Mr Robert C Leicht
Oak Ridge TN
Eyewitness-Accounts: H. Ashton Ramsay
The Battle of March 8, 1862
The ship was still full of workmen hurrying her to completion when Commodore Franklin Buchanan arrived from Richmond one March morning and ordered every one out of the ship, except her crew of three hundred and fifty men which had been hastily drilled on shore in the management of the big guns, and directed Executive Officer Jones to prepare to sail at once.
At that time nothing was known of our destination. All we knew was that we were off at last. Buchanan sent for me. The veteran sailor, the beau ideal of a naval officer of the old school, with his tall form, harsh features, and clear, piercing eyes, was pacing the deck with a stride I found it difficult to match, although he was then over sixty and I but twenty-four.
"Ramsey," he asked, "What would happen to your engines and boilers if there should be a collision?"
"They are braced tight," I assured him. "Though the boilers stand fourteen feet, they are so securely fastened that no collision could budge them."
"I am going to ram the Cumberland," said the commander. "I'm told she has the new rifled guns, the only ones in their whole fleet we have cause to fear. The moment we are in the Roads I'm going to make right for her and ram her. How about your engines? They were in bad shape in the old ship. I understand. Can we rely on them? Should they be tested by a trial trip?"
"She will have to travel some ten miles down the river before we get to the Roads," I said. "If any trouble develops I'll report it. I think that will be sufficient trial trip."
I watched the machinery carefully as we sped down the Elizabeth River, and soon satisfied myself that all was well. Then I went on deck.
"How fast is she going do you think?" I asked one of the pilots.
"Eight or nine knots an hour," he replied, making a rapid calculation from objects ashore. The Merrimac as an ironclad was faster under steam than she had ever been before with her top hamper of masts and sails.
I presented myself to the commodore. "The machinery is all right, sir," I assured him.
Across the river at Newport News gleamed the batteries and white tents of the Federal camp and the vessels of the fleet blockading the mouth of the James, chief among them the Congress and the Cumberland, tall and stately, with every line and spar clearly defined against the blue March sky, their decks and ports bristling with guns, while the rigging of the Cumberland was gay with the red, white, and blue of sailors' garments hung out to dry.
As we rounded into view the white-winged sailing craft that sprinkled the bay and long lines of tugs and small boats scurried to the far shore like chickens on the approach of a hovering hawk. They had seen our black hull which looked like the roof of a barn afloat. Suddenly huge volumes of smoke began to pour from the funnels of the frigates Minnesota and Roanoke at Old Point. They had seen us, too, and were getting up steam. Bright colored signal flags were run up and down the masts of all the ships of the Federal fleet. The Congress shook out her topsails. Down came the clothes line on the Cumberland, and boats were lowered and dropped astern.
Our crew was summoned to the gun deck, and Buchanan addressed us: "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." Every terse, burning word is engraved on my memory, though fifty years have passed since they were spoken.
Just as he had finished, the mess caterer touched my elbow and whispered: "Better get your lunch now, Mr. Ramsey. It will be your last chance. The galley-fires must be put out when the magazines are opened."
On my way I saw Assistant-Surgeon Garnett at a table laying out lint and surgical implements. I had no appetite, and merely tasted some cold tongue and a cup of coffee. Passing along the gun deck, I saw the pale and determined countenances of the guns' crews as they stood motionless at their posts, with set lips unsmiling, contrasting with the careless expressions of sailors when practiced at "fighting quarters" on a man-of-war. This was the real thing.
As we approached the Federal ships we were met by a veritable storm of shells which must have sunk any ship then afloat except the Merrimac. They struck our sloping sides, were deflected upward to burst harmlessly in the air, or rolled down and fell hissing into the water, dashing spray up into our ports.
As we drew nearer the Cumberland, above the roar of battle rang the voice of Buchanan, "Do you surrender?"
"Never!" retorted the gallant Morris.
The crux of what followed was down in the engine-room. Two gongs, the signal to stop, were quickly followed by three, the signal to reverse. There was an ominous pause, then a crash, shaking us all off our feet. The engines labored. The vessel was shaken in every fiber. Our bow was visibly depressed. We seemed to be bearing down with a weight on our prow. Thud, thud, thud, came the rain of shot on our shield from the double-decked battery of the Congress. There was a terrible crash in the fire-room. For a moment we thought one of the boilers had burst. No, it was the explosion of a shell in our stack. Was any one hit? No, thank God! The firemen had been warned to keep away from the up-take, so the fragments of shell fell harmlessly on the iron floor-plates.
We had rushed on the doomed ship, relentless as fate, crashing through her barricade of heavy spars and torpedo fenders, striking her below her starboard fore-chains, and crushing far into her. For a moment the whole weight of her hung on our prow and threatened to carry us down with her, the return wave of the collision curling up into our bow port.
The Cumberland began to sink slowly, bow first, but continued to fight desperately for the forty minutes that elapsed after her doom was sealed, while we were engaged with both the Cumberland and the Congress, being right between them.
We had left our cast-iron beak in the side of the Cumberland. Like the wasp, we could sting but once, leaving it in the wound.
Our smoke stack was riddled, our flag was shot down several times, and was finally secured to a rent in the stack. On our gun deck the men were fighting like demons. There was no thought or time for the wounded and dying as they tugged away at their guns, training and sighting their pieces while the orders rang out, "Sponge, load, fire!"
"The muzzle of our gun has been shot away," cried one of the gunners.
"No matter, keep on loading and firing do the best you can with it," replied Lieutenant Jones.
"Keep away from the side ports, don't lean against the shield, look out for the sharpshooters," rang the warnings. Some of our men who failed to heed them and leaned against the shield were stunned and carried below, bleeding at the ears. All were full of courage and worked with a will; they were so begrimed with powder that they looked like Negroes.
"Pass along the cartridges."
"A shell for number six."
"A wet wad for the hot-shot gun."
"Put out that pipe and don't light it again on peril of your life."
Such were the directions and commands of battle. Our executive officer seemed to be in a dozen places at once.
This gives some faint notion of the scene passing behind our grim iron casemate, which to the beholders without seemed a machine of destruction. Human hearts were beating and bleeding there. Human lives were being sacrificed. Pain, death, wounds, glory that was the sum of it.
We now turned to the Congress, which had tried to escape but had grounded, and the battle raged once more, broadside upon broadside, delivered at close range, the Merrimac working closer all the time with her bow pointed as if to ram the Congress. A shell from Lieutenant Wood's gun sped through their line of powder-passers, not only cutting down the men, but exploding the powder buckets in their hands, spreading death and destruction and setting fire to the ship.
At last came the order, "Cease firing."
"The Congress has surrendered," someone cried. "Look out of the port. See, she has run up white flags. The officers are waving their handkerchiefs."
At this several of the officers started to leave their posts and rush on deck, but Lieutenant Jones in his stentorian voice sang out: "Stand by your guns, and, lieutenants, be ready to resume firing at the word. Dr. Garnett, see how those poor fellows yonder are coming on. Mr. Littlepage, tell Paymaster Semple to have a care of the berth deck and use every precaution against fire. Mr. Hasker, call away the cutter's crew and have them in readiness. Mr. Lindsey [to the carpenter], sound the well, examine the forehold, and report if you find anything wrong." Such was Catesby Ap. R. Jones, the executive officer of the Merrimac.
USS Congress burning When it was fully evident that there was to be a suspension of hostilities, and these details had all been attended to, several of the officers went to stand beside Buchanan on the upper grating.
The whole scene was changed. A pall of black smoke hung about the ships and obscured the clean-cut out lines of the shore. Down the river were the three frigates St. Lawrence, Roanoke, and Minnesota, also enveloped in the clouds of battle that now and then reflected the crimson lightnings of the god of war. The masts of the Cumberland were protruding above the water. The Congress presented a terrible scene of carnage.
The gunboats Beaufort and Raleigh were signaled to take off the wounded and fire the ship. They were driven away by sharpshooters on shore, who suddenly turned their fire on us, notwithstanding the white flag of the Congress. Buchanan fell, severely wounded in the groin.
As he was being carried below he said to Executive Officer Jones, "Plug hot shot into her and don't leave her until she's afire. They must look after their own wounded, since they won't let us" a characteristic command when it is remembered that his own brother, McKean Buchanan, was paymaster of the Congress and might have been numbered among the wounded.
We had kept two furnaces for the purpose of heating hot shot. They were rolled into the flames on a grating, rolled out into iron buckets, hoisted to the gun deck, and rolled into the guns, which had been prepared with wads of wet hemp. Then the gun would be touched off quickly and the shot sent on its errand of destruction.
Leaving the Congress wrapped in sheets of flame, we made for the three other frigates. The St. Lawrence and Roanoke had run aground, but were pulled off by tugs and made their escape. The Minnesota was not so fortunate, but we drew twenty-three feet of water and could not get near enough to destroy her, while our guns could not be elevated owing to the narrow embrasures, and their range was only a mile; so we made for our moorings at Sewall's Point.
All evening we stood on deck watching the brilliant display of the burning ship. Every part of her was on fire at the same time, the red-tongued flames running up shrouds, masts, and stays, and extending out to the yard-arms. She stood in bold relief against the black background, lighting up the Roads and reflecting her lurid lights on the bosom of the now placid and hushed waters. Every now and then the flames would reach one of the loaded cannon and a shell would hiss at random through the darkness. About midnight came the grand finale. The magazines exploded, shooting up a huge column of firebrands hundreds of feet in the air, and then the burning hulk burst asunder and melted into the waters, while the calm night spread her sable mantle over Hampton Roads.
Mr Robert C Leicht
The Monitor Center
- Ironclads Before the Civil War
- Historical Chronology:1855-1860
- Historical Chronology:1861
- Historical Chronology:1861 Continued
- Historical Chronology:1862
- Strategic Significance of Hampton Roads
- USS Merrimack/CSS Virginia
- USS Monitor
- Ironclads Trivia
- Life on Board
- Battle of Hampton Roads: March 8
- The Monitor Boys
- Battle of Hampton Roads: March 9
- The Loss of the Monitor: Francis Butts
- Battle of Hampton Roads Trivia
- Sinking Chronology from First-hand Accounts
- Eyewitness Accounts:Samuel Dana Greene
- Discovery and Recovery
- Eyewitness-Accounts: H. Ashton Ramsay
- Eyewitness-Accounts:R.E. Colston
- The Men of the Cumberland By Rev. R.T.S. Lowell
- About the Exhibit
- Monitor Blog
- Monitor Expeditions
Visit our online searchable image collection, where you can license
and purchase reproductions.
Museum news & events sent
to your inbox!