If we were playing a game called “people of the Civil War I would not want to be,” I’m sure we could come up with some very good nominees. A strong contender for me would be a crew member aboard the wooden sloop of war USS Cumberland on March 8th, 1862. The Cumberland had spent the first year of the war participating in the Union blockade of the Atlantic and was anchored that day in the Hampton Roads area when a strange vessel was spotted in the distance coming from the direction of Norfolk. Thomas Selfridge Jr., 25 years old and second lieutenant of the Cumberland recalled:
Her progress was so slow that is seemed doubtful at first if she was really coming out. But as the low hull came in view abreast of Crany island light heading for the mouth of the Elizabeth river, all surmises were dispelled. All hands were called, the sails quickly furled. And the quick beat to “quarters” aroused everyone, and told that the hour which had been so long looked forward to had come. “The Merrimac & The Cumberland“, The Cosmopolitan, A Monthly Illustrated Magazine, volume XV, The Cosmopolitan Press, 1893, pp 176-184
That strange vessel was the CSS Virginia, and she was the Confederate’s first and only ironclad ship out on her maiden voyage. Even at a distance, she made quite the impression, according to one witness: she looked “like the roof of a very big barn belching forth smoke as from a chimney on fire.” She was heading towards the Cumberland.
Considering this was the first time any of the crew members had seen an ironclad ship, the men aboard the Cumberland were remarkably well-prepared. Rumors of this new ship had been heard months before its arrival. Lt. Selfridge wrote that the crew had been in “constant drill to meet every imaginable contingency in a combat with the Merrimac1, the news of whose preparation reached us from time to time. In fact, rumors of her expected appearance came so often, that at last it became a standing joke with the ship’s company.”
There were no jokes aboard the Cumberland that afternoon as they quickly called all crews to quarters and prepared for battle. As the Virginia approached, heavy fire was exchanged between the two ships. While the Cumberland sustained heavy damage and losses in the volleys, their return fire did little discernible damage to the Confederate ironclad. More importantly, it didn’t slow them down either.
It became clear to the crew of the Cumberland that they were about to be rammed.
The wooden ship didn’t stand a chance against the Virginia’s large iron ram which struck the Cumberland’s starboard side. The brave crew remaining aboard the Cumberland continued firing heavy cannon into the ironclad even as the ship was sinking. As the Virginia tried to pull away from the sinking ship, the ram was torn off and rendered useless. But even without the ram, the Virginia was still a force to be reckoned with.
With the Cumberland sinking, the Virginia turned her attention to her next victims. In the confusion that ensued when the ironclad first arrived, two other Union blockade ships, the USS Congress and USS Minnesota had both ran aground in shallow waters while trying to get underway, making them easy targets for the Virginia. The Virginia and Congress fired back and forth for about an hour before the Congress waved the white flag of surrender. They took the remaining crew off the Congress and set the wooden ship ablaze.
With daylight fading, the Virginia turned away from the burning ship and back towards the southern side of Hampton Roads to anchor for the night. The crew removed the two dozen casualties from the day’s fighting (compared to more than 240 from the Union ships) and made whatever repairs they could, making plans to finish with the Minnesota in the morning.
At dawn on March 9th, the Virginia set out to engage the grounded Minnesota. What they found when they arrived was an unexpected new challenger: the USS Monitor. The Union Navy’s ironclad had arrived in the night from New York. The Monitor took a position to protect the Minnesota and the two ironclads began firing away at each other with heavy cannon. What ensued was several hours of what, I have to imagine, looked like the 1862 version of a Michael Bay movie, with neither ship able to fully disable the other despite unloading heavy cannon fire for hours. Around noon, the Monitor’s commanding officer, Lt. John Worden, was hit and blinded by a shot from the Virginia. The Monitor withdrew temporarily from the battle until he could be relieved, but by the time the ship returned to re-engage the Virginia, the Confederate ironclad had already turned to head back toward Norfolk and away from the battle.
In one day, what appeared to be a huge Confederate advantage was ultimately rendered a stalemate. Even though neither ship would have a significant impact during the remainder of the war, the significance of the battle was not lost on anyone. As news of the battle spread across the world, several countries halted construction of wooden ships to focus instead on new armored designs. Those two days in the waters of Hampton Roads would forever change naval technology, marking the end of the era of the wooden ship and ushering in the era of the ironclad.
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- If you learned about this battle in school, you may have heard this ship referred to as the Merrimac. The ironclad was built from a salvaged Union ship called the USS Merrimac and outfitted with the iron plating and re-christened as the CSS Virginia. This ship gets referenced as the Merrimac all the time, so 150 years later, I’d say pick your favorite and roll with it. ↩