previous next

Chapter 13:

  • True causes of the Confederate disasters in the second year of the war.
  • -- the enemy's “Anaconda plan.” -- rebukes to the vanity of the Confederates. -- the sum of their disasters. -- inauguration of the Permanent Government of the Confederate States. -- gloomy scene in Capitol square. -- President Davis' speech. -- commentary of a Richmond journal. -- causes of popular animation in the Confederacy.Development of the enemy's design upon slavery. -- history of the Anti-slavery measures of Lincoln's Administration. -- his Early declaration of non-interference with slavery. -- Mr. Seward in 1860. -- Lincoln's statement, March 4th, 1861. -- diplomatic declaration, April, 1861. -- Early affectations of Lincoln's Administration on the subject of slavery. -- McClellan's address. -- McDowell's order. -- Revocation of the emancipation measures of Fremont and Hunter. -- first act of Anti-slavery legislation at Washington. -- Lovejoy's resolution. -- the Anti-slavery clause in the Confiscation act. -- three notable measures of Anti-slavery legislation. -- commencement of the emancipation policy in the District of Columbia. -- explanation of the ascendancy of the Abolition party during the war. -- the new Confederate Congress. -- its vigour. -- the old Provisional Congress. -- its measures. -- its echoes to Federal legislation. -- the sequestration law. -- silly and demagogical military legislation. -- the “sixty days furlough” law. -- alarm of Gen. Johnston. -- Indisposition of Confederate volunteers to re-enlist. -- the conscription law of the Confederate States. -- its timely passage. -- its provisions and effect. -- other military acts of the Confederate Congress. -- re-organization of the army. -- destruction of Southern cotton and tobacco. -- Authorization of partisan service. -- Alternations of Confederate victory and defeat. -- the Trans-Mississippi. -- battle of Elk Horn. -- Van Dorn's command. -- an obstinate fight. -- death of McCulloch. -- the Confederate success indecisive and imperfect. -- reasons for Van Dorn's retreat. -- Confederate designs upon Missouri abandoned for the present. -- transfer of Van Dorn's and Price's forces. -- naval fight in Hampton Roads. -- the Virginia and the Monitor -- lack of naval enterprise in the Confederacy. -- the privateer service. -- construction of the Virginia. -- Confederate squadron in the James River. -- Federal fleet off Fortress Monroe. -- fearful enterprise of the Virginia. -- sinking of the Cumberland. -- gallantry of her crew. -- a thrilling scene of heroic devotion. -- surrender of the Congress. -- frightful scenes of carnage. -- perfidious conduct of the enemy. -- the Virginia engages the Minnesota. -- wonderful results of the first day's fight. -- second day's fight. -- apparition of the Monitor. -- a singular scene of naval combat -- a drawn battle. -- excitement about iron vessels. -- discussion in the newspapers. -- addition of ironclads to the Federal navy. -- what McClellan thought of the Virginia. -- capture of Newbern, &c. -- objects of Burnside's expedition. -- branch's command at Newbern. -- the Confederate works on the Neuse River. -- retreat of branch. -- Federal occupation of Newbern. -- capture of Fort Macon. -- the entire coast of North Carolina in possession of the enemy. -- the sea-coast an unimportant part of the Confederate defences

[215] The series of disasters that befell the Confederates in the early months of 1862, may be distinctly and sufficiently traced to human causes. Instead of being ascribed to the mysterious dispensations of Providence, they are more properly named as the results of human mismanagement. Tho first important defeat of the Federal arms on the plains of Manassas was the initial point with the North of an enlarged scheme of war, and it was now simply giving proof of its “Anaconda plan,” and realizing the natural result of those immense preparations it had made by sea and land, to confound its adversary.

The rebukes which were now being administered to the vaingloriousness of the South were neither few nor light. The Confederates had been worsted in almost every engagement that had occurred since the fall of 1861. There had come disaster after disaster, culminating in the fall of Donelson, the occupation of Nashville, the breaking of our centre, the falling back on all sides, the realization of invasion, the imminence of perils which no one dared to name.

No one who lived in Richmond during the war can ever forget these gloomy, miserable days. In the midst of them was to occur the ceremony of the inauguration of the Permanent Government of the Confederate States. It was only a difference of name between two governments, one called Provisional and the other Permanent; for Mr. Davis had been unanimously elected President, and there was no change either of the organic law or of the personnel of the Administration. But the ceremony of the second inauguration of President Davis was one of deep interest to the public; for it was supposed that he might use the occasion to develop % new policy and to reanimate the people. The 22d of February, the day appointed for the inauguration, was memorable for its gloom in Richmond. Rain fell in torrents, and the heavens seemed to be hung with sable. Yet a dense crowd collected, braving the rain-storm in their eager interest to hear the President's speech from the steps of the Capitol. “It was then,” said a Richmond paper, “that all eyes were turned to our Chief; that we hung upon his lips, hushing the beating of our heavy hearts that we might catch the word of fire we longed to hear — that syllable of sympathy of which a nation in distress stands so in need. One sentence then of defiance and of cheer-something bold, and warm, and human-had sent a thrill of lightning through the land, and set it ablaze with the fresh and quenchless [216] flame of renewed and never-ending fight. That sentence never came The people were left to themselves.”

The Confederate President offered but little of counsel or encouragement to his distressed countrymen. He declared that the magnified proportions of the war had occasioned serious disasters, and that the effort was impossible to protect the whole of the territory of the Confederate States, sea-board and inland. To the popular complaint of inefficiency in the departments of the Government, he replied that they had done all which human power and foresight enabled them to accomplish. He lifted up, in conclusion, a piteous, beautiful, appropriate prayer for the favour of Divine providence.

But it is not to be supposed that the people of the Confederacy, although so little cheered or sustained by their rulers, despaired of the war. There were causes, which were rekindling the fiercest flames of war apart from official inspiration at Richmond. The successes of the enemy had but made him more hateful, and strengthened the South in the determination to have done with him forever. They found new causes of animosity; the war had been brought home to their bosoms; they had obtained practical lessons of the enemy's atrocity and his insolent design; and they came to the aid of their Government with new power and a generosity that was quite willing to forget all its short-comings in the past.

One great cause of animated resolution on the part of the Confederate States was the development at Washington of the design upon slavery, now advanced to a point where there could no longer be a doubt of the revengeful and radical nature of the war. The steps by which the Federal Government had reached this point were in a crooked path, and attended by marks of perfidy. It had indeed given to the world on this subject an astounding record of bad faith, calculated to overwhelm the moral sense of the reader as he compares its different parts and approaches its grand conclusion of self-contradiction the most defiant, and deception the most shameless.

Never had there been such an emphatic protest of a political design as that given by Mr. Lincoln on taking the reins of government, declaring that there was no possible intention, no imaginable occasion, no actual desire to interfere with the subject of negro slavery in the States. Mr. Seward, who had been constituted Secretary of State, and who had been Mr. Lincoln's mouth-piece in Congress before the inauguration, had declared there: “Experience in public affairs has confirmed my opinion that domestic slavery existing in any State is wisely left by the Constitution of the United States, exclusively to the care, management, and disposition of that State; and if it were in my power I would not alter the Constitution in that respect.” Words could scarcely be more distinct and emphatic; but Mr. Lincoln, in his inauguration address, had seen fit to add to them, [217] and, quoting from a former speech, announced to the country: “I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so.”

This assurance was again repeated after the commencement of hostilities, as if there was the most anxious purpose to obtain the ear of the Southern people on the subject, and to impress the world with the just and moderate designs of the war. In his letter of April, 1861, to the Federal minister at Paris, intended as a diplomatic circular for the courts of Europe, and an authoritative exposition of the objects and spirit of tile war on the Northern side, Mr. Seward, by direction of the President, wrote: “( The condition of slavery in the several States will remain just the same, whether it succeeds or fails. The rights of the States, and the condition of every human being in them, will remain subject to exactly the same laws and form of administration, whether the revolution shall succeed or whether it shall fail. Their constitutions and laws and customs, habits and institutions in either case will remain the same. It is hardly necessary to add to this incontestable statement the further fact that the new President, as well as the citizens through whose suffrages he has come into the administration, has always repudiated all designs whatever, and wherever imputed to him and them, of disturbing the system of slavery as it is existing under the Constitution and laws. The case, however, would not be fully presented were I to omit to say that any such effort on his part would be unconstitutional, and all his acts in that direction would be prevented by the judicial authority, even though they were assented to by Congress and the people.”

The first acts of the Federal authority in the active prosecution of the war, touching the institution of slavery, were busily conformed to these assurances. They even afforded an extravagant testimony of their sincerity. Fugitive slaves were not only arrested within the Federal military lines and returned to slavery, but were taken in the streets of Washington and returned, by judicial process, to their masters. On the 26th of May, 1861, Gen. McClellan issued an address to the people of Western Virginia, assuring them that not only would the Federal troops abstain from all interference with their slaves, but that they would crush any attempt at servile insurrection. Gen. McDowell issued an order forbidding fugitive slaves from coming into, or being harboured within his lines. When on the 31st of August, 1861, Gen. Fremont, in Missouri, issued an order declaring the negro slaves within his military department to be free men, it was instantly repudiated and nullified at Washington. At a later period, Gen. Hunter, commanding the Department of the South, issued an order putting the States of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida under martial law, and declaring that, as slavery and martial law were incompatible, the [218] slaves in those States were forever free. Mr. Lincoln set aside this declaration, and made it an occasion of rebuke to the pragmatical commander, who had thus attempted to extend to political objects the police regulations of armies and camps.

It is remarkable how this affectation of non-interference with slavery was laid aside by successive measures of the Federal Government, until at last it discovered its real purpose of the entire excision of slavery, and Mr. Lincoln fell into the arms of the extreme Abolition party, and adopted the doctrine that the opportunity was to be taken in the prosecution of hostilities to crush out slavery as the main cause of difference, and thus assure the fruit of a permanent peace. The first official display of antislavery sentiment in the war was in the extra session of Congress in July, 1861. Mr. Lovejoy, of Illinois, proposed a resolution, which was adopted, declaring that it was no part of the duty of Federal soldiers to capture and return fugitive slaves. This measure was apparently reasonable; but it was significant of a badly-disguised sentiment, the consequences of which were soon to be developed. Next to Lovejoy's resolution was that part of the Confiscation Act, which specially provided that any owner of a slave, or any person having a legal claim to his services, who should require or permit such slave to take up arms against, or be in any way employed in military or naval service against the United States, should thereby forfeit all claim to him, any law of a State or of the United States to the contrary notwithstanding.

The advance of the anti-slavery sentiment was now to be rapid and decisive. In the Thirty-seventh Federal Congress, which met at Washington in December, 1861, it accomplished three measures, which put the Government of Mr. Lincoln on the verge of committal to the entire doctrine of Abolitionists, and plainly informed the Southern people of the real animus of the war.

Naval and military officers were prohibited, by an additional article of war, under penalty of dismissal from the service, from employing the forces under their command for the purpose of returning fugitive slaves.

In accordance with the recommendation of the President, a joint resolution was passed, declaring that the United States ought to co-operate with any State which may adopt the gradual abolition of slavery, by giving pecuniary aid to such State.

The third step was the forcible abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. By this act all persons held to service or labour within the District, by reason of African descent, were freed from all claim for such service or labour; and no involuntary servitude, except for crime, and after due conviction, should hereafter exist in the District.

It is not within the design of this chapter or within the period of time which it traverses, to follow further the record of the Washington Government [219] on the subject of slavery. The crowning act of deception was reserved for another time. But the record had already progressed far enough to assure the people of the South that the only safety for their domestic institutions was in a separate and independent political existence; that Northern faith was only a thing of convenience; that in the war the Con federates contended for no mere abstractions, but had at stake all their substantial rights and nearly every element of individual happiness.

There was a good deal of curious commentary in Southern newspapers how, step by step, the war of the North had changed its objects. But in a broad historical sense the explanation is obvious. History has shown that in all great civil commotions it is the most violent party, the party whose aim is most clearly defined, that gradually obtains the upper hand. It was thus that the Abolition party in the North gradually ascended, through four years of commotion and contest, and finally obtained the entire control of the war, and dictated its consequences.

We have referred to that public sentiment in the Southern Confederacy which about the time of the foundation of its Permanent Government came forward with fresh support of the war, and a new resolution for its prosecution. Happily, although this sentiment found but little encouragement on the part of President Davis, and was neither directed nor employed by him, it secured a medium of forcible expression and a channel of effective action through the new Confederate Congress summoned at Richmond. The measures of this Congress constitute the most critical and interesting pages of the Confederate annals. It is perhaps not saying too much to declare that the vigour of this body saved the Confederacy, rallied the strength of the country, and put on a hopeful footing a war which was languishing and almost in the last stages of neglect.

The Congress which preceded it-what is known as the Provisional Congress--was perhaps the weakest body that had ever been summoned in a historical crisis. It was the creature of State conventions; it was elected at a time when most of the ambition and virtue of the country were seeking the honours of the tented field; it was composed of third-rate professional politicians, who had no resources beyond the emoluments of office, who were in a constant intrigue for patronage, and who had no higher legislative training than that of a back-door communication with the Executive. The measures of this Congress must ever remain a stock for ridicule, or the theme of severer criticism. All its legislative ingenuity appears to have been to make feeble echoes to the Federal Congress at Washington. The latter authorized an army of half a million of men. The Provisional Congress at Richmond replied by increasing its army on paper to four hundred thousand men, but doing nothing whatever to collect such a force, and still relying on the wretched shift of twelve months volunteers and raw militia. The Congress at Washington passed a sweeping [220] confiscation law. That at Richmond replied by a “sequestration” act, which, by corrupt amendments allowing the Confederate “heirs” of alien enemies to rescue and protect the property, was converted into a broad farce. It was announced with flourishes; it was said that it would sweep into the Confederate treasury three hundred millions of dollars. Two years after the passage of this law its actual results were summed up by the Treasurer of the Confederate States as less than two millions of dollars!

A short while before the expiration of its official life the Provisional Congress passed a law, the effect of which was almost to disband our armies in the field, and put the Confederacy at the mercy of the enemy. Never was there such a silly and visionary measure of demagogueism applied to the stern exigencies and severe demands of a state of war. The purpose was to persuade the twelve months volunteers to re-enlist; and to do this Congress passed a law granting to those who pledged themselves to re-enlist for the term of the war a sixty days furlough. This extraordinary measure was inspired by the military genius of President Davis, and was directly recommended by him. It depleted our armies in the face of the enemy; it filled our military commanders with consternation; it carried alarm, confusion, and demoralization everywhere. Our army near the line of the Potomac, under the effect of this ill-timed and ill-judged law, was melting like snow. The streets of Richmond were almost daily filled with long processions of furloughed soldiers moving from the railroad depots on their way home. Gen. Beauregard had taken the alarm before he left the Army of the Potomac, and had exhorted the men to stand by their colours. Gen. Johnston had published a general order on the subject, and said as much as he could say on this subject of the exodus without discovering to the enemy the fearful decrease of his numbers, and inviting an attack upon the thin military line that now formed the only defence of Richmond.

Such was the condition of affairs when the Congress of 1862 took up the thread of Confederate legislation. It at once broke it, and commenced a series of measures of startling vigour. Its most important act was the Conscription law of the 16th of April, 1862, from which properly dates the military system of the Confederacy. Previous to this the Confederacy had had nothing that deserved the title of a military system, and had relied on mere popular enthusiasm to conduct the war. When the suggestion was first made in the newspapers of Richmond of the harsh and unpopular measure of conscription, other journals, notoriously in the interest of the Administration, denounced it on the singular demagogical plea that it conveyed a reflection upon the patriotism of the country. Even in his inaugural address in February, President Davis had avoided the unpopularity of a conscription law, and had passed over the difficult question with the general phrase that troops must be enlisted for long terms instead [221] of short ones, for which they had hitherto taken the field. But it was no time to hesitate for popularity, and to entertain the prejudices of the ignorant, when the entire fortunes of the country were at stake. The Conscription law was barely in time to save the Confederacy. At another period, the Confederate Secretary of War stated that thirty days after the passage of this law, the terms of one hundred and forty-eight regiments would have expired, and left us at the mercy of an enemy which had every guaranty of success that numbers, discipline, complete organization, and perfect equipment could effect.

The law of the 16th of April withdrew every non-exempt citizen, between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five years, from State control, and placed him absolutely at the disposal of the President during the war. It annulled all contracts made with volunteers for short terms, holding them in service for two years additional, should the war continue so long. All twelve months recruits below eighteen and over thirty-five years, who would otherwise have been exempted by this law, were to be retained in service for ninety days after their term expired. In every State one or more camps of instruction, for the reception and training of conscripts, was established; and to each State an officer, styled a commandant of conscripts, was appointed, charged with the supervision of the enrollment and instruction of the new levies. The conscription law, besides its great value for recruiting service, gave solidity to the military system of the Confederacy, and centralized the organization of the army. Its efficiency in these respects was assisted by the appointment of lieutenant-generals, some commanding separate departments, and others heading army corps under a general in the field. The policy of organizing the brigades with troops and generals from the several States was pursued, as opportunities offered, without detriment to the public service.

Accompanying this great military reform in the Confederacy, there were other measures which gave evidence of awakened attention to the exigencies of the war. Laws were passed to ensure the destruction of all cotton and tobacco likely to come into possession of the enemy. The authorities were authorized to destroy these great staples of Southern production to keep it from the enemy; and owners destroying them for the same purpose were to be indemnified upon proof of the value and the circumstances of destruction. A bill was passed for partisan service, intended as a premium for adventure in the war, authorizing the formation of bands of rangers, who were to have a designated share of all captures from the enemy.1

These and like measures indicated a new scale of operation in the war, [222] and a new spirit in the conduct of hostilities. They were to show results in a few months. The campaign of 1862 covered the whole of a huge territory, and could only be decided by movements involving great expenditure of troops and time; while the bitter exhibitions of the North had envenomed the war, aroused the spirit of retaliation, and swelled the sanguinary tide of conflict.

We have seen that the Permanent Government of the Confederate States was inaugurated at a dark period of its fortunes. The military history closely following this event is not a little curious. It may be characterized as an alternation of light and shade; across the tract of disaster there being sudden and fitful gleams of light, such as the undaunted courage of our troops and the variable accidents of war might give in such circumstances of misgovernment as were adverse or embarrassing to a grand scale of successes. Of these, and of the reverses mingled with them, we shall proceed to treat in the resumption of the military part of our narrative; reaching, at last, through this alternation of victory and defeat, the point of that grand effulgence of our arms, that made the year 1862 the most memorable in Confederate annals.

The Trans-Mississippi.-battle of Elk Horn.

We left Gen. Price at the close of the Missouri campaign proper, halting his weary column at Springfield. While recruiting and drilling his men, Price watched for the first movements of the enemy, and early in January, 1862, the Federals began to advance. Price had taken up a strong position and fortified it, expecting that McCulloch would move forward to his assistance; but that commander did not stir, or make the slightest diversion in his favour; so that, finding the enemy closing in upon him rapidly, he withdrew from Springfield, and was obliged to cut his way through towards Boston Mountain, where McCulloch was reported to be. This he successfully accomplished, with some desultory fighting. Meanwhile Maj.-Gen. Earl Van Dorn had been appointed by President Davis to take command in the Trans-Mississippi Department, and had arrived [223] at Pocahontas, Arkansas. He resolved to go in person to take command of the combined forces of Price and McCulloch, and reached their headquarters on the 3d of March.

Van Dorn soon ascertained that the enemy were strongly posted on rising ground at a place called Sugar Creek, about sixty miles distant, having a force of some twenty-five thousand men, under Curtis and Sturgis. It was also reported that they did not intend to advance until the arrival of heavy reinforcements, which were rapidly moving up. Although not twenty thousand strong, Van Dorn resolved to attack them, and sending word to Albert Pike to hurry forward with his brigade of Indians, moved out of camp on the 4th of March, with Price and McCulloch's forces, his intention being to surround the enemy's advance, some eight thousand strong, under Sigel, at Bentonville.

Sigel, however, made a skilful retreat, and effected a junction with Sturgis and Curtis. On the 7th of March, both armies were in full view of each other. Early in the morning, Van Dorn had made every disposition for attack, and the advance began. The enemy were strongly posted on high ground, as usual, their front being covered with a heavy body of skirmishers and artillery, but they gave way as the Confederates advanced in like order upon them, and fell back upon the main body. Price's forces constituted our left and centre, while McCulloch was on the right.

To prevent the junction of reinforcements, known to be on the way, Van Dorn's attack was made from the north and west, his columns almost surrounding the foe. The fight was long and obstinate. About two o'clock, Gen. Van Dorn sent a dispatch to Gen. McCulloch, who was attacking the enemy's left, proposing to him to hold his position, while Price's left advance might be thrown forward over the whole line, and easily end the battle. Before the dispatch was penned, Gen. McCulloch had fallen; and the victorious advance of his division upon the strong position of the enemy's front was checked by the fall of himself and Gen. Mcintosh, the second in command, in the heat of the battle, and in the full tide of success.

Curtis and Sturgis, perceiving the confusion on the Confederate right, rallied their commands, and presented a formidable front; the skilful Sigel covering the retreat in a slow and masterly manner. At one time during the day the enemy was thought to have been thoroughly beaten; but he now retired in excellent order to other positions some miles to the rear. The Confederates encamped for the night nearly a mile beyond the point where the enemy had made his last stand, Gen. Van Dorn establishing his headquarters at the Elk Horn tavern.

The success of the day had not been a decided one. The want of discipline in the various commands was painfully apparent to Van Dorn. The camps of the enemy had been taken with many prisoners, stores, cannon, [224] etc.; and the men were so excited with their success that it was impossible to form them into line for exigencies. Van Dorn, indeed, surmised that reinforcements had reached the enemy in great number, and felt himself too weak to accept another engagement on the morrow, should the enemy force one upon him. He therefore ordered the sick far to the rear, and, destroying so much of the booty as could not be transported, began to prepare for a retreat. At an early hour in the morning, he had made every disposition for falling back to a strong position some seven miles to the rear, at which point his supplies of ammunition had halted. Covering this movement with a well-displayed disposition of force, the enemy were received with valor, and their advance checked. Sharp fighting ensued, but the enemy made but feeble efforts to move forward, satisfied to occupy the field after the second day's fight, while the Confederates retreated many miles from it.

Gen. Van Dorn officially stated the Confederate loss in killed and wounded to be about six hundred, while that of the enemy was conjectured to be more than seven hundred killed, and at least an equal number wounded. Gen. Curtis, in his official report, gives no statement of his loss, and simply remarks that it was heavy. But the battle of Elk Horn had an importance beyond the measure of its casualties. It may be said to have decided for the present the question of Confederate rule in Missouri. Thereafter, for a considerable time, the Trans-Mississippi was to be a blank in the history of the war; and the forces of Van Dorn and Price were to be summoned from what was supposed to be their special and immediate enterprise to a distant arena of conflict.

While this battle was being fought on the distant and obscure theatre of the Trans-Mississippi, a scene was occurring not many miles from the Confederate capital, the most remarkable in the war. On the 8th of March, 1862, the Confederates obtained their first important victory on the water --an element where they had been supposed least able to compete with the enemy.

Naval fight in Hampton Roads.-the Virginia and the Monitor.

We have heretofore referred to the limited naval resources of the Confederates, and the feeble administration which employed and directed them. Naval enterprise in the Confederacy had been mainly occupied with the privateer service, from which the most extravagant results had been expected; although so far it may be said that the only benefit which we derived from issuing letters of marque was the acknowledgment by the Federal government that the Confederates were actual belligerents, and [225] that prisoners made from them on the sea as well as on the land were to be considered as prisoners of war.

In the early summer of 1861 the Navy Department at Richmond had designed an iron-clad war vessel, which for the long period of eight months was in course of construction at the Gosport navy yard. A plan originated with Lieut. Brooke to convert the hull of the frigate Merrimac, which vessel had been scuttled and sunk by the Federals on their abandonment of Norfolk at the opening of the war, into a shot-proof steam battery, constructed with inclined iron-plated sides and submerged ends. The plates to protect her sides were prepared at the Tredegar Iron Works at Richmond; and their inclination and thickness, and form, were determined by actual experiment. The eaves of the casemates as well as the ends of vessels were submerged, and a ram was added as a weapon of offence.

This novel naval structure carried ten guns, eight broadside, one at the bow, and one at the stern. The other vessels of the Confederate squadron in the James river, under command of Captain Buchanan, were the Patrick Henry, six guns; the Jamestown, two guns; the Raleigh, the Beaufort and the Teazer, each of one gun. At the time of which we write a considerable naval force of the enemy had been collected in Hampton Roads, off Fortress Monroe. The fleet consisted of the Cumberland, of 24 guns; the Congress, 50 guns; the St. Lawrence, 50 guns; the steam-frigates Minnesota and Roanoke, 40 guns; and was under the command of Captain Marston, of the Roanoke. The Cumberland and the Congress lay off Newport News, about three hundred yards from the shore; the Congress about two hundred yards south of the Cumberland; whilst the remainder of the fleet were anchored off Fortress Monroe, about nine miles east of Newport News. With the force of twenty guns, Capt. Buchanan proposed to engage this formidable fleet, besides the enemy's batteries at Newport News, and several small steamers, armed with heavy rifled guns. Everything had to be trusted to the experiment of the Virginia. It was an enterprise sufficient to try the nerves of any commander to make the first trial of the offensive and defensive powers of a single vessel in the presence of an enemy with such an armament, when the slightest flaw would have proved fatal.

About eleven o'clock in the morning of the 8th of March the Virginia cast loose from her moorings at the Gosport navy yard, and made her way down Hampton Roads. On her approach being signalled, orders were immediately issued by Capt. Marston of the Roanoke for his own vessel, the Minnesota, and the St. Lawrence to get under weigh. The Cumberland and Congress had previously perceived “the great Secesh curiosity,” and had beat to quarters, and prepared for action. The Virginia came slowly on, not making more than five knots per hour, and accompanied by the Raleigh and Beaufort. The pivot guns of the Cumberland opened on her [226] at about a mile's distance. There was no reply; the vessel moved tranquilly on; hundreds of spectators at the wharves on both sides of the river watching her progress, and the crews of the enemy's frigates awaiting with derisive curiosity the singular iron roof bearing down upon them. As she passed the Congress at three hundred yards she received a harmless broadside. “The balls bounced upon her mailed sides like india rubber.” Returning the broadside, and in the midst of a heavy fire from the shore batteries, the Virginia made straight for the Cumberland, which had been swung across the channel, to bring her full broadside to bear upon the approaching enemy. It was a crisis wrapped in fire and smoke. Broadside after broadside of the Cumberland blazed out of her eleven nine-inch Dahlgrens. The Virginia kept straight on, without returning a shot or showing a single man. Minutes seemed hours. Then there was a dull, heavy blow, and the iron-armed prow of the Virginia had struck the Cumberland near the bow, and below the water line. The frigate was driven back upon her anchors with great force; a ragged hole had been opened into her in which a man might have passed; the sound of the rush of water into her told that she was doomed. Still her crew manned her guns, and were prepared to give an example of courage among the most memorable and brilliant of naval warfare. The Virginia had backed, and was now sweeping the decks of the Cumberland with broadside after broadside in merciless succession. But there was no sign of surrender on the part of the gallant enemy. As the ship canted over, just ready to sink, she still kept up her useless fire. Her last gun was fired just above the water, and as the brave gunner attempted to scramble out from the open port-hole, the water rushing swept him back, and he went down in the sinking vessel. The Cumberland went down in fifty-four foot water, her pennant still flying from the mast-head above the waves that had engulphed her. Some of the crew succeeded in swimming to land, others were saved by small boats from the shore; but more than one hundred men went down into the watery grave that closed over the gallant ship.

Having sunk her first antagonist, the Virginia next turned her attention to the Congress, which was left to fight the battle alone, as neither the Minnesota, which had grounded about one mile and a half from Newport News, the Roanoke, nor the St. Lawrence could approach near enough, from want of sufficient depth of water, to render material assistance. Having witnessed the fate of the Cumberland, the commander of the Congress had hoisted sail, and with the help of a tug-boat had run the frigate ashore in water too shoal to permit the Virginia to run her down. But the iron-clad, taking a position about two hundred yards from her, raked her fore and aft with shell, while the other small vessels of the Confederate squadron joined in the fire. Every shell burst inside the frigate. The effect was awful. Blood and brains spurted in the air, [227] and human bodies were cut in twain, or mangled in the most horrible manner. Arms, legs and heads were scattered in every direction, while here and there in the agonies of death might be found poor wretches, with their breasts torn completely out.

The Congress was fast aground, and could only bring two of her guns to bear on the Virginia. In a few moments her colours were hauled down, and a white flag hoisted at the gaff and half-mast, and another at the main. The little gunboat Beaufort was run alongside, with instructions from Capt. Buchanan to take possession of the Congress, secure the officers as prisoners, allow the crew to land, and burn the ship. The Congress was within rifle-shot from the shore, and as the Beaufort came alongside the prize, the enemy on the shore, having brought a Parrott gun down to the beach, opened upon the Confederate vessel a perfidious fire. The frigate had two white flags flying at the time. Lieut. Minor was severely wounded, and several of the crew of the Beaufort. But there were other additions to this treachery, for when the Beaufort had first come alongside of the Congress, Lieut. Parker, commanding the gunboat, had received the flag of the ship, and her surrender from Lieut. Prendergast, with the side-arms of the other officers. After having delivered themselves as prisoners of war on board the Beaufort, the officers were allowed, at their own request, to return to the Congress to assist in removing the wounded. They never returned, though they had pledged their honour to do so, and in witness of that pledge had left their swords with Lieut. Alexander, on board the Beaufort.

In the fire from the shore, Capt. Buchanan had received a severe wound in the thigh. He ordered the Congress to be destroyed by hotshot and incendiary shell, her officers and crew having treacherously escaped to the shore; and finding himself disabled by his wound, transferred the command of the Virginia to Lieut. Catesby Jones, with orders to fight her as long as the men could stand to their guns. But there were now only two hours of daylight left. The Virginia bore down upon the stranded Minnesota. The Roanoke, after grounding, had gone down the Roads. The St. Lawrence, in tow of a steamer, had approached the Minnesota. She too grounded, and after receiving a single shell, and returning a harmless broadside, was dragged off, and steered down towards Fortress Monroe. The shoalness of the channel prevented the near approach of the Virginia to her third antagonist; but she continued to fire upon the Minnesota, until the pilots declared that it was no longer safe to remain in that position.

At 7 P. M., the Virginia hauled off, and returned to Norfolk, reserving for another day the completion of her work. She had already in a single half-day achieved one of the most remarkable triumphs ever made on the water. She had destroyed two powerful vessels, carrying three times her [228] number of men, and full six times her weight of armament; she had engaged two other great vessels; and she had only been prevented from destroying them, because she could not come to close quarters with them. The Cumberland went into action with 376 men. When the survivors were mustered there were only 255. She lost 121 in killed and drowned. The crew of the Congress were 434 officers and men; of these, 298 got to shore, 26 of them being wounded, 10 mortally; there were in all 120 killed and missing; about 20 of these were made prisoners, leaving a roll of killed and drowned of 100 men. Besides these, 3 were killed on the Minnesota, and 16 wounded; an absolute loss of fully 250 officers and men. On the Virginia there were but two killed and eight wounded. On the other Confederate vessels four were killed and a few more wounded.

Early in the bright morning of Sunday, the 9th of March, the Virginia rounded the point of land at the mouth of the Elizabeth river. She approached the Minnesota. But lying near the vessel which was still stranded and supposed to be doomed, was a curious object, which some of the crew of the Virginia straining their eyes compared to a prodigious “cheese-box on a plank.” It was another iron-clad-the enemy's experiment in naval architecture, which had come just in time to match the Confederate curiosity in floating batteries.

The new actor on the scene which had come in such a dramatic coincidence was a defensive structure, the invention of John Ericsson. He had named the invention the Monitor, in order to “admonish the South of the fate of the rebellion, Great Britain of her fading naval supremacy, and the English government of the folly of spending millions in fixed fortifications for defence.” She was different in appearance from any vessel that had previously been used in war. Her deck, unprotected by any bulwark, rose about two feet above the water, whilst from it projected a turret about nine feet high, and a small box-looking place at the stern, used as a pilot-house. In the turret she carried her sole armament-two eleven-inch 168-pounder Dahlgren guns.

The two strange combatants approached each other; when within about one hundred yards' distance the Monitor opened fire. The contest continued for the space of two hours, the distance between the two vessels varying from half a mile to close quarters, in which they were almost side to side, belching out their fire, the heavy thugs on the iron sides of each being the only effect of the terrific cannonade. The strange-looking battery, with its black, revolving cupola, was more easily turned than the Virginia, and had the greater speed. The great length and draft of the Virginia rendered it exceedingly difficult to work her. Once in changing her position she got aground, but succeeded in getting afloat again, and turning rapidly upon the Monitor steamed directly at her, hoping with [229] her terrible armed prow to end the contest. But the blow was not fairly given, and merely scraped the iron plates of her antagonist.

About noon the Monitor, probably rather in consequence of an injury that had almost blinded the sight of her commander than of any serious damage to the vessel, ran into shoal water and declined the further prosecution of the contest. The captain of the Minnesota then supposed that his hour was come, and prepared to destroy rather than surrender his vessel. But it had been found impossible by the Virginia to get nearer the Minnesota than she had the day before, and supposing that her guns had already disabled the frigate, she retired slowly from the scene of contest and returned to Norfolk.

The results of this day were indecisive, although there can be no doubt of the retreat of the Monitor; but each vessel had given proofs of invulnerability, which left their claims to advantage in the contest undecided. The injuries of the Virginia in the two days fight were immaterial. Two of her guns had the muzzles shot off, the anchor and the flagstaffs were shot away, the smoke-jack and steam-pipes were riddled, the prow was twisted, and the armour somewhat damaged; but, with the exception of the injury done to her ram, she had suffered none other but what might be repaired in a few hours.

With reference to this wonderful contest in Hampton Roads the newspapers announced the conclusion that wooden ships were to be of no farther use in naval warfare, and that the great navies which France and Great Britain had built at such an immense cost were practically annihilated. Whatever haste there might be in this conclusion, the Government at Washington showed its early appreciation of the lesson in Hampton Roads. Almost immediately on the result of the action becoming known, a bill was introduced into the Senate to authorize the Secretary of the Navy to construct various iron vessels, both for coast and harbour defences, and also for offensive operations against the enemy's forts. The two combatants — the Virginia and the Monitor — which had given a sensation to the whole world, and turned the attention of every European government that had a strip of sea-coast to defend to the experiment of iron-clads, were never again engaged in contest. The first continued by her presence at Norfolk to guard the entry into James River, and was thought of such importance with respect to the Peninsular approach to Richmond that Gen. McClellan, who, as we shall see some months later, turned his design on Richmond in this direction, named as one of the preliminary conditions of the new campaign that this vessel should be “neutralized.” She was to be “neutralized” in a way little expected by the Confederate public.

We may find in the close of this chapter an apppropriate place for a summary account of some other naval events belonging to this period of time in our narrative.


Capture of Newbern, &c.

The objects of Gen. Burnside's expedition were not accomplished with the capture of Roanoke Island. These objects, as stated in a memorandum furnished by Gen. McClellan, who directed the expedition as part of a general campaign for 1862, were an assault on Newbern, and, if possible, the destruction of the southern line of railroad through Goldsboroa, and the Wilmington and Weldon railroad. The town of Beaufort, defended by Fort Macon, was next to be attacked, and the port opened, whilst operations against Wilmington were pointed to as the eventual objects of the expedition. On March 12th, the expedition started from Hatteras Inlet for its new object of attack. The troops were disembarked the next day eighteen miles below Newbern, and at daylight of the 14th advanced upon the Confederate works four miles below the town. These consisted of a line of detached forts of low relief. The entire Confederate force, under command of Gen. Branch, did not exceed five thousand men — a great part of them militia-and had to contend against an enemy outnumbering them at least three to one.

Fort Thompson was the most formidable fortification on the river, and mounted thirteen heavy guns. An attempt was made to storm the work, which was repulsed, and four Massachusetts companies which entered the fort from the railway track were driven out over the parapet. Another attempt was made, with increased numbers; and perceiving the enemy's gunboats moving up the river, and fearing that he would be surrounded, Gen. Branch ordered a retreat. It was commenced in good order, but finally became a rout. The guns of Fort Ellis were thrown down the embankment, Fort Lane was blown up, and the Confederates fled across the railway bridge over the Neuse. The bridge was fired by a raft laden with cotton and spirits of turpentine before the retreating column had passed over, and about five hundred prisoners were taken by the enemy. These, about fifty pieces of cannon, two small steamers, and large quantities of arms and ammunition, were the immediate fruits of the enemy's victory, at a cost estimated in Burnside's report as 91 killed and 466 wounded. The Confederate loss in killed and wounded was about one hundred and fifty.

Shortly after the enemy's occupation of Newbern, the town of Washington, situated at the mouth of Tar River, fell into their hands; the batteries for its defence having been dismantled, and the entrenchments abandoned by the small Confederate force that had been stationed there.

On the 25th of April, Fort Macon, which commanded the entrance of Beaufort harbour, was bombarded by three of the enemy's steamers, and three siege batteries on the shore. There were not more than five Confederate [231] companies in the fort, and after sustaining a fire of ten hours they surrendered.

The reduction of this fort gave the Federal navy a port of entry, and a harbour fitted for vessels of heavy draught. So far the Burnside expedition had been a train of success. The Confederate position at Norfolk had been flanked; complete possession had been gained of Albemarle and Pamlico Sound; and now, by the fall of Fort Macon, the enemy had the entire coast of North Carolina. These blows on our coast disheartened the Confederacy, but, after all, they were of but little real value, and of scarcely any appreciable weight in the war. Burnside did not dare to pursue his enterprise into the interiour, and to follow out the programme of moving on the Weldon railroad. The vital points of the Confederacy were far in the interiour, and as we had but few war vessels our ports and harbours were of but little importance to us for naval purposes, and were really but picket posts in our system of defence.

1 It was an affectation of the enemy, in subsequent periods of the war, to entitle this portion of the Confederate forces “guerillas,” and to apply this term generally to whatever bodies of Confederate cavalry were particularly troublesome. The following resolution, in relation to partisan service, was adopted by the Virginia Legislature, May 17, 1862:

Whereas, this General Assembly places a high estimate upon the value of the ranger or partisan service in prosecuting the present war to a successful issue, and regards it as perfectly legitimate; and it being understood that a Federal commander on the northern border of Virginia has intimated his purpose, if such service is not discontinued, to lay waste by fire the portion of our territory at present under his power,

Resolved, by the General Assembly, That in its opinion, the policy of employing such rangers and partisans ought to be carried out energetically, both by the authorities of this State and of the Confederate States, without the slightest regard to such threats.

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 Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
United States (United States) (11)
New Bern (North Carolina, United States) (7)
Hampton Roads (Virginia, United States) (6)
Norfolk (Virginia, United States) (5)
Fortress Monroe (Virginia, United States) (4)
Fort Macon (North Carolina, United States) (4)
Springfield, Mo. (Missouri, United States) (2)
North Carolina (North Carolina, United States) (2)
Missouri (Missouri, United States) (2)
Europe (2)
England (United Kingdom) (2)
Beaufort, N. C. (North Carolina, United States) (2)
West Virginia (West Virginia, United States) (1)
Tar River (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Sugar Creek (Tennessee, United States) (1)
Stockton, Cedar Co., Mo. (Missouri, United States) (1)
South Carolina (South Carolina, United States) (1)
Roanoke Island (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Richmond (Virginia, United States) (1)
Providence, R. I. (Rhode Island, United States) (1)
Pocahontas, Ark. (Arkansas, United States) (1)
Pamlico Sound (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Neuse (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Minnesota (Minnesota, United States) (1)
Massachusetts (Massachusetts, United States) (1)
Illinois (Illinois, United States) (1)
Georgia (Georgia, United States) (1)
France (France) (1)
Fort Thompson (South Dakota, United States) (1)
Fort Lane (Utah, United States) (1)
Elizabeth (Virginia, United States) (1)
Edgefield (Tennessee, United States) (1)
Donelson (Indiana, United States) (1)
Department de Ville de Paris (France) (1)
Boston Mountain (Virginia, United States) (1)
Big Lick (Virginia, United States) (1)
Bentonville (North Carolina, United States) (1)
Albemarle (Virginia, United States) (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: