EARLY in 1862 a war-ship made her appearance at Hampton Roads, off Fortress Monroe, in Virginia, which was destined to change the naval battles of the future. The vessel was a confederate ironclad called the Merrimac. An old ship had been altered by having a wedge-shaped prow of cast-iron project about two feet in front of the bow, and covering a wooden roof which sloped to the water-line with two iron plates of armor. A battery of ten guns was placed inside the ironclad. So constructed, it was thought that the new type of war-ship could readily destroy the old-fashioned Union frigates, and herself escape without injury.
Five Union ships, the fifty gun frigate Congress, the twenty-four gun sloop Cumberland, and the frigates St. Lawrence, Roanoke, and Minnesota, lay near Newport News on march 8, 1862, when about noon the new ship Merrimac suddenly appeared from the James River. The three nearest frigates, believing they could easily defeat the stranger, immediately slipped their cables, but, as all were of deep draft, shortly grounded in shallow water. The two other Union ships, together with the shore batteries, opened fire upon the strange black vessel that looked like a crocodile or some unknown sea-monster. The their surprise the shot bounced off the sloping back of the ironclad like rubber balls, and seemed to do no damage.
Lieutenant George Upham Morris was in command of the Cumberland, and as he saw the strange ship advancing to attack him he ordered broadsides of shot and shell poured at her. The heavy fire had no effect. The monster steamed on, and rammed her iron prow into the wooden side of the Cumberland. The frigate sank in fifty-five minutes, carrying down officers and crew, one hundred and twenty-five in all. Her flag was still flying as she sank, and her guns fired even when the water had reached the gunwales.
The Merrimac then turned to the Congress, which had made for the shore, and riddled her with shots until she caught on fire, and an exploding powder-magazine destroyed her. The Merrimac finally retired at nightfall to the shelter of the Confederate batteries, having spread consternation through the Union fleet.
Next morning, however, when the victorious Merrimac steamed out to destroy the three remaining frigates, she found that a tiny vessel named the Monitor had arrived at Hampton Roads over night, and was ready to meet her. This Monitor showed only a thin edge of surface above the water-line, and an iron turret revolved in sight, from which two guns could be fired in any direction. As the Northern papers said, this ship looked like a "cheese-box on a raft."
The Goliath of a Merrimac advanced to meet the David of a Monitor, and a three hours' battle followed. Neither could force the other to surrender, but finally the larger ironclad began to leak and had to withdraw, leaving the little Monitor in possession of the Roads.
This marked the beginning of the change from wooden ships-of-war to ironclads.
|This introduction to "The Cumberland" is reprinted from Historic Poems and Ballads. Ed. Rupert S. Holland. Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs & Co., 1912.