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Historic Waters of Virginia. [from the Richmond, Va., times, Dec. 30, 1891.]

The battle in Hampton Roads as viewed by an eye witness.

The achievements of the Virginia.

An interesting Paper—The improvised Confederate Naval fleet.

By Ex-Governor Wm. E. Cameron.
[See ante pp. 243-9, ‘The Ironclad Virginia.’—Ed.]

The outbreak of the war between the northern and southern sections of the United States at once invested every foot of the navigable waters of Virginia with strategic importance. The Federals retained their hold on Fortress Monroe, which, under the then existing conditions of ordnance and of naval architecture, practically controlled the entrance to Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads, while heavy batteries at Newport News, at the mouth of James river, prohibited communication by water between the Confederate forces at Richmond and Norfolk. The Confederates, on the other hand, mounted guns at Lovell's Point and Craney Island, to protect Norfolk, Portsmouth and the Gosport navy yard from hostile approach, and the passage to Richmond was obstructed against Federal marine by batteries at Fort Powhatan, Drewry's Bluff, Day's Neck, Hardin's Bluff, Mulberry Island, Jamestown and other defensible points on James river.

Such was the situation of affairs in the early spring of 1862. The Federals had, however, made previous descent upon the coast of North Carolina with a powerful armada under General Burnside, and having captured Roanoke Island, after a gallant though hopeless resistance by the combined land and naval forces of General Henry A. Wise and Commodore Lynch, were making heavy demonstrations at the back door of Norfolk, while General McClellan, having determined on a campaign against Richmond via the peninsula, between the James and York rivers, was urging naval occupation of those streams as an essential protection to the flanks of an army executing that movement. [348]

To guard against the occupation of these waterways (as well as in prosecuting a cherished scheme in dominating the mouth of the Mother of Waters, destroying the Federal shipping in Hampton Roads, isolating and perhaps starving out the garrison at Fortress Monroe, and ultimately obtaining free ingress and egress via the capes for ships of war and commerce), the Confederates had spent the previous winter in fitting up at a captured navyyard a marine structure of such impervious strength and destructive armament as to justify the most extravagant hopes. For this purpose the United States steam frigate Merrimac, which had been abondoned by the Federals when they hastily evacuated the Elizabeth river, in April, 1861, was utilized. She was cut down, heavily armored with railroad iron laid on a stout and sloping deck roof, was provided with a steel snout or ram for offensive purposes and carried ten guns of a calibre hitherto unknown in naval warfare. She was rechristened the Virginia, and entered upon her brief but glorious career under the flag of Admiral Franklin Buchanan. Simultaneously the Confederate government had improvised from the scant materials at hand what was known as the James river fleet—the Patrick Henry and Jamestown (formerly plying as freight and passenger steamers between New York and Richmond, and caught in Southern waters at the commencement of hostilities); the former under Commander John R. Tucker, carrying twelve guns of modern force; the latter under Lieutenat Barney, with a battery of two heavy pieces; and three tugs metamorphosed into gunboats and carrying a single gun each; the Teazer, the Beaufort and the Raleigh, commanded respectively by Lieutenants W. A. Webb, W. H. Parker and J. W. Alexander. Early in March these vessels made rendezvous at a harbor in the lower James, convenient for communication with Norfolk, and on the 7th of that month the senior officer was notified to be in readiness for action on the following day — a day to be forever memorable in naval annals.

The events are yet fresh in a mind which was filled with pride and enthusiasm while witnessing them, but in this attempt to reproduce the leading features I shall verify and enlarge my recollections by liberal use of the official reports of the participants on either side of the heroic struggle.

The night before the battle a whisper went through the scattered camps of Huger's Division, from Sewell's Point to Suffolk, like an electric shock: ‘The Virginia is going out to-morrow!’ It was one of those secrets which telepathy betrays, and which once abroad [349] take unto themselves the wings of the wind. The tidings found me serving a tour of guard duty on the entrenched line at Harrison's farm, east of Norfolk; but an eager petition to the colonel brought release, and long before dawn a trio of excited boys had reached Pig's Point and hired a boat with two stalwart oarsmen to convey them to an advantageous point of view. What hours of overwrought expectancy those were, while, with beating hearts and straining eyes, we waited for the onslaught of the marine monster upon her predestined victims! They seemed interminable. And yet the picture spread before our eyes was fair enough to fill the interval with interest. The fair expanse of sparkling water was barely ruffled by the morning breeze, and off to the north the Federal shipping lay at anchor, with the red embankments of Newport News and the gray battlements of Fortress Monroe and the Rip-Raps as background. The tall masts of the Congress and Cumberland stood out against the sky in bold relief, each cord of the complex rigging distinct in tracery, and the tiny bunting at their peaks dipping lazily at each undulation of the swinging hulls. Off Hampton bar there rose a forest of masts and smokestacks, among which the lofty spars of the Minnesota, the St. Lawrence and the Roanoke loomed grandly heavenward, while their great black sides dwarfed into insignificance the transports and smaller craft which lay around and about them. The scene was beautiful in its mere suggestion of repose; but off to the left, behind Day's Point, a thin line of smoke behind the trees hinted at elements of disturbance biding their time to brew a storm upon those peaceful waters, for there, like bloodhounds in leash, with beaks already turned towards their prey, with engines like angry hearts impatiently panting for the fray, were the lean racers of Tucker's squadron, on the lookout for the signal gun.

As time wore on all apprehension lest the enemy might have received notice of the impending attack, was dispelled by the continuing absence of stir on board their ships and within their lines on shore. Every movement on the former was plainly discernible through our field glasses, boats swinging alongside, or passing to and from the beach, while the sailors' ‘wash’ floated in the ropes of the vessels, and the men lounged idly about the decks. On the plains behind the bluff at Newport News drills were in progresss among the troops, and we could follow with distinctness the exercises of a battery of artillery going through the mimicry of war. It must have been about high noon when symptoms of alarm first made themselves manifest on board the ships lying nearest to our [350] station—the Cumberland and Congress. The neck of land forming Pinner's Point obstructed our line of vision, and the movements consequent upon preparation for an engagement were visible to us for some time before the Virginia hove in sight. It was an hour later when her ponderous form, majestic, though ungraceful, steamed circularly around the jutting headland of the Elizabeth, and headed directly towards the two detached Federal ships in the upper roads. Activity now prevailed in the shore batteries at Newport News, and in a little while curls of black smoke began to issue forth from the funnels of the Minnesota and her consorts. The Cumberland and Congress were kedged around to present something like a broadside to the approaching antagonist, nearest in the path of which the Congress lay. After this I took no note of time; but General Mansfield commanding the port at Newport News, in his report to General Wool, says that it was just 2 o'clock when the Virginia opened her bow gun. This was the signal for general engagement. The noise was terrific and the spectacle grand. Under fire of both the Federal frigates, several gunboats and of the numerus guns on the river bank, the Virginia steamed slowly but steadily on, returning the all-sided fusilade with spirit, and suffering no apparent damage from the shot that rained incessantly against her armored ribs. Disregarding the Congress, except to fling her a disdainfnl bolt or two in passing, she glided (rather than ran), with terrible deliberation and precision down upon the predoomed Cumberland. Nearer and nearer she drew. The suspense was agonizing, though the excitement was intoxicating. ‘By G—d!’ shouted one of the boatmen, ‘She is going to run her down!’ And so it was. From every porthole on the starboard side of the Cumberland flashed the lightnings of a rapid cannonade, the missiles of which glanced from the turtleback of her adversary as hailstones from a hipped roof of metal. The gallant tars who served the batteries of the Cumberland discharged an ineffective broadside at the very moment which sealed their fate. Then into the frail wooden walls crashed the terrible steel prow of the Virginia; the timber were cut in twain as though of parchment, the tall ship reeled and staggered as a drunken man—and then went down, the heroic crew still at their posts, the colors flying, and the cannon still belching out defiance, even as the water engulfed their iron throats. Even after her hull had disappeared, the smothered echo of one gun was heard mingling with the cries of strong men in their agony.

So absorbed had we become in this supreme tragedy that other [351] stirring episodes were about to pass unnoticed. Deep-mouthed cannon away to the eastward were now braying their hoarse contributions to the terrible din. The steam frigates at Fortress Monroe were under way at last to give succor to their weaker consorts; there were the guns at Sewell's Foint throwing shot and shell in the pathway of the Minnesota and Roanoke, and in reply the giant ordnance at the Rip-Raps were lending deeper voice to the discordant chorus. Just at this juncture the excited accents of one of my companions rose clear above the tumult of detonations and concussions:

“What a glorious sight! Just see the splendid fellows coming into action!” he exclaimed, at the same time tugging at my coat sleeve like mad. I turned, and it was indeed the sight of a lifetime that met my gaze. Standing down the long open reach, under full head of steam, right into the pelting storm of missiles, dashed the five wooden vessels of the James River Squadron, Tucker leading, in the Patrick Henry, closely followed by the Jamestown and the saucy little gunboats. Why they were not totally destroyed I did not then and do not now understand. Admiral Buchanan says that their escape was miraculous; for they sustained for several hours a galling fire of solid shot, shell, grape and canister, at close quarters; and the hull of each ship was perforated time and time again. It was particularly fine to see how Webb, with his mite of a Teaser, romped and frolicked in the very teeth of the enemy's batteries, while nothing could have exceeded the gallantry with which Parker and Alexander repeatedly came into the closest conflict. The gallantry of all appeared to border on recklessness in the eye of an inexperienced spectator. By this time we had come to look upon the flagship as invulnerable, but watched with painful interest the bold manoevering of her comparatively unprotected consorts. Only the highest skill, in conjunction with superb courage, could have saved one or all of them from utter disaster.

Meanwhile, amid the gathering smoke, the ill-starred Congress was still battling with a desperation worthy of success. It warms the blood yet, to remember how those American seamen fought in the very shadow of death against the inevitable. Harried and harassed on every side by the nimbler of the Confederate ships, herself a sailing craft, incapable of manoeuvering for offensive or defensive position, she was spared for yet a little while from direct attack by her most formidable antagonist. After sinking the Cumberland, the Virginia's heavy draught prevented a direct approach [352] to the Congress. In several efforts to ‘turn upon her keel,’ she struck bottom. So much time was lost in the attempt to clear the shoal as to arouse our fears that she was fast aground. Finally, Admiral Buchanan was compelled to run the ship a short distance up James river in order to wind her. ‘During all this time,’ he says, ‘her keel was in the mud and she moved but slowly. Thus we were subjected twice to all the heavy guns of the shore batteries; but in the double passage inflicted much injury, having blown up a large transport steamer alongside the wharf at Newport News; sunk one schooner and captured another.’ In this period of respite, as we learned from prisoners after the fight, the crew of the Congress were under the impression that the Virginia was hauling off; and in this belief the ship's company assembled on the spar deck and gave three hearty cheers for their fancied victory. Alas for them! that hope was destined to extinguishment in the very moment of its indulgence. Gathering headway on her new course, the great ironclad crept up to a position from which her guns raked the Congress with terrible effect. The smaller steamers redoubled their fire. Under this concentration of attack the ship soon became a wreck. Most of her guns were disabled; her decks were strewn with dead and wounded, the commanding officer had been stricken at his post. Again the trained eye of our boatman was the first to detect a crisis, and his eager voice the first to announce the end. He waved his battered hat toward the Congress with stentorian cheers, and through a rift in the sulphorous vapor even the unpracticed vision of landsmen could detect the absence of the strong ensign which lately floated over the ship. A second later a white flag streamed at their gaff and half-mast and another at the main.

An incident ensued of which the writer could comprehend little at the time of its occurrence, but of which a better understanding than has yet been conveyed in print can be gathered by comparison of the contemporaneous Federal and Confcderate reports. Immediately subsequent to the cessation of firing I saw the Beaufort approach the Virginia, apparently for orders, and then dash under the side of the disabled enemy, followed later by the Raleigh. We looked for nothing further in that direction than formal completion of the surrender, and gave attention to the movements of the Minnesota in the offing. The tugs left the wreck, and then an open boat from the Virginia was seen to pull across the intervening space; and then, to our surprise, the shore batteries reopened, the boat was recalled, and the Virginia poured shot after shot into the [353] hulk of the Congress. It was at this juncture that Admiral Buchanan, fearlessly exposing himself on the roof of the Virginia, re-ceived the wound which cost him a limb, and which incapacitated him from further command. * * * Of this episode the Admiral, in his report to Secretary Mallory, says:

‘Determined that the Congress should not fall again into the hands of the enemy, I remarked to that gallant young officer, Lieutenant Minor, “that the ship must be burned.” He promptly volunteered to take a boat and destroy her, and the Teaser, Lieutenant Webb, was ordered to cover the boat. Lieutenant Minor had scarcely approached within fifty yards of the boat when a deadly fire was opened upon him, wounding him severely and several of his men. On witnessing this vile treachery, I instantly recalled the boat and ordered the Congress to be demolished by hot shot and incendiary shell. About this period I was disabled and transferred the command of the ship to that gallant and intelligent officer, Lieutenant Catesby Jones, with orders to fight her as long as the men could stand to their guns.’ * * *

An effort was made afterwards by Federal writers to convict Admiral Buchanan of wanton cruelty in firing upon a dismantled ship after the white flag had been hoisted, but the question is settled in his favor by the following extract from the report of General Mansfield, commanding the Federal forces at Newport News:

‘The enemy then sent two steamers to haul the Congress off or burn her. As soon as I saw this I ordered Colonel Brown, of the 20th Indiana Regiment, to send two rifle companies to the beach, while two rifled guns and a Dahlgren howitzer went into action from a raking position on the beach. We here had them, at about 800 yards, to advantage, and immediately they let go their hold on the Congress and moved out of range with much loss. They then endeavored to approach her again with a steamer and rowboat, but were beaten off with severe punishment, until finally the Merrimac, finding her prize retaken, fired three shots into her and set her on fire.’

This is conclusive, and needs no comment. The Congress may now be disposed of in a few words. Far into the night the heavens were illuminated by the reflection from the blazing timbers, while from time to time, as the heat penetrated to her hold, her shotted guns were discharged. Her career closed towards the morning of the 9th, when, with a deafening report, her magazine exploded. [354]

It was now past 4 o'clock. The Confederate fleet steamed off towards Fortress Monroe, and after that our personal observation was unworthy of note. The Minnesota grounded in the north channel, where, by reason of the receding tide, the Virginia could not win a near approach, but the smaller steamers of the Confederate fleet got within effective range and inflicted, says Secretary Welles, considerable damage on that ship. Lieutenant Jones says of the latter operations that ‘the pilots having declared it to be unsafe to remain longer near the middle shoal, we returned by the south channel, and again had an opportunity of opening upon the Minnesota, receiving her heavy fire in return, and shortly afterwards upon the St. Lawrence, from which vessel several broadsides were received. It had by this time become dark, and we soon afterwards anchored off Sewell's Point. The rest of the squadron followed the movements of the Virginia, except the Beaufort, which proceeded to Norfolk with the wounded and prisoners.’

The Federal losses in the day's brilliant work have already been recited. The Confederates won their success cheaply, all things being considered. Early in the action a solid shot perforated the boiler of the Patrick Henry, scalding four persons to death and wounding four others. The ship was turned out of action by the Jamestown, but the damages were soon repaired, when the ship returned to her station and did splendid service during the remainder of the day. The Raleigh was also forced to temporary retirement by the disabling of the carriage of her single gun, but she, too, was soon again on duty. The Virginia was practically uninjured, except for the loss of her ram, and was ready at dawn of the coming day to take part in that remarkable conflict with the Monitor, which will form the subject of my next paper.

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