Forward to next post: Open Thread 171
O shipmates come rally and join in my ditty
Of a terrible battle that happened of late
Let each good Union tar shed a tear of sad pity
As he lists to the once-gallant Cumberland’s fate.
On the eighth day of March told this terrible story
And many a good sailor to this world bade adieu,
But our flag it was wrapped in a mantle of glory
By the heroic deeds of the Cumberland crew.
Today is the 150th anniversary of one of the most important battles in Naval history. Not just US history, world naval history. I’m talking about the Battle of Hampton Roads, 08 March 1862: CSS Virginia (plus support vessels) vs. USS Cumberland, USS Congress, USS St. Lawrence, USS Roanoke, and USS Minnesota, plus support vessels.
Everyone knew that the Confederate States were building an ironclad. In response to the news, the Union had begun its own crash program to design and build an ironclad warship. The French and British navies already had armored vessels. But up to this moment no ironclad had ever engaged in combat. The design was wholly untested. Although she had been commissioned on 17 February 1862, Virginia had not been finished until the 7th of March, and, on the morning of 08 March still had civilian builders on board.
I first learned of the Battle of Hampton Roads from two songs, The Cumberland Crew and The Cumberland and the Merrimac on the Folkways record, Songs of the Civil War, borrowed from the White Plains Public Library.
These are the two songs whose verses will be interspersed in the narrative. The first is the sea chantey, The Cumberland’s Crew, available in multiple texts (with small variations), though it shows signs of an original composition. The other, The Cumberland and the Merrimac, has a single source: the recollection of a retired lumberjack, Ezra “Fuzzy” Barhight, who would have learned it sometime between 1880 and 1930. It was collected by folklorist Ellen Stekert, who included it on her album, Songs of a New York Lumberjack in 1958.
‘Twas on last Monday morning
Just at the break of day
When the good ship called the Cumberland
Lay anchored in her way
And the man upon our lookout to those below did say
“I see something like a housetop
On our leeward she does lay.”
The battle of Hampton Roads did not take place on a Monday, nor at daybreak. March the 8th, 1862, was a Saturday. The first notice that CSS Virginia (Captain Franklin Buchanan, commanding) might be coming out came at about 1145, when she was seen from the sloop-of-war USS Cumberland (Lieutenant George U. Morris, commanding) at a range of about three miles. Virginia was lost in the mirage effect low on the water, though, and soon afterward lost entirely to sight. Due to Virginia’s slow speed, the Cumberland’s officers had some doubt as to whether the ironclad intended battle that day.
On that ill-fated day about ten in the morning,
The sky it was clear, and bright shone the sun;
The drums of the Cumberland sounded a warning,
Biding each gallant seaman to stand by his gun.
An iron-clad frigate down on us came bearing.
While high from her mainmast the rebel flag flew;
A pennant of treason she proudly was wearing,
Determined to conquer the Cumberland crew.
The sky was indeed clear, the winds a dead calm. Cumberland was anchored in the stream. Her sails were loose in order to dry them, and, as it was a Saturday, the sailors had washed their clothes and had them hanging in the rigging. Frigate USS Congress (Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, commanding) was nearby; the intention was to catch Virginia in a cross-fire when she came out.
Our captain seized his telescope
And he gazed far o’er the blue
And then he turned and spoke
To his brave and loyal crew.
“That thing that yonder lies floating
That looks like some turtle’s back,
It’s the infernal rebel steamer
And they call her Merrimack.”
They may or may not have called her “Merrimack” (or Merrimac). Newspaper accounts on both sides used that name; the town of Merrimac, Virginia, is where the coal she burned was mined.
The original USS Merrimack had been engaged in the Quasi-War with France. (See Mauling Live Oak) After she was decommissioned, a second USS Merrimack, a screw frigate, was built in 1855. In 1861, when abandoning Norfolk, Merrimack was set afire to keep her out of Rebel hands. She burned to the waterline and sank, but was later raised and formed the hull and machinery on which CSS Virginia was based.
On the same night Merrimack was burned, Cumberland was towed out of Norfolk and made her escape.
As it happened, two of USS Merrimack’s sister-ships were involved on the Federal side in the action at Hampton Roads: USS Roanoke and USS Minnesota.
Merrimack had been scheduled to have her engines rebuilt prior to her sinking; the time those engines spent on the bottom of the Elizabeth River didn’t help them any. When converted to CSS Virginia, with the additional weight of iron, the ship was slow, clumsy, and cranky. Her maximum speed was perhaps six knots. She needed a mile of sea room and forty-five minutes to turn in a complete circle. More important still, she was now deep-draft, drawing about twenty-two feet of water.
As Virginia steamed out of Gosport, on the Confederate side of Hampton Roads, and headed toward Newport News on the Union side, stern-screw steam frigate USS Minnesota, flagship of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron (Captain G. J. Van Brunt, commanding), got underway from Fort Monroe, but ran aground about a mile and a half from shore. She was taken under fire by two of the Confederate ships from the James River Squadron that had come out with Virginia: a side-wheel steamer CSS Thomas Jefferson (ex-SS Jamestown, Lt. Joseph Nicholson Barney, commanding) and sidewheel steamer CSS Patrick Henry (ex-SS Yorktown, Commander John Randolph Tucker, commodore of the James River Squadron, commanding).
Minnesota had heavier guns; the Confederate vessels could not approach her. But every broadside Minnesota fired drove her farther into the mud and harder aground. Patrick Henry was disabled by a shot from the shore batteries at Newport News, but, after repairs, was able to return to the fight.
We will return to USS Minnesota anon. For the moment, gaze on Cumberland and Virginia:
Then up spoke our captain with stern resolution,
Saying: My boys, of this monster now don’t be dismayed!
We swore to maintain our beloved Constitution,
And to die for our country we are not afraid!
We fight for the Union, our cause it is glorious,
To the stars and the stripes we will stand ever true.
We’ll sink at our quarters, or conquer victorious!
He was answered with cheers from the Cumberland’s crew.
The sentiment aboard Cumberland was optimistic: the men were well-drilled and highly proficient; during the long approach by Virginia they had time to furl the sails and take in the washing, and were standing by their guns. Where Virginia carried, among other cannon, six nine-inch Dahlgrens, Cumberland mounted twenty-two.
The first shot of the battle was fired by the Union tug USS Zouave. It had no effect. Virginia steamed past USS Congress, exchanging broadsides with her. The shot from Congress had no effect on the ironclad, but the Cumberland’s officers were unsurprised by this. Congress mounted thirty-two pounders, the weight of shot less than half that of any of Cumberland’s Dahlgrens.
It was then we cleared for action
And our guns were pointed through
But still she kept a-coming up
Across the water blue
And on still on she kept coming
‘Til no distance stood apart
When she sent the ball a-humming
Stilled the beat of many a heart.
For the account of the following action, I am indebted to Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) Thomas O. Selfridge Jr’s first-person account. He was the officer in charge of the forward starboard division aboard Cumberland, and later wrote a narrative of the day.
Virginia took up a raking position about three hundred yards on Cumberland’s starboard bow. Her first shot entered the starboard hammock netting, killing or wounding nine Marines and knocking over the Marines’ commanding officer.
While Virginia could fire her full broadside, Cumberland could only reply with her forward guns on the starboard side, trained all the way to the left, and her forward pivot gun.
They fought us three hours, with stern resolution,
‘til the Rebels found cannon could never decide.
The flag of secession had no power to quell them,
Though the blood from our scuppers did crimson the tide.
It wasn’t three hours. It was more like fifteen minutes.
It was then we pulled our broadside
And unto her ribs of steel
And yet no break in her iron made
Nor damage did she feel.
‘Twas then that rebel pirate
Unto our captain spoke
Saying “Haul down your flying colors now
Or I’ll sink your Yankee boat.”
The number one gun of Cumberland’s starboard battery (the one closest to Virginia) only fired once. The second shot from Virginia struck the gun while it was being run out, killing or wounding the entire gun crew, except the powder boy, and disabling the gun.
Cumberland attempted to turn on springs, that is, to pull on the anchor cables in order to bring her full broadside to bear. But due to the action of the tide and the lack of wind, the spring lay fore-and-aft so no leverage could be gained.
Now our gallant ship fired her guns’ dreadful thunder.
Her broad-side, like hail, on the Rebel did pour;
The sailors gazed on, filled with terror and wonder
As the shot struck her side and glanced harmless o’er.
But the pride of our navy could never be daunted,
Tho’ the dead and the wounded her deck they did strew;
And the flag of our Union how proudly it flaunted.
Sustained by the blood of the Cumberland’s crew.
The situation on Cumberland was bad and getting worse. The first and second gun captains of every gun in the engaged battery were either killed or wounded. Men from other batteries replaced them, only to be cut down. The fire they were able to lay on Virginia was ineffective. While the wounded were being carried below, the dead were being thrown over the unengaged side.
The Merrimack she left us then
For a hundred yards or more
Then with her whistles screaming out
On our wooden side she bore
She struck us at the midships and the ram came crashing through
And the water came a-pouring in
On our brave and loyal crew.
It was the first time a ram had been used in combat since the Battle of Lepanto nearly three hundred years before.
Virginia had been fitted with a ram, thirteen-hundred pounds of cast iron, since her designers had considered that, if gunfire was ineffective against an ironclad, and the Union was certain to build an ironclad, some other weapon would be needed to sink her opponent.
She struck us amidships. Our flank she did sever.
Her sharp iron prow pierced our noble ship through.
And they cried as they sank in that dark rolling river.
“We’ll die at our guns,” cried the Cumberland’s crew.
The ram didn’t strike amidships; rather, it struck the starboard bow directly beneath the catheads. The ram penetrated too deeply. The two ships were locked together as Cumberland began to sink rapidly by the head. Selfridge comments that had an officer forward on the spar deck thought to drop the starboard anchor onto Virginia’s forecastle, Virginia would have surely sunk alongside Cumberland. In the event, that did not happen, and Virginia backed away, leaving her ram behind and springing a leak forward.
Virginia at this time began to drift down Cumberland’s starboard side, about a hundred yards off. Selfridge speculates that she was having mechanical difficulties. This brought her, however, under Cumberland’s full broadside. They were able to get off three broadsides. Cumberland’s guns were still unable to pierce Virginia’s armor so Cumberland’s gunners were ordered to aim for the ironclad’s gunports, and the muzzles of two (out of four on the side) of Virginia’s nine-inch Dahlgrens were shot away.
The iron sides of Virginia were ringing with the sounds of cannonballs impacting them. She heeled over under the weight of shot striking her. The outsides of Virginia’s armor had been smeared with grease, to help deflect the cannonballs, and now the grease was burning. Sulfurous powder-smoke filled the casemate, mingled with the smoke and steam from the boilers. “Doesn’t this smell like hell?” Jack Cronin, a crewman on Virginia, said. “It certainly does, and I think we’ll all be there in a few minutes,” his friend John Hurt replied.
Virginia recovered from whatever had caused her to drift and again got underway. Captain Buchanan called on Lieutenant Morris to surrender.
Well our captain’s eyes did glisten
And his cheeks turned pale with rage
And then in tones of thunder to that rebel pirate said,
“My men are brave and loyal too, they’re true to every man,
And before I strike my colors down
You may sink me in the sand.”
Lieutenant Selfridge quotes the reply as “Never. We will sink with our colors flying.” According to some accounts, Captain Buchanan was to be wounded later in the day, but according to Lieutenant Heywood, who had charge of Captain Buchanan after he was captured at Mobile Bay later in the war, Buchanan said that it was at this time that he was struck in the thigh by a rifle ball fired by one of the Marines on Cumberland’s spar deck when he “incautiously exposed himself” in Virginia’s pilothouse.
Our captain turned unto his men
And unto them he did say
“I never will strike my colors down
While the Cumberland rides the wave
But I’ll go down with my gallant ship
To seek a watery grave
But you, my loyal comrades,
You may seek your lives to save.”
Virginia again took station on Cumberland’s starboard bow and resumed her raking fire. Forward, Lieutenant Selfridge gathered what remained of his division, attempting to use block-and-tackle to move a gun into position to fire forward. While they were doing so, a shell burst among them; the man to whom Selfridge was giving an order had his head blown off, and when the young lieutenant looked around, discovered that he no longer had enough men to crew a single gun.Then, inexplicably, Virginia rammed Cumberland a second time.
By now Cumberland was down by the head and listing to port. She sank rapidly in thirty-five feet of water. Her masts were still exposed, with her flag still flying. The entire action, from first shot to sinking, had taken about forty-five minutes. Of 299 sailors and 33 Marines, 80 were killed or drowned, and thirty wounded.
“Furious over the loss of the ship in which I had taken such intense pride, shivering with cold from soaking wet and scanty clothing, the reaction from the long endured, frightful, experiences of battle impelled me to tears, and I sobbed like a child.”
They swore they never would leave him
But would man their guns afresh
Poured broadside after broadside
‘Til the water reached their breast
And then they sank far down, far down,
Unto the watery deep
The stars and stripes still flying
From her mainmast’s highest peak.
While all this was going on, USS Congress got underway and headed for shallow water in an attempt to evade Virginia. Too shallow: like Minnesota (and St. Lawrence, and Roanoke), Congress ran aground. Virginia took a stern rake on Congress, and opened fire. As before with Cumberland, Virginia’s gunfire did terrible damage, while Congress could not return fire, nor would their fire have any effect had they been able to bring guns to bear. This time the shelling lasted an hour, with 120 killed (including Lieutenant Smith), before Congress struck her colors.
Virginia accepted the surrender, and allowed the crew to abandon ship. At this time, however, a shore battery opened up on Virginia, causing casualties both on the Confederate steamer and among the Union crew of Congress. Some say that it was at this time that Buchanan was wounded. In response, Buchanan ordered his gunners to resume fire, this time with hot shot. Congress was soon ablaze from end to end.
Virginia turned away and headed toward Minnesota, still hard aground off Newport News, to lend a decisive hand to the two smaller gunboats that had kept the Union frigate engaged. Virginia again took a raking position, while Minnesota could only reply with her pivot gun.
And here again, Virginia’s deep draft worked against her. She was unable to approach to improve her gunnery nor ram, although her shellfire killed or wounded several of Minnesota’s crew. Sunset was just before six p.m. By the time Virginia engaged Minnesota light was failing and the tide was going out. Virginia’s already low speed had been further reduced by losing her smokestack to gunfire, so that her boilers did not draw efficiently. The harbor pilot aboard Virginia was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to get back to Norfolk due to the falling water, so Buchanan broke off, anchoring for the night under Sewell’s Point, to resupply and repair Virginia’s battle damage. He intended to resume operations at first light and complete the destruction of the Union blockading fleet.
It was into the darkened harbor, lit by the blazing hulk of USS Congress, Cumberland’s masts and spars sticking above the water nearby, the roadstead filled with jetsam from the grounded Federal fleet as the surviving vessels attempted to lighten ship and refloat, that USS Monitor steamed that night.
Over a century later, I found myself at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Gosport. The drydock where USS Merrimack was converted to CSS Virginia is still there, and was, at the time (and for all I know still is) in use. My first thought was, “It’s tiny!”
Later still, I lived in Newport News, and commuted every day over the Hampton Roads Bridge/Tunnel, not far from where Cumberland is still lying on the bottom.
Then slowly she sank ‘neath Virginia’s dark waters;
Their voices on Earth they will ne’er be heard more.
They’ll be wept by Columbia’s brave sons and fair daughters,
May their blood be avenged on Virginia’s shore.
But the banner of freedom can never be conquered,
For brave hearts and fearless will ever be true.
The flag of our Union how bravely was flying,
It was nailed to the mast by the Cumberland’s crew.
USS Minnesota was noted for having an integrated crew; one gun being entirely manned by African-Americans recruited in Boston.
Lieutenant Selfridge, who had been present on the day that iron ships replaced wooden ones, continued to have adventures; he lived long enough to see World War One and the massive engagement of iron ships at Jutland. His later contributions included the invention of the torpedo net.
Rams would be standard items of warship design until the dawn of the 20th century.
Stores ship USS Brandywine also ran aground while attempting to evade Virginia.
Cumberland was the last US warship to go into battle entirely under sail. The occasion was the reduction of the Hatteras Forts. She astounded observers by furling sail, dropping anchor, and firing her first broadside simultaneously.