CSS Virginia destroys USS Cumberland and USS Congress

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Ironclad CSS Virginia destroys frigate USS Congress and sloop of war USS Cumberland

CSS Virginia destroys USS Cumberland and USS Congress, 8 March 1862

At mid-day on 8 March 1862, CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack, and persistently misidentified as "Merrimac") steamed down the Elizabeth River from Norfolk and entered Hampton Roads. It was the newly converted ironclad's trial trip, a short voyage that would deeply influence naval opinion at home and abroad. (See CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack): Homepage.)
 
Anchored on the opposite side of Hampton Roads were five major Union warships: the frigate Congress (Report of the Frigate USS Congress) and large sloop of war Cumberland (Report of the Frigate USS Cumberland) off Newport News, and the frigates St. Lawrence, Minnesota and Roanoke a few miles to the east, off Fortress Monroe. All were powerful conventional wooden men o'war. Minnesota and Roanoke, of the same type as the pre-war Merrimack, had auxiliary steam propulsion, but the other three were propelled by sails alone, and thus were at the mercy of wind conditions and the availability of tugs. As Virginia crossed the Roads, looking (as one witness described her) "like the roof of a very big barn belching forth smoke as from a chimney on fire", the Union ships called their crews to quarters and prepared for action. Turning west, the Confederate ironclad shrugged off steady fire from ships and shore batteries as she steamed past the Congress. Firing her heavy cannon into both ships, she pushed her ram into Cumberland's starboard side. The stricken ship began to sink, though her gun crews kept up a heavy fire as she went down. In the words of one of Cumberland's enemies, "No ship was ever fought more gallantly."

CSS Virginia rams USS Cumberland, 8 March 1862
CSS Virginia rams USS Cumberland, 8 March 1862.jpg
U.S. Naval Historical Center

Virginia backed clear, tearing off most of her iron ram, and slowly turned toward the Congress, which had gone aground while trying to get underway. Confederate gunners put several raking shells into the frigate's hull, and maintained a relentless fire as they came alongside. After an hour's battle, in which Congress' crew suffered heavy casualties, she raised the white flag of surrender. As the Confederates began to take off her crew, several men on both sides were hit by gunfire from ashore, among them the Virginia's Commanding Officer, Captain Franklin Buchanan, who ordered Congress set afire with hot shot. She blazed into the night, exploding as the fire reached her powder magazines about two hours after midnight.

Virginia had meanwhile made a brief demonstration in the direction of the big steam frigate Minnesota, which had also gone aground. However, with the day's light about to fade, the ironclad turned back toward the southern side of Hampton Roads and anchored. Though two of her guns had their muzzles shot off and most external fittings were swept away or rendered useless, she had dramatically demonstrated the horrible vulnerability of unarmored wooden warships when confronted with a hostile ironclad, and was still battleworthy. Her casualties, less than two-dozen, were removed and command passed from the injured Buchanan to Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, who would take Virginia out the next day to deal with the Minnesota. (See Battle of Hampton Roads: Official Reports and USS Monitor Versus CSS Virginia (aka Monitor - Merrimack Battle).

USS Congress.jpg
U.S. Naval Historical Center

At dawn on 9 March 1862, CSS Virginia prepared for renewed combat. The previous day, she had utterly defeated two big Federal warships, Congress and Cumberland, destroying both and killing more than 240 of their crewmen. Today, she expected to inflict a similar fate on the grounded steam frigate Minnesota and other enemy ships, probably freeing the lower Chesapeake Bay region of Union seapower and the land forces it supported. Virginia would thus contribute importantly to the Confederacy's military, and perhaps diplomatic, fortunes.
 
However, as they surveyed the opposite side of Hampton Roads, where the Minnesota and other potential victims awaited their fate, the Confederates realized that things were not going to be so simple. There, looking small and low near the lofty frigate, was a vessel that could only be USS Monitor, the Union Navy's own ironclad, which had arrived the previous evening after a perilous voyage from New York. Though her crew was exhausted and their ship untested, the Monitor was also preparing for action.

Virginia battle with Congress and Cumberland
Virginia battles with Congress and Cumberland.jpg
Virginia battles with Congress and Cumberland

Undeterred, Virginia steamed out into Hampton Roads. Monitor positioned herself to protect the immobile Minnesota, and a general battle began. Both ships hammered away at each other with heavy cannon, and tried to run down and hopefully disable the other, but their iron-armored sides prevented vital damage. Virginia's smokestack was shot away, further reducing her already modest mobility, and Monitor's technological teething troubles hindered the effectiveness of her two eleven-inch guns, the Navy's most powerful weapons. Ammunition supply problems required her to temporarily pull away into shallower water, where the deep-drafted Virginia could not follow, but she always covered the Minnesota.
 
Soon after noon, Virginia gunners concentrated their fire on Monitor's pilothouse, a small iron blockhouse near her bow. A shell hit there blinded Lieutenant John L. Worden, the Union ship's Commanding Officer, forcing another withdrawal until he could be relieved at the conn. By the time she was ready to return to the fight, Virginia had turned away toward Norfolk.

Merrimack battle with Cumberland & Congress Map
Merrimack battle with Cumberland Congress Map.jpg
Merrimack battle with Cumberland & Congress Map

The first battle between ironclad warships had ended in stalemate, a situation that lasted until Virginia's self-destruction two months later. However, the outcome of combat between armored equals, compared with the previous day's terrible mis-match, symbolized the triumph of industrial age warfare. The value of existing ships of the line and frigates was heavily discounted in popular and professional opinion. Ironclad construction programs, already underway in America and Europe, accelerated. The resulting armored warship competition would continue into the 1940s, some eight decades in the future.

Reference: Department of the Navy, Naval History & Heritage Command, 805 Kidder Breese SE, Washington Navy Yard, Washington D.C., 20374-5060

Recommended Reading: Ironclad Down: USS Merrimack-CSS Virginia from Design to Destruction (Hardcover). Description: The result of more than fifteen years of research, Ironclad Down is a treasure trove of detailed information about one of history s most famous vessels. Describing the fascinating people--Stephen Russell Mallory, John Mercer Brooke, John Luke Porter, et al.--who conceived, designed and built one of the world's first ironclads as well as describing the ship itself, Carl Park offers both the most thoroughly detailed, in-depth analysis to date of the actual architecture of the Virginia and a fascinating, colorful chapter of Civil War history.

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Recommended Reading: Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads. Description: William N. Still's book is rightfully referred to as the standard of Confederate Naval history. Accurate and objective accounts of the major and even minor engagements with Union forces are combined with extensive background information. This edition has an enlarged section of historical drawings and sketches. Continued below...

Mr. Still explains the political background that gave rise to the Confederate Ironclad program and his research is impeccable. An exhaustive literature listing rounds out this excellent book. While strictly scientific, the inclusion of historical eyewitness accounts and the always fluent style make this book a joy to read. This book is a great starting point.
 

Recommended Reading: Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War (Studies in Maritime History Series). From Library Journal: From the profusion of books about Confederate blockade running, this one will stand out for a long time as the most complete and exhaustively researched. …Wise sets out to provide a detailed study, giving particular attention to the blockade runners' effects on the Confederate war effort. Continued below...

It was, he finds, tapping hitherto unused sources, absolutely essential, affording the South a virtual lifeline of military necessities until the war's last days. This book covers it all: from cargoes to ship outfitting, from individuals and companies to financing at both ends. An indispensable addition to Civil War literature.
 

Recommended Reading: The Rebel Raiders: The Astonishing History of the Confederacy's Secret Navy (American Civil War). From Booklist: DeKay's modest monograph pulls together four separate stories from the naval aspects of the American Civil War. All have been told before but never integrated as they are here. The first story is that of James Bulloch, the Confederate agent who carefully and capably set out to have Confederate commerce raiders built in neutral England. Continued below...

The second is that of the anti-American attitudes of British politicians, far more extreme than conventional histories let on, and U.S. Ambassador Charles Francis Adams' heroic fight against them. The third is a thoroughly readable narrative of the raider Alabama and her capable, quirky captain, Raphael Semmes. The final story is about the Alabama claims--suits for damages done to the U.S. merchant marine by Confederate raiders, which became the first successful case of international arbitration. Sound and remarkably free of fury, DeKay's commendable effort nicely expands coverage of the naval aspects of the Civil War.
 

Recommended Reading: The Confederate Navy in Europe. Description: The Confederate Navy in Europe is an account of the Confederate officers and officials who went on missions to Britain and France to buy ships for the CS Navy, and to support CSN operations on the high seas, such as commerce raiding. Spencer tells the story of how some officers rose to the occasion (some did not) and did a lot with limited resources. Continued below...

The majority of the ships ordered never reached America. Shipbuilding takes time, and as the war dragged on the European powers were persuaded by Confederate battlefield misfortunes and US diplomatic pressure that it was most expedient to deny the sales of such innovative designs as ocean-going ironclads. Like other out-manned and out-gunned powers, the CSA did have to resort to ingenuity and innovation.
 

Recommended Reading: A History of the Confederate Navy (Hardcover). From Publishers Weekly: One of the most prominent European scholars of the Civil War weighs in with a provocative revisionist study of the Confederacy's naval policies. For 27 years, University of Genoa history professor Luraghi (The Rise and Fall of the Plantation South) explored archival and monographic sources on both sides of the Atlantic to develop a convincing argument that the deadliest maritime threat to the South was not, as commonly thought, the Union's blockade but the North's amphibious and river operations. Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen Mallory, the author shows, thus focused on protecting the Confederacy's inland waterways and controlling the harbors vital for military imports. Continued below…

As a result, from Vicksburg to Savannah to Richmond, major Confederate ports ultimately were captured from the land and not from the sea, despite the North's overwhelming naval strength. Luraghi highlights the South's ingenuity in inventing and employing new technologies: the ironclad, the submarine, the torpedo. He establishes, however, that these innovations were the brainchildren of only a few men, whose work, although brilliant, couldn't match the resources and might of a major industrial power like the Union. Nor did the Confederate Navy, weakened through Mallory's administrative inefficiency, compensate with an effective command system. Enhanced by a translation that retains the verve of the original, Luraghi's study is a notable addition to Civil War maritime history. Includes numerous photos.

 

Recommended Reading: Wolf of the Deep: Raphael Semmes and the Notorious Confederate Raider CSS Alabama (Hardcover). From Publishers Weekly: When you think of Confederate Civil War heroes, the names Lee, Jackson, Stuart and Longstreet, among others, come to mind. Historian Fox (The Mirror Makers, et al.) makes a convincing case that Confederate Navy Capt. Raphael Semmes should be added to that list, at least because of his brilliant seafaring skills. Fox's fact-filled, cleanly written account of Semmes's life focuses on his amazing 22-month stint as captain of the most famous Confederate privateer, the Alabama. Under Semmes's command, the Alabama roamed the world's waterways for nearly two years, seizing or sinking nearly 70 Union merchant schooners, whalers and other commercial ships to counteract the Yankee blockade of Southern ports, until June 1864, when the Alabama was sunk by the U.S.S. Kearsage. Continued below...

Born in 1809 into a slave-owning, tobacco-farming family in southern Maryland, Semmes was orphaned at an early age, grew up in Washington, D.C. and joined the U.S. Navy at 17, remaining a staunch Southern partisan who espoused racist views and strongly believed in slavery. After serving without any particular distinction for 35 years, he made his mark with the Confederate navy. This well-conceived and executed military biography will have extra appeal for those who are familiar with nautical terms.

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