder, which set the ship on fire, but it was promptly extinguished by a party headed by my first lieutenant. Her second shell went through the boiler of the tug-boat Dragon, exploding it and causing some consternation on board my ship for the moment until the matter was explained. This time I had concentrated upon her an incessant fire from my gun-deck, spar-deck, and forecastle pivot-guns, and was informed by my marine officer, who was stationed on the poop, that at least fifty solid shot struck her on her slanting side without producing any apparent effect. By the time she had fired her third shell the little Monitor had come down upon her, placing herself between us and compelled her to change her position, in doing which she grounded, and again I poured into her all the guns which could be brought to bear upon her. As soon as she got off she stood down the bay, the little battery chasing her with all speed, when suddenly the Merrimac turned around and run full speed into her antagonist. For a moment I was anxious, but instantly I saw a shot plunge into the iron roof of the Merrimac which surely must have damaged her.

For some time after this 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 after the Merrimac and the other two steamers headed for my ship, and I then felt to the fullest extent my condition. I was hard and immovably aground, and they could take position under my stern and rake me. I had expended most of my solid shot, my ship was (was) badly crippled, and my officers and men were worn out with fatigue, but even in this extreme dilemma I determined never to give up the ship to the rebels, and, after consulting with my offices, I ordered every preparation be made to destroy the ship after all hope was gone of saving her.

On ascending the poop deck I observed that the enemy's vessels had changed their course, and were heading for Craney Island. I then determined to lighten the ship by throwing overboard my eight-inch guns, hoisting out provisions, starting water, etc. At 2 P. M. I proceeded to make another attempt to save the ship by the use of a number of powerful tugs and the steamer S. R. Spaulding, kindly sent to my assistance by Captain Talmadge, Quartermaster at Fortress Monroe, and succeeded in dragging her half a mile distant, and then she was immovable, the tide having fallen. At 2 o'clock this morning I succeeded in getting the ship once more afloat, and am now at anchor opposite Fortress Monroe. It gives me great pleasure to say that, during the whole of these trying scenes the officers and men conducted themselves with great courage and coolness.

I have the honor to be your very obedient servant,

G. J. VAN BRUNT, Captain, U. S. Navy,
Commanding Frigate Minnesota.

Secretary of the Navy.

I have given the foregoing official report entire, without change or omission of a word, because of its fullness, fairness, and honesty. Its author was not only a close but most intensely and even painfully interested observer of the fights of the 8th and 9th of March. He has noticed and reported every movement of the Virginia and the Monitor with an accuracy that is rarely found under such trying circumstances, and it would be impossible for any one to show a greater desire for the success of the latter in her encounter with the Virginia than he has done, and which his language plainly indicates. He is equally, or rather vastly more concerned for the Minnesota, but like an honorable high-minded man (as I knew him to be from intimate association with him in former years), he does not make claims for "deeds of daring" not performed, nor do an injustice to the prowess and gallant conduct of his enemy. In his report (speaking of the 8th) he says: "Very fortunately the iron battery drew too much water to come within a mile of us," and again, that, in our efforts to change positions and get nearer to him on the 9th, "in doing so we grounded." With the exception of a single shot, which he erroneously thought entered our grating from above, he says that none of the shots from the Minnesota or the Monitor seemed to have any effect upon us. He mentions nothing that would indicate that our vessel was at all crippled, but he does mention that when he saw the Monitor leave him in his crippled and helpless situation, and stand down for Fortress Monroe, and saw also that the Virginia and her two consorts at the end of the engagement held possession of the field and were making for him, that "he then felt to the fullest extent his condition, and that he supposed the Monitor must be out of ammunition or had sustained some injury." In his despair he is about to set fire to and abandon his ship--that ship which Lieutenant Greene tells us he had already saved. But, on ascending the poop, he discovers, not that the Monitor had come to interpose her iron turret between him and the dreaded Virginia, but that "we had changed our course and were moving for Norfolk." He also says again at 2 P. M. he is making herculean efforts to save his ship, and that he continued those efforts (as the tide favored him), aided by powerful steam-tugs and the S. R. Spaulding, until the morning of the 10th, before she was saved, and consequently before my old messmate and former friend, Admiral John L. Worden, could "die happy."

Where was the Monitor all this time? Was she aiding in casting overboard those valuable eight-inch guns, and recklessly consigning the Minnesota's provisions to the sea, when the vessel was in no danger, and could easily have relieved herself of all extra weight by means of the many steamers and tugs around her.

The idea is absurd. The Monitor did not return, or Captain Van Brunt would have said so. He had reported her flight, and he would have been bound by every consideration of honor and gratitude to have called attention to her return. This he has not done, and solely because of his regard for the truth. After the painful wound to Worden, who had so ably and gallantly fought her up to that event, the Monitor fled, beaten and crippled, from the field, and never again came any where within our reach, although that opportunity was repeatedly offered her. She could meet us any where, but we, on account of our great draught of water, could not reach her.

In this assertion I am sustained by Lieutenant Greene's own admission in The Century Magazine. On page 762 he says: "For the next two months we lay at Hampton Roads. Twice the Merrimac came out of Elizabeth River, but did not attack. We on our side had received positive orders not to attack in the comparatively shoal waters of Hampton Roads, where the Union fleet could not maneuver. The Merrimac protected James River and the Monitor protected the Chesapeake."

Here is a confession that the Virginia protected the James River against the Monitor and the whole Union fleet combined, and they were unwilling, not to say afraid, to attack us unless they had every advantage. Let us now see how the heads of the two great fighting departments of the government looked upon the matter, and see if they regarded the Virginia as a whipped vessel, and no longer to be dreaded, like "the Turk, the Devil, and the Comet." The following laconic and somewhat "you're another" correspondence will show:

Washington, March 13, 1862

HON. GIDEON WELLES, Secretary of the Navy:

Sir-I am directed by the Secretary of War to say he places at your disposal any transports or coal vessels at Fort Monroe for the purpose of closing the channel of Elizabeth River to prevent the Merrimac again coming out.

I have the honor, etc.,

Adjutant General.

Such is Secretary Stanton's proposition, and the reader will note that Secretary Welles does not proudly point to the Monitor and large fleet of war vessels under his command, and say they are sufficient to drive the Virginia whipped from the field, but he somewhat pettishly replies as follows:

HON. E. M. STANTON, Secretary of War:

Sir-I have the honor to suggest that this department can easily obstruct the channel to Norfolk so as to prevent the exit of the Merrimac, provided the army will carry Sewall's Point batteries, in which duty the navy will give great assistance.

Very respectfully,


I think I have now quoted enough from the United States official records and other published statements of our (then) enemies, to prove that Lieutenant Greene's official report, etc., of having gone, seen and conquered, if they were really published as he wrote them, were entirely discredited by the authorities at Washington, and the military and naval chiefs at Old Point and Hampton Roads also. They were probably prepared, the official one at least, to be cabled to Europe, in order to influence foreign powers against our recognition, and also to serve at home to remove the grave fears of our invading New York and other large cities, which then so generally obtained. Twenty years have elapsed and more, and the false claims of victory then set up still require the truth to refute them.

Resuming my history: After our return to Norfolk it was decided to put the Virginia in dock in order to put on another prow, and do other work on her which experience had shown to be needed. During this time I was sent to Richmond by Admiral Buchanan with an urgent and important dispatch, which I was enjoined to deliver to the Secretary of the Navy at once, and to him only.

On reaching Mr. Mallory's office, I informed him by messenger of the nature of my mission, and requested an audience. He was engaged with a convivial party in the adjoining room to me, and I could not gain admission to him for full three hours. At the expiration of that time the party adjourned, and as Mallory was passing through the room I handed Admiral Buchanan's dispatch to him, and called especial attention to the admiral's recommendation that the James River should at once be obstructed, as the small iron-clads, by running close to the sore, could easily slip up the stream at night and might do grave damage.

He threw the paper carelessly aside, without reading a page; and the Virginia's officers and crew, with the citizens in and around Richmond, had to place those obstructions there some two months later. Returning to Norfolk I found the Virginia with steam up and only awaiting my arrival before revisiting the Roads.

Commodore Tattnall and Lieutenant Pembroke Jones had relieved our wounded admiral and his flag lieutenant, Minor (both at the hospital), still unfit for duty. One object in going down at this date (April 11th) was to board and capture the Monitor; for this purpose a small steam-tug, "J. B. White," had been prepared. She was under the command of a fellow by the name of Byers, and used by General Huger as a dispatch boat. As Byers (who was under suspicion of treason, and so reported to Huger) was unwilling to go in her, Lieutenant Davidson took command of her in his stead. "They took my steamer," says Byers, in the Dorr pamphlet, "as one of the boats, but I refused to command her or go with her. The Monitor, luckily for them, did not come out over the bar to give them the chance to try the experiment."

Our little fleet on this occasion consisted of the Virginia, P. Henry, Jamestown, Teaser, Beaufort, Raleigh, and tug. Upon our appearance the whole Union fleet, including the Monitor, Galena, and Naugatuck (iron-clads) , incontinently fled, and did not stop until they were all below the Rip Raps, or under the guns of Fortress Monroe. Three unhappy merchant vessels, in their effort to escape, were grounded between Newport News and Old Point. The Jamestown and Raleigh, two river mail-boats, mounting eight or ten guns, went boldly in and towed them off, under the very noses almost of the guns of Old Point and the whole Federal fleet. Their flags were hauled down and then hoisted union down (bottom up) under the Confederate flag, as a defiance to the Monitor and whole Union armada to attempt to retake them.

An English and a French war vessel were in the Roads at the time, and moved up off Newport News, evidently expecting to witness a serious engagement, but which, owing to the precipitate retreat of the Federal fleet, they did not see. Their officers and men repeatedly cheered us as we passed and repassed them during the day, in recognition of the fact that our gauntlet, so proudly thrown to the enemy, still remained unlifted, and that we were masters of the field.

We offered them battle all that day, and for several days longer, but as all our efforts to bring on an engagement were ineffectual, we returned again to Norfolk. About the 1st of May the rumors which had been current about the evacuation of Norfolk were officially confirmed, and Commodore Tattnall sent his little squadron, one by one, as occasion offered, up the James-the last one on the night of the 7th of the month. As the enemy's vessels did not seem to regard Newport News as a healthy sleeping-place, all our smaller craft went up in safety, and Commodore Tattnall was making his arrangements to do the same, or to ascend as far as he could upon the first favorable tide.

Upon learning the commodore's intention General Huger earnestly requested him to remain and guard the entrance to Norfolk until he could remove the government stores, ammunition, etc., to a place of safety, promising Commodore Tattnall to give him forty-eight hours' notice before he evacuated the town. Such was the understanding before we went down to the Roads on the 8th of May. On that morning we heard heavy cannonading in the direction of Sewall's Point, and at once got under way and (for the first time) went down alone. Upon passing Craney Island we beheld a large number of the enemy's vessels, among which were the Monitor, Galena, Naugatuck, Aroostook, and Port Royal bombarding our batteries, and seeming to enjoy the sport very much; but they no sooner caught sight of the Virginia in the distance than they all (Monitor and other iron-clads included) broke like a "stampeded herd" or a frightened flock of sheep, and did not halt until they were safe again under the guns of Old Point. The object of their attack on Sewall's Point, involving another which they dreaded much more to attempt to carry out, is fully revealed in the following telegram of flag officer L. M. Goldsborough (commanding the fleet) to President Abraham Lincoln:

Sir--Agreeably to a communication just received from the Hon. Edwin M. Stanton, I have the honor to report the instructions I gave yesterday to the officers commanding the several vessels detailed to open fire on Sewall's Point were, that the object of the move was to ascertain the practicability of landing a body of troops thereabouts, and to reduce the works if it could be done; that the wooden vessels should attack the principal works in enfilade, and that the Monitor, accompanied by the Stevens, should go up as far as the wrecks and there operate in front on the Merrimac's appearance outside the wrecks. The Monitor had orders to fall back into fair channel way and only to engage her seriously in such a position that this ship (Minnesota) , together with the merchant vessels intended for the purpose, could run her down if am opportunity presented itself. The other vessels were not to hesitate to run her down, and the Baltimore, an unarmed steamer of light draught, high speed, with a curved bow, was kept in the direction of the Monitor expressly to throw herself across the Merrimac, either forward or aft of her plated house; but the Merrimac did not engage the Monitor, nor did she place herself where she could have been assailed by our ram vessels to any advantage or where there was any prospect whatever of getting at her.

Here then is plain confession on the part of Commodore Goldsborough that, notwithstanding the boasted superiority of the Monitor over the Virginia, and the claim of Lieutenant Greene to have driven the latter from the field, that he, in his frigate Minnesota, with his whole fleet of armed and unarmed vessels, his rams, and his curved bows, with the terrible Monitor and the Galena and Naugatuck (both iron-clads) included, were afraid to attack her unless they had every advantage possible. The Monitor was only to seriously engage us in a position where the frigate Minnesota and the merchant vessels, prepared for the purpose, could run us down. Well, in one sense they did run us down, for although we tried our best to do so, on every and on all occasions, when we got after them, they outran us and we could never catch them. Commodore Goldsborough was a genius--one of the Arabian Nights' kind--he possessed a faculty, as I will presently show, which far excelled the feat of the Monitor in drifting against the tide. Goldsborough could employ the same men and vessels, and at the same instant of time, in two widely distant places, and that too without the knowledge of their commanders. It will be noted that in the attack upon Sewall's Point batteries, on the 8th of May, the Galena, Monitor, Port Royal, and Aroostook, took part in the fight. But by Commodore Goldsborough's necromancy they were also at that particular time fighting forts or vessels (he could not tell which) up the James River!!! I give his official report to that effect, as follows:

U. S. Steamer Minnesota, Hampton Roads,
May 9, 1862.

Sir-The Galena, Aroostook, and Port Royal (by direction of the President for me to detail the Galena and two gun-boats for the purpose), went up James River early yesterday morning, 8th. Our vessels up the James River were no doubt engaged for several hours yesterday, but whether with the enemy's vessels or with one of his forts on the south side of the river, we have not yet ascertained.

That Commander John Rodgers, who commanded the Galena at the time, was totally unconscious of ascending that river before the 15th of May, and that Lieutenant Greene was equally unconscious of his accompanying that vessel in the Monitor before the destruction of the Virginia, the following official report of Commander Rodgers and subsequent statement of Mr. Greene will show. Commander Rodgers says:

U. S. Steamer Galena, off City Point,
James River, May 16, 1862.

Sir--I have the honor to report that this vessel, the Monitor, the Aroostook, and the Port Royal, with the Naugatuck, moved up the river yesterday, getting aground several times, but meeting with no artificial impediments until we arrived at Ward's Bluff, about eight miles below Richmond.

Mr. Greene says, in his magazine article, page 762, that his vessel remained and protected the Chesapeake until the destruction of the Merrimac, and that after that time (May 11th) the Monitor and the Galena went up James River together. He was not conscious, it seems, of the fact before, that his vessel and the Galena were ever up that river, but thought he was in company with the rest of the fleet at Old Point with Goldsborough, the magician, "lying" beside them on the Minnesota. Lieutenant Greene's words are, "With the evacuation of Norfolk and the destruction of the Merrimac, the Monitor moved up the James River with the squadron under the command of Commander John Rodgers."

What Goldsborough's motive was in asserting that a portion of his command were up the James River a week in advance of the time they started there, and when he and the officers and men themselves knew positively that they were at Hampton Roads or in its immediate vicinity, I am unable to divine but I am surprised to find that such official utterances--plainly incompatible, to use no stronger term--should be printed and sent to the Congress of the United States with the documents accompanying the President's message.

Not being able to provoke the enemy to combat or entice any of the adverse fleet from their refuge under the guns of Fortress Monroe, we returned to our usual anchorage off Sewall's Point, where we remained until the night of May 10th, receiving no other notice from the enemy than a few shots from the Rip Raps. Their gunnery, however, was so poor that all their missiles passed a mile or more beyond us or fell about that much short. Our crew amused themselves in watching them. Receiving no answer to our signals from Sewall's Point or Craney Island on the morning of the 10th, Commodore Tatnall directed Lieutenant Pembroke Jones to take a boat and pull down to Norfolk and inquire of General Huger when he proposed to evacuate that place, as he wished to make his own arrangements also, and take advantage of the earliest favorable tide for going up the James River. As Jones approached the wharf at Town Point, Norfolk, he was fortunately observed by Mr. Newton (formerly of the Mansion House, Alexandria, Va.), proprietor of the Atlantic Hotel, and warned by him to pull back with all haste to the Virginia, as Huger had evacuated the towns of Norfolk and Portsmouth, and General Wool was then in full possession of both places.

Upon returning to the ship and reporting the astounding news of General Huger's precipitate evacuation after the pledges previously given, the commodore sent for the pilots and asked them if they could take the vessel up the James River. Upon their replying that they could not, the commodore (after some consultation, probably with Catesby Jones), made known his intention of running the gauntlet at Fortress Monroe, and, if possible, going up the York. As soon as this determination was known to them, the pilots came back and informed Commodore Tatnall that if he could lighten the ship so as to draw only eighteen feet of water, they could take her up James River. Upon this announcement all hands (officers and men) went to work "with a will," and by 11 or 12 P. M. the ship was lightened to a draught of twenty feet, when, to our amazement and grief, the pilots informed us that, owing to a change of wind, they could not carry even eighteen feet over the bar.

Our wood-work was now exposed, our rudder three feet out of water, and our vessel in a plight that she could neither fight nor run. The enemy were in possession of the shores all around us, and had only to wait for our starvation from want of water and provisions (most of which had been thrown overboard) or for our surrender. The only alternative left us was to abandon the ship and burn her. We stranded her near Craney Island, set her on fire, marched to Suffolk, took the train to Richmond, and arrived there just in time to obstruct the river at Drury's Bluff, mount some guns on the shore, and prevent the capture of Richmond. Among the vessels which reached the Bluff under the general command of Commodore John Rodgers on the 15th was the Monitor, and although she no longer saw the dreaded form of her old antagonist yet she was, to use Lieutenant Greene's own language, "completely foiled and driven off" by the officers and crew of the Virginia.

My brief sketch of the Virginia's career is now finished. There are many particulars of interest which I would have been glad to mention, and a number of additional authorities from the opposite side I would have liked to quote; but to have made these additions would have swelled this article to double its size, probably tired out the reader, and beyond any doubt exhausted the physical powers of the writer.

Dinwiddie B. Phillips

* In an off-hand narrative, written without notes for the Times (Philadelphia), I gave the hour of return as "sundown." The MS. should have read "reached Norfolk" at that time.

Transcription Notes:

E1 The numbers, as given, only add to 325. The Monitor only had 2 guns, making the total 298.

E2 As (mis)spelled in the article.

E3 Italics are used in the original.

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Transcription copyright 1997 by Martha H. Tyson and Mabry Tyson