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[63] reach Newport News, the Merrimac approached the two vessels at anchor. The latter had been cleared for action, the Cumberland when the enemy was sighted, and the Congress after he had entered the James River channel. They would have been no better off if they had got under way; the wind was light, and their tug, the Zouave, was not powerful enough to tow them off. Soon after two o'clock the Merrimac opened fire with grape from her bow gun. Passing along the starboard side of the Congress, whose shot rebounded from her iron side like pebbles, she steered directly for the Cumberland. The latter received her with a discharge of shot which entered the port, knocked off the muzzles of two guns, and killed or wounded nineteen men, but did not stop her progress. Approaching steadily, bows on, she raked the sloop with her pivot gun, and keeping her way, struck her full under the starboard fore-channels, delivering her fire at the same time. The force of the blow drove the Merrimac's ram so far into the planking that it was wrenched off, as she withdrew; and a hole was opened in the side of the Cumberland, into which the water rushed in a full stream.

The bow of the Cumberland immediately began to settle, and her fate was decided. Nevertheless she continued to fight with the persistence and energy of desperation. The gun's crews kicked off their shoes, and stripped to the waist. Tanks of cartridges were hoisted on the gun-deck and opened, and round after round was fired at the ironclad. Never did a crew fight a ship with more spirit and hardihood than these brave fellows of the Cumberland while the vessel was going down. Nor was it a mere idle display of gallantry, this holding on till the last; for in these days, in naval battles, the game is not over until the last gun is fired, and a chance shot may recover the day for a seemingly beaten combatant.

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