As the big ironclad approached the wooden frigate she fired her guns, and apparently almost every shot reached the bulwarks, while the old frigate's missiles bounded like pebbles off the sloping iron sides.
The plucky little gunboats Beaufort
dropped back and attacked the Congress
. Without hesitation, the Merrimac
made for the starboard side of the towering Cumberland
, receiving a heavy broadside and replying with her bow gun as she neared.
Through the thick smoke that now hung over the water, the Merrimac
steamed on and crashed into the Cumberland
just forward of her fore channels.
Like some great animal that had received its mortal wound, the ship staggered and immediately began to settle by the head.
Reversing her engines, the Merrimac
strove to withdraw the iron beak that had reached her opponent's heart.
It was with difficulty that she did so; in fact, the Cumberland
was sinking steadily by the time she had worked herself free, and the great ramming bow, that already had been submerged for some feet, remained in the wound it had made.
There were things that happened this day under the two flags that, looking back upon them, should make the American
heart beat high with pride.
As the Cumberland
sank, even while the waters were entering her ports, and with succeeding sickening lurches she was going down to her grave, her crew kept on cheering, and continued firing their useless guns.
It was only forty minutes after the Beaufort
had opened the action that the Cumberland's
keel rested on the bottom; then, with her flags flying, she turned over on her beam-ends.
In this charge of the Merrimac
there is one thing that must be taken into consideration when giving her officers and men their share of praise for courage.
She was an untried experiment; her iron prow was not well fastened on (which proved fortunate for her, all things considered). There were many naval men, who, as they watched her construction, prophesied that if ever she struck full and square the timbers of a well-built