During the fall of 1861 it was proposed to capture Port Royal and thereby gain a foothold on the coast of South Carolina; and Capt Samuel F.DuPont, USN, requested that a battalion of 300 Marines be attached to his fleet. Nineteen officers and 330 enlisted men were organized under the command of Maj John Reynolds by mid-October; taken mainly from the Washington headquarters, plus the Boston and Brooklyn navy yards, these Marines left Hampton Roads in the chartered steamer Governor with the rest of DuPont's fleet on October
1862: The clash of the ironclads
On March 8, 1862, a new era in sea warfare dawned when the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia (previously the USS Merrimack), supported by the gunboats Patrick Henry and Jamestown, steamed out of the captured Norfolk Navy Yard and headed straight for the Federal wooden ships on blockade duty in Hampton Roads off the Virginia coast. A total of 14 of the 46-man Marine Guard aboard the frigate Cumberland, commanded by Lt Charles Heywood (future colonel-commandant of the Corps), were either killed during the following battle, or drowned when their vessel sank after being rammed by the Virginia. Nine Marines were killed or
29. In a severe gale three days later the Governor fell behind the other vessels; struck by several huge waves, she lost most of her smokestack, burst her steam pipe, and began to take in water. Due to the desperate efforts of the Marines, who manned the bilge pumps, the Governor continued to wallow in the troughs for another two days until the frigate Sabine, under Capt Cadwalader Ringgold, was able to take the survivors off. Although seven Marines were drowned or crushed between the two vessels because they disobeyed orders and broke ranks, the remainder of the battalion showed great courage, and the Governor was kept afloat long enough for Reynolds to recover most of the weapons, and half the accoutrements of his command, before the stricken transport finally sank. Nonetheless, the disaster prevented the Marines from taking part in the capture of Port Royal on November 7.
An engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper showing the USS Cumberland sinking after being rammed by the ironclad CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862. Marine sharpshooters can be seen at left. (Naval Historical Center photo NH 65698)
wounded as the first shell from the ironclad struck the starboard after gun. Private Daniel O'Connor, who served as "first loader" on the cabin gun, narrowly escaped death when another shell passed within 6in of his head and struck a comrade in the chest, killing him almost instantly. In a letter to his family O'Connor wrote, 'You could not step on the quarter deck with out walking thrugh blood, mens legs in wan place arms in a nother [sic]."
After sinking the Cumberland the Virginia bombarded, captured and destroyed the Congress, and forced the remaining three blockading frigates aground. Withdrawing with her captain, Franklin Buchanan, wounded, the Virginia returned at dawn the next day to find the little Federal ironclad gunboat Monitor, under Cdr John L.Worden, waiting for her. Although the slugging match that followed ended in stalemate, the age of ironclad battleships had begun.
Posing here in full dress, 1st Lt John Campbell Harris (the nephew of US Marine Commandant Col John Harris) commanded the detachment sent ashore in New Orleans on April 26, 1862, to secure the Mint during the negotiation of the city's surrender. (George Menegaux Collection)
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