previous next

The ironclad ram Virginia-Confederate States Navy, [from the Richmond, Va., News-leader, April 1, 1904.]

And her memorable engagements of March 8 and 9, 1862.

Story of her launching and Accomplishments.

By Wm. R. Cline, One of Her Crew.

Newport News, Va., April 1, 1904.
The great celebration which Virginians are arranging for Tuesday next, 5th, the day set for the launching of the magnificent first-class battleship Virginia at the local shipyard, is largely due to the fact that they look upon the new fighter as the namesake of the formidable Confederate ironclad Virginia (Merrimac), which, with Ericsson's Monitor taught the world how warfare on the sea should be carried on.

The new Virginia's launching announcement caused the people of this section particularly to remember this week that the first fight between iron-clads took place just forty-two years ago.

William R. Cline, an employee of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company, was a member of the crew of the old Virginia, and seen at one of his haunts on the anniversary of the battle, he made the following interesting statement, which contains some facts which have probably never found their way in print before:

Much has been said and written about the great naval battle in Hampton Roads on March 8 and 9, 1862, between the Confederate iron-clad ram Virginia and the Federal fleet then stationed in these waters. History, in all cases that I have heard of, refers to the ship as the Merrimac, but I want to say right here that there never was a vessel in the Confederate States navy called by that name. The Merrimac was a United States frigate, burned, scuttled and sunk at Gosport navyyard in 1861. The old hulk was raised, rebuilt and converted into an ironclad, and when she was launched there were only four marines and a corporal aboard. I was one of the five who did duty that day, and was stationed in the bow when [244] the ship went down the ways into the water, she being then and there christened Virginia. There were no invitations to governors and other distinguished men, no sponsor nor maid of honor, no bottle of wine, no brass band, no blowing of steam whistles, no great crowds to witness this memorable event. The launching was accomplished quietly, only officers and men stationed at the navyyard witnessing it. I have never read in any history or in reports of any of our officers a true account of this launching. Strange as this may seem, it is a fact that there was only one officer of the Virginia's crew who was present at the time the vessel was launched and he was Captain Reuben Thom. All of the other officers and men of the crew were aboard a school ship then lying of the navyyard, and they did not come on board until the ship was commissioned.

I was surprised at the erroneous naming by Governor Montague at the banquet held at Hotel Chamberlain on April 18, 1903, in honor of the sponsor of the cruiser West Virginia, He referred to the fight between the Merrimac and the Monitor.

Before I go into detail in regard to the two days engagement, I want to speak of a rousing speech made by our commander, Franklin Buchanan, to his officers and men just before the fight began. In his closing remarks he said: “The eyes of the whole world are upon you this day, and in the good old name of Virginia let every man do his duty.”

That duty was done, and done bravely, and I believe in justice to those heroes on both sides, irrespective of prejudice or ill-feeling, they should stand in the front rank of the brave before the world as the founders of iron-clad warfare at sea.

Story of the fight.

About 11 o'clock Saturday the Virginia, then flagship, twelve guns, Captain Franklin Buchanan commanding, accompanied by the Raleigh and Beaufort, one gun each, left Gosport navyyard; when we were opposite Norfolk all hands were piped to dinner. After dinner all hands were called to quarters.

Then “All hands ready for action” was heard, Captain Buchanan speaking from the quarter-deck. Not one of the crew up to that time knew or suspected what he would hear from the captain, although we had crossed the roads and were closing in upon the enemy. The latter began to pour shot and shell into us, but with [245] no effect, as all the missles which struck the ship's sides slid off without inflicting the slighest damage.

Our first shot was from the bow gun, No. 1 (7 a-inch rifle), fired into the Cumberland. Immediately after firing, we rammed the starboard bow of the Cumberland and in fifteen minutes all was over, the vessel going down with her guns firing and colors flying. No braver heroes ever lived than the men who manned the Cumberland.

After sinking the Cumberland we were reinforced by the steamers Patrick Henry, Jamestown and Teaser, of the James river fleet, which rendered good service. We engaged the Congress and had considerable difficulty in getting in proper position, being under heavy fire from the shore batteries and the fleet of the enemy. In manoeuvering we silenced several of the shore batteries, blew up a steamer at the wharf, sank a sailing vessel and captured a schooner, which we sent to Norfolk. In the meantime the Congress had been run aground, and, getting in position, we commenced firing upon her. Our shots took quick effect, and the vessel hauled down her colors and sent up the white flag, many of the men hurriedly leaving the ship.

Our commander sent the Beaufort and the Raleigh to rescue the wounded aboard the Congress. Just as they were in the act of taking these poor mortals to safety and while the white flag was still flying, the shore batteries and the guns on the Congress opened fire upon our boats, killing some officers and men—a cowardly act in warfare.

Determined to destroy her.

It was then that Captain Buchanan determined that the Congress should be destroyed. Lieutenant Minor volunteered to burn the vessel, and he started for her with a small boat's crew. When the boat was within seventy-five yards of the Congress the crew opened fire, wounding Lieutenant Minor and several of his men. After this act of treachery the lieutenant and his men returned to the Virginia.

Then we did pour hot shot and shell into the Congress. She took fire and about midnight her magazine blew up. The report was heard sixty miles away and the fire could be seen for miles.

During all of this time the steam frigate Minnesota and Roanoke and the sailing frigate St. Lawrence had been firing broadsides into us. The Minnesota grounded, but as night came on the St. Law- [246] rence and Roanoke slipped away to safety under the guns of Fort Monroe. But we continued to fire on the Minnesota until darkness stopped the fighting.

Let me say right here that the gallant heroes of the Cumberland should be honored in the pages of history. On the other hand, however, the crew of the Congress and the men manning the shore batteries should be termed in history cowards. They not even respected their white flag and fired on us when we were conveying wounded prisoners of war to safety.

The following day, Sunday, we began the day with two jiggers of whiskey and a hearty breakfast. Then we steamed within a mile of the Minnesota and commenced firing on her again. We blew up a steamer alongside of the frigate, and shortly afterwards we first knew of the famous fighter, the Monitor. General Sherman's remark, “War is hell,” was amply illustrated when the Virginia and the Monitor met in Hampton Roads.

After the Minnesota incident, the Monitor hove in view and at once attacked.

We could see nothing but the resemblance of a large cheese box, and when the turret revolved we could see nothing but two immense guns. On firing thus the turret revolved and the guns could not be seen until they were ready to fire again. We could hardly get aim at the Monitor's guns, as they were in sight only when being fired, and would disappear immediately thereafter. At times the vessels were hardly twenty feet away from each other. Every officer and gunner on board the Virginia was puzzled to know how to disable the curious little craft. The truth, however, was that we could do nothing with her just then. After sparring to and fro for better position and looking for deeper water (the Virginia drew twenty-three feet and the Monitor only ten), we finally made our way into deep water and the Monitor tried to run across our bow or stern. Had she succeeded in these attempts the history of the famous fight would have been differently recorded, for we would sunk and lost all hands on board. After these failures, our executive officer, Captain Catesby P. Jones, deemed it best to ram the Monitor. We made two efforts to do this, but as we had lost our steel prow the day before in sinking the Cumberland, we could not harm the Monitor.

Neither vessel succeeded in accomplishing the other's ruin. While fighting the Monitor we were under heavy fire from the beached Minnesota, although it had no effect. We could not get [247] our guns to bear on the Minnesota properly, and, although we set her on fire and did considerable damage, we were too far away to make a clean sweep of her.

The fight between the Virginia and the Monitor was on for fully four hours, neither vessel seeming to suffer from the effects of the other's broadsides. Finally the Monitor ran off into shoal water, trying to coax us to follow her (a Yankee trick) and go aground. This we did not do, and from the ,Monitor's position neither vessel could reach the other with shot.

We now made an examination and found we had lost our prow, had two guns disabled and had sprung a leak. We remained, however, thinking that the Monitor would come out into deep water again and renew the engagement. She staid safely in shoal water though, and after some time we saw that no more fighting was in view. Our officers held a consultation and decided to return to Norfolk for repairs.

The Monitor remained in her position on the shoals until we had crossed the bar on our way to Norfolk.

The official report of the damage sustained by the Virginia from the time she left the Gosport navy-yard says: “ The Virginia's loss is two killed and nineteen wounded. The stem is twisted and the ship leaks. We lost our prow, starboard anchor and all the boats. The armor is somewhat damaged, the steam-pipes and smokestack riddled, the muzzles of two guns shot away. The colors were hoisted to the smokestack and were shot away several times. No one was killed or wounded in the fight with the Monitor.”

The only damage done by the Monitor was to the armor, the effect of shot striking obliquely on the shield, breaking the iron and sometimes displacing several feet of the outside courses and the wooden backing inside.

After being repaired at the Gosport navy-yard and having the disabled guns replaced, under the supervision of Commodore Josiah Tatnall, the Virginia steamed down Hampton Roads about the middle of April, expecting to have another fight with the Monitor. But there was no fight. The Monitor hugged the other shore under the protection of the guns of Fort Monroe. Our commander tried several times to persuade the vessel to come out and fight, but she never came.

On May 8th, a squadron including the Monitor, Galena and Nagatuck, bombarded our batteries at Sewall's Point. When our [248] commander heard of this, he started down to meet the enemy, but before the Virginia reached Sewall's Point the enemy's ships had drawn off and ceased firing, retreating to the protection of Fort Monroe and keeping out of range of our guns. The fact is, the Monitor was afraid of the Virginia, running away from her again and again.

Believed they were traitors.

On May 10th, two days after the evacuation of Norfolk, we tried to get the Virginia up James river. We lightened her all we could, until her shield was out of the water and she was in no condition to fight. Before this, however, all hands were called to quarters and Commodore Tatnall, stating the condition of affairs, said all hands must work with a will to lighten the ship. Everyone worked with a will, but, as everyone believed afterwards, the pilots had turned traitors to the good old fighter and to the Confederacy. The Virginia could not get over the bar in her path even when she did not draw but eighteen feet.

The commander then ran the vessel ashore off Craney Island, landed the crew and set fire to the ship. The magazine exploded about 5 o'clock on the morning of May 11, 1862. We arrived at Drewry's Bluff the next day. The batteries there repulsed the Monitor, Galena and other vessels on May 15, and Drewry's Bluff was thereafter called the Marine or Iron battery.

During the 8th and 9th of March, 1862, the Confederate fleet successfully encountered and defied a force equal to 2,896 men and 230 guns, as follows:

Congress (burned),48050
Cumberland (sunk),36022
Minnesota (riddled),55040
Roanoke (scared off),55040
St. Lawrence (peppered),48050
Gunboats (three disabled),1206
Forts (silenced),20020

Following are the vessels which composed the Confederate fleet: [249]

Steamers Virginia (12 guns), Captain Buchanan; Patrick Henry (12 guns), Commander John R. Tucker; Jamestown (2 guns), Lieutenant-Commander I. W. Barry; gunboats Teaser (1 gun), Lieutenant-Commander W. A. Webb; Beaufort (1 gun), Lieutenant-Commander W. H. Parker; Raleigh (1 gun), Lieutenant-Commander I. W. Alexander.

When the Virginia steamed over from Norfolk to engage the Federal fleet, her officers were:

Flag officer, Franklin Buchanan; executive, Lieutenant Catesby A. R. Jones; lieutenants, Charles C. Simms, R. D. Minor, Hunter Davidson, J. Taylor Wood, J. R. Eggleston and Walter Butt; midshipmen, Fonte, Marmaduke, Littlepage, Craig, Long and Roote; paymaster, James Semple; surgeon, Dinwiddie B. Phillips; assistant surgeon, Algernon S. Garnett; captain of marines, Reuben Thom; engineers, H. A. Ramsey; acting chief, Tynan, Campbell, Hening, Jack and White; boatswain, Hasker; gunner, Oliver; carpenter, Lindsey; clerk, Arthur Sinclair, Jr.; volunteer aid, Lieutenant Douglas F. Forrest; Confederate States army, Captain Kevill, commanding detachment of Norfolk United Artillery; signal corps, Sergeant Tabb.

[Our impression is that this list is incomplete; that Dr. Bennett Wood Green served on the Virginia as assistant surgeon, and the late Virginius Newton of Richmond, as midshipman.—editor.]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
March 9th, 1862 AD (3)
March 8th, 1862 AD (3)
April 1st, 1904 AD (2)
April 18th, 1903 AD (1)
May 11th, 1862 AD (1)
1861 AD (1)
May 15th (1)
May 10th (1)
May 8th (1)
May 2nd (1)
April (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: