Operations In Southeastern Virginia
January 11-March 17, 1862
Extract from Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy
Concerning the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac
DECEMBER 1, 1862.
It was the intention and constant effort of the Department and contractors that the Monitor should be completed in the month of January, but there was delay in consequence of difficulties incident to an undertaking of such novelty and magnitude, and there were also some slight defects, which were, however, promptly remedied, and she left New York early in March, reaching Hampton Roads on the night of the 8th.
Her arrival, though not as soon as anticipated, was most opportune and important. For some time the Department had heard with great solicitude of the progress which the insurgents had made in armoring and equipping the large war-steamer Merrimac, which had fallen into their hands when Norfolk was abandoned. On the afternoon of the 8th of March this formidable vessel, heavily armored and armed and fully prepared to operate both as a ram and a war steamer, came down the Elizabeth River, accompanied by several smaller steamers, two of them partially armored, to attack the vessels of the blockading squadron that were in and about Hampton Roads. When the Merrimac and her attendants made their appearance the Congress and the Cumberland, two sailing vessels, were anchored off Newport News, and the remaining vessels were in the vicinity of Fortress Monroe, some 6 miles distant. The Minnesota, the Roanoke, and the St. Lawrence got immediately under way and proceeded toward the scene of action.
The Congress, being nearest to the Merrimac, was the first to receive her fire, which was promptly returned by a full broadside, the shots falling apparently harmlessly off from the armored side of the assailant. Passing by the Congress, the Merrimac dashed upon the Cumberland, and was received by her with a heavy, well-directed, and vigorous fire, which, like that of the Congress, produced unfortunately but little effect. A contest so unequal could not be of long continuance, and it was closed when the Merrimac, availing herself of her power as a steam ram, ran furiously against the Cumberland, laying open her wooden hull, and causing her almost immediately to sink. As her guns approached the water's edge her young commander, Lieutenant Morris, and the gallant crew stood firm at their posts, delivered a parting fire, and the good ship went down heroically, with her colors flying. Having thus destroyed the Cumberland, the Merrimac turned again upon the Congress, which had, in the mean time, been engaged with the smaller rebel steamers, and after a heavy loss, in order to guard against such a fate as that which had befallen the Cumberland, had been run aground. The Merrimac now selected a raking position astern of the Congress, while one of the smaller steamers poured in a constant fire on her starboard quarter. Two other steamers of the enemy also approached from James River, firing upon the unfortunate frigate with precision and severe effect. The guns of the Congress were almost entirely disabled, and her gallant commanding officer, Lieut. Joseph B. Smith, had fallen at his post. Her decks were strewn with the dead and dying, the ship was on fire in several places, and not a gun could be brought to bear upon the assailants. In this state of things, and with no effectual relief at hand, the senior surviving officer, Lieutenant Pendergrast, felt it his duty to save further useless destruction of life by hauling down his colors. This was done about 4 o'clock p.m. The Congress continued to burn till about 8 in the evening and then blew up.
From the Congress the Merrimac turned her attention to the remaining vessels of the squadron. The Roanoke had grounded on her way to the scene of the conflict; and although she succeeded in getting off, her condition was such, her propeller being useless, that she took no part in the action. The St. Lawrence also grounded near the Minnesota and had a short engagement with the Merrimac, but suffered no serious injury, and on getting afloat was ordered back to Fortress Monroe.
The Minnesota, which had also got aground in the shallow waters of the channel, became the special object of attack, and the Merrimac, with the Yorktown and Jamestown, bore down upon her. The Merrimac drew too much water to approach very near; her fire was not therefore particularly effective. The other steamers selected their position, fired with much accuracy, and caused considerable damage to the Minnesota. She soon, however, succeeded in getting a gun to bear on the two smaller steamers and drove them away--- one apparently in a crippled condition. About 7 p.m. the Merrimac also hauled off, and the three stood toward Norfolk.
All efforts to get the Minnesota afloat during the night and into a safe position were totally unavailing. The morning was looked for with deep anxiety, as it would in all probability bring a renewed attack from the formidable assailant. At this critical and anxious moment the Monitor, one of the newly-finished armored vessels, came into Hampton Roads, from New York, under command of Lieut. John L. Worden, and a little after midnight anchored alongside the Minnesota. At 6 o'clock the next morning the Merrimac, as anticipated, again made her appearance, and opened her fire upon the Minnesota. Promptly obeying the signal to attack, the Monitor ran down past the Minnesota and laid herself close alongside the Merrimac, between that formidable vessel and the Minnesota. The fierce conflict between these two ironclads lasted for several hours. It was in appearance an unequal conflict, for the Merrimac was a large and noble structure, and the Monitor was in comparison almost diminutive. But the Monitor was strong in her armor, in the ingenious novelty of her construction, in the large caliber of her two guns, and the valor and skill with which she was handled. After several hours' fighting the Merrimac found herself overmatched, and, leaving the Monitor, sought to renew the attack on the Minnesota; but the Monitor again placed herself between the two vessels and reopened her fire upon her adversary. At noon the Merrimac, seriously damaged, abandoned the contest and, with her companions, retreated toward Norfolk.
Thus terminated the most remarkable naval combat of modern times, perhaps of any age. The fiercest and most formidable naval assault upon the power of the Union which has ever been made by the insurgents was heroically repelled, and a new era was opened in the history of maritime warfare.
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