The following account is from Putnam's The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, Vol 4, (1862) on pages 272-273.  



Mr. A. B. Smith, pilot on board the Untied States frigate Cumberland, at the time of her battle with the iron-plated steamer Merrimac, gives the following authentic statement of the great naval battle in Hampton Roads:

On Saturday morning, the United States frigate Cumberland laid off in the roads at Newport News, about three hundred yards from the shore, the Congress being two hundred yards south of us. The morning was mild and pleasant, and the day opened without any noteworthy incident. About eleven o'clock, a dark-looking object was discovered coming round Craney Island through Norfolk Channel, and proceeding straight in our direction. It was instantly recognized as the Merrimac. We had been on the lookout for her for some time, and were as well prepared then as we could have been at any other time, or as we have been during the last six months. As she came ploughing through the water right onward toward our port-bow, she looked like a huge half-submerged crocodile. Her sides seemed of solid iron, except where the guns pointed from the narrow ports, and rose slantingly from the water like the roof of a house, or the arched back of a tortoise. Probably the extreme height of the apex from the water's edge, perpendicularly, was ten feet. At her prow I could see the iron ram projecting straight forward, somewhat above the water's edge, and apparently a mass of iron. Small boats were slung or fastened to her sides, and the rebel flag floated from one staff, while a pennant was fixed to another at the stern. There was a smoke-stack or pipe near her middle, and she was probably a propeller, no side-wheels or machinery being visible. She is probably covered with railroad-iron. Immediately on the appearing of the Merrimac, the command was given to make ready for instant action. All hands were ordered to their places, and the Cumberland was sprung across the channel, so that her broadside would bear on the Merrimac. The armament we could bring to bear on the Merrimac was about eleven nine and ten-inch Dahlgren guns, and two pivot-guns of the same make. The gunners were at their posts, and we waited eagerly for her approach within range. She came up at the rate of four or five knots per hour. When the Merrimac arrived within about a mile, we opened on her with our pivot-guns, and as soon as we could bear upon her, our whole broadside commenced. Still, she came on, the balls bouncing on her mailed sides like India-rubber, apparently making not the least impression, except to cut off her flag-staff, and thus bring down the confederate colors. None of her crew ventured at that time on her outside to replace them, and she fought thenceforward with only her pennant flying. She appeared to obey her helm, and be very readily handled, making all her movements and evolutions with apparent facility and readiness. We had probably fired six or eight broadsides when a shot was received from one of her guns which killed five of our marines. It was impossible for our vessel to get out of her way, and the Merrimac soon crushed her iron horn or ram into the Cumberland, just starboard the main chains, under the bluff of the port-bow, knocking a hole in the side, near the water line, as large as the head of a hogshead, and driving the vessel back upon her anchors with great force. The water came rushing into the hold. The Merrimac then backed out and discharged her guns at us, the shot passing through the main bay and killing five sick men. The water was all the while rushing in the hole made by the ram, so that in five minutes it was up to the sick-bay on the berth-deck. In the meantime her broadsides swept our men away, killed and maimed, and also set our vessel on fire in the forward part. The fire was extinguished. I cannot tell how many were wounded. The sick-bay, berth-deck and gun-deck, were almost literally covered with men killed and wounded, but the surviving ones still fought well, and every one, officers and men, displayed the utmost heroism. The fight lasted about three fourths of an hour, the Cumberland firing rapidly, and all the time the water pouring in the hold, and by and by the ports, as her bow kept sinking deeper and deeper. Near the middle of the fight, when the berth-deck of the Cumberland had sunk below water, one of the crew of the Merrimac came out of a port to the outside of her iron-plated roof, and a ball from one of our guns instantly cut him in two. That was the last and only rebel that ventured within sight, the rest remaining in their safe, iron-walled enclosure. We fired constantly, and the Merrimac occasionally, but every shot told upon our wooden vessel and brave crew. Her guns being without the least elevation, pointed straight at us along the surface of the water, and her nearness, she being much of the time within three hundred yards, made it an easy matter to send each ball to its exact mark. Probably her guns would be useless at a considerable distance, as it appears impossible to elevate them. Finally, after about three fourths of an hour of the most severe fighting, our vessel sank, the Stars and Stripes still waving. That flag was finally submerged, but after the hull grounded on the sands, fifty-four feet below the surface of the water, our pennant was still flying from the topmast above the waves. None of our men were captured, but many were drowned as the vessel went. We had about four hundred on board, and I suppose from one hundred and fifty to two hundred were killed during the engagement and drowned at the sinking. Lieut. George M. Morris was in command of the vessel, Capt. Radford being absent on the Roanoke at a court of inquiry. Very few of our men swam ashore, most of those who were rescued from the water being saved by small boats. The Merrimac seemed to be uninjured, although her small boats and flagstaff were shot away in the commencement of the action.

The Merrimac then turned to the Congress, which lay probably two hundred yards to the south of where the Cumberland was. The Merrimac came up under her stern, and her crew fired their pistols into the ports of the Congress as she approached. I saw her fire on the Congress. The sailors of that vessel say that the Merrimac struck her; but of this I am not sure. The Congress had a good crew of fifty men from the Cumberland, previously taken on board; fifty from the Minnesota, fifty of the Naval Brigade, fifty from the Roanoke, and some others. Lieut. Joseph Smith, who was in command, was killed by a shot. A great many of the Naval Brigade were also killed. The entire command seemed to have acted bravely during the engagement, which probably lasted not over a half an hour, when the white flag was run up. During that night, some sailors and men of the Congress returned and set fire to her, and she blew up about twelve o'clock. Neither the shot of the Cumberland nor Congress appeared to have any effect on the Merrimac, bounding off harmlessly, with a loud ringing sound from the iron plates.

The engagement with the Minnesota resulted in the killing of four men on the latter vessel, which was aground. The Merrimac did not seem to like to go near her, perhaps on account of her large armament of heavy guns, but more probably because she was afraid also of getting aground, the water being quite shallow in that neighborhood. The Minnesota is not much injured. She was off, and steaming down about six o'clock Sunday night.

The Monitor came in Saturday night and proceeded up past the Minnesota. The rebel steamers Jamestown and Yorktown were not iron-plated, or at any rate, only partially so. They came down in the daylight, making for the Minnesota, but to their surprise found the Monitor ready to receive them. On Sunday morning the Monitor moved close up to the Merrimac, and, side by side, engaged her for four hours and twenty minutes. Once the Merrimac dashed her iron prow squarely against the Monitor, but did not injure that vessel in the least. The Monitor in turn determined to try her force in a similar operation, but in some unaccountable manner the wheel or other steering apparatus became entangled, it is said, and the Monitor rushed by, just missing her aim. Capt. Worden is confident that he put three shot through the hull of his antagonist--probably through the ports. The Monitor fired one hundred and seventy-eight pound cast-iron shot. The wrought-iron shot were not used, because their great weight and peculiar construction renders the guns much more liable to burst. The Merrimac fired about forty shots on the Monitor, which replied rapidly as possible, but, so far as it is known, neither vessel is damaged. Those on board the Monitor say the balls rattled and rang upon both vessels, and seemed to bound off harmless. The Merrimac is probably not injured, at least more than the starting of a plate or so of her iron covering, and her machinery being uninjured, she is probably fit to come out again. It is impossible to keep the Merrimac from coming out. She can sail three knots an hour faster than the Monitor. From her evolutions I should judge she can go at the rate of eight or nine knots per hour. It is impossible to board the Merrimac. Should she come out again, she will be obliged to pass within range of the Union gun at the Rip Raps, and a shot from it might perhaps crush her sides, but it is very difficult to manage so heavy a piece of artillery, and the Union gun, in all probability, might be fired fifty times without touching her. I do not think the Merrimac is calculated to carry much coal, and that might have been a reason for her retiring from the contest. The Monitor perhaps might follow up the rebel steamers and disable them, but if she gets among the rebel batteries a heavy fire might be concentrated on her from different points, and she be thus injured, or possibly she might be grappled to and towed ashore. These and other reasons may suffice to show why the Monitor did not follow among the batteries of Craney Island and Norfolk. Gen. Wool, I understand, has ordered all the women and children away from Fortress Monroe, in anticipation of the Merrimac's reappearance.

During all Sunday morning, while the battle was raging between the two iron-clad vessels, the high cliffs at Newport News and vicinity were crowded with spectators, earnestly watching the progress of the fight.

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Transcription copyright 1997 by Martha H. Tyson and Mabry Tyson