Witnessing History: A Cavalryman's View of the Clash of Ironclads

 The Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia fought March 8-9, 1862 was the most important naval battle fought during the Civil War, not because of the tactical or strategic question decided by the clash, but because of the revolution in naval technology that the clash of ironclads represented. The debut performances of the Monitor and Merrimac demonstrated that the future of naval construction lay in iron and steel; wooden-hulled vessels which had dominated naval construction for centuries were on the way out. 

Among the witnesses of this historic naval engagement was an Ohioan serving in Co. M of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry. The company, whose motto was “We Know Our Rights and Knowing, Dare Maintain Them,” was raised in southeastern Ohio in August 1861 and mustered into service as an independent cavalry company. The company joined Harlan’s Light Cavalry (11th Pennsylvania Cavalry) in October 1861, a regiment which had companies from four other states besides Pennsylvania [New York, New Jersey, Iowa, and Ohio]. In March 1862, the company along with Co. C was ordered to Newport News, Virginia where it was assigned to duty with General Joseph K.F. Mansfield.

 The author of the following account of the Battle of Hampton Roads is unknown; his letter was published under the name “Newport” and saw publication in the March 28, 1862 issue of the Pomeroy Weekly Telegraph from Meigs Co., Ohio. “Newport” provides a wonderful eyewitness view of the destruction wrought by the Virginia on March 8, 1862 and the explosion of the Congress the following morning.

Camp Butler, Newport News, Virginia

March 15, 1862

          Without attempting to give you a minute account of the great naval battles of the 8th and 9th ultimo which had doubtless been done already by far abler pens than I mine, but I propose to relate what a Meigs County boy saw and heard.

          Last Saturday afternoon, it was rumored at Camp Hamilton that Sewell’s Point was to be bombarded- the roofs of our stables were soon covered with those wishing to see the fight. When I first looked toward the place of conflict, two large war vessels were going in the direction of Sewell’s Point. Strange to me, however, instead of anchoring in front of the Rebel batteries, they merely gave a passing shot and proceeded in the direction of Newport News, which according to the news soon circulated in camp,      was attacked by the Rebel ironclad steamer Merrimac. Casting my eyes in that direction, I saw large volumes of smoke rising from about the mouth of the James River.

          In the meantime, three companies of our regiment were ordered out, we knew not whither, and before these had passed from view, those remaining were ordered to saddle in all haste. Six companies of us started for Newport News. We trotted briskly along until within three miles of the scene of action when we were met by parties of men, non-combatants and sailors, from that place who were either ordered away or panic-stricken left of their own accord. From these, we first learned of the loss of the sloop-of-war Cumberland and the frigate Congress. We were slow in believing that two of our best ships were destroyed by the Rebels who make scarcely any pretensions to a navy, but once in Camp Butler we were compelled to believe the disagreeable news of this disaster.

          It was just dark when we came in; a few stray shots were yet being fired by the Minnesota and the Merrimac. It was a beautiful sight- the shells bursting and fragments flying in every direction. We bivouacked during the night.  I was agreeably surprised to learn that but three men were wounded during the day inside the camp while none were killed. The Rebels, with few exceptions, overshot the mark. Many of the shells burst a mile from the camp, one of them seriously wounding a sentinel on picket. A shell left its mark in the shape of a hole six feet in diameter and 18 inches deep a few rods from where we laid during the night. A shot passed through the quarters and within about four feet of General [Joseph K.F.] Mansfield- as near as I would want the pesky thing to come to me.

          One of the grandest and most magnificent sights I ever witnessed was the burning of the Congress. She was fired about 8 p.m. and was seen completely enveloped in a lurid mass of angry, writhing flames. Pieces of sails, wreathed in the destroying element, would dart quickly to the height of several hundred feet and then separating in fragments, gently descend to the water like the sparkling remains of a bursted skyrocket. Now the destroyer mounts the riffing and for a moment it is all a sheet of flames; but soon consumed, the masts alone are seen pointing to the heavens like lofty spires of living fire. We watched and waited for the magazine to explode when boom! A loaded shell went bursting high in the air. Bang! A well-charged cannon is emptied of its contents. One shot struck a schooner at the wharf sinking her almost instantly.

“Pieces of sails, wreathed in the destroying element, would dart quickly to the height of several hundred feet and then separating in fragments, gently descend to the water like the sparkling remains of a bursted skyrocket.”

          But what protects the magazine against the grim destroyer? For four hours the flames had raged with unabated fury and still that great vault of powder remained untouched. “It must be drowned,” was the conviction of all. The crackling of the more combustible parts of the ship had ceased- all was still. Then men were nodding or sleeping around the smoldering fires of the camp. The midnight hour with all its gloomy stillness was just approaching when behold a light, a flash that illuminates the country for miles around followed by a deafening report that seemed to shake the earth to its very center, and darkness and stillness are masters of the scene. The magazine had exploded, scattering 10,000 fragments of the wreck in all directions. The next morning showed a black line of ribs just above the surface of the water, all that was left of the ill-fated Congress. Such is war!

          It was during the bivouac of Saturday night that we heard of the arrival of Ericsson’s battery- the Monitor. With mingled feelings of hope and fear, we passed the night. We had heard of the Monitor’s reputation as a powerful battery, but was she able to contend successfully with the Merrimac? Thanks to God, she was equal to the emergencies of the terrible conflict to the glory and honor of the nation. Sunday morning opened upon us lovely, bright, and fair. Five companies returned to the old camp, while ours remained here. We were put at once upon picket. About noon, our advanced was driven in by the Rebels and our company was sent out to reconnoiter. Three miles from camp, from 600-800 cavalry, were seen drawn up in line with two regiments of infantry in their rear. After remaining in position for an hour and a half, they retired. They were undoubtedly sent in concert with the Merrimac, the latter to shell us out, but luckily, the Monitor gave her full employment so that we escaped her compliments entirely.

Battle of Hampton Roads showing the path of destruction left by the C.S.S. Virginia. Cos. C and M of the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry rode from Camp Hamilton near Hampton down to Newport News and went into camp at Camp Butler on the night of March 8, 1862. That gave them a front row seat to witness the burning and explosion that destroyed the abandoned U.S.S. Congress

          The Rebels were hardly out of sight before Captain [Gerard] Reynolds ordered us forward and in ten minutes we were on the ground they had just occupied. They didn’t even leave a rear guard behind. We have since learned from a farmer living outside the pickets that on Sunday the enemy was 10,000 strong under General [John B.] Magruder. During the fight on the 8th, there were many acts of noble daring and bravery. While the Merrimac was sinking the Cumberland, the 20th Indiana boys were on the beach picking off the Rebels on the former vessel. The brave fellows think they did some service. Whether they did or not, they fearlessly faced danger by standing their ground 300 yards from the monster.

          The gunners on board the Cumberland continued to fire till the water rose above their knees and as the ship careened before sinking, many of the sailors when cheering for the Union to a cold and watery grave. History rarely records such acts of desperate courage. Lieutenant [George U.] Morris, commanding in the same vessel, when asked to surrender answered “By God, I’ll never surrender.” His ship went down with the stars and stripes waving saucily in the breeze.


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