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1862 March 12: Battle of Hampton Roads

March 14, 2012

From the March 12, 1862, issue of The Hudson North Star comes this report on the famous battle between the two ironclad ships, the USS Monitor1 and the CSS Virginia, usually still called the Merrimack.2  The larger naval engagement that their fight was part of is known as the Battle of Hampton Roads for the area where it took place on March 8 and 9, 1862.

At this time, the Confederacy held Norfolk and its navy yard in Portsmouth, thus controlling the southern side of Hampton Roads. To prevent Union warships from attacking the yard, the Confederates had set up batteries at Sewell’s Point and Craney Island, at the juncture of the Elizabeth River with the James. The Union had kept control of Fort Monroe (usually called Fortress Monroe at this time) on the Virginia Peninsula. The Union also held a small man-made island known as the Rip Raps, on the far side of the channel opposite Fort Monroe. Fort Wool was on this island. With Fort Monroe the Union was able to control the lower Peninsula as far as Newport News, including the entrance to Hampton Roads. The Union blockade of Hampton Roads, which included some of the Union’s most powerful warships in the roadstead, had begun on April 30, 1861, and almost completely cut off Norfolk and Richmond from the sea. For most of the first year of the war, the Confederacy had been unable to break the blockade. The Battle of Hampton Roads was their attempt to break through, using their new ironclad ship.

H U’ R A H   F O R   US !


Naval Engagement Near Fortress Monroe !



She Disables the Merrimac—Forces her to “hunt her hole.”


Scene at the Fight of the Iron-Clads, from “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War”3


FORTRESS MONROE, March 9.  The rebel frigate Merrimac and gunboats Yorktown and Jamestown attacked Ericsson’s4 battery.

After 5 hours in the contest they were driven off, the former in a sinking condition.  This is official.

In the naval engagement the Merrimac sunk the Cumberland,5 captured and sunk the Congress, and took the officers prisoners.

She afterwards opened fire on the Minnesota,6 when the Ericsson4 steamer Monitor met them and opened fire on the enemy’s vessels, returned, except the Merrimac.

These two iron clad vessels fought from 8 o’clock till noon—part of the time touching each other.

The Merrimac retreated in a sinking condition.  Nearly half of the Cumberland crew of 500 were lost.


The long expected Confederate steamer Merrimac made her appearance yesterday P.M. and with the assistance of two gunboats which came out with her from Norfolk and made an attack upon Newport News and the naval vessels stationed at that place.

The Merrimac was first seen from the ramparts of Fortress Monroe, on her way to Newport News.

At about a quarter before one o’clock two rebel gunboats followed her.

They all carried a rebel flag at the stern and a French flag at the masthead.  The Merrimac had a flag at her bow which was described by some as a commodore’s blue flag, and by others as a black flag.  The side, bows and stern of the Merrimac were covered with iron plates, extending about two feet below the water line, and meeting above like the roof of a house on her bow.

On the water line are two sharp iron points, resembling plows, about six or seven feet apart.

The  number of guns is stated at twelve but she might not have so many.  At her bow were seen two guns projecting from long eliptical port holes.  The design of the enemy did not become apparent till between one and two o’clock, and by that time the Minnesota had got under way in the scene of action.

The CSS Virginia, called the Merrimac in this article, from “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War”3

The Roanoke, the flag ship, being disabled by the breaking of her shaft some time since, was taken in tow by two gunboats.

About the same time the alarm gun was fired at Fortress Monroe, and the whole garrison prompty turned out.  The rebel boats easily pursued their way to Newport News, and the Merrimac soon turned the point, and was lost to view from the Fortress.

The first shot was fired from the frigate Cumberland, at a little past two o’clock.

The Sewall’s [sic] Point battery then opened on the Minnesota, which was passing and the Sawyer gun fro the Rip Raps replied with a few shells at Sewall’s [sic] Point.7

A thick smoke was seen to rise about Newport News point, indicating that the battery there, as well as the Cumberland and Congress,8 were engaged.

The details of the action could not be seen from the fort, but a telegraph despatch was received announcing that the Cumberland and Merrimac were in close quarters.

After firing the guns at the Cumberland, the Merrimac struck her sharp bows making a hole in her at the water line seven feet in extent.

The Cumberland commenced sinking when the Merrimac backing a short distance ran into her the second time, making a terrible hole in her causing the water to run in at a furious rate.

The Cumberland continued firing till the water entered her port holes, when she careered over slowly and finally sunk.

About 3 o’clock the Newport News battery and guns of the Cumberland fired continuously upon the Merrimac, but no apparent effect was produced upon her.

Shortly before 3 o’clock the Yorktown and Jamestown arrived from up the James River.  The former was disabled early in the afternoon and put in shore for repairs.

After sinking the Cumberland, the Merrimac turned her attention to the Congress, and in less that an hour afterwards a white flag was hoisted on the Congress.

A rebel gunboat immediately went alongside and took officers and marines prisoners.  The seamen were allowed to escape to the shore.

The frigate St. Lawrence arrived here during the afternoon, and without dropping her anchor, proceeded up the river and followed the example of the battery at Sewall’s [sic]7 Point ;  but like the rest her shot fell short.

The gunboat Mystic was also towed up in the afternoon but at sundown the Roanoke, St. Lawrence and Mystic all returned.

After 4 o’clock the Merrimac continued to throw shells into the camp at Newport News while the Jamestown and other rebel gunboats commenced firing into the Minnesota. The latter replied as vigorously as possible and the conflict was continued without any apparent effect untill [sic] dark.

During the evening the Congress was set on fire.

At midnight she was blown up making a terrible explosion.

During the night only an occasional gun was fired.  Reinforcements of men and ammunition were sent to Newport News early in the afternoon, but little serious damage was done, and no one was killed.

Plans of the USS Monitor, from “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War”3

This morning the conflict was renewed until the presence of the Monitor was known to the Merrimac, the latter engaged with the Minnesota, and but for the fortunate arrival of the Monitor, the Minnesota might have been lost.

The Monitor and Merrimac engaged each other for two or three hours without perceptible effect upon either.

They went alongside of each other once or twice, and seemed almost to run each other down, but they soon appeared again to renew the action.

The Ericsson battery finally succeeded in forcing a long hole in the port side of the Merrimac, and she retired with the whole naval fleet to Norfolk.

At about one o’clock the United States gunboat Oregon, was struck by the Merrimac on her boiler and was blown up this morning.

The United States gunboat Zouave was also severely damaged and obliged to return.

The principal loss of life was on board the Cumberland, where it is thought as many as one hundred and fifty men must have been killed or drowned.

But six lives were were lost on board the Minnesota, according to the reoprt of one of her officers.

A rebel gunboat was cut in two yesterday by the Cumberland.

The Minnesota is understood to have been under command of Commander Buchanan,9 late of the Navy Yard.

1.   The USS Monitor was the Union army’s response to the Confederate’s CSS Virginia, previously the USS Merrimack. The Monitor, an ironclad ship built in 1861, set sail January 30, 1862. When the Union army heard about the Confederate’s ironclad ship, the Union began work on the the USS Monitor. The Monitor was designed to be an ironclad warship from the ground up, where as the Virginia was rebuilt as an ironclad from the burned shell of the Merrimack.
2.   The frigate USS Merrimack—often spelled Merrimac (in Massachusetts, the Merrimack River flows through the town of Merrimac)—had been a sailing vessel of the United States Navy.  On April 20, 1861, before evacuating the Navy Yard at Norfolk, the U.S. Navy burned the  Merrimack to the waterline and sank her to prevent capture by the Confederates.  The Confederacy, in desperate need of ships, raised the Merrimack and rebuilt her as an ironclad warship and had just recommissioned her the CSS Virginiaon February 17, 1862.
3.  Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War, by Alfred H. Guernsey and Henry M. Alden, Chicago: McDonnell, 1866-68 (available in the UWRF Archives E 468.7 .G87 1866).

Inspecting the damage to the turret of U.S.S. Monitor caused by the CSS Virgina, July 1862, from the Library of Congress

4.   John Ericsson (1803-1889) was a Swedish-American mechanical engineer and inventor, best known for designing the steam locomotive Novelty and the armored ship USS Monitor. Despite controversy over the ironclad’s unique design, the Monitor was launched on March 6, 1862.  Ericcson design included a rotating turret that housed a pair of large cannons, which he designed for the Monitor.
5.   The USS Cumberland was a 50-gun frigate built in 1842 in accordance with a Congressional Act that declared that the United States needed a stronger navy. It was sent to Hampton Roads as part of the blockading force, where it was sunk by the CSS Virginia.
6.   The USS Minnesota, launched in 1855, commanded by G. J. Van Brunt, was the flagship of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron. She ran aground on March 8 and was damaged during the ensuing battle, but was subsequently pulled free by tugs and quickly repaired.
7.  Sewell’s Point is a peninsula of land near Norfolk, Virginia.  Sewall’s Point is in Florida. Sewell’s Point was often misspelled in the reports, correspondence, and newspapers of the time.
8  The USS Congress was a frigate built in 1841. It served in the Union Navy during the Civil War and in 1862 it was sent to Newport News, Virginia, as part of the blockading squadron. It was there that the Congress was sunk by the CSS Virginia.
9.   The USS Minnesota was commanded by G. J. Van Brunt (b. ca. 1801, dead by 1887).  Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan (1800-1874) commanded the CSS Virginia.

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