Transcribed from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, New York, 1887, pp 692-711. An earlier version appeared in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, November 1864 to April 1885, The Century Co., New York, F. Warne & Co., London, Vol. XXIX, New Series Vol. VII. pp 738-754.


THE FIRST FIGHT OF IRON-CLADS.
By John Taylor Wood, Colonel, C. S. A.

The engagement in Hampton Roads on the 8th of March, 1862, between the Confederate iron-clad Virginia, or the Merrimac (as she is known at the North), and the United States wooden fleet, and that on the 9th between the Virginia and the Monitor, was, in its results, in some respects the most momentous naval conflict ever witnessed. No battle was ever more widely discussed or produced a greater sensation. It revolutionized the navies of the world. Line-of-battle ships, those huge, overgrown craft. Carrying from eighty to one hundred and twenty guns and from five hundred to twelve hundred men, which, from the destruction of the Spanish Armada to our time, had done most of the fighting, deciding the fate of empires, were at once universally condemned as out of date. Rams and iron-clads were in future to decide all naval warfare. In this battle old things passed away, and the experience of a thousand years of battle and breeze was forgotten. The naval supremacy of England vanished in the smoke of this fight, it is true, only to reappear some years later more commanding than ever. The effect of the news was best described by the London "Times," which said: "Whereas we had available for immediate purposes one hundred and forty-nine first-class war-ships, we have now two, these two being the Warrior and her sister Ironside. There is not now a ship in the English navy apart from these two that it would not be madness to trust to an engagement with that little Monitor." The Admiralty at once proceeded to reconstruct the navy, cutting down a number of their largest ships and converting them into turret or broadside iron-clads.

The same results were produced in France, which had but one sea-going ironclad, La Gloire, and this one, like the Warrior, was only protected amidships. The Emperor Napoleon promptly appointed a commission to devise plans for rebuilding his navy. And so with all the maritime powers. In this race the United States took the lead, and at the close of the war led all the others in the numbers and efficiency of its iron-clad fleet. It is true that all the great powers had already experimented with vessels partly armored, but very few were convinced of their utility, and none had been tried by the test of battle, if we except a few floating batteries, thinly clad, used in the Crimean War.

In the spring of 1861 Norfolk and its large naval establishment had been hurriedly abandoned by the Federals, why no one could tell. It is about twelve miles from Fort Monroe, which was then held by a large force of regulars. A few companies of these, with a single frigate, could have occupied and commanded the town and navy yard and kept the channel open. However, a year later, it was as quickly evacuated by the Confederates, and almost with as little reason. But of this I will speak later.

The yard was abandoned to a few volunteers, after it was partly destroyed, and a large number of ships were burnt. Among the spoils were upward of twelve hundred heavy guns, which were scattered among Confederate fortifications from the Potomac to the Mississippi. [See footnote in Colston]E1 Among the ships burnt and sunk was the frigate Merrimac of 3500 tons and 40 guns, afterward rechristened the Virginia, and so I will call her. During the summer of 1861 Lieutenant John M. Brooke, an accomplished officer of the old navy, who with many others had resigned, proposed to Secretary Mallory to raise and rebuild this ship as an iron-clad. His plans were approved, and orders were given to carry them out. She was raised and cut down to the old berth-deck. Both ends for seventy feet were covered over, and when the ship was in fighting trim was just awash. On the midship section, 170 feet in length, was built at an angle of 45 degrees a roof of pitch-pine and oak 24 inches thick, extending from the water-line to a height over the gun-deck of 7 feet [See Brooke] Both ends of the shield were rounded so that the pivot-guns could be used as bow and stern chasers or quartering. Over the gun-deck was a light grating, making a promenade about twenty feet wide. The wood backing was covered with iron plates, rolled at the Tredegar works, two inches thick and eight wide. The first tier was put on horizontally, the second up and down,--in all to the thickness of four inches, bolted through the wood-work and clinched. The prow was of cast-iron, projecting four feet, and badly secured, as events proved. The rudder and propeller were entirely unprotected. The pilot-house was forward of the smoke-stack, and covered with the same thickness of iron as the sides. The motive power was the same that had always been in the ship. Both of the engines and boilers had been condemned on her return from her last cruise, and were radically defective. Of course, the fire and sinking had not improved them. We could not depend upon them for six hours at a time. A more ill-contrived or unreliable pair of engines could only have been found in some vessels of the United States navy.

Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones was ordered to superintend the armament, and no more thoroughly competent officer could have been selected. To his experience and skill as her ordnance and executive officer was due the character of her battery, which proved so efficient. It consisted of 2 7-inch rifles, heavily reenforced around the breech with 3-inch steel bands, shrunk on. These were the first heavy guns so made, and were the bow and stern pivots. There were also 2 6-inch rifles of the same make, and 6 9-inch smooth-bore broadside,--10 guns in all.

During the summer and fall of 1861 I had been stationed at the batteries on the Potomac at Evansport and Aquia Creek, blockading the river as far as possible. In January, 1862, I was ordered to the Virginia as one of the lieutenants, reporting to Commodore French Forrest, who then commanded the navy yard at Norfolk. Commodore Franklin Buchanan was appointed to the command,--an energetic and high-toned officer, who combined with daring courage great professional ability, standing deservedly at the head of his profession. In 1845 he had been selected by Mr. Bancroft, Secretary of the Navy, to locate and organize the Naval Academy, and he launched that institution upon its successful career. Under him were as capable a set of officers as ever were brought together in one ship. But of man-of-war's men or sailors we had scarcely any. The South was almost without a maritime population. In the old service the majority of officers were from the South, and all the seamen from the North.1

Every one had flocked to the army, and to it we had to look for a crew. Some few seamen were found in Norfolk, who had escaped from the gun-boat flotilla in the waters of North Carolina, on their occupation by Admiral Goldsborough and General Burnside. In hopes of securing some men from the army, I was sent to the headquarters of General Magruder at Yorktown, who was known to have under his command two battalions from New Orleans, among whom might be found a number of seamen. The general, though pressed for want of men, holding a long line with scarcely a brigade, gave me every facility to secure volunteers. With one of his staff I visited every camp, and the commanding officers were ordered to parade their men, and I explained to them what I wanted. About 200 volunteered, and of this number I selected 80 who had had some experience as seamen or gunners. Other commands at Richmond and Petersburg were visited, and so our crew of three hundred was made up. They proved themselves to be as gallant and trusty a body of men as any one would wish to command, not only in battle, but in reverse and retreat.

Notwithstanding every exertion to hasten the fitting out of the ship, the work during the winter progressed but slowly, owing to delay in sending the iron sheathing from Richmond. At this time the only establishment in the South capable of rolling iron plates was the Tredegar foundry. Its resources were limited, and the demand for all kinds of war material most pressing. And when we reflect upon the scarcity and inexperience of the workmen, and the great changes necessary in transforming an ordinary iron workshop into an arsenal in which all the machinery and tools had to be improvised, it is astonishing that so much was accomplished. The unfinished state of the vessel interfered so with the drills and exercises that we had but little opportunity of getting things into shape. It should be remembered that the ship was an experiment in naval architecture, differing in every respect from any then afloat. The officers and crew were strangers to the ship and to each other. Up to the hour of sailing she was crowded with workmen. Not a gun had been fired, hardly a revolution of the engines had been made, when we cast off from the dock and started on what many thought was an ordinary trial trip, but which proved to be a trial such as no vessel that ever floated had undergone up to that time. From the start we saw that she was slow, not over five knots; she steered so badly that, with her great length, it took from thirty to forty minutes to turn. She drew twenty-two feet, which confined us to a comparatively narrow channel in the Roads; and, as I have before said, the engines were our weak point. She was as unmanageable as a water-logged vessel.

It was at noon on the 8th of March that we steamed down the Elizabeth River. Passing by our batteries lined with troops, who cheered us as we passed, and through the obstructions at Craney Island, we took the south channel and headed for Newport News. At anchor at this time off Fort Monroe were the frigates Minnesota, Roanoke, and St. Lawrence, and several gun-boats. The first two were sister ships of the Virginia before the war; the last was a sailing frigate of fifty guns. Off Newport News, seven miles above, which was strongly fortified and held by a large Federal garrison, were anchored the frigate Congress, 50 guns, and the sloop Cumberland, 30. The day was calm, and the last two ships were swinging lazily by their anchors. [The tide was at its height at 1:40 P. M.] Boats were hanging to the lower booms, washed clothes on the rigging. Nothing indicated that we were expected; but when we came within three-quarters of a mile, the boats were dropped astern, booms got alongside and the Cumberland opened with her heavy pivots, followed by the Congress, the gun-boats, and the shore batteries.

We reserved our fire until within easy range, when the forward pivot was pointed and fired by Lieutenant Charles Simms, killing and wounding most of the crew of the after pivot-gun of the Cumberland. Passing close to the Congress, which received our starboard broadside, and returned it with spirit, we steered direct for the Cumberland, striking her almost at right angles, under the fore-rigging on the starboard side. The blow was hardly perceptible on board the Virginia. Backing clear of her, we went ahead again, heading up the river, helm hard-a-starboard, and turned slowly. As we did so, for the first time I had an opportunity of using the after-pivot, of which I had charge. As we swung, the Congress came in range, nearly stern on, and we got in three raking shells. She had slipped her anchor, loosed her foretop-sail, run up the jib, and tried to escape, but grounded. Turning, we headed for her and took a position within two hundred yards, where every shot told. In the meantime the Cumberland continued the fight, though our ram had opened her side wide enough to drive in a horse and cart. Soon she listed to port and filled rapidly. The crew were driven by the advancing water to the spar-deck, and there worked her pivot-guns until she went down with a roar, the colors still flying. No ship was ever fought more gallantly.2 The Congress continued the unequal contest for more than an hour after the sinking of the Cumberland. Her losses were terrible, and finally she ran up the white flag.

As soon as we had hove in sight, coming down the harbor, the Roanoke, St. Lawrence, and Minnesota, assisted by tugs, had got under way, and started up from Old Point Comfort to join their consorts. They were under fire from the batteries at Sewell's Point, but the distance was too great to effect much. The first two, however, ran aground not far above Fort Monroe, and took but little part in the fight. The Minnesota, taking the middle or swash channel, steamed up half-way between Old Point Comfort and Newport News, when she grounded, but in a position to be actively engaged.

Previous to this we had been joined by the James River squadron, which had been at anchor a few miles above, and came into action most gallantly, passing the shore batteries at Newport News under a heavy fire, and with some loss. It consisted of the Yorktown (or Patrick Henry), 12 guns, Captain John R. Tucker; Jamestown, 2 guns, Lieut.-Commander J. N. Barney; and Teaser, 1 gun, Lieut.-Commander W. A. Webb

As soon as the Congress surrendered, Commander Buchanan ordered the gun-boats Beaufort, Lieut.-Commander W. H. Parker, and Raleigh, Lieut.-Commander J. W. Alexander to steam alongside, take off her crew, and set fire to the ship. Lieutenant Pendergrast, who had succeeded Lieutenant Smith, who had been killed, surrendered to Lieutenant Parker, of the Beaufort. Delivering his sword and colors, he was directed by Lieutenant Parker to return to his ship and have the wounded transferred as rapidly as possible. All this time the shore batteries and small-arm men were keeping up an incessant fire on our vessels. Two of the officers of the Raleigh, Lieutenant Tayloe and Midshipman Hatter, were killed while assisting the Union wounded out of the Congress. A number of the enemy's men were killed by the same fire. Finally it became so hot that the gun-boats were obliged to haul off with only thirty prisoners, leaving Lieutenant Pendergrast and most of his crew on board, and they all afterward escaped to the shore by swimming or in small boats. While this was going on, the white flag was flying at her mainmast-head. Not being able to take possession of his prize, the commodore ordered hot shot to be used, and in a short time she was in flames, fore and aft. While directing this, both himself and his flag-lieutenant, Minor, were severely wounded. The command then devolved upon Lieutenant Catesby Jones.

It was now 5 o'clock, nearly two hours of daylight, and the Minnesota only remained. She was aground and at our mercy. But the pilots would not attempt the middle channel with the ebb tide and approaching night. So we returned by the south channel to Sewell's Point and anchored, the Minnesota escaping, as we thought, only until morning.3

Our loss in killed and wounded was twenty-one. The armor was hardly damaged, though at one time our ship was the focus on which were directed at least one hundred heavy guns, afloat and ashore. But nothing outside escaped. Two guns were disabled by having their muzzles shot off. The ram was left in the side of the Cumberland. One anchor, the smoke-stack, and the steam-pipes were shot away. Railings, stanchions, boat-davits, everything was swept clean. The flag-staff was repeatedly knocked over, and finally, a boarding-pike was used. Commodore Buchanan and the other wounded were sent to the Naval Hospital, and after making preparations for the next day's fight. We slept at our guns, dreaming of other victories in the morning.

But at daybreak we discovered, lying between us and the Minnesota, a strange-looking craft, which we knew at once to be Ericsson's Monitor, which had long been expected in Hampton Roads, and of which, from different sources, we had a good idea. She could not possibly have made her appearance at a more inopportune time for us, changing our plans, which were to destroy the Minnesota, and then the remainder of the fleet below Fort Monroe. She appeared but a pigmy compared with the lofty frigate which she guarded. But in her size was one great element of her success. I will not attempt a description of the Monitor; her build and peculiarities are well known.

After an early breakfast, we got under way and steamed out toward the enemy, opening fire from our bow pivot, and closing in to deliver our starboard broadside at short range, which was returned promptly from her 11-inch guns. Both vessels then turned and passed again still closer. The Monitor was firing every seven or eight minutes, and nearly every shot struck. Our ship was working worse and worse, and after the loss of the smoke-stack, Mr. Ramsey, chief engineer, reported that the draught was so poor that it was with great difficulty he could keep up steam. Once or twice the ship was on the bottom. Drawing 22 feet of water, we were confined to a narrow channel, while the Monitor with only 12 feet immersion, could take any position, and always have us in range of her guns. Orders were given to concentrate our fire on the pilot-house, and with good results, as we afterward learned. More than two hours had passed, and we had made no impression on the enemy, so far as we could discover, while our wounds were slight. Several times the Monitor ceased firing, and we were in hopes she was disabled, but the revolution again of her turret and the heavy blows of her 11-inch shot on our sides soon undeceived us.

Coming down from the spar-deck, and observing a division standing "at ease," Lieutenant Jones inquired:

"Why are you not firing, Mr. Eggleston?"

"Why, our powder is very precious," replied the lieutenant; "and after two hours' incessant firing I find that I can do her about as much damage by snapping my thumb at her every two minutes and a half."

Lieutenant Jones now determined to run her down or board her. For nearly an hour we manoeuvred for a position. Now "Go ahead!" now "Stop!" now "Astern!" The ship was as unwieldy as Noah's ark. At last an opportunity offered. "Go ahead, full speed!" But before the ship gathered headway, the Monitor turned, and our disabled ram only gave a glancing blow, effecting nothing. Again she came up on our quarter, he bow against out side, and at this distance fired twice. Both shots struck about half-way up the shield, abreast of the after pivot, and the impact forced the side in bodily two or three inches. All the crews of the after guns were knocked over by the concussion and bled from the nose or ears. Another shot at the same place would have penetrated. While alongside, boarders were called away; but she dropped astern before they could get on board. And so, for six or more hours, the struggle was kept up. At length, the Monitor withdrew over the middle ground where we could not follow, but always maintaining a position to protect the Minnesota.4 To have run our ship ashore on a falling tide would have been ruin. We awaited her return for an hour; and at 2 o'clock P. M. steamed to Sewell's Point, and thence to the dockyard at Norfolk, our crew thoroughly worn out from the two days' fight. Although there is no doubt that the Monitor first retired,--for Captain Van Brunt, commanding the Minnesota, so states in his official report,--the battle was a drawn one, so far as the two vessels were concerned. But in its general results the advantage was with the Monitor. Our casualties in the second day's fight were only a few wounded.

This action demonstrated for the first time the power and efficiency of the ram as a means of offense. The side of the Cumberland was crushed like an egg-shell. The Congress and Minnesota, even with our disabled bow, would have shared the same fate but that we could not reach them on account of our great draught.

It also showed the power of resistance of two iron-clads, widely differing in construction, model, and armament, under a fire which in a short time would have sunk any other vessel then afloat.

The Monitor was well handled, and saved the Minnesota and the remainder of the fleet at Fort Monroe. But her gunnery was poor. Not a single shot struck us at the water-line, where the ship was utterly unprotected [see Porter], and where one would have been fatal. Or had the fire been concentrated on any one spot, the shield would have been pierced; or had larger charges been used, the result would have been the same. Most of her shot struck us obliquely, breaking the iron of both courses, but not injuring the wood backing. When struck at right angles, the backing would be broken, but not penetrated. We had no solid projectiles, except a few of large windage, to be used as hot shot, and, of course, made no impression on the turret. But in all this it should be borne in mind that both vessels were on their trial trip, both were experimental, and both were receiving their baptism of fire.

On our arrival at Norfolk, Commander Buchanan sent for me. I found him at the Naval Hospital, badly wounded and suffering greatly. He dictated a short dispatch to Mr. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy, stating the return of the ship and the result of the two days' fight, and directed me to proceed to Richmond with it, and the flag of the Congress, and make a verbal report of the action, condition of the Virginia, etc.

I took the first train for Petersburg and the capital. The news had preceded me, and at every station I was warmly received, and to listening crowds was forced to repeat the story of the fight. Arriving at Richmond, I drove to Mr. Mallory's office and with him went to President Davis's, where we met Mr. Benjamin, who, a few days afterward, became Secretary of State, Mr. Seddon, afterward Secretary of War, General Cooper, Adjutant-General, and a number of others. I told at length what had occurred on the previous two days, and what changes and repairs were necessary to the Virginia. As to the future, I said that in the Monitor we had met our equal, and that the result of another engagement would be very doubtful. Mr. Davis made many inquiries as regarded the ship's draught, speed, and capabilities, and urged the completion of the repairs at as early a day as possible. The conversation lasted until near midnight. During the evening the flat of the Congress, which was a very large one, was brought in, and, to our surprise, in unfolding it, we found it in some places saturated with blood. On this discovery it was quickly rolled up and sent to the Navy Department, where it remained during the war; it doubtless burned with that building when Richmond was evacuated.

The news of our victory was received everywhere in the South with the most enthusiastic rejoicing. Coming as it did, after a number of disasters in the south and west, it was particularly grateful. Then again, under the circumstances, so little was expected from the navy that this success was entirely unlooked for. So, from one extreme to the other, the most extravagant anticipations were formed of what the ship could do. For instance: the blockade could be raised, Washington leveled to the ground, New York laid under contribution, and so on. At the North, equally groundless alarm was felt. As an example of this, Secretary Welles relates what took place at a Cabinet meeting called by Mr. Lincoln on the receipt of the news.5 "'The Merrimac,' said Stanton, 'will change the whole character of the war; she will destroy, seriatim, every naval vessel; she will lay all the cities on the seaboard under contribution. I shall immediately recall Burnside; Port Royal must be abandoned. I will notify the governors and municipal authorities in the North to take instant measures to protect their harbors.' He had no doubt, he said, that the monster was at this moment on her way to Washington; and, looking out of the window, which commanded a view of the Potomac for many miles, 'Not unlikely, we shall have a shell or cannon-ball from one of her guns in the White House before we leave this room.' Mr. Seward, usually buoyant and self-reliant, overwhelmed with the intelligence, listened in responsive sympathy to Stanton, and was greatly depressed, as, indeed were all the members."

I returned the next day to Norfolk , and informed Commodore Buchanan that he would be promoted to be admiral, and that, owing to his wound, he would be retired from the command of the Virginia. Lieutenant Jones should have been promoted, and should have succeeded him. He had fitted out the ship and armed her, and had commanded during the second day's fight. However, the department thought otherwise, and selected Commodore Josiah Tattnall; except Lieutenant Jones he was the best man. He had distinguished himself in the wars of 1812 and with Mexico. No one stood higher as an accomplished and chivalrous officer. While in command of the United States squadron in the East Indies, he was present as a neutral at the desperate fight at the Peiho Forts, below Pekin, between the English fleet and the Chinese, when the former lost nearly one-half of a force of twelve hundred engaged. Seeing his old friend Sir James Hope hard pressed and in need of assistance, having had four vessels sunk under him, he had his barge manned, and with his flag-lieutenant, S. D. Trenchard, pulled alongside the flag-ship, through the midst of a tremendous fire, in which his coxswain was killed and several of his boats crew were wounded. He found the gallant admiral desperately wounded, and all his crew killed or disabled but six. When he offered his services, surprise was expressed at his action. His reply was, "Blood is thicker than water."

Tattnall took command on the 29th of March. In the meantime the Virginia was in the dry dock under repairs. The hull four feet below the shield was covered with 2-inch iron. A new and heavier ram was strongly secured to the bow. The damage to the armor was repaired [see Porter]. Wrought-iron port-shutters were fitted, and the rifle-guns were supplied with steel-pointed solid shot. These changes, with 100 tons more of ballast on her fan-tails, increased her draught to 23 feet, improving her resisting powers, but correspondingly decreasing her mobility and reducing her speed to 4 knots. The repairs were not completed until the 4th of April, owing to our want of resources and the difficulty of securing workmen. On the 11th we steamed down the harbor to the Roads with six gun-boats, fully expecting to meet the Monitor again and other vessels; for we knew their fleet had been largely reenforced, by the Vanderbilt, among other vessels, a powerful side-wheel steamer fitted as a ram. We were primed for a desperate tussle; but to our surprise we had the Roads to ourselves. We exchanged a few shots with the Rip-Raps batteries, but the Monitor with the other vessels of the fleet remained below Fort Monroe, in Chesapeake Bay, where we could not get at them except by passing between the forts.

The day before going down, Commodore Tattnall had written to Secretary Mallory, "I see no chance for me but to pass the forts and strike elsewhere, and I shall be gratified by your authority to do so." This freedom of action was never granted, and probably wisely, for the result of an action with the Monitor and fleet, even if we ran the gauntlet of the fire of the forts successfully, was more than doubtful, and any disaster would have exposed Norfolk and James River, and probably would have resulted in the loss of Richmond. For equally good reasons the Monitor acted on the defensive; for if she had been out of the way, General McClellan's base and fleet of transports in York River would have been endangered. Observing three merchant vessels at anchor close inshore and within the bar at Hampton, the commodore ordered Lieutenant Barney in the Jamestown to go in and bring them out. This was promptly and successfully accomplished, under a fire from the forts. Two were brigs loaded with supplies for the army. The capture of these vessels, within gun-shot of their fleet, did not affect its movements. As the Jamestown towed her prizes under the stern of the English corvette Rinaldo, Captain Hewett (now [1887] Vice-Admiral Sir William Hewett, commanding the Channel Squadron), then at anchor in the Roads, she was enthusiastically cheered. We remained below all day, and at night returned and anchored off Sewell's Point.

A few days later we went down again to within gun-shot of the Rip-Raps, and exchanged a few rounds with the fort, hoping that the Monitor would come out from her lair into open water. Had she done so, a determined effort would have been made to carry her by boarding. Four small gun-boats were ready, each of which had its crew divided into parties for the performance of certain duties after getting on board. Some were to try to wedge the turret, some to cover the pilot-house and all openings with tarpaulins, others to scale with ladders the turret and smoke-stack, using shells, hand-grenades, etc. Even if but two of the gun-boats should succeed in grappling her, we were confident of success. Talking this over since with Captain S. D. Greene, who was the first lieutenant of the Monitor, and in command after Captain Worden was wounded in the pilot-house, he said they were prepared for anything of this kind and that it would have failed. Certain it is, if an opportunity had been given, the attempt would have been made.

A break-down of the engines forced us to return to Norfolk. Having completed our repairs on May 8th, and while returning to our old anchorage, we heard heavy firing, and, going down the harbor, found the Monitor, with the iron-clads Galena, Naugatuck, and a number of heavy ships, shelling our batteries at Sewell's Point. We stood directly for the Monitor, but as we approached they all ceased firing and retreated below the forts. We followed close down to the Rip-Raps, whose shot passed over us, striking a mile or more beyond the ship. We remained for some hours in the Roads, and finally the commodore, in a tone of deepest disgust, gave the order: "Mr. Jones, fire a gun to windward, and take the ship back to her buoy."

During the month of April, 1862, our forces, under General J. E. Johnston, had retired from the Peninsula to the neighborhood of Richmond, to defend the city against McClellan's advance by way of the Peninsula, and from time to time rumors of the possible evacuation of Norfolk reached us. On the 9th of May, while at anchor off Sewell's Point, we noticed at sunrise that our flag was not flying over the batteries. A boat was sent ashore and found them abandoned. Lieutenant Pembroke Jones was then dispatched to Norfolk, some miles distant, to call upon General Huger, who was in command, and learn the condition of affairs. He returned during the afternoon, reporting, to our great surprise, the town deserted by our troops and the navy yard on fire. This precipitate retreat was entirely unnecessary, for while the Virginia remained afloat, Norfolk was safe, or, at all events, was not tenable by the enemy, and James River was partly guarded, for we could have retired behind the obstructions in the channel at Craney Island, and, with the batteries at that point, could have held the place, certainly until all the valuable stores and machinery had been removed from the navy yard. Moreover, had the Virginia been afloat at the time of the battles around Richmond, General McClellan would hardly have retreated to James River; for, had he done so, we could at any time have closed it and rendered any position on it untenable.

Norfolk evacuated, our occupation was gone, and the next thing to be decided upon was what should be done with the ship. Two courses of action were open to us; we might have run the blockade of the forts and done some damage to the shipping there and at the mouth of the York River, provided they did not get out of our way,--for, with our great draught and low rate of speed, the enemy's transports would have gone where we could not have followed them; and the Monitor and the other iron-clads would have engaged us with every advantage, playing around us as rabbits around a sloth, and the end would have been the certain loss of the vessel. On the other hand, the pilots said repeatedly, if the ship were lightened to eighteen feet, they could take her up James River to Harrison's Landing or City Point, where she could have been put in fighting trim again, and have been in a position to assist in the defense of Richmond. The commodore decided upon this course. Calling all hands on deck, he told them what he wished done. Sharp and quick work was necessary; for, to be successful, the ship must be lightened five feet, and we must pass the batteries at Newport News and the fleet below before daylight next morning. The crew gave three cheers, and went to work with a will, throwing overboard the ballast from the fan-tails, as well as that below,--all spare stores, water, indeed everything but our powder and shot. By midnight the ship had been lightened three feet, when, to our amazement, the pilots said it was useless to do more, that with the westerly wind blowing, the tide would be cut down so that the ship would not go up even to Jamestown Flats; indeed, they would not take the responsibility of taking her up the river at all. This extraordinary conduct of the pilots rendered some other plan immediately necessary. Moral: All officers, as far as possible, should learn to do their own piloting.

The ship had been so lifted as to be unfit for action; two feet of her hull below the shield was exposed. She could not be sunk again by letting in water without putting out the furnace fires and flooding the magazines. Never was a commander forced by circumstances over which he had no control into a more painful position than was Commodore Tattnall. But coolly and calmly he decided, and gave orders to destroy the ship; determining if he could not save his vessel, at all events not to sacrifice three hundred brave and faithful men; and that he acted wisely, the fight at Drewry's Bluff, which was the salvation of Richmond, soon after proved. She was run ashore near Craney Island, and the crew landed with their small-arms and two days' provisions. Having only two boats, it took three hours to disembark. Lieutenant Catesby Jones and myself were the last to leave. Setting her on fire fore and aft, she was soon in a blaze, and by the light of our burning ship we pulled for the shore, landing at daybreak. We marched 22 miles to Suffolk and took the cars for Richmond.

The news of the destruction of the Virginia caused a most profound feeling of disappointment and indignation throughout the South, particularly as so much was expected of the ship after our first success. On Commodore Tattnall the most unsparing and cruel aspersions were cast. He promptly demanded a court of inquiry, and, not satisfied with this, a court-martial, whose unanimous finding, after considering the facts and circumstances, was: "Being thus situated, the only alternative, in the opinion of the court, was to abandon and burn the ship then and there; which, in the judgment of the court, was deliberately and wisely done by order of the accused. Wherefore, the court do award the said Captain Josiah Tattnall an honorable acquittal.

It only remains now to speak of our last meeting with the Monitor. Arriving at Richmond, we heard that the enemy's fleet was ascending James River, and the result was great alarm; for, relying upon the Virginia, not a gun had been mounted to protect the city from a water attack. We were hurried to Drewry's Bluff, the first high ground below the city, seven miles distant. Here, for two days, exposed to constant rain, in bottomless mud and without shelter, on scant provisions, we worked unceasingly, mounting guns and obstructing the river. In this we were aided by the crews of small vessels which had escaped up the river before Norfolk was abandoned. The Jamestown and some small sailing-vessels were sunk in the channel, but, owing to the high water occasioned by a freshet, the obstructions were only partial. We had only succeeded in getting into position three thirty-twos and two sixty-fours (shell guns) and were without sufficient supply of ammunition, when on the 15th of May the iron-clad Galena, Commander John Rodgers, followed by the Monitor and three others, hove in sight. We opened fire as soon as they came within range, directing most of it on the Galena. This vessel was handled very skillfully. Coming up within six hundred yards of the battery, she anchored, and, with a spring from her quarter, presented her broadside; this under a heavy fire, and in a narrow river with a strong current. The Monitor, and others anchored just below, answered our fire deliberately; but, owing to the great elevation of the battery, their fire was in a great measure ineffectual, though two guns were dismounted and several men were killed and wounded. While this was going on, our sharp-shooters were at work on both banks. Lieutenant Catesby Jones, in his report, speaks of this service: "Lieutenant Wood, with a portion of the men, did good service as sharpshooters. The enemy were excessively annoyed by their fire. His position was well chosen and gallantly maintained in spite of the shell, shrapnel, grape and canister fired at them." Finding they could make no impression on our works, the Galena, after an action of four hours, returned down the river with her consorts. Her loss was about forty killed and wounded.6

This was one of the boldest and best-conducted operations of the war, and one of which very little notice has been taken. Had Commander Rodgers been supported by a few brigades, landed at City Point or above on the south side, Richmond would have been evacuated. The Virginia's crew alone barred his way to Richmond; otherwise the obstructions would not have prevented his steaming up to the city, which would have been as much at his mercy as was New Orleans before the fleet of Farragut.

E2 It should be remembered that as spring opened General McClellan was urged by the administration and the press to make a forward movement. Anticipating this, General J. E. Johnston, better to cover Richmond and to shorten his lines, retired to the Rappahannock and later to the James. General McClellan wisely determined to use the navigable waters either of the James or the York River to approach Richmond; and, as the James was closed by the Virginia in a manner he could not have foreseen, he was forced to use the York as his base of action against Richmond-a circumstance that saved that city from capture for three years.

The engagement at Drury's Bluff, or Fort Darling, as it is sometimes called, was the last service of the Virginia's crew as a body; soon after they were scattered among the different vessels at Southern ports. The Monitor, too, disappeared from sight a few months later, foundering off Cape Hatteras while on a voyage to Charleston. So short-lived were the two vessels that revolutionized the navies of the world.

John Taylor Wood.


Footnotes from the Battles and Leaders of the Civil War:

1 The officers of the Merrimac were: Flag Officer, Franklin Buchanan; Lieutenants, Catesby ap R. Jones (executive and ordnance officer), Charles C. Simms, R. D. Minor (flag), Hunter Davidson, John Taylor Wood, J. R. Eggleston, Walter Butt; Midshipmen, Foute, Marmaduke, Littlepage, Craig, Long, and Rootes; Paymaster, James Semple; Surgeon, Dinwiddie Phillips; Assistant-Surgeon, Algernon S. Garnett; Captain of Marines, Reuben Thom; Engineers, H. A. Ramsey, acting chief; Assistants, Tynan, Campbell, Herring, Jack, and White; Boatswain, Hasker; Gunner, Oliver; Carpenter, Lindsey; Clerk, Arthur Sinclair, Jr.; Volunteer Aides, Lieutenant Douglas Forrest, C. S. A., Captain Kevil, commanding detachment of Norfolk United Artillery; Signal Corps, Sergeant Tabb.

2 According to the pilot of the Cumberland, A. B. Smith: "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-plate roof, and a ball from one of our guns instantly cut him in two. . . . Finally, after about three-fourths of an hour of the most severe fighting, our vessel sank, the Stars and Stripes still waving. That flight 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."

3 Lieutenant Jones reported: "It was not easy to keep a flag flying. The flag-staffs were repeatedly shot away The colors were hoisted to the smoke-stack and several times cut down from it." EDITORS.

4 In his official report, Captain Van Brunt says of the fight, as viewed from the Minnesota: "At 6 A. M. the enemy again appeared, . . . and I beat to quarters; but they ran past my ship and were heading for Fortress Monroe, and the retreat was beaten to enable 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 the 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 from the Rebels, with no more effect, apparently, than so many pebble-stones thrown by a child. . . . The Merrimac, finding she could make nothing of 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 engineers' 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."

5 The "news" was of the first day's battle before the Monitor had arrived.-- EDITORS

6 According to the official report, the loss on the Galena was 13 killed and 11 wounded; on the Port Royal, 1 wounded and, on the Naugatuck 2 wounded. Total, 13 killed and 14 wounded.--EDITORS


Transcription notes:

E1 Battles and Leaders had references to pages within that book. They are replaced here by hyperlinks to the transcripts, not all of which may yet exist.

E2 Below here are two paragraphs that were only in the Century Magazine version.


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Transcription copyright 1997 by Martha H. Tyson and Mabry Tyson