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The Confederate Account of the Naval Fight in Hampton Roads

The Illustrated London News, vol. 40, no. 1138, p. 344.

April 5, 1862


In the Confederate Congress, on the 10th ult., the following communication was received from the Executive, in response to the resolution of Mr. Lyons calling for the report of the naval battle in Hampton Roads. The description differs, it will be seen, from the Federal account, especially as regards the result of the contest between the Merrimac and the Monitor. It will be observed that the Merrimac is throughout called the Virginia, hawing been renamed by the Confederates:—

Confederate States' Steam-battery Virginia,
off Sewall's Point, March 8.

Flag Officer,—In consequence of the wound of Flag-officer Buchanan, it becomes my duty to report that the Virginia left the yard this morning at eleven o'clock, steamed down the river past our batteries, and over to Newport News, where we engaged the frigates Cumberland, and Congress and the batteries ashore, and also two large steam-frigates, supposed to be the Minnesota and Roanoke, and a sailing-frigate and several small steamers armed with heavy rifled guns. We sank the Cumberland, and drove the Congress ashore, where she hauled down her colours and hoisted the white flag; but she fired upon us with the white flag flying, wounding Lieutenant Minor and some of our men. We again opened fire upon her, and she is now in flames. The shoal water prevented our reaching the other frigates. This, with approaching night, we think, saved them from destruction. Our loss is two killed and eight wounded. Two of our guns have the muzzles shot off; the prow was twisted, and armour somewhat damaged; the anchor and all flagstaffs shot away, and the smoke-stack and steam-pipe were riddled. The bearing of officers and men was all that could be wished; and, in fact, it could not have been otherwise, after the noble and daring conduct of the flag officer, whose wound is deeply regretted by all on board, who would kindly have sacrificed themselves in order to save him. We were accompanied from the yard by the Beaufort, Lieutenant Parker, and Raleigh, Lieutenant Alexander; and as soon as it was discovered up the James River that the action had commenced we were joined by the Patrick Henry, Commander Tucker; the Jamestown, Lieutenant Barney; and the Teaser, Lieutenant Webb, all of which were actively engaged and rendered very efficient service. Enclosed I send the surgeons' report of the casualties.

I have the honour to be, Sir, very respectfully,
Your obedient servant,
Catesby Ap. R. Jones, Ex. and Ord. Officer.

Flag Officer F. Forrest.

The following spiritedly-written account of the engagement is from the Norfolk Daybook of the 10th ult.:—

The Battle on Saturday

On the morning of the 8th the steam-frigate Virginia, flag-officer Franklin Buchanan commanding, left her moorings at the dockyard, and, attended by the steam-tugs Beaufort, Lieutenant-Commanding Parker, and the Raleigh, Lieutenant-Commanding Alexander, steamed down the harbour. It was a gallant sight to see the iron-clad leviathan gliding noiselessly through the water, flying the red pennon of her commander at the fore flagstaff and the gay Confederate ensign aft. Not the least impressive thought which she suggested was that her gallant crew, under a commander and officers worthy to direct their destiny and defend the flag she bore, went thus boldly with smiles and huzzas to solve a new problem in maritime warfare—to make the "trial-trip" of the Virginia the trial of battle. Nor could any man behold the little tugs, with the gay ensigns at peak and masthead, their battle flags set, steaming in her wake, without an emotion of admiration for the brave men they thus bore and a prayer for their deliverance. In the wake of all came the Port Admiral, with a staff of naval officers. Thus down the harbour, past the wharves, thronged with eager citizens, past the batteries, whose parapets were dark with soldiers, steamed the squadron. Through the two barricades, and then the Virginia put her helm a-starboard and took the south channel. Meantime, the morning was as still as that of a Sabbath. The two frigates lay with their boats as the booms and washclothes in the rigging. Did they see the long dark hull? Had they made her out? Was it ignorance, apathy, or composure? These were the questions we discussed as we steamed across the flats to the south of the frigate, with the two gallant little gun-boats well on our starboard beam, heading up for the enemy. Our doubts were solved by the heavy boom of a gun from beyond Sewall's Point. The reverberation rolled across the sunlit water and died away; but still the clothes hung in the rigging, still the boats lay at the booms. Another gun (1.20) broke on the air, and a tug started from Newport News, while at the same time two others left Old Point, taking the channel inside Hampton bar. Steadily, with a grim and ominous silence, the Virginia glides through the water; steadily and with defiant valour the Beaufort and Raleigh follow where she leads. At 1.50 a rifled gun from one of these little vessels rang out, then a white puff from her consort. Still the clothes in the rigging and the boats at the boom. Was this confidence? It could not be ignorance. Did it mean torpedoes, submarine batteries, infernal machines? The gun-boats have fired again, and lo! here away to the eastward were the Roanoke and Minnesota, rising like prodigious castles above the placid water, the first under steam, the second in tow. Other puffs of smoke, other sharp reports from the gun-boats, but the Virginia goes on steadily, silently, to do her work. Now the in-shore frigate, the Cumberland, fires; now the Virginia close aboard, now Sewall's Point Battery, now the Minnesota, now the Roanoke, now the air trembles with the cannonade. Now the Virginia delivers both broadsides, now she runs full against the Cumberland's starboard bow, now the smoke clears away, and she appears to be heading up James River. This at twenty-two minutes to two. The Congress now lets fall foretopsail and then the main, and so, with a tug alongside, starts down the north channel, where the Minnesota has grounded, and presently runs plump ashore. Meanwhile the Virginia opens upon the Yankee fort; slowly she steams back, and the Cumberland, sunk now to her white streak, opens upon her again. A gallant man fought that ship—a man worthy to have maintained a better cause. Gun after gun he fired; lower and lower sank his ship, his last discharge comes from his pivot-gun, the ship lurches to starboard, now to port, his flag streams out wildly, and now the Cumberland goes down on her beamends, at once a monument and an epitaph of the gallant men who fought her. The Virginia stops. Is she aground? And the gun-boats Raleigh and Beaufort—glorious Parker, glorious Alexander? There they are on the quarters of the Congress hammering away, and creeping up closer and closer all the time. At ten minutes to four the Congress struck. Parker hauled down the ensign, run up his own battle-flag in its place. There the heroic Taylor, who fought the Fanny at Roanoke Island and Elizabeth City, got his wound; there the gallant young Hutter fell—all shot by the dastards who fired from the ship and shore when the white flag was flying at the main and mizen of the Congress. Here, too, and in the same way, flag-officer Buchanan and flag Lieutenant R. Minor were wounded. Now the James River gun-boats, whose dark smoke had been seen against the blue distance ever since three o'clock, come dashing along past the shore batteries, Tucker, the courtly and chivalrous, leading the van, with the Jamestown, Lieutenant-Commanding Barney, close aboard, and the little Teaser, Lieutenant Webb, in her wake, like a bow-legged bulldog in chase of the long, lean staghounds. It was a gallant dash, and, once past the batteries, the two heavy vessels took position in line of battle, while the Teaser dashed at the Minnesota, looking no larger then a cockboat. And right well she maintained the honour of her flag and the appropriateness of her name. Now the Roanoke puts her helm up and declines the battle. Now the Virginia is thundering away again, the Teazer [sic] still closer in. We are closer in—sizz comes a shell ahead; presently another astern; finally a third, with a clear, sharp whizz, just over head, to the great delight of the Commodore, who appreciated the compliment of these good shots, which were the last of six directed shots at the Harmony. Now the schooner Reindeer comes foaming along, cut out from under the shore batteries; she reports, and is sent up in charge of Acting Master Gibbs; and next the gallant Beaufort runs down. Parker steps and brings on board the great piece of bunting we saw hauled down just now. He brings also some thirty prisoners and some wounded men—men wounded under that white flag yonder desecrated by the Yankees. One of these lies stretched out decently covered over, gasping his life on the dock—a Yankee shot through the head, all bloody and ghastly, killed by the inhuman fire of his own people. Another pale and stern, the captain of the Beaufort's gun, lies there too, a noble specimen of a man, who has since gone where the weary are at rest. A gallant man, a brave seaman ! We shake hands with Parker; he gets back to his vessel slightly wounded, as is Alexander also, and steams back gallantly to the fight. The Patrick Henry, the Jamestown, the Teaser, the Beaufort, the Raleigh, and the grand old Virginia, are thundering away. We steam down and speak the first. We hear a report of casualties; we shake hands with friends; we shove off, cheer, and steam towards the Swash Channel. Presently, through the thickening gloom, we see a red glare; it grows larger, and brighter, and fuller and redder. It creeps higher and higher, and now gun after gun booming on the still night, as the fire reaches them; the batteries of the Congress are discharged across the water in harmless thunder. It was a grand sight to see, and by the light of the burning ship we made our way back to Norfolk. At half-past eleven the act of retribution was complete, for at that hour, with a great noise, she blew up.

The Battle on Sunday.

Some detention occurred on board the Virginia on Sunday morning, we learn, or she would have commenced the engagement much earlier than half-past eight o'clock, at which time she, together with the Patrick Henry and Jamestown and our other gun-boats, opened fire on the Minnesota, which still lies hard and fast aground. The tide being at the ebb, the Virginia did not take the channel where the Minnesota lay, probably for fear of grounding, but, getting within a good range of her, she opened fire with terrific effect, completely riddling her, and rendering constant exertion at the pump necessary to prevent her from filling. Early in the morning the Ericsson battery, now called the Monitor, was discovered off Newport News Point, she having gone up there during the night. A sharp encounter soon took place between her and the Virginia, during which time they were frequently not more than thirty or forty yards apart. Unfortunately the Virginia ran aground, and the Ericsson, using her advantage, poured shot after shot into her, but without doing any serious damage. In a short while, however, the Virginia succeeded in getting off, and, putting on a full head of steam, ran her bow into the Ericsson, doing her, as it is thought, great damage. We are rejoiced to say that, notwithstanding the firing was much heavier than on Saturday, there were no casualties in either of our vessels, not a man being in the least injured by shots from the enemy or otherwise. Several of the enemy's gunboats being within range, they were favoured with a shell or two from the Virginia with telling effort, and in every case disabling or sinking them. One of these lying alongside the Minnesota had a shell thrown aboard of her, which on bursting tore her asunder and sent her to the bottom. Having completely riddled the Minnesota, and disabled the St. Lawrence and Monitor, besides, as stated above, destroying several of the enemy's gun-boats,—in a word, having accomplished all that they designed, and having no more material to work upon, our noble vessels left the scene of their triumphs and returned to the yard, where they await another opportunity of displaying their prowess.

[The Number of this Journal for Oct. 18, 1856, contains a page Engraving of the Merrimac previous to her conversion into a steam-battery.]

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