Stuck Fast at the Clash of Ironclads
On the afternoon of March 8, 1862, the steam frigate U.S.S. Minnesota steamed into battle against a new Confederate ironclad near Hampton Roads, Virginia, but the battle for the 44-gun Minnesota promptly went awry as one sailor recalled in a letter to his brother in Massachusetts.
"Before we could reach them, our ship stuck fast on the ground and we expected every moment that the Merrimac would run into us, and as she lay right ahead of us, we could not get our guns to bear on her," he related. "Still we gave them an iron pill occasionally from the pivot gun and from three guns on the gun deck which we moved forward to some spare ports so that we could make them bear on her. By this time, the Rebel steamer Yorktown and two others had come down to fight us. We set the Yorktown on fire once with a shell, but they extinguished it. Firing on both sides was kept up until 8 o’clock in the evening when it became so dark, we could not see each other."
The Minnesota would remain aground all night and into the next day when it again engaged the Rebel ironclad with the assistance of the newly arrived Monitor and where our correspondent witnessed the first naval engagement between iron ships. The following letter written by a sailor whose initials were C.L.N. was originally published in the March 21, 1862 edition of the Southbridge Journal.
U.S. flag ship Minnesota, Hampton Roads, Virginia
March 10, 1862
Now I have something to write about, so I will give you a few lines from my log-book:
March 8th: Nothing special going on this forenoon. At 1 o’clock this afternoon, all hands were called and hoisted up the boats and at 2 we were underway with the frigate Roanoke and four gunboats when we directed our course towards Newport News. As soon as we came within range of Sewall’s Point about 2:30, the Rebels commenced firing at us, some of the shells coming very near us and one of them struck our mainmast and crippled it, though it was temporarily mended so that it would stand. At this time, the sloop-of-war Cumberland and frigate Congress were engaged fighting the rebel ironclad steamer Merrimac and soon after we passed Sewall’s Point, the Merrimac ran her sharp bow into the Cumberland and sank her, drowning a great many of her crew. After that, she fired into the Congress and created great havoc so that they were obliged to abandon her and go ashore, leaving the white flag flying which the Rebels hauled down and hoisted their flag instead.
Before we could reach them, our ship stuck fast on the ground and we expected every moment that the Merrimac would run into us, and as she lay right ahead of us, we could not get our guns to bear on her. Still we gave them an iron pill occasionally from the pivot gun and from three guns on the gun deck which we moved forward to some spare ports so that we could make them bear on her. By this time, the Rebel steamer Yorktown and two others had come down to fight us. We set the Yorktown on fire once with a shell, but they extinguished it. Firing on both sides was kept up until 8 o’clock in the evening when it became so dark, we could not see each other. Then we stopped.
During the engagement today, a shot was sent through our ensign; three men were killed on board this ship and one on board the gunboat Whitehall and I believe 12 wounded. The names of the men killed are: A.J. Winslow of Massachusetts, struck in the breast with a piece of shell and died in a few minutes; Dennis Harrington, an Irishman, whose head and one shoulder were completely taken from the body by a shell; Henry Smith, a German, top of his head taken off and the name of the one killed on the Whitehall I did not learn. I do not know all of those who were wounded by one was Samuel W. Hiller of Lynn, Massachusetts.
After we ceased firing, an effort was made to get the ship off with the assistance of four gunboats and by carrying our provisions on board the gunboats and throwing our fresh water overboard. We worked all night and did not succeed. In the evening, we had news that Ericsson’s battery had arrived at Hampton Roads and would be up to help us in the morning which was truly rejoicing to us and cheered us up. Between 8-9 o’clock the flames burst forth from the Congress which was burning all night and as the guns became hot, they were discharged and at last the powder and shells were reached by the fire and exploded, making a cracking noise all night.
March 9th: Sunday, and none of us would have thought it by our appearance, but we were stuck fast and must fight or surrender which would be at the last moment. We got breakfast about 7 o’clock but before this time Ericsson’s battery had come up to our assistance. Thought before that, I would say as soon as daylight appeared, the dead bodies were sowed up in canvass and sent down to Fortress Monroe. About 8:30, the Merrimac with her three companions commenced firing at us and we returned the compliment as well as we could though they were so far astern we could not get a broadside to bear on them, but the Monitor and the gunboats entertained them very well. A part of the captain’s cabin was torn down and two guns run in there which made two more guns to bear on them than we otherwise would have had. Very soon after the firing commenced this morning, a shell struck the gunboat Zouave, which was lying alongside us and burst her boiler, making almost a wreck of her. Only one man was wounded, and we very quickly helped him on board this ship.
The firing today was kept up until 11 o’clock; one of the Rebel steamers was sunk and the others hauled off. Today we had only three or four wounded but there were some hairs-breadth escapes. One of the Rebel shells struck this ship near the waterline and went through into the shell room then took a turn and came up through the berth deck, through the vacant officers’ messroom, and lastly went into one of the officers’ staterooms where it burst and made six rooms into one, besides cutting one of the main deck beams nearly asunder which are about a foot square and would have gone up through the gun deck but there was a gun right over it.
When we stopped firing, another effort was made to get the ship off, but we could not do it and about 1 o’clock, all hands were ordered to get their bags and hammocks and put them on board the gunboat Whitehall which was alongside. A great many of the crew, through mistaking the order, got on board the gunboat themselves and went down to Hampton Roads in her. Having filled the Whitehall, the gunboat America came alongside and took the remainder of the baggage on board. Then, after we had destroyed all the valuables that we could not carry with us and damaged all the guns so that they could be of little use to the enemy should they succeeded in getting possession of the ship, the remainder of us were ordered on board the America. Just as we got safely on board the boat, Captain Van Brunt, who was then standing on the rail, said the ship was all right now and we had better come on board again and try to save her and we did so cheerfully, giving three cheers for the old Minnesota.
We then tried our utmost to get her clear and at last about 5 o’clock she started but had not gone half a mile when she struck again. In this attempt, seven of her spar deck guns besides one small brass piece were thrown overboard to lighten the ship. While in this position, Mr. Gustavus Fox, the assistant secretary of the Navy, came on board. Captain Van Brunt took him around to see how much the ship was damaged and said his crew behaved nobly, recommending them very highly. We worked unceasingly to clear the ship from the ground but in vain.
March 10th: We worked all night trying to get the ship afloat and about 5:30 this morning she was moving on in the direction of Hampton Roads and on our arrival there, the air rang with cheer after cheer for the Minnesota. The America then came alongside, and our bags and hammocks were taken on board, but the Whitehall had blown up and destroyed a great man bags and hammocks, my bag being among the missing, but my hammock and bed were saved. All hands were looking with anxious eyes to see if their clothes were saved, and a great many were sadly disappointed. After breakfast, all hands were engaged in cleaning the ship which was in a dreadful condition.
This afternoon a part of the crew secured the mainmast so that it would do until we could get to some northern port. The remainder of the crew left on the Whitehall came on board this afternoon, having barely reached the shore last night before the steamer blew up. The crews of the Congress and Cumberland, all there were left of them, also came on board here, but those from the Cumberland were sent on board the Roanoke. Mr. Ericsson is here with his battery and says he is going up to see Norfolk and take all the forts on the way. He says they may fire at him as much as they please, but they can’t do him any harm. Our engine is slightly damaged so that it will take a day or two to repair it and then we expect to go north to New York, or Boston I think for repairs. Our wounded are well taken care of on board the hospital ship but there are one or two of them very near death, Charles H. Dunlap of Lynn is one.
Letter from C.L.N., U.S.S. Minnesota, Southbridge Journal (Massachusetts), March 21, 1862, pg. 1
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