Screw Frigate USS Roanoke Battle Report

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Report of Captain Marston, U.S. Navy, senior officer present, aboard the screw frigate USS Roanoke.

U.S.S. ROANOKE,
Hampton Roads, March 9, 1862.
 

SIR: I have the honor to inform you that yesterday at 1 o'clock one of the lookout vessels reported by signal that the enemy was coming out. I immediately ordered the Minnesota to get underway, and as soon as the two tugs appointed to tow this ship came alongside I slipped our cable.

The Merrimack was soon discovered passing out by Sewell's Point, standing up toward Newport News, accompanied by several small gunboats. Every exertion was made by us to get all the speed on the Roanoke that the two tugs were capable of giving her, but in consequence of our bad steerage we did not get ahead as rapidly as we desired to do. The Merrimack went up and immediately attacked the Congress and Cumberland, but particularly the latter ship, which was hid from us by the land. When about 7 or 8 miles from Fortress Monroe the Minnesota grounded. We continued to stand on, and when we came in sight of the Cumberland we saw that she had careened over, apparently full of water. The enemy, who had been joined by two or three steamers from James River, now devoted themselves exclusively to the Congress, but she being aground could bring but few guns to bear on them, and at ten minutes before 4 o'clock we had the mortification of seeing her haul down her flag. I continued to stand on till we found ourselves in 3 fathoms water, and was on the ground astern. Finding that we could go on no farther I ordered one of our tugs to tow us round, and as soon as the Roanoke's head was pointed down the bay, and I found she was afloat again, I directed the tugs to go to the assistance of the Minnesota, under the hope that with two others which had accompanied her they would be able to get her off, but up to the time that I now write have not succeeded in doing so.

At 5 o'clock the frigate St. Lawrence, in tow of the Cambridge, passed us, and not long after she also grounded, but by the aid of the Cambridge she was got afloat again, and being unable to render any assistance to the Minnesota, came down the harbor. In passing the batteries at Sewell's Point, both going and returning, the rebels opened their fire on us, which was returned from our pivot guns, but the range was too great for them, while the enemy's shot [fell] far beyond us. One shot went through our foresail, cutting away two of our shrouds, and several shells burst over and near the ship, scattering their fragments on the deck.

Between 7 and 8 o'clock we discovered that the rebels had set fire to the Congress, and she continued to burn till 1 o'clock, when she blew up. This was a melancholy satisfaction to me, for as she had fallen into the hands of the enemy it was far better to have her destroyed than that she should be employed against us at some future day. It was the impression of some of my officers that the rebels hoisted the French flag, but I could not make it out. At 8 o'clock I heard that the Monitor had arrived, and soon after Lieutenant Commanding Worden came on board and I immediately ordered him to go to the Minnesota, hoping that she would be able to keep off an attack on the Minnesota till we had got her afloat again. This morning the Merrimack renewed the attack on the Minnesota, but she found, no doubt greatly to her surprise, a new opponent in the Monitor. The contest has been going on during most of the day between these two armored vessels, and most beautifully has the little Monitor sustained herself showing herself capable of great endurance.

I have not received any official account of the loss of the Congress and Cumberland, but no doubt shall do so, when it will be transmitted to you.

I should do injustice to this military department did I not inform you that every assistance was freely tendered to us, sending five of their tugs to the relief of the Minnesota, and offering all the aid in their power.

I would also beg leave to say that Captain Poor, of the Ordnance Department, kindly volunteered to do duty temporarily on board this ship, and from whom I have received much assistance. I did hope to get this off by this day's mail, but I have been so constantly employed that I fear I shall not do so.

Very respectfully, your obedient servant,

JOHN MARSTON,
Captain and Senior Officer.

Hon. GIDEON WELLES,
Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D.C.

Source: Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Series 1, vol. 7 (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1898): 8-9.

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: A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron over Wood. Description: This landmark book documents the dramatic history of Civil War ironclads and reveals how ironclad warships revolutionized naval warfare. Author John V. Quarstein explores in depth the impact of ironclads during the Civil War and their colossal effect on naval history. The Battle of Hampton Roads was one of history's greatest naval engagements. Over the course of two days in March 1862, this Civil War conflict decided the fate of all the world's navies. It was the first battle between ironclad warships, and the 25,000 sailors, soldiers and civilians who witnessed the battle vividly understood what history would soon confirm: wars waged on the seas would never be the same. Continued below…

About the Author: John V. Quarstein is an award-winning author and historian. He is director of the Virginia War Museum in Newport News and chief historical advisor for The Mariners' Museum's new USS Monitor Center (opened March 2007). Quarstein has authored eleven books and dozens of articles on American, military and Civil War history, and has appeared in documentaries for PBS, BBC, The History Channel and Discovery Channel.

 

Recommended Reading: Confederate Ironclad vs Union Ironclad: Hampton Roads 1862 (Duel). Description: The Ironclad was a revolutionary weapon of war. Although iron was used for protection in the Far East during the 16th century, it was the 19th century and the American Civil War that heralded the first modern armored self-propelled warships. With the parallel pressures of civil war and the industrial revolution, technology advanced at a breakneck speed. It was the South who first utilized ironclads as they attempted to protect their ports from the Northern blockade. Impressed with their superior resistance to fire and their ability to ram vulnerable wooden ships, the North began to develop its own rival fleet of ironclads. Eventually these two products of this first modern arms race dueled at the battle of Hampton Roads in a clash that would change the face of naval warfare. Continued below…

Fully illustrated with cutting-edge digital artwork, rare photographs and first-person perspective gun sight views, this book allows the reader to discover the revolutionary and radically different designs of the two rival Ironclads - the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor - through an analysis of each ship's weaponry, ammunition and steerage. Compare the contrasting training of the crews and re-live the horrors of the battle at sea in a war which split a nation, communities and even families. About the Author: Ron Field is Head of History at the Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1982 and taught history at Piedmont High School in California from 1982 to 1983. He was associate editor of the Confederate Historical Society of Great Britain, from 1983 to 1992. He is an internationally acknowledged expert on US Civil War military history, and was elected a Fellow of the Company of Military Historians, based in Washington, DC, in 2005. The author lives in Cheltenham, UK.

 

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Each ship's size and time and place of construction are listed along with particulars of naval service. The author provides historical details that include actions fought, damage sustained, prizes taken, ships sunk, and dates in and out of commission as well as information about when the ship left the Navy, names used in other services, and its ultimate fate. 140 photographs, including one of the Confederate cruiser Alabama recently uncovered by the author further contribute to this indispensable volume. This definitive record of Civil War ships updates the author's previous work and will find a lasting place among naval reference works.

 

Recommended Reading: Ironclad, by Paul Clancy (Hardcover). Description: The true story of the Civil War ironclad that saved the Union Navy only to sink in a storm--and its remarkable salvage 140 years later. Ironclad tells the saga of the warship USS Monitor and its salvage, one of the most complex and dangerous in history. The Monitor is followed through its maiden voyage from New York to Hampton Roads, its battle with the Merrimack, and its loss off Cape Hatteras. At the same time, author Paul Clancy takes readers behind the scenes of an improbable collaboration between navy divers and cautious archaeologists working 240 feet deep. Clancy creates a memorable, fascinating read, including fresh insights into the sinking of the Union ship and giving the answer to an intriguing forensic mystery: the identities of the two sailors whose bones were found in the Monitor's recovered turret. Continued below…

Its one great battle in the spring of 1862 marked the obsolescence of wooden fighting ships and may have saved the Union. Its terrible end in a winter storm off Cape Hatteras condemned sixteen sailors to a watery grave. And the recovery of its 200-ton turret in August 2002 capped the largest, most complex and hazardous ocean salvage operation in history. In Ironclad, Paul Clancy interweaves these stories so skillfully that the cries of drowning Union sailors sound a ghostly undertone to the cough of diesel generators and the clanging of compression-chamber doors on a huge recovery barge. The din and screech of cannonballs on iron plating echo beneath the hum of electronic monitors and the garbled voices of Navy divers working at the edge of human technology and endurance in water 240 feet deep.

Clancy studied the letters and diaries of the Monitor's long-ago sailors, and he moved among the salvage divers and archaeologists in the summer of 2002. John L. Worden, captain of the Monitor, strides from these pages no less vividly than the remarkable Bobbie Scholley, the woman commander of 160 Navy divers on an extreme mission. Clancy writes history as it really happens, the improbable conjunction of personalities, ideas, circumstances, and chance. The Union navy desperately needed an answer to the Confederacy's ironclad dreadnought, and the brilliantly eccentric Swedish engineer John Ericsson had one. And 140 years later, when marine archaeologists despaired of recovering any part of the Monitor before it disintegrated, a few visionaries in the U.S. Navy saw an opportunity to resurrect their deep-water saturation diving program. From the breakneck pace of Monitor's conception, birth, and brief career, to the years of careful planning and perilous labor involved in her recovery, Ironclad tells a compelling tale of technological revolution, wartime heroism, undersea adventure, and forensic science. This book is must-reading for anyone interested in Civil War and naval history, diving and underwater salvage, or adventures at sea.

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