William Keeler's Letters to His Wife
(Note: In his letter Keeler refers to the CSS Virginia by the Union name of Merrimac.)
As we neared the land, clouds of smoke could be seen hanging over it in the direction of the Fortress (Monroe), & as we approached still nearer little black spots could occasionally be seen suddenly springing into the air, remaining stationary for a moment or two & then gradually expanding into a large white cloud-these were shells & tended to increase the excitement. As the darkness increased, the flashes of guns lit up the distant horizon & bursting shells flashed in the air.
We soon took a pilot & then learned that the Merrimac was out & making terrible havoc among the shipping-how slow we seemed to move-the moments were hours. Oh, how we longed to be there-but our iron hull crept slowly on & the monotonous clank, clank, of the engine betokened no increase of its speed. No supper was eaten that night as you may suppose.
As we neared the harbor the firing slackened & only an occasional gun lit up the darkness-vessels were leaving like a covey of frightened quails & their lights danced over the water in all directions.
We stopped by the Roanoke frigate [Captain John Marston] & rec'd orders to proceed at once to Newport News to protect the Minnesota [Captain Henry Van Brunt] which was aground there, so we went up & anchored near her. Capt. Worden went on board & on his return we heard for the first time of the havoc made by the Merrimac & the terrible excitement prevailing among the shipping in the harbor & among the troops ashore.
Everything on board of us had been prepared for action as far as possible as we came up the harbor & the report every little while through the night that the Merrimac was coming kept all hands to quarters through the night. No one slept.
The first rays of morning light saw the Minnesota surrounded by tugs into which were being tumbled the bags & hammocks of the men & barrels & bags of provisions, some of which went into the boats & some into the water, which was covered with barrels of rice, whiskey, flour, beans, sugar, which was thrown overboard to lighten the ship.
One of the little tugs [USS Dragon] alongside had the engine & the whole inside blown out by the explosion of a shell in the previous day's fight.
After getting up our anchor we steamed slowly along under the towering side of the Minnesota. The men were clambering down into the smaller boats-the guns were being thrown overboard & everything seemed in confusion. Her wooden sides shewed terrible traces of the conflict.
As a light fog lifted from the water it revealed the Merrimac with her consorts lying under Sewall's Point. The announcement of breakfast brought also the news that the Merrimac was coming & our coffee was forgotten.
Capt. Worden inquired of the Minnesota what he intended to do.- "If I cannot lighten my ship off I shall destroy her," Capt. Van Brunt replied.- "I will stand by you to the last if I can help you," said our Capt.- "No Sir, you cannot help me," was the reply.
The idea of assistance or protection being offered to the huge thing by the little pygmy at her side seemed absolutely ridiculous & I have no doubt was so regarded by those on board her, for the replies came down curt & crispy. As the Merrimac approached, we slowly steamed out of the shadow of our towering friend no ways daunted by her rather ungracious replies.
Every one on board of us was at his post, except the doctor & myself who having no place assigned us at the immediate working of the ship were making the most of our time in taking good look at our still distant but approaching foe. A puff of smoke arose from her side & a shell howled over out heads & crashed into the side of the Minnesota. Capt. Worden, who was on deck, came up & said more sternly than I ever heard him speak before, "Gentlemen, that is the Merrimac, you had better go below."
We did not wait [for] a second invitation but ascended the tower & down the hatchway, Capt. W. following. The iron hatch was closed over the opening & all access to us cut off. As we passed down through the turret the gunners were lifting a 175 lb. shot into the mouth of one of our immense guns. "Send them that with our compliments, my lads," says Capt. W.
A few straggling rays of light found their way from the top of the tower to the depths below which was dimly lighted by lanterns. Every one was at his post, fixed like a Statue, the most profound silence reigned-if there had been a coward heart there its throb would have been audible, so intense was the stillness.
Soon came the report of a gun, then another & another at short intervals, then a rapid discharge. Then a thundering broadside & the infernal howl [I can't give it a more appropriate name] of the shells as they flew over our vessel was all that broke the silence & made it seem still more terrible.
Mr. Green says, "Paymaster ask the Capt. if I shall fire." The reply was, "Tell Mr. Green not to fire till I give the word, to be cool & deliberate, to take sure aim & not waste a shot."
O, what a relief it was, when at the word, the gun over my head thundered out its challenge with a report which jarred our vessel, but it was music to us all.
The fight had been opened by the Merrimac firing on the Minnesota who replied by the broadside we first heard. As we lay immediately between the two, we had the full benefit of their shot- the sound of them at least, which if once heard will never be forgotten I assure you. It would not quiet the nerves of an excitable person, I think.
Until we fired, the Merrimac had taken no notice of us, confining her attentions to the Minnesota. Our second shot struck her & made the iron scales rattle on her side. She seemed for the first time to be aware of our presence & replied to our solid shot with grape & canister which rattled on our iron decks like hail stones.
One of the gunners in the turret could not resist the temptation when the port was open for an instant to run out his head, he drew it in with a broad grin. "Well," says he, "the d-d fools are firing canister at us."
The same silence was [again] enforced below that no order might be lost or misunderstood.
The vessels were now sufficiently near to make our fire effective & our two heavy pieces were worked as rapidly as possible, every shot telling- the intervals being filled by the howling of the shells around & over us, which was now incessant.
The men at the guns had stripped themselves to their waists & were covered with powder & smoke, the perspiration falling from them like rain.
Below, we had no idea of the position of our unseen antagonist, her mode of attack, or her distance from us, except what was made known through the orders of the Capt.
"Tell Mr. Green that I am going to bring him on our Starboard beam close along side."
"That was a good shot, went through her water line."
"Don't let the men expose themselves, they are firing at us with rifles."
"That last shot brought the iron from her sides."
"She's too far off now, reserve your fire till you're sure."
"If you can elevate enough, try the wooden gun boat."
"You struck." (We learned afterward that that shot killed four men & wounded the Captain.)
"They're going to board us, put in a round of canister."
"Can't do it," replies Mr. Green, "both guns have solid shot."
"Give them to her then."
Bang goes one of the guns.
"You've made a hole through her, quick give her the other."
Snap goes the primer.
"Why don't you fire↓"
"Can't do it, the cartridge is not rammed home."
"Depress the gun & let the shot roll overboard."
"It won't do it."
In the meantime two or three more primers snap.
"How long will it take to get the shot out of that gun↓"
"Can't tell, perhaps 15 minutes."
And we hauled off, as the papers say, "to let our guns cool."
We were soon ready for her again as the order from Capt. W. indicated-"Port bow close aboard, load & fire as fast a possible."
"A splendid shot, you raked them then."
"Look out now they're going to run us down, give them both guns."
This was the critical moment, one that I had feared from the beginning of the fight-if she could easily pierce the heavy oak beams of the Cumberland, she surely could go through the 1/2 inch iron plates of our lower hull.
A moment of terrible suspense, a heavy jar nearly throwing us from our feet-a rapid glance to detect the expected gush of water-she had failed to reach us below the water & we were safe.
The sounds of the conflict at this time were terrible. The rapid firing of our own guns amid the clouds of smoke, the howling of the Minnesota's shells, which was firing whole broadsides at a time just over our heads [two of her shot struck us], mingled with the crash of solid shot against our sides & the bursting of shells all around us. Two men had been sent down from the turret, who were knocked senseless by balls striking the outside of the turret while they happened to be in contact with the inside.
At this time a heavy shell struck the pilot house- I was standing near, waiting an order, heard the report which was unusually heavy, a flash of light & a cloud of smoke filled the house. I noticed the Capt. stagger & put his hands to his eyes-I ran up to him & asked if he was hurt.
"My eyes," says he, "I am blind."
With the assistance of the Surgeon I got him down & called Lieut. Greene from the turret. A number of us collected around him, the blood was running from his face, which was blackened with the powder smoke.
He said, "Gentlemen I leave it with you, do what you think best. I cannot see, but do not mind me. Save the Minnesota if you can."
The quartermaster at the wheel [Williams], as soon as the Capt. W. was hurt, had turned from our antagonist & we were now some distance from her. We held a hurried consultation & "fight" was the unanimous voice of all.
Lieut. Greene took Capt. W.'s position & our bow was again pointed for the Merrimac. As we neared her she seemed inclined to haul off & after a few more guns on each side, Mr. Greene gave the order to stop firing as she was out of range & hauling off. We did not pursue as we were anxious to relieve Capt. W. & have more done for him than could be done aboard.
Our iron hatches were slide back & we sprang out on deck which was strewn with fragments of the fight. Our foe gave us a shell as a parting fire which struck just over our heads & exploded about 100 feet beyond us.
In a few minutes we were surrounded by small steamers & boats from Newport News, the Fortress, the various men of war, all eager to learn the extent of our injuries & congratulate us on our victory. They told us of the intense anxiety with [which] the conflict was witnessed by thousands of spectators from the shipping & from the shore & their astonishment was no less on learning that though we were somewhat marked we were uninjured & ready to open fire again.
The battle commenced at 1/2 past 8 A.M. & we fired the last gun 10 minutes past 12 (P.) M.Capt. W. was taken off in a tug boat, in charge of an acquaintance to go to Washington.
Our Stewards went immediately to work & at our usual dinner hour meal was on the table, much to the astonishment of visitors who came expecting to see a list of killed & wounded & a disabled vessel, instead of which was a merry party around the table enjoying some good beef steak, green peas, &c.
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