All was lost except honor The destruction of the Cumberland

Before he led the Virginia into action, Flag Officer Buchanan addressed his crew. "Sailors, in a few minutes you will have the long-looked-for opportunity of showing your devotion to our cause. Remember that you are about to strike for your country and your homes. The Confederacy expects every man to do his duty. Beat to Quarters!" The crew went to their stations, and one would note that: "the strictest discipline was in force on our gun deck, no one at the guns was allowed to talk, not even in a whisper. Everything was ready, guns loaded, and run out for action " On the Congress, Captain Smith made a less Nelsonian speech.

"My hearties, you see before you the great southern bugaboo, got up to frighten us out of our wits. Stand to your guns, and let me assure you that one good broadside from our gallant frigate and she is ours!" A similar silence then descended on the Congress as her crew watched the Virginia approach. Further to the east, the Minnesota was steaming toward Newport News, while the tugs Dragon and Young America were preparing to tow the Roanoke into action. The gunboat USS Cambridge already had the St. Lawrence under tow. An observer on the gunboat USS Mystic described it as "a sorry fleet to attack a vessel like the Merrimack " The Virginia veered a little to starboard, then to port, as she tested her steering. She then headed straight for the Congress.

At around 2.00pm, the Beaufort fired the first Confederate shot of the clay at the Congress. She was steaming on the port beam of the Virginia, and the shot was in response to Buchanan's signal, ordering "Close Action." The shot fell short. The fragile little armed tug stayed in the middle of Hampton Roads, as closing any further with the Congress would be suicidal. The Virginia steamed on alone. A few miles to the east, the wooden Union warships making their way toward Newport News came under fire from Sewell's Point soon after 2.00pm. One shot hit the Minnesota's mainmast, and she returned the fire while repairs were made. The other Union warships altered course to stay out of range.

The Congress held her fire until her gunners could make out the ports and armored plates on the casemate of the Virginia (around 500 yards). She then "tried her with a solid shot from one of our stern guns, the projectile glancing off her forward casemate like a drop of water from a duck's back " At approximately 2.20pm the Virginia replied by firing a round of grapeshot from her forward gun, which killed or wounded about a dozen sailors on board the frigate. Next, with "a tremendous roar," the Congress fired her full broadside of 25 guns, including five Sin. Dahlgren smoothbores. Watching from the shore, Private Josh Lewis of the 20th Indiana Regiment recalled that the broadside "rattled on the armored Merrimack without the least injury."

Uss Alliance 1778

The CSS Virginia managed to rake the stern of the stranded wooden frigate USS Congress from a range of less than 200 yards. Her fire turned the frigate into a "charnel house". (VWM)

9. 4.10PM. Virginia attacks the Congress. 5.00PM Congress surrenders. 5.45PM. Congress set on fire.

6. 3.15PM. Virginia frees herself from the Cumberland and commences a turn to port. 3.20PM. Cumberland sinks.

5. 2.30PM. Virginia exchanges broadsides with Congress. 3.05PM. Virginia rams the USS Cumberland.

1. 12.30PM. CSS Virginia passes Sewell's Point. 12.45. The Confederate ironclad is sighted by the Union warships.

2. 12.55PM. The tug USS Zouave is sent to investigate. 1.20PM. Zouave fires on the Virginia - the first shot of the battle.

1. 12.30PM. CSS Virginia passes Sewell's Point. 12.45. The Confederate ironclad is sighted by the Union warships.

9. 4.10PM. Virginia attacks the Congress. 5.00PM Congress surrenders. 5.45PM. Congress set on fire.

8. 3.30PM. The James River Flotilla slips past Newport News. CSS Patrick Henry is hit but all the ships continue on to Norfolk. 3.45PM. Virginia completes her turn and steers towards Congress.

6. 3.15PM. Virginia frees herself from the Cumberland and commences a turn to port. 3.20PM. Cumberland sinks.

5. 2.30PM. Virginia exchanges broadsides with Congress. 3.05PM. Virginia rams the USS Cumberland.

THE ATTACK ON USS CUMBERLAND AND USS CONGRESS

8 March 1862, 12.30pm-5.45pm, viewed from the southeast, showing the CSS Virginia's first attack on the Union blockading squadron, including the ramming of the USS Cumberland and the destruction of the USS Congress. The wind was 10mph from west-southwest throughout the action.

4. 2.00PM. CSS Beaufort fires on USS Congress then hauls off with CSS Raleigh to fire at long range.

4. 2.00PM. CSS Beaufort fires on USS Congress then hauls off with CSS Raleigh to fire at long range.

7. 3.10PM. USS Minnesota runs aground.

3. 2.10PM USS Minnesota exchanges fire with SewelPs Point. 2.15PM. Minnesota alters course to north-west.

CONFEDERATE

A CSS Virginia

B CSS Beaufort & CSS Raleigh C James River Squadron D Confederate batteries

UNION

1 USS Cumberland - sunk

2 USS Congress - first position 2a USS Congress - on fire

3 USS Minnesota

4 USS Roanoke

5 USS St. Lawrence

6 USS Zouave (tug)

7 2 transports

8 Union batteries

CONFEDERATE

A CSS Virginia

B CSS Beaufort & CSS Raleigh C James River Squadron D Confederate batteries

7. 3.10PM. USS Minnesota runs aground.

3. 2.10PM USS Minnesota exchanges fire with SewelPs Point. 2.15PM. Minnesota alters course to north-west.

Inside The Css Virginia

The ramming of the USS Cumberland by the CSS Virginia. While the two ships were locked together they continued to fire at each other at point-blank range. From "Battles and Leaders", 1894. (Hensley)

Captain Smith of the Cumberland recalled they bounced off the casemate "like India-rubber balls". By this stage the Virginia had closed to within 300 yards. She turned and presented her full starboard broadside to the frigate, then fired. The effect was devastating, particularly as her smoothbore guns had been loaded with heated shot. As Dr. Edward Shippen on the Congress recalled: "One of her shells dismounted an eight-inch gun and either killed or wounded every one of her gun's crew, while the slaughter at the other guns was fearful. There were comparatively few wounded, the fragments of the huge shells she threw killed outright as a general thing. Our clean and handsome gun-deck was in an instant changed into a slaughter-pen, with lopped-off legs and arms and bleeding, blackened bodies scattered about by the shells". She then fired a second broadside, overturning guns and sweeping men over the side. By this stage the two ships were so close that Frederick Curtis, the gun captain on one of the Congress's 32-pdrs. thought that the Virginia was about to send over a boarding party. Paymaster Buchanan survived the broadside delivered at the orders of his brother. The crew of the Congress expected the Virginia to turn around and fire her port broadside, but she continued on her course, heading towards the Cumberland. The Congress was left burning from the heated shot, and her decks covered in blood and gore. Lieutenant Smith knew his ship was likely to sink under him, so he ordered her anchor cables to be cut and

The ramming of the USS Cumberland by the CSS Virginia. While the two ships were locked together they continued to fire at each other at point-blank range. From "Battles and Leaders", 1894. (Hensley)

Another depiction of the CSS Virginia ramming the USS Cumberland. Although the blow was a mortal wound for the Union warship, the ram jammed in the side of the Cumberland, and for a moment it appeared that the Virginia might be pulled under with her victim. (Author's Collection)

set his jib. He called on the tug Zouave to come to his aid, as he planned to beach his ship to prevent her from sinking. She ran aground in 17ft of water, effectively becoming a battered wooden fort, immobile but ready to fight. Pumps began to fight the fires, and the wounded were taken below for Dr. Shippen to tend. Her remaining crew watched the Virginia approach the Cumberland.

On the sloop the crew had rigged "springs", a system of anchors and cables that allowed the warship to be pulled around so she presented her broadside to the enemy. This also meant the Virginia was heading-straight toward her beam amidships, in the ideal angle for a ramming attempt. The Cumberland opened fire with "a few forward 9-inch guns" and her 150-pdr. rifle. Roth the heavy smoothbore shot and the Gin. rifled shot failed to penetrate the Virginias casemate, although they damaged her davits and rails. The Virginia opened fire on the Cumberland with her bow guns, while her starboard battery engaged the shore batteries 011 Newport News Point. The shore batteries replied, creating a hail of fire. On the Gassendi, Captain Gautier was "able to estimate the force of the fire, which during a quarter of an hour particularly, was of the hottest." This was the period around 3.00pm, when the Virginia was lining herself up to ram the Cumberland. Gautier continued, reporting that "we could see the entrance of the river constantly swept in all directions by the shot that ricocheted " At first, the Virginia was able to rake the Cumberland as she approached, before the sloop was winched round on her "springs". Lieutenant Selfridge on the Cumberland described these raking shots as "a situation to shake the highest courage and the best discipline." He described the carnage:

Fort Monroe Images

The ramming of the USS Cumberland was a popular subject for maritime artists and contemporary engravers. A naval tactic from antiquity had been resurrected in an age of modern shell and armor. The Virginia's ram proved as deadly as her guns. (Mariners, courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art)

"The dead were thrown to the disengaged side of the deck; the wounded carried below. No one flinched, but everyone went on rapidly loading and firing; the places of the killed and wounded taken promptly by others The carnage was frightful. Great splinters torn from the ship's side and decks caused more casualties than the enemy's shell." By this Lime Buchanan had worked the Virginia into a position where she could ram her opponent. William Drake, the artillery volunteer, recalled hearing the order "Stand Fast! We are going to run into her!" As the Virginia surged forward, the engine room was given the signal to disengage her engines, then to go astern. Ramsay recalls: "There was an ominous pause, then a crash, shaking us all off our feet." To Lieutenant Jones, the Virginias Executive Officer, "crashing timbers was distinctly heard above the din of battle." The 1,5001b iron ram bolted to the bow of the Virginia plowed into the side of the Cumberland, crushing her hull. The iron ram was buried deep inside the hull of the wooden sloop, which started to settle in the water. For a moment it seemed as if the Cumberland would take the Virginia down with her. The two ships were almost touching, and the Cumberland fired three broadsides in quick succession, the shot scraping down the ironclad's casemate. The shot shattered the muzzles of two of the Virginia's broadside smoothbores. Another shell hit the smokestack, causing "a terrible crash in the fire room," caused by the concussion. On the Cumberland, Lieutenant Selfridge described the view from the sloop. "Cheer after cheer went up from the Cumberland, only to be followed by exclamations of rage and despair as the enemy slowly moved away " The Virginia had managed to free herself, leaving her ram embedded inside the Cumberland. Water rushed into the huge hole in her hull, which one witness described as being "wide enough to let in a horse and cart. The forward magazine was flooded ... As the water gained the berth deck, which by this time was filled with the badly wounded, heart-rending cries above the din of combat could be heard from the poor fellows as they realized their helplessness to escape slow death from drowning." Both ships continued

The ramming of the USS Cumberland was a popular subject for maritime artists and contemporary engravers. A naval tactic from antiquity had been resurrected in an age of modern shell and armor. The Virginia's ram proved as deadly as her guns. (Mariners, courtesy of the Chrysler Museum of Art)

Battery Randolph
Commander John Randolph Tucker, CSN was the commander of the James River Squadron. Although his small flotilla ran past the batteries of Newport News Point on 8 March, his flagship, the CSS Patrick Henry, was damaged during the action (Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA.)

to pour shot into each other, and as the Virginia backed away, the shore batteries added their weight to the barrage. A Confederate officer hailed the Cumberland, calling on her to surrender. Lieutenant Morris yelled the response: "Never! We will sink alongside with our colors flying." His ship was already doomed, as her decks were awash in blood and she was settling in the water. For some reason the Virginia rammed her again. The Cumberland was still firing, but she began to sway wildly as the Virginia pulled away again. A lucky shot from the sloop hit the bow gunport of the ironclad, killing two of the crew and wounding several more. These were the first Confederate casualties of the day. Morris gave the order to abandon ship, adding "F.very man look out for himself!"

The crew began throwing themselves overboard, while a few of the wounded were lowered into boats. Lieutenant Selfridge was one of the last to abandon ship, but found his way to the upper deck blocked by an overweight drummer and his drum who was stuck in the hatch. He squirmed through a gunport instead, only to break the surface next to the musician, who was using his drum as a raft. As they struggled ashore, the survivors were offered whiskey and blankets. Observers on the Congress saw the confusion, and watched the Cumberland lurch, "then she went down like a bar of iron, but her flag still flew at. her mast head; all was lost except honor." A Confederate observer declared her crew was "game to the last."

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