The following account is from Putnam's The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events, Vol 4, (1862) on pages 267-268.
March 10, 1862.
SIR: On Saturday, the eighth instant, at forty-five minutes after twelve o'clock 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, Capt. John 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 mainmast. 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 the bottom was soft and lumpy, and endeavored to force the ship over, but I found it impossible so to do. 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 half-past two o'clock P.M., engaged 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 injury. At half-past three o'clock 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 of her commander.
At four o'clock 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 wirth 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 state. I fired upon the Merrimac with my ten-inch pivot-gun, without any apparent effect, and at seven o'clock 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 ten P.M., when the tide commenced to run flood, until four A.M., I had all hands at work, with steamtugs 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 two A.M. the iron battery Monitor, Com. 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 six 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 the Rip Raps, and then turned into the channel through which I had come. Again all hands were called to quarters, and 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 manoeuvering, and we could see the little battery point her bow for the rebel's, with the intention, as I thought, of sending a shot through her bow-porthole; then she would shoot by her, and rake her through her stern. In the mean time the rebels were pouring 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 successfully 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 one 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 engineer's mess-room amidships, and burst in the boatswain's room, tearing four rooms all into one, in its passage 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 tugboat 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 ran 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 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, and my ship 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 my officers, I ordered every preparation to be made to destroy the ship, after all hope was gone to save her. On ascending the poop-deck, I observed that the enemy's vessels had changed their course, and were heading for Craney Island; then I determined to lighten the ship by throwing overboard my eight-inch guns, hoisting out provisions, starting water, etc. At two 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 two A.M. 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 those 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. N., Commanding Frigate Minnesota.
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D. C.