Transcribed from the Norfolk Virginian, March 23, 1891.

Primarily an account by E. V. White.



By An Eye-Witness on Board The Merrimac--The Alleged Defeat of That Vessel Emphatically Denied--The Facts.

Capt. E. V. White delivered an address at the rooms of Picket-Buchanan Camp, in the Lowenberg building, last night at 8 o'cloakE1, in the presence of a large and appreciative audience. Capt. White is an eloquent speaker, and the fact of his being personally engaged in the memorable conflict of which he spoke, added a peculiar fascination to the address.

The introductory remarks of Captain White were in acknowledgement of difficulties which environed the task undertaken by reason of lapse of time and treachery of memory. He had no purpose of embellishing, but proposed to deal in unadorned history. He served on the gun-deck as junior engineer, and as aid to Commodore Buchanan and Chief Engineer Ramsay, conveyed all orders for the working of the engines and sending hot shot to the gun-deck. With this exceptional opportunity for familiarity with the operations of the Merrimac and the objects sought, Captain White said that at or near 12 o'clock, March 8th, 1872, we cast loose from the wharf at the yard, and steamed slowly to the work of the day, passing down the Elizabeth river, cheered by our batteries, citizens and soldiers, who lined every available point on both sides of the river to witness the engagement, and on through the obstructions at Craney Island, we headed directly for Newport's News, where the Cumberland and Congress lay riding at anchor, blockading the James river. The day was beautifully calm and clear, and nothing in the present scene gave indication of the mortal and bloody conflict soon to be enacted. Ere we reached these ships, several large men of war started from Old Point to the help of their sister ships; among them the Minnesota, which grounded near the point. The Cumberland was the first to open fire, followed immediately by the Congress, and every other available gun that could be brought to bear on us. From these shots several were wounded and a few killed. Reserving our fire until within easy range, our bow rifle, commanded by Lieut. Simms, was fired with terrible effect, and as has been stated, "opening a hole large enough for a horse and cart to drive in." Making direct for the Cumberland, when at probably fifty yards distance, I was ordered to stop the engines and we struck the ship, with but little jar to the Virginia. Backing our engines, at the same time, continuing until clear from the disabled vessel, a shot from the Congress striking the muzzle of the port bow nine-inch DalghreenE1 gun, broke off about two feet of same, killing one man and wounding a few others. Reversing engines and passing the gallant Cumberland, which, though now sinking, was still fighting her guns with a bravery worthy of all praise, and which entitled her to more credit than the Monitor of the next day's engagement deserved, we then passed on up the James river to a place of easy turning for our ship and started back, joined in the meantime by the James river fleet, consisting of several steamers and, with probably one hundred guns firing upon us, we came within two hundred yards of the now grounded Congress, when, after we delivered several well directed shots that sent destruction to the ship and many souls to their eternal home across the water, she (the Congress) hoisted the white flag, and all firing ceased. Arrangements were then commenced for receiving the surrender and the removing of the dead and wounded from the enemy's ship and our own. While our officers were aboard the Congress and many on the upper deck of the Virginia exposed, the enemy opened fire from the shore upon us, wounding many, among them Commander Buchanan, shot through the thigh, and Lieutenant Minor, shot through the thigh. Our boats were ordered to clear the Congress and Commander Buchanan turned the ship over to LietenantE1 Catesby Jones with orders to fire the Congress. I received orders for three hot shot, and soon the Congress was on fire. The Cumberland having sunk with many who gallantly remained at their post of duty,. it now being near dark and the work of transferring the dead and wounded to be conveyed to the Naval Hospital being completed, we steamed over to the buoy at Sewell,sE1 Point, and came to anchor for the night. Your reader had the misfortune to be assigned the first watch, and had little opportunity for rest, and was only compensated for the performance of this arduous duty by seeing the grand and impressive sight of the explosion of the Congress later in the night--a scenceE1 too solemnly beautiful for my pen to attempt to describe. The next morning (Sunday, March 9th) after an early breakfast, a consultation was held, (the command having devolved on the gallant, able and courageous Catesby A. P. R. Jones, than whom none deserved more honor for bravery and cool daring, under whose supervision as executive officer, the construction of the armament of the ship was completed) and it was decided to complete the destruction of the now almost abondonedE1 MinnessotaE1, even while our ship was taking water freely at the opening in her bow, caused from the loss of the cast-iron prow, left in the Cumberland when we ran into her. Our pumps had been kept busy during the night relieving the ship of water. However, we got under way, making for the MinnessotaE1, when suddenly we grounded on what is known as the middle ground of Hampton Roads, and there we stuck for two or three hours. But before we had grounded the Monitor was discovered coming out from where the MinnessotaE1 lay on the bottom aground, looking to us, as she has been called, a "cheese-box" or a tin can on a shingle. It was not long before she was recognized as the Ericsson Monitor, and we opened fire upon her with our bow rifle, but with no effect. Straight on she came towards us, and when in good position she let loose her heavy guns, giving us a good shaking up. Thus she continued circling around us, and every now and then throwing the heavy missiles against our sides; we, in response, as she passed around, brought every gun aboard our ship to bear upon her, (at which time the volunteers, under Captain Kevill, did noble work) with as little effect as her shots were doing to us. However, our weak points seemed to be known by the commander of the Monitor, and so well did he attack these that soon on the starboard midship, over the outboard delivery, he so bent in our plating that the massive oak timbers were cracked, and from this, and the continued ricochet shots of the Minnesota, considerable concern was beginning to be felt by our commander and all on board, when soon we were relieved by the moving of our ship from the position which, for such trying minutes, we had occupied. Then, with a settled determination on the part of our commander to run the Monitor down, as a last resort, seeing that our shots were ineffective, I was ordered to convey to the engine room orders for every man to be at his post. We caught and did run into the Monitor, and came near running her under the water; not that we struck her exactly at right angles, but with our starboard bow drove against her with a determination of sending her to the bottom, and so near did we come to accomplishing our object that from the ramming and the shot of our rifle gun that blinded her commander, she withdrew to shoal water near the Minnesota, whence we could not follow--never again to offer or accept battle with the Merrimac. After waiting on the ground of our victory, without any signs of her return, for possibly an hour or more, we steamed up to the navy-yard, receiving the shouts and huzzas of the thousands of our people that had witnessed our great victory.

I wish to emphasize the facts just related of the purposed collision with the Monitor and our desire to repeat it, and of her withdrawal from the field, and her refusal then or thereafter to engage in battle with the Merrimac, notwithstanding that this statement is in positive contradiction to the theory accepted at the North, and even published in the school histories of to-day.

An incident on this point will illustrate the prevalence of an incorrect record of the case. Some two years ago, when in New York, I visited the Cyclorama illustrating the fight, then on exhibition, when, during the course of his lecture on the subject to the spectators, the manager made statements that were not facts, and, interrupting him, I called his attention to the same. He motioned me to hold my peace, and, after finishing his talk, he came to me and said he was well aware of the errors he was circulating, but that in order to make his show popular, he was forced to state what he did.

By 4 o'clock I was on my way home to a sick wife, who had been kept under the influence of opiates during the engagement, and was hardly allowed to walk, so great was the enthusiasm of friends and strangers that met me. The grand, old ship was a picture to behold. You could hardly put your hand on a spot on sides or smoke-stacks that had not be battered by the shots of the enemy. Large improvements to the Virginia were made under the supervision of Commodore Tatnall, of Georgia, who had assumed command owing to the disability of Commander Buchanan, such as a new wrought iron prow and port-covers. When completed, she went down to Old Point and offered battle to the Monitor and all the great wooden war ships of the United States Navy, including the Vanderbilt, which ship had been specially brought forward to accomplish our destruction. We manned carefully four small steamers fully equipped to capture the cheese box, if she came within reach, and while one or more of these boats may have been destroyed if either had reached her, so well was her build understood, she would have been captured. Neither Monitor, nor any one of the large ships the United States Government had ordered there, would come out from under the guns of Fortress Monroe, while one of our steamers, the Jamestown, I think, was sent in near Hampton and captured three schooners loaded with hay and grain, and brought them safely to Norfolk. After cruising about, in challenge for battle, with out having it accepted, the Commodore, showing signs of disgust, ordered a gun fired to the windward, and returned to the buoy off Sewell's Point and anchored for the night. The next day we came to Norfolk for some repairs to the boiler. A few days after completing repairs we heard heavy firing and received orders to go to the help of our batteries at Sewell's Point that were being bombarded by the Monitor and other ships. We were soon under way and steered directly to the Monitor and others, then shelling at the Point; but as we approached, they ceased firing and retreated below the forts, we following close down until we exchanged several shots with the Rip-Raps. With considerable disappointment Commodore Tatnall ordered the ship back to her buoy at Sewell's Point.

The next day, or soon thereafter, we noticed our batteries were not flying our flag, and upon learning the cause, we found that Norfolk was being evacuated, thus ending the necessity of our holding our present position. The next thing to do was either to go out to sea, which all agreed to do, if permitted, or go up the James river, but orders were received to come up to Richmond. Upon consultation with the pilots, it was learned if we could lighten the ship enough to let her draw four or five feet less, we could get over the bar. This action was agreed upon and all were set to work heaving over the ballast and other articles in order to bring her up to eighteen feet draught. We learned by 12 o'clock Saturday night that we could not get up the river for some reason, and now being exposed by having some two feet of the wooden hull out of the water, nothing was left but to destroy the ship, in order to keep her from falling into the hands of the enemy. She was then run aground this side of Craney Island, and the work of destruction commenced. We had but few boats to land our large crew safely on shore; consequently we had to lose all we had aboard the steamer. I was one of ten selected to destroy the ship, and held the candle for Mr. Oliver, our late friend to uncap the powder in the magazine to ensure a quick explosion, and, necessarily, was among the last to leave her decks. A more beautiful sight I never beheld than that great mass of iron on fire, coming from the port holes, through the greatingsE1 and smoke-stack, the fire was a sight ever to be remembered. Thus closed the life of our great ship.

This was the finish as to the Merrimac cruise, and then Captain White entertained his enchained auditors with other incidents of service elsewhere, the rehearsals sometimes sparkling with humor and then again burning with pathos and instances of personal daring and gallantry.

Transcription Notes:

E1 As (mis)spelled in the article.

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Transcription copyright 1997 by Mabry Tyson