The Ram Merrimac. Detailed accurate history of her plan and construction. The great day in naval history.

A Graphic account of the Battle—Sinking of the Cumberland and thrilling story of the Congress.

[The Richmond Dispatch, February 21 and 28, 1892.]

The thirtieth anniversary of the engagements of the Merrimac in Hampton Roads is near at hand. Those of us who were lads at that time are nearing the fifties—have passed into ‘the sere and yellow leaf’k—and a few more years will have gathered the last survivors to the silence of the ages. Having your encouragement, and having been an eye-witness and participator as an officer of the Confederate States Navy in these eventful actions, I shall attempt, briefly, to place before your readers such facts as came within my observation, which to-day seem as fresh and as vivid as they did thirty years ago. May I ‘nothing extenuate, nor set down aught in malice?’

During the night of April 20, 1862, the United States forces, with a haste that is inexplicable, and a panic that cannot be excused, abandoned the Norfolk navy-yard after a partial destruction of the ships, stores and cannon at that depot. It is estimated that the Confederate Government by this blunder came into possession of over $4,000,000 of property, priceless to it in value, and obtainable from no other place within its limits. The cannon and material of war here found, subsequently did good service in the coast and inland defences of Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. [2]

Amongst the vessels then at the navy-yard, out of commission, which the United States forces set on fire and scuttled, was the United States frigate Merrimac. She belonged to the new class of forty-gun frigates of 3,500 tons, with auxiliary steam power. She was built at Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1855, had made several cruises, and upon returning from her last cruise was put out of commission at the Norfolk yard and moored alongside the dock. In her best days her speed under steam power had not exceeded seven miles, and had run down to four or five miles per hour at the close of her last service. Her machinery and boilers had been further damaged at the time she was burned and scuttled.

On May 30th she was floated and docked by the Confederates, and became in time an ironclad vessel (christened the Virginia—more widely known as the Merrimac).

The Projector of the Merrimac and the plan.

There are two claimants to the honor of the plan—Lieutenant John M. Brooke, Confederate States Navy, and Constructor John L. Porter, Confederate States Navy.1 I have no personal acquaintance with either of these gentlemen, and I desire above all things to do injustice to neither. The record in the matter is made up. We look for, we can hope for, no new, no additional evidence. Upon the statements before us we must make our judgment and give our award, with a desire to know the truth and proclaim it.

On the 18th of March, 1862, ten days subsequent to the action in Hampton Roads, the Confederate House of Representatives passed and sent a communication to the Hon. S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy, which reads as follows:

‘That the Secretary of the Navy be requested to make a report to this House of the plan and construction of the Virginia, so far as the same can be properly communicated, of the reasons for applying the plan to the Merrimac; and also what persons have rendered especial aid in designing and building the ship.’

On the 29th of March, 1862, Secretary Mallory replied to this message in a communication of some length, the most material portions of which I shall here set forth: [3]

1. ‘That on June 10, 1862, Lieutenant John M. Brooke was directed to aid the Navy Department in designing an ironclad, and to frame the necessary specifications.’

2. ‘That in a few days he submitted rough drawings of a casemated vessel with submerged ends, and inclined iron-plated sides, which was approved by the department.’

3. ‘That Chief Engineer Williamson and Constructor Porter were ordered to report in Richmond about the 23d of June for consultation on the same subject generally, and to aid in the work.’

4. ‘That Mr. Williamson and Mr. Porter approved the plan of having submerged ends to obtain flotation and invulnerability, and a clean drawing was prepared by Mr. Porter of Lieutenant Brooke's plan, which that officer then filed with the department.’

5. ‘That the novel plan of submerging the ends of the ship and eaves of the casemate is the peculiar and distinctive feature of the Virginia, and was never before adopted.’

6. ‘That Mr. Williamson, Lieutenant Brooke, and Mr. Porter reported that the Merrimac could be utilized for this purpose, and recommended the submerged ends and inclined casement for this vessel, which was adopted.’

Lieutenant Brooke claims that the material feature of his plan is that the bow and stern shall each extend under water beyond the forward and after ends of the shield or casemate, to give the sharpness for speed and buoyancy to support the weight of iron; and a patent for this claim was duly issued to Lieutenant John M. Brooke, by the Confederate Government, July 29, 1862.

Her distinctive features.

It will be observed in the above quotations from Secretary Mallory's letter that he regards the submerged ends of the ship and the eaves of the casemate as the novel and distinctive feature of the Merrimac. Lieutenant Brooke's patent is based solely on this novel and distinctive feature. So that Brooke's plan and the distinctive features of the Merrimac are one and the same. In the same communication of Secretary Mallory to the Confederate House of Representatives, in which he awards the merit of the plan of the Merrimac to Lieutenant John M. Brooke and in response to that part of of the resolution, ‘and also what persons have rendered especial aid in designing and building the ship,’ the Secretary further replies: [4]

Mr. Porter cut the ship down, submerged her ends, performed all the duties of constructor, and originated all the interior arrangements, by which space has been economized, and he has exhibited energy, ability, and ingenuity. Mr. Williamson thoroughly overhauled her engines, supplied deficiencies, repaired defects, and improved greatly the motive power of the vessel.’

Secretary Mallory further states that when Constructor Porter came to Richmond, as previously stated, about June 23d, ‘Constructor Porter brought and submitted the model of a flat-bottomed, light-draught propeller, casemated battery, with inclined iron sides and ends, which is deposited in the department. Mr. Porter and Lieutenant Brooke have adopted for their casemate a thickness of wood and iron and an angle of inclination nearly identical.’ It is to be presumed that, inasmuch as the Secretary notes this similarity between Brooke's plan and Porter's model, he would have noted further similarities if such existed, and particularly a similarity of bow and stern submerged and extending under water, which he regards as the distinctive and novel feature of the Merrimac—a feature specially covered by Lieutenant Brooke's claim and patent. We have here before us contemporaneous evidence—the best of its kind, and the best the subject brings before us. If, therefore, Secretary Mallory be a credible witness of good standing, his award in favor of Lieutenant John M. Brooke must stand until his testimony be successfully impeached and shown to be false.

When Secretary Mallory's report to the Confederate House of Representatives was made public, Constructor Porter, in an open letter, contested his award and claimed solely for himself the honor of the plan and the building of the Merrimac. If he desired to have and to keep this honor, it seems to me that he should have vindicated his claim and contested the issue of the patent to Lieutenant John M. Brooke at the time when the most material witnesses to the fact were alive. In neglecting to do this, he has materially contributed to putting his claim out of court.

Mr. Davis, in his Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Lieutenant Catesby Ap. R. Jones, and Lieutenant John Taylor Wood (the two last officers of the Merrimac), all award the plan to Lieutenant John M. Brooke. In view of the testimony and the patent granted to Lieutenant Brooke by the Confederate Government it would be impossible to make a different award; and the death of Secretary Mallory and Mr. Williamson, the most important witnesses [5] in the matter, makes the possibility of a reversion apparently hopeless.

As early as 1847 Mr. Porter seems to have made model of a casemated iron floating battery, and it is evident the matter was one of deep interest to him. His familiarity with the subject and his experience, ability, and ingenuity, as attested by the Secretary of the Navy, was most potent in the construction of the Merrimac. I well remember at the time his unwearied, unflagging devotion to the work, and I much doubt whether we had within the limits of the Confederacy a man so well equipped to meet the necessities of the case.

Conversion of the Merrimac.

The hull of the Merrimac, when raised and put in the dry dock, was found to be about two hundred and seventy-five feet in length. About one hundred and sixty feet of the central part of the hull was covered over with a roof of oak and pine wood twenty-two inches in thickness, inclined at an angle of thirty-five degrees. Upon this structure of wood four inches of iron, consisting of plates about eight inches wide and two inches thick, were bolted. The first course of iron was placed longitudinally, the outer course up and down. The forward and after ends of the roof were rounded and the apex of the roof was flat on top, about eight feet wide, and covered over with permanent gratings of two-inch square iron. The grating was pierced for four hatchways to permit egress from the gun-decks to the grating, or outside of the ship, where alone was there standing room on the outside. That part of the ship's bow and stern not covered by the casemate (about fifty-eight feet at each end) was covered with decking planks and was under water. The vessel, when in fighting trim, had much the appearance of the roof of a house afloat. Her prow was of cast-iron, projected two feet from the stem, was under water two feet, and weighed one thousand five hundred pounds. Her battery consisted of four Brooke rifle-guns and six nine-inch Dahlgren shell-guns. Her engines and steam power were inadequate. They were deficient in her best days. Time had not improved them, and with all our efforts they continued to be defective and a source of anxiety to the last. To the future historian of the South one of the most remarkable phases of our struggle will be, how a people so unused to arts and manufactures, so poorly equipped with tools and shops and materials, could have accomplished what they did. Delays [6] and obstacles of all sorts impeded the construction of the vessel. All the plates of iron for the casemate had to be rolled at the Tredegar in Richmond and shipped to Norfolk. Each step towards completion seemed but to disclose new obstacles, not the least of which was to secure a crew. We had no merchant marine and but few sailors. Some few were secured after the defeat and dispersion of our gunboats at Roanoke Island; some as volunteers from our army, and a detachment from the Norfolk United Artilery brought the number up to three hundred and twenty men. They proved to be as gallant and trusty a body of men as any one would wish to command; but what a contrast they made to a crew of trained jack tars! The United States Government were duly informed by spies of the completion of the Merrimac, but to deceive them the Norfolk papers of March 6th gave out that the new vessel had proved to be a failure and a great disappointment to her projectors. I doubt much whether they relied upon our statements, for on March 7th Mr. Welles, Secretary of the United States Navy, wrote to Captain John Marston, United States Navy, commanding at Fortress Monroe: ‘Send the St. Lawrence, Congress, and Cumberland immediately into the Potomac river. Use steam to tow them up. Let there be no delay.’ This order was modified by telegram of March 8th from Secretary Welles to Captain Marston, as follows: ‘The Assistant-Secretary of the Navy will be at Old Point by the Baltimore boat this evening. Do not move the ships until further orders, which he will carry.’ Had the first order been executed and these vessels moved up the Potomac river the victory of the Merrimac would have been shorn of its chief triumphs.

The action of Saturday, March 8, 1862.

On this day the United States Government had at anchor in Hampton Roads, near Fort Monroe, besides twelve gunboats, mounting from one to five guns, the frigates Roanoke (forty guns), Minnesota (forty-eight guns), St. Lawrence (fifty guns), Brandywine (fifty guns), and the frigates Congress (fifty guns) and Cumberland (thirty guns) lying at Newport News under the guns of a strongly-fortified land battery. Without a trial trip, with workmen on board up to the last minute, with a crew and officers strangers to each other and to the ship, with no opportunity to get things into shape or to drill the men at the guns or instruct them in their various duties, the Merrimac, [7] under command of Captain Franklin Buchanan, at 1 A. M. of March 8th, cast loose from the navy yard and started on her venture in the game of war, attended by the gunboats Beaufort (Captain W. H. Parker) and Raleigh (Captain J. W. Alexander). These two vessels mounted but one gun each (a banded rifled thirtytwo-pounder, for which we are indebted to the inventive genius of Captain Archibald Fairfax, Confederate States Navy), and were the sole survivors of our disaster at Roanoke Island. As we passed the wharves of Portsmouth and Norfolk we discovered the landings to be well crowded with men, women, and children, who gave us salutation, but seemed too deeply moved by the gravity of the moment to break into cheers.

At this time the Merrimac was drawing twenty-two feet aft and twenty-one forward, and seemed to be making a speed of four and one half miles. The two gun-boats, whose ordinary speed was about seven miles an hour, kept along with her under nearly half speed. All went well until we were abreast of Craney Island (five miles from Norfolk), when the Merrimac was so near the bottom that she would not answer her helm. The Beaufort, being called to her assistance, took a hawser from her and towed her past Craney-Island light, where, the water getting deeper, we let her go. The gunboats drew but eight feet of water and were able to cut across the flats of Craney Island, whilst the Merrimac had to keep the channel until abreast of our batteries at Sewell's Point, at which position she could turn up the south channel of James river, making the distance to Newport News about four or five miles further. The day was fresh and clear, and we could see the Congress and Cumberland lying quietly at anchor off the land batteries at Newport News, apparently so unexpectant of danger that their boats were swinging at the lower booms and washed clothes were hanging in the rigging. As the Merrimac headed up the south channel, in a moment inactivity gave place to stir and bustle. The evidences of ‘wash-day’ quickly disappeared; the boats were brought alongside and hoisted, booms were swung in, and both ships cleared for action. The Beaufort and Raleigh steamed at half speed across the flats awaiting the detour of the Merrimac. At about 2.20 P. M. the Beaufort, having got within range, opened the action with a shot at the Congress, and attended by the Raleigh slowly approached the enemy until a favorable position on the quarter of the Congress was secured and maintained until this vessel was surrendered.


The great naval fight.

At about 2.40 P. M. the Merrimac, having reached position, went into action. In passing the Congress she fired her starboard broadside at this vessel, and, receiving hers in return without damage, made directly for the Cumberland, then in position off the upper end of the land battery. It appears that the Cumberland, to prevent being rammed or to ward off floating torpedoes, had endeavored to secure protection by placing a raft of a few heavy spars at her bow. Dashing through these, the prow of the Merrimac struck the side of the Cumberland, at right angles, under the fore-rigging, on the starboard side. Lieutenant Catesby Jones, the executive officer of the Merrimac, says: ‘The noise of the crashing timbers was heard above the din of battle. There was no sign of the hole above water. It must have been large, for the vessel soon began to careen. The shock to us was slight. Backing off from the sinking vessel, we headed up the James river to turn round and engage the Congress.’ To do this, a most tedious movement, the Merrimac had twice to pass within close range of the shore batteries. They opened a heavy fire upon her, but with little or no damage, as such shot and shell as struck her sides took the angle of inclination and went up in the air.

The Cumberland sunk.

In the meantime the Cumberland, though visibly careening and settling in the water, continued her fire. As the advancing water drove the men from the gun-deck they took refuge on the spar-deck and opened fire upon us with her pivot-guns. Lieutenant George U. Morris, her executive officer in command (Captain Radford being absent on duty), says in his official report: ‘At 3.30 P. M. the water had gained upon us, notwithstanding the pumps were actively at work, to a degree that the forward magazine being drowned we had to take powder from the after magazine for the ten-inch gun. At 3.35 P. M. the water had risen to the main hatchway and the ship canted to port, and we delivered a parting fire, each man trying to save himself by jumping overboard. Timely notice was given and all the wounded who could walk were ordered out of the cock-pit, but those of the wounded in the sick bay and on the berth-deck were so mangled that it was impossible to save them. We have lost [9] upward of one hundred men. All did their duty, and we sank with the American flag flying at our peak.’ No ship was ever better handled or more bravely fought.

At this period of the action the James-river fleet, composed of the Patrick Henry, Captain J. R. Tucker; Jamestown, Lieutenant J. N. Barney, and the Teaser, Lieutenant W. A. Webb, ran by the batteries at Newport News under a heavy fire, with some loss, and gallantly joining the fleet from Norfolk, rendered material aid during the remainder of the action.

Disabled and aground.

The Congress being under the fire of the Beaufort and Raleigh, and at times of the Merrimac as she slowly executed the movement of turning, seeing the fate of the Cumberland, slipped her cable, loosed her foretop sail, ran up her jib, and, with the assistance of the tug-boat Zouave, either endeavored to escape or to get into shoal water, but in doing so grounded, head inshore, in which position she could bring only her stern guns into action. The Merrimac having by this time headed round, and being in position, about two hundred yards astern of the Congress, with the Beaufort, Raleigh and James-river fleet, concentrated a most destructive fire upon her. Having already suffered much loss and damage from our shot and shell with no possible hope of succor, her commander (Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith having been killed, and each moment adding to the already large number of killed and wounded), Lieutenant Pendergrast, most wisely, about 4 P. M. ran up a white flag at the fore and main masts in token of surrender.

Upon seeing this, the Beaufort being then close in action lowered a boat and sent Midshipmen Charles K. Mallory and Ivey Foreman (acting volunteer) with a crew to take possession of the prize and bring her commander aboard the Beaufort. At this moment the Merrimac signalled the Beaufort to come within hail. We did so, and were then instructed by Commodore Buchanan to board the Congress, take the officers and wounded prisoners, permit the others to escape to the shore, and then burn the ship. As we got under the port broadside of the Congress (our little craft looking like a cockleshell by contrast) we noted that the Stars and Stripes (subsequently hauled down and thrown aboard the Beaufort by Midshipman Foreman) were still flying from her peak, and we had some doubt whether her white flags meant truce or a surrender. [10]

Making fast to the port side of the Congress, Captain Parker sent word to the commanding officer to come on board the Beaufort, and at the same time directed some of his crew to board the vessel and assist in removing the wounded.

Terrible carnage.

Your correspondent gained the decks of the Congress, and has to this day a vivid remembrance of the scene. He has had no opportunity of comparing a battle field with an action on the water, but if the carnage of the former be greater he has no desire to witness it. Confusion, death and pitiable suffering reigned supreme, and the horrors of war quenched the passion and enmity of months.

Lieutenant Pendergrast, in command of the Congress, and Captain William Smith, acting as volunteer, had gone aboard the Beaufort and surrendered their swords to Captain Parker and were instructed to return to the ship and transfer their wounded with dispatch to our vessel. At the same time the Raleigh (Captain Alexander) came alongside the Beaufort and reported for duty and was directed to board the Congress on the other side and assist in removing the wounded. Those of us who were aboard the Congress were suddenly summoned to the Beaufort by the blowing of her whistle.

Treachery and dishonor.

We quickly descended the sides of the ship and landed on the decks of the Beaufort, to find that the enemy on shore, disregarding our errand of mercy and the white flags on the Congress, had opened fire upon us with infantry. We were within two hundred yards of the shore, so near that I could plainly see the faces of the men. The fire was most destructive, the first discharge killing Midshipman Hutter and mortally wounding Lieutenant Taylor, acting as volunteers on the Raleigh, besides killing some eight or ten of the men of the Congress on the decks of the Beaufort and wounding many others. The forward cabin of the Beaufort was riddled with balls and her smoke-stack was perforated through and through so as to look somewhat like a sieve. Why every man on her decks was not slain or wounded is one of those phenomena which battles alone reveal. Finding no cessation to this fire, but rather an augmentation, the Beaufort and Raleigh having taken some thirty prisoners [11] and stands of arms, backed off from the Congress and opened fire upon the shore, but with little or no damage, as the enemy were protected by breastworks.

Minor and Buchanan wounded.

Time sufficient having elapsed for the Beaufort to execute her orders if no hindrance intervened, Commodore Buchanan noting that the Congress was not on fire, and fearing an attempt at recapture by the United States fleet from Old Point, said in the presence of his flag lieutenant, R. D. Minor, ‘that ship must be burned.’ Minor instantly volunteered for the duty, and the Teaser was ordered to cover the attempt. Choosing the starboard side of the Congress as more protected, Minor, with a boat's crew, started to execute the order, but had hardly gotten within fifty yards of the vessel, when fire was again opened upon him both from the shore and the vessel, wounding him severely and several of his men. Commodore Buchanan observing the failure of the attempt, recalled the boat and gave orders to set the Congress on fire with hot shot and shell, but at this moment he, too, was severely wounded by a shot from the shore, though the Merrimac was several hundreds of yards further away, and the command of the Merrimac devolved upon Lieutenant Catesby Ap. R. Jones.

The responsible party.

It is undoubtedly permissible in war to make recapture, but it can never be justifiable when the sacrifice of life which it requires must be borne alike by friend and foe. A moment's reflection on the part of the officer in command at Newport News would have convinced him of this fact, so that the responsibility for the men of the Congress killed on the decks of the Beaufort, and the further loss of life on this vessel occasioned by our firing upon her with hot shot and shell must be upon him. I find that Brigadier General Joseph K. F. Mansfield, United States army, then in command at Newport News, is responsible for the execution of this order. (Rebellion Records, Series 1, vol. IX, page 5.)

All ashore.

So soon as the Merrimac had disclosed the object of her attack to be the frigates at Newport News, the Union fleet at Fort Monroe (the frigates Minnesota, St. Lawrence, Roanoke, and several gunboats) [12] got under way to give aid to their sorely-stricken consorts. By a coincidence, which is the more singular from its repetition, the Minnesota grounded one and a half miles to eastward of Newport News, the St. Lawrence grounded in rear of the Minnesota, and the Roanoke further to the eastward still. In this isolation they could give no aid, and only at the close of the day came under fire. Lest it should be thought that I purpose a reflection upon the courage of the officers in command of these stranded vessels, I here take occasion to say that their character as officers of skill, experience, and bravery was well established at the time, and suffered no diminution then or thereafter. ‘To point the moral and adorn the tale,’ let me use the language of Lieutenant John Taylor Wood upon a like occasion: ‘All officers, as far as possible, should learn to do their own piloting.’

The Merrimac having given the coup de grace to the Congress, now, about five P. M., with the Beaufort, Raleigh, and James River fleet, moved down to do battle with the three remaining frigates ashore, and the gunboats. To do this it was necessary to place the Merrimac in the north channel, so that close range might be had. The Minnesota was a sister ship to the Merrimac and drew about as much water. It was therefore hoped that, without danger of putting the Merrimac ashore, she could yet get at such close quarters as to compel a surrender within a short period of time. When, however, this was attempted the pilots of the Merrimac declined to take the risk of putting the ship nearer, stating that the condition of the tide and the approach of night made it both difficult and dangerous. At long range, therefore, the Merrimac and her attendants opened fire on the Minnesota and continued the action until the approach of night.


We withdrew most reluctantly when further victory seemed so nearly in our grasp. Some damage we had done, but by no means commensurate with our wishes. The Minnesota had been struck some fifteen times, her interior was much damaged, partition and bulkheads were knocked down or blown into one by the explosion of our shells. In retiring to our anchorage by the south channel we came within long range of the three frigates and received some broadsides from them, but without damage, as the distance was too great. The sight was a pretty one, and the St. Lawrence, in particular, at [13] nightfall made a simultaneous discharge of her port broadside, which lit up for a moment the entire scene, in which she stood forth as sharply defined as in a clear day. We anchored that night off Sewell's Point, in the full glare of the burning Congress, fired by our shell and hot shot, though Medical-Director Shippen, who was aboard the Congress, says “the ship was on fire in three places early in the action; that two of the fires were put out, but the third, near the powder magazine, was not extinguished until the ship blew up about 2 A. M.”

The loss.

The loss in the Cumberland is reported by Federal account at one hundred and twenty-one killed and drowned; in the Congress, one hundred and twenty-five killed, wounded, and missing. No report is made of the Minnesota, though she, too, had some killed and wounded. In the Confederate fleet we had some forty-five killed and wounded, the larger number of killed being on our wooden vessels. Exhausted with the nervous strain of the day, we slept soundly that night, anticipating a similar career of victory for the morrow.

The Monitor (or Ericsson) had been built in one hundred days especially to meet the Merrimac. She arrived at Fort Monroe at 9 P. M. of March 8th. Secretary Welles had telegraphed Commodore Paulding at the New York yard March 6th: ‘Let the Monitor come direct to Washington, anchoring below Alexandria.’ Similar orders had been sent to Captain John Marston, United States Navy, at Fort Monroe. Marston took upon himself the responsibility of disobeying, and kept the Monitor in Hampton Roads. Had Secretary Welles' order been obeyed, the Merrimac on the 9th would have captured not only the Minnesota, St. Lawrence and Roanoke, but every vessel that remained inside of Fortress Monroe. In the engagement of the 8th the Merrimac had lost her prow in striking the Cumberland, two of her guns had been disabled, so as to be useless, by shot from the Cumberland, and her smoke-stack and steam-pipe had been so riddled that it was difficult to keep up sufficient steam. In this plight she was to meet her antagonist. At daylight on the 9th we discovered that the frigates Roanoke and St. Lawrence had been floated and moved to Old Point, but the Minnesota was yet aground in the same position. Near her we discovered an object like a raft, floating low in the water, with smoke-stack and turret amidships.


The fight.

Closer inspection convinced us it was (Ericsson's Battery) the Monitor. Having sent our wounded ashore we moved out into the Roads, to resume the engagement at 8 A. M. The Merrimac being in advance, our wooden vessels in the rear, to take part if occasion should offer. Lieutenant Jones, then in command of the Merrimac, says of this engagement:

‘We stood for the Minnesota and opened fire. Our pilots were to have placed us within half a mile of her, but at no time were we nearer than a mile. At one third of a mile's distance the monitor opened upon us. We rapidly approached each other, and at times were only a ship's length apart. Once we fired a broadside at her only a few yards distant. She and her turret were under perfect control. Once she took a position where we could not bring a gun to bear upon her. Another movement, which gave us great anxiety, was an attempt to run afoul of our rudder and propeller, which could easily have been disabled. Her guns were seen only at the moment of discharge—this done, her turret revolved shuting them out of view. We had no solid shot, and our shell had no effect upon her. With all our caution we ran aground, and remained so for a quarter of an hour. Finding we could make no impression with our shell, we determined if possible to run her down.’

Of this attempt Lieutenant Wood, of the Merrimac, says:

‘For an hour we manoeuvred for position. Now go ahead!. Now stop! Now astern! The Merrimac was as unweildy as Noah's ark. At last an opportunity offered, but before we had sufficient headway the Monitor sheered off, and our disabled ram gave a glancing blow, which did no apparent harm.’

Within a few moments after this collision the Monitor made her first withdrawal from the action. The Merrimac now resumed her fire at the Minnesota, doing her serious injury and blowing up the boiler of a tug alongside. The Monitor returned to the action, and taking a position with her bow against the Merrimac, fired twice at this distance. The impact of these shots forced the side of the Merrimac in two or three inches, and the concussion knocked down all the men at the after pivot gun, many of whom bled from the nose or ears. ‘The action had now continued some three hours,’ says

Lieutenant Jones, ‘without apparent injury to the Monitor. We [15] were therefore surprised to see her run off into shoal water, where our great draught would not permit us to follow.’ This second withdrawal was most probably coincident with the following fact, given by Lieutenant S. Dana Greene, the executive officer of the Monitor, page 725-727, ‘Battles and Leaders of the Civil War,’ volume I. Lieutenant Greene says:

Another account.

‘Soon after noon a shell from the Merrimac's gun, the muzzle of which was not ten yards distant, struck the forward side of the pilothouse (of the Monitor) directly in the sight-hole, and exploded. Captain Worden was standing immediately behind this spot and received in his face the force of the blow, which partially stunned him, and filling his eyes with powder, utterly blinded him. Worden, blinded as he was, believed the pilot-house to be severely injured, if not destroyed. He, therefore, gave the orders to put the helm to starboard and “sheer off.” Thus the Monitor temporarily retired from the action to ascertain the extent of the injuries she had received.’

Lieutenant Greene, then succeeding to the command, continues his account. ‘In the confusion of the moment the Monitor had been moving without direction. Exactly how much time elapsed from the moment that Worden was wounded until I had reached the pilothouse and completed the examination of the injury at that point, and determined what course to pursue, it is impossible to state; but it could hardly have exceeded twenty minutes.’

Lieutenant Greene admits that being summoned to Worden, ‘he found him standing at the foot of the ladder leading to the pilothouse, and that he assisted in leading him to a sofa in the cabin, and then assumed the command.’ If he had contented himself with his statement, ‘it is impossible to state the time,’ and had not attempted to qualify it with ‘hardly exceeded twenty minutes,’ he would have been more accurate.

The Monitor withdrew.

As an officer of the Beaufort, and in close proximity to the engagement, though not in the melee, for none of our wooden gunboats [16] took active part in this day's fight, I am justified in making the statement that the Monitor retired from the field on this her second withdrawal from three quarters to an hour. I shall not pretend to say that this is absolutely accurate, for I did not take the actual time, but I do say it was sufficiently long to justify the opinion then formed that she had withdrawn from the action for the day.

There can be no question at this day on the point—which of the two vessels first withdrew from the action. The official report of Captain Van Brunt, of the Minnesota, discloses the retirement of the Monitor, and Lieutenant Greene, her executive, admits that she withdrew twice from the engagement—once to hoist shot into the turret, and again when Worden was wounded—page 725-727, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, volume I.

Lieutenant Ap. Catesby Jones, of the Merrimac, concludes his statement of the engagement of March 9th in these words:

‘We for some time awaited the return of the Monitor to the Roads. The loss of our prow and anchor, consumption of coal, water, etc., had lightened us so that the lower part of the forward end of the shield was awash. After consultation, it was decided that we should proceed to the navy-yard, that the vessel might be brought down in the water and completed. The pilots said if we did not go then we could not pass the bar until noon of the next day. We, therefore, at 12 M. quit the Roads and stood for Norfolk. Had there been any sign of the Monitor's willingness to renew the contest we would have remained to fight her. We left her in the shoal water to which she had withdrawn, and which she did not leave until after we had crossed the bar on our way to Norfolk.’

I have a distinct recollection that at this time, when the Merrimac had crossed the bar, and was well on her way to Norfolk, the Monitor, being then in shoal water on Hampton bar, fired a gun, but apparently made no motion to come out into deep water.

Thus ended this famous engagement, in what may fairly be called a drawn battle. Either adversary seemed powerless to vanquish the other. Yet the Monitor in equipment, invulnerability, speed, draught of water and manageableness was far the superior of the Merrimac. She was put into the fight to vanquish the Merrimac and protect the Minnesota; she failed in the former and succeeded in the latter purpose.


Effect of the engagements of March 8 and 9, 1862.

Outside of the immediate results of these engagements, the destruction of the frigates Cumberland and Congress, and complete panic in the United States fleet at Fort Monroe, the indirect result of checking the advance of McClellan upon Richmond, by which we were enabled to complete the defences of that city and James river, was one of great moment to the Confederacy. The powerful navies of England and France were brushed aside in a moment. The London Times in a note of warning said: ‘Out of one hundred and forty-nine first class warships we have now but two vessels that it would not be madness to trust to an engagement with that little Monitor.’ Both nations, and other maritime powers, with a speed, ingenuity and lavish expenditure of money, which is unchecked even at this day, hastened to equip themselves to meet the requirements of modern naval warfare. The whole seaboard of the North went into a panic which lasted for weeks, and gave birth to fears which now seem ludicrous.

Taking with us the fact that the Merrimac was the hasty creation of an extreme necessity, the most unwieldly structure that ever was built, utterly inadequate to float outside the capes of Virginia half an hour in the least seaway, or to live through an ordinary easterly blow in Hampton Roads, one can scarcely repress a smile in reading the Federal telegrams of that day.

Welles's Scare.

Secretary Welles of the United States Navy, reports Mr. Stanton, Secretary of War, as saying in a Cabinet meeting, called in consequence of the destruction of the Cumberland and Congress on March 8th: ‘The Merrimac will change the whole character of the war. She will destroy seriatim every naval vessel. She will lay all cities of the seaboard under contribution. I shall immediately recall Burnside. Port Royal must be abandoned. I will notify the Governors of States, and the municipal authorities in the North to take instant measures to protect their harbors. He had no doubt but that the Merrimac was at this moment on her way to Washington, and not unlikely we shall have a shell or cannon-ball from one of her guns in the White House before we leave this room.’ On March 9th Mr. Stanton telegraphed ‘the Governors of New York, Massachusetts [18] and Maine to protect their harbors with large timber rafts’— Rebellion Records, page 20, series 1, volume I. On the same date General McClellan sent telegrams to the commanding officers at New York, Newport, New London, Boston and Portland, Maine, to the same effect. Admiral Dalhgren is busy at Washington having twenty-four canal boats laden with stone to close the Potomac river.

General McClellan on March 9th sends a telegram to General Wool, at Fort Monroe, in which, foreseeing the necessity of evacuating Newport News in the event the Merrimac gains possession of the Roads, he consents to a withdrawal of the garrison to Old Point, Rebellion Records, page 23, series 1, volume I. March 10th while openly proclaiming the defeat of the Merrimac by the Monitor in the engagement of the 9th, Secretary Welles wires the Assistant-Secretary of the Navy at Fort Monroe, ‘The President directs that the Monitor be not too much exposed and authorizes vessels laden with stone to be sunk in the channel of Elizabeth river to prevent the Merrimac from again coming out.’—Do., page 25. As late as the 12th General McClellan telegraphs Assistant-Secretary Fox: ‘Can I rely on the Monitor to keep the Merrimac in check so that I can make “Fort Monroe a base of operations?” ’—Do., page 27. The same date General Barnard, chief of engineers, McClellan's army, wires Assistant-Secretary Fox: ‘The possibility of the Merrimac appearing again, paralyzes the movements of this army by whatever route is adopted.’—Do., page 27. The climax of absurdity is, however, reached when Secretary-of-War Stanton, passing over the educated, intelligent and skilled corps of naval and army officers, telegraphs Mr. C. Vanderbilt, a private citizen of New York, the owner of river and ocean steamers: ‘For what sum will you contract to destroy the Merrimac, or prevent her from coming out from Norfolk, you to sink or destroy her if she gets out? Answer by telegram, as there is no time to be lost.’—Do., page 31. The doughty commodore of steamboats was unequal to the conundrum, but his patriotism prompted him to make the munificent gift of the large ocean steamer Vanderbilt to the United States Government to be sacrificed, if necessary, in running the Merrimac down.

Gage of battle of April II, ‘62, and the forlorn hope.

From March 9th to April 11th the Merrimac lay at the navy-yard. New guns took the place of those that had been destroyed, and a supply of bolts of wrought and chilled iron for her guns was put [19] aboard. A new prow of steel and wrought-iron was fitted to her stem. A course of two-inch iron for one hundred and eighty feet was put on her hull below the casemate. The revolution of the turret of the Monitor, which effectually closed her gun-port when the gun was being loaded, suggested the necessity of adopting some plan to protect those of the Merrimac. The attempt was made to fit them with wrought-iron shutters, but the device was not satisfactory, and but few of her ports were so protected. These changes brought the ship a foot deeper in the water, making her draught now twenty-three feet. Commodore Buchanan being still disabled by his wounds, Commodore Josiah Tatnall was placed in command. There was at no time any question in the minds of the Confederate authorities, or amongst the officers of the Merrimac, but that the enemy must again be offered battle at the earliest moment. On April 1st the Secretary of the Confederate Navy wrote Commodore Tatnall: ‘You will leave with your ship and attack the enemy when, in your judgment, it may seem best.’ On April 4th: ‘Do not hesitate or wait for orders, but strike when, how, and where your judgment may dictate.’ The Secretary of the United States Navy had, on March 10th, telegraphed: ‘The President directs that the Monitor be not too much exposed,’ in the same breath in which her victory was claimed.

The Confederate Secretary and the Confederate naval officers well knew the many defects and vulnerability of the Merrimac. So doubtful were we of success in the next engagement that upon certain information of the exterior and interior structure of the Monitor, which Secretary Mallory had obtained, we organized an expedition of the smaller gunboats in the fleet—the Beaufort, Raleigh, and two others—known as

The ‘forlorn hope.’

I was of this detail, and would have made my will but that I had no property. Each of the gunboats was provided with a large anchor; their crews were divided into three squads under command of an officer, and designated squads 1, 2, and 3. The orders were that if the Merrimac should be disabled or defeated, each steamer was to make a dash for the Monitor, drop the anchor and make fast to her, so as to hold her in that position. The detail were then to board her. No. 1 was to throw ignited combustibles down her ventilators [20] and every opening, and cover them over with tarpaulin; No. 2 to wedge the turret to prevent its revolution; No. 3 to cover the pilot-house, smoke-stack, and other openings with wet sail-cloth, and ‘smoke the rascals out,’ as it were. Our calculation was that one of the four small steamers would be sure to get alongside. There was to be no stopping to help those disabled or sunk, and as each had a crew of thirty men this was sufficient for the purpose. If the occasion had been offered, the attempt would have been made beyond peradventure, but I have never yet decided whether they of the Monitor or we of the gunboats were the more fortunate that our purpose was not put to the experiment. April 10, 1862, the Merrimac, with the vessels of the Norfolk and James River fleet, got under way late in the evening and anchored inside of Craney Island for the night, to make an early start the next morning. At 6 A. M. of the 11th we were under way. The sun was clear, with the promise of a beautiful day. As we came in sight of Fort Monroe we beheld the Roads lined with a large fleet of transports, making a scene of beauty that is but rarely granted to a spectator. In a moment a sudden movement spread through the entire merchant fleet, and in less time than I can describe it each vessel had slipped her cable and, like a flock of wild fowl in the act of flight, spread her sails in the race for safety.

When the Merrimac had steamed within two miles of the fort we plainly made out the Monitor, the iron battery Naugatuck, and other war vessels at anchor under Fort Monroe. The French war vessels Gassendi and Catinet and English Corvette Rinaldo were visitors in the Roads at the time, and moved up towards Newport News to give us a clear field. The Merrimac steamed around in a large circle, which at one point brought her within one and one-half miles of her antagonists, offering battle in deep water and upon their own ground—vain endeavor!

Successfully executed.

After an hour or so of this unprofitable banter, and observing no movement on the part of the enemy, Commodore Tatnall, in bravado and in provocation to them, sent the Jamestown and Raleigh into Hampton Bar to cut out three transports that, deeming themselves in safety, had not moved out of the Roads in the early morning. The movement was most handsomely and successfully executed in [21] the presence of the Monitor and the Federal fleet. As our ships returned with their captures they passed near the stern of the English Corvette Rinaldo, the officers and crew of which waved their handkerchiefs and hats in salute. We held our position in the Roads until sundown, and at night anchored off Sewell's Point. A day or so after this the Merrimac, again in need of repairs, went up to Norfolk. During the forty-five days she was under Commodore Tatnall's command there were but thirteen days in which she was not in dock or undergoing necessary repairs.

Gage of battle May 8, 1862.

In consequence of the advance of McClellan's army upon Richmond, the wooden gunboats of the James River and Norfolk fleet, in the latter part of April, were ordered to run by the Federal batteries at Newport News and operate on the right flank of General Joseph E. Johnston. This movement was accomplished in due time by running the batteries at night and without disaster, though the Beaufort, in making the attempt, grounded and remained just opposite the battery in easy range until near daybreak. Our station henceforth being the James river, I must rely upon contemporary accounts for the remaining career of the Merrimac. The beleaguerment of Richmond, in the eyes of the Confederate Government, necessitated the evacuation of Norfolk, and though the Merrimac, now alone, was adequate to the defence of Norfolk on the water, it was possible to take the city in rear, now that Johnston's army was concentrated at Richmond, by landing a strong Federal force on the bay shore, and also west of Craney Island, and making a combined attack from the east and west. Valuable stores and materials were yet at the navy-yard, and General Huger, in command at Norfolk, was quietly engaged in shipping them to the interior by river and rail, when the desertion of a tug-boat captain in the service of the Confederacy much hastened matters.

Secretary Mallory, being advised of the probable abandonment of Norfolk, had sent Commodore Hollins to that place to consult with Commodore Tatnall, and such other officers as might be selected, as to the best disposition to be made of the Merrimac in this contingency. The conference was arranged for May 8th, but on that morning the Monitor, Naugatuck, and other United States vessels attacked our battery at Sewell's Point. The Merrimac got under [22] way immediately to render such assistance as might be needed. Commodore Tatnall's account of the matter is as follows:

‘Upon getting into the Roads we found six of the enemies ships, including the ironclads Stevens, Monitor, and Naugatuck, shelling the battery. We passed the battery and stood directly for the enemy to engage him, and I thought an action certain, particularly as the Minnesota and Vanderbilt, which were anchored below Fort Monroe, got under way and stood up to that point, apparently with the intention of joining their squadron in the Roads. Before we got within gunshot the enemy ceased firing and retired with all speed under the protection of the guns at the fort, followed by the Merrimac until the shells from the Rip Raps passed over us. We, thereupon, returned to our anchorage near Sewell's Point, and I proceeded to Norfolk for the purposes of the conference called for this day.’

Let us see what the Federal account has to say of the affair. Commodore Goldsborough, United States Navy, then in command of the station at Fort Monroe, says:

‘The Monitor had orders to fall back into fair channel way, and only to engage seriously in such a position that this ship, together with the merchant vessels, intended for the purpose, could run her (the Merrimac) down. The other vessels were not to hesitate to run her down, and the Baltimore, an unarmed steamer of high speed and curved bow, was kept in the direction of the Monitor, especially to throw herself across the Merrimac forward or aft of her plated casemate, but the Merrimac did not engage the Monitor, nor did she place herself where she could have been assailed by our rams to any advantage.’ Let us sum the matter up.

Summing up.

1. On the 9th of March, the only occasion upon which the Merrimac and Monitor did engage, it is in evidence from Federal official sources that the Monitor twice retired from the engagement of the day; the Merrimac retired only when the action was supposed to be concluded.

2. On April 11th the Merrimac, in the presence of two French and one English war vessel, offered the Monitor and the Stevens iron battery battle. Then, to provoke them to accept it, cut out three Federal transports almost under their guns, but without bringing them to issue. [23]

3. On May 8th the Merrimac drove the Monitor, Naugatuck, and six other United States war vessels from Sewell's Point to within one and a half miles of Fort Monroe, and seeing no disposition to engage returned to anchor. On this occasion, the Federal fleet declined the action, says Commodore Goldsborough, United States Navy, ‘because the Merrimac did not place herself in deep water, nor in a position of advantage,’ to be attacked by the Monitor, Naugatuck, Minnesota, Illinois, San Jacinto, and to be run down by the Baltimore, Arajo, Vanderbilt, and all other vessels that might be on hand to coach the Monitor. The Merrimac drew twenty-three feet of water, and with the exception of the Minnesota, there was no vessel in the Federal fleet that drew as much as fifteen feet. Moreover, they claimed the superiority of the Monitor over the Merrimac—a tact we admitted then, and admit now. Comment is unnecessary. Like Jack Bunsby, let us say: ‘The bearings of this observation lays in the application on it,’ and dismiss the subject with the ‘observation’ of the Marquis of Montrose

He either fears his fate too much,
     Or his deserts are small
That dares not put it to the touch,
     To gain or lose it all.

The destruction of the Merrimac by the Confederates.

The conference in Norfolk of May 9th as to the disposal of the Merrimac had resulted in the decision that ‘the Merrimac was then employed to best advantage, and that she should continue for the present to protect Norfolk, and thus afford time to remove the public property.’ Commodore Tatnall upon this joined his ship, at anchor near Sewell's Point. On May 10th, about 10 A. M., it was observed that no Confederate flag was flying at Sewell's Point battery and that the fort seemed to be abandoned. Flag-Lieutenant J. Pembroke Jones was immediately sent to Craney Island, and there learned for the first time that a large force of the enemy had landed at Bay Shore and were rapidly marching on Norfolk, and that our troops were retreating. Lieutenant Jones was then sent to Norfolk to confer with General Huger, in command at that place, and with Captain Sidney S. Lee at the navy-yard. At the navy-yard he found everything in flames, and that all the officers had left on the railroad. At Norfolk he was informed that General Huger and all his officers had left and [24] that the enemy were within half a mile of the city in treaty with the mayor for its surrender. About 7 P. M. he reached the Merrimac with his report, and at this hour all the batteries on the river and Craney Island had been abandoned by our troops. The night was fast approaching, and what was to be done must be done quickly. It had been decided previously that the Merrimac could accomplish nothing in York river by reason of its width and many creeks of refuge. The ascent of the Potomac to Washington, except in good weather, was impracticable. A venture outside the capes was an impossibility. Battle with the Federal fleet in the Roads on their own terms gave no encouragement. It had been previously declined, and now, with our base of supplies in the hands of our enemies, they had but to keep out of our way and ten days or a week would bring the crew of the Merrimac face to face with starvation and capitulation.

In the emergency, and under the assurance of the pilots that if the ship were lightened to eighteen feet she could be carried to within forty miles of Richmond. Commodore Tatnall called his crew to quarters, and informed them of his purpose. With a cheer they set to work to lighten ship, dumping overboard all heavy stones, ballast, and pig-iron which had been put aboard to bring her down in the water to fighting trim. Commodore Tatnall being unwell had retired to rest. Between 1 and 2 A. M. of the 11th, he was aroused by Lieutenant Ap. Catesby Jones, with the report that after the crew had been at work some five hours, and had lightened the ship so as to expose her hull and render her unfit for action, the pilots now said the ship could not be carried with eighteen feet above Jamestown Flats. Some distance above this point the river was in possession of the enemy on both banks. Tatnall demanded of his pilots the reason for their deception or change of opinion. They replied eighteen feet could be carried over Jamestown Flats during the prevalence of easterly winds, but as the wind had been westerly for several days they were unwilling to make the attempt.

The wooden hull was now above water and entirely defenceless against shot and shell. Her ballast had been thrown overboard, and nothing was at hand to bring her down in the water again. To engage the Federal fleet was now hopeless and shorn of every prospect of success. The attempt must meet with certain destruction and great sacrifice of life.



A hasty conference with his officers decided Tatnall that the wisest course now open to him was to abandon and burn his ship and save his crew for service in Richmond. She was, therefore, put on shore as near Craney Island as possible, and having but two boats it took three hours to land her crew. She was set fire to fore and aft, and was soon in full blaze. At about 4.30 o'clock on the morning of the 11th of May, 1862, her magazine exploded, and the Merrimac was a thing of the past. In the blaze of the burning vessel the crew were marched to Suffolk, twenty-two miles distant, where they took train for Richmond, arriving there in time to render valuable service in our land batteries at Drury's Bluff, where they had the pleasure of again meeting and foiling their old adversaries, the Monitor, Galena, and other United States vessels in their attack on Drury's Bluff May 15, 1862.

The success and the fame of the Merrimac had far outreached, in the imagination of the Southern people, her real capacity. The disappointment and indignation of the public, and the criticism of our press, were so vehement in their condemnation of Commodore Tatnall that he promptly requested a court of inquiry, and then a court-martial upon his conduct. After a full and exhaustive examination of all the particulars he was awarded an unanimous acquittal. The court, composed of a board of twelve officers of the highest rank and with the experience of many years' service, closed its finding in these words:

Honorable acquittal.

‘Being thus situated, the only alternative in the opinion of the court was to abandon and burn the ship then and there, which, in the judgment of this court, was deliberately and wisely done; wherefore, the court do award to the said Captain Josiah Tatnall an honorable acquittal.’

The Merrimac and the Monitor came upon the stage of action at the same time, and the close of their career was not far apart. They suggest the parallel made between the lives of two ancient warriors. It cannot be said, ‘They were lovely and pleasant in their lives,’ but ‘in their death they were not divided.’

At daybreak of December 29, 1862, the Monitor, under convoy of the United States steamer Rhode Island, left Fort Monroe bound [26] for Charleston, South Carolina. At noon December 30th, when at sea, about seventy miles off Cape Hatteras, they got into a heavy gale. At 10 P. M., matters having become critical and it being impossible to keep the Monitor free of the water that came aboard with every sea, signals of distress were burned. Gallant and untiring efforts of rescue were made by the Rhode Island, and one of her boats was on its third and last perilous trip to remove those still aboard the Monitor when the ill-fated vessel suddenly disappeared beneath the angry waters, carrying down with her four officers and twelve men, forty-nine having been saved. This boat failed to reach the Monitor or regain the side of the Rhode Island, but drifted all night and the next day upon the waste of waters, until rescued by a passing vessel and taken into Philadelphia.

We live within a new environment. The Merrimac and the Monitor are things of the past; but history shall note their deeds when the names of those who bore part in them shall be unremembered.

Virginius Newton, Late a Midshipman, C. S. Navy.

1 The Editor would refer the reader to the dispassionate statement of Colonel Brooke, ‘The Virginia or Merrimac.’ Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XIX, pp. 3-34.

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