Steam Frigate USS Minnesota Battle Report

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Report of Captain Van Brunt, U.S. Navy, commanding the steam frigate USS Minnesota.

U.S.S. MINNESOTA, March 10, 1862.

SIR: On Saturday, the 8th instant, at 12:45 p .m., three small steamers, in appearance, were discovered rounding Sewell's Point, and as soon as they came into full broadside view I was convinced that one was the iron-plated steam battery Merrimack, from the large size of her smoke pipe. They were heading for Newport News, and I, in obedience to a signal from the senior officer present, Captain J. Marston, immediately called all hands, slipped my cables, and got underway for that point to engage her. While rapidly passing Sewell's Point the rebels there opened fire upon us from a rifle battery, one shot from which going through and crippling my mainmast. I returned the fire with my broadside guns and forecastle pivot. We ran without further difficulty within about 1 miles of Newport News, and there, unfortunately, grounded. The tide was running ebb, and although in the channel, there was not sufficient water for this ship, which draws 23 feet. I knew that the bottom was soft and lumpy, and endeavored to force the ship over, but found it was impossible so to do.

At this time it was reported to me that the Merrimack had passed the frigate Congress and run into the sloop of war Cumberland, and in fifteen minutes after I saw the latter going down by the head. The Merrimack then hauled off, taking a position, and about 2:30 p. m. engaged the Congress, throwing shot and shell into her with terrific effect, while the shot from the Congress glanced from her iron-plated sloping sides without doing any apparent damage. At 3:30 p m. the Congress was compelled to haul down her colors. Of the extent of her loss and injury you will be informed from the official report.

At 4 p.m. the Merrimack, Jamestown, and Patrick Henry bore down upon my vessel. Very fortunately the iron battery drew too much water to come within a mile of us. She took a position on my starboard bow, but did not fire with accuracy, and only one shot passed through the ship's bow.

The other two steamers took their position on my port bow and stern, and their fire did most damage in killing and wounding men, inasmuch as they fired with rifled guns; but with the heavy gun that I could bring to bear upon them I drove them off, one of them apparently in a crippled condition. I fired upon the Merrimack with my pivot 10-inch gun without apparent effect, and at 7 p.m. she too hauled off and all three vessels steamed toward Norfolk. The tremendous firing of my broadside guns had crowded me farther upon the mud bank, into which the ship seemed to have made for herself a cradle. From 10 p. m., when the tide commenced to turn flood until 4 a. m., I had all hands at work with steam tugs and hawsers, endeavoring to haul the ship off of the bank, but without avail, and, as the tide had then fallen considerably, I suspended further operations at that time. At 2 a. m. the iron battery Monitor, Commander [Lieutenant] John L. Worden, which had arrived the previous evening at Hampton Roads, came alongside and reported for duty, and then all on board felt that we had a friend that would stand by us in our hour of trial.

At 6 a. m. the enemy again appeared, coming down from Craney Island, and I beat to quarters, but they ran past my ship and were heading for Fortress Monroe, and the retreat was beaten to allow my men to get something to eat. The Merrimack ran down near to the Rip Raps, and then turned into the channel through which I had come. Again all hands were called to quarters, and when she approached within a mile of us I opened upon her with my stern guns and made signal to the Monitor to attack the enemy. She immediately ran down in my wake, right within the range of the Merrimack, completely covering my ship as far as was possible with her dimensions, and, much to my astonishment, laid herself right alongside of the Merrimack, and the contrast was that of a pigmy to a giant. Gun after gun was fired by the Monitor, which was returned with whole broadsides from the rebels with no more effect, apparently, than so many pebblestones thrown by a child. After a while they commenced maneuvering, and we could see the little battery point her bow for the rebels, with the intention, as I thought, of sending a shot through her bow porthole; then she would shoot by her and rake her through her stern. In the meantime the rebel was pouring broadside after broadside, but almost all her shot flew over the little submerged propeller, and when they struck the bomb-proof tower the shot glanced off without producing any effect, clearly establishing the fact that wooden vessels can not contend successfully with ironclad ones; for never before was anything like it dreamed of by the greatest enthusiast in maritime warfare. The Merrimack, finding that she could make nothing of the Monitor, turned her attention once more to me. In the morning she had put a 11-inch shot under my counter near the water line, and now, on her second approach, I opened upon her with all my broadside guns and 10-inch pivot a broadside which would have blown out of the water any timber-built ship in the world. She returned my fire with her rifled bow gun with a shell, which passed through the chief engineer's stateroom, through the engineer's mess room, amidships, and burst in the boatswain's room, tearing four rooms all into one in its passage, exploding two charges of powder, which set the ship on fire, but it was promptly extinguished by a party headed by my first lieutenant; her second went through the boiler of the tugboat Dragon, exploding it and causing some consternation on board my ship for the moment, until the matter was explained. This time I had concentrated upon her an incessant fire from my gun deck, spar deck, and forecastle pivot guns, and was informed by my marine officer, who was stationed on the poop, that at least fifty solid shot struck her on her slanting side without producing any apparent effect. By the time she had fired her third shell the little Monitor had come down upon her, placing herself between us, and compelled her to change her position, in doing which she grounded, and again I poured into her all the guns which could be brought to bear upon her. As soon as she got off she stood down the bay, the little battery chasing her with all speed, when suddenly the Merrimack turned around and ran full speed into her antagonist. For a moment I was anxious, but instantly I saw a shot plunge into the iron roof of the Merrimack; which surely must have damaged her. For some time after the rebels concentrated their whole battery upon the tower and pilot house of the Monitor, and soon after the latter stood down for the Fortress Monroe, and we thought it probable that she had exhausted her supply of ammunition or sustained some injury. Soon after the Merrimack and the two other steamers headed for my ship, and I then felt to the fullest extent my condition. I was hard and immovably aground, and they could take position under my stem and rake me. I had expended most of my solid shot and my ship was badly crippled and my officers and men were worn out with fatigue, but even then, in this extreme dilemma, I determined never to give up the ship to the rebels, and, after consulting my officers, I ordered every preparation to be made to destroy the ship after all hope was gone to save her. On ascending the poop deck I observed that the enemy's vessels had changed their course and were heading for Craney Island. Then I determined to lighten the ship by throwing overboard my 8 inch guns, hoisting out provisions, starting water, etc. At 2 p.m. I proceeded to make another attempt to save the ship, by the use of a number of powerful tugs and the steamer S. R. Spaulding, kindly sent to my assistance by Captain Tallmadge, quartermaster at Fortress Monroe, and succeeded in dragging her half a mile distant, and then she again was immovable, the tide having fallen. At 2 a.m. this morning I succeeded in getting the ship once more afloat, and am now at anchor opposite Fortress Monroe.

It gives me great pleasure to say that during the whole of these trying scenes the officers and men conducted themselves with great courage and coolness.

I have the honor to be, your very obedient servant,

G. J. VAN BRUNT,
Captain, U.S. Navy, Commanding Frigate Minnesota.

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): 10-12.

Recommended Reading: Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack. From Publishers Weekly: The Monitor-Merrimack showdown may be one of the Civil War’s most overhyped chestnuts: the two ships were by no means the first ironclads, and their long awaited confrontation proved an anticlimactic draw, their cannon fire clanging harmlessly off each other’s hulls. Still, the author of this lively history manages to bring out the story’s dramatic elements. Nelson, author of the Revolution at Sea series of age-of-sail adventure novels, knows how to narrate a naval crisis. He gives a harrowing account of the Merrimack’s initial onslaught, in which it destroyed two wooden Union warships in a bloody and chaotic battle the day before the Monitor arrived, and of the Monitor’s nightmarish final hours as it foundered in a storm at sea. Continued below…

Equally arresting is his retelling of the feverish race between North and South to beat the other side to the punch with their respective wonder ships. He delves into every aspect of the ships’ innovative design and construction, and draws vivid portraits of the colorful characters who crafted them, especially the brilliant naval architect John Ericsson, one of that epic breed of engineer-entrepreneurs who defined the 19th century. The resulting blend of skillful storytelling and historical detail will please Civil War and naval engineering buffs alike.

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Recommended Reading: Last Flag Down: The Epic Journey of the Last Confederate Warship. From Publishers Weekly: Thriller writer Baldwin (The Eleventh Plague et al.) joins forces with the prolific Powers (coauthor of Flags of Our Fathers et al.) to come up with a fast-reading Civil War true adventure saga centered a on young CSA navy lieutenant. The 24-year-old Conway Whittle, an ancestor of Baldwin's, was assigned as first lieutenant and executive officer on the Confederate raider Shenandoah late in the war. Continued below...

The ship sailed from London disguised as a merchant vessel and underwent a memorable cruise round the globe, attacking and destroying Yankee merchant ships and whalers. Whittle and company kept up their daring sea raids until August of 1865, when they learned that the war had ended five months earlier. The ship returned to England, having flown the last Confederate flag at sea in defiance of the U.S. Baldwin and Powers recount their tale in a lively, evocative style and may be forgiven for being overly fond of their hero. Whittle, they say, "was as good a man as history seems able to produce: a warrior of courage inconceivable to most people; a naval officer of surpassing calm and intelligence; a seeker after Christian redemption; a steadfast lover; a student of human nature; a gentle soul; a custodian of virtue."
 

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.

 

Recommended Reading: Lincoln and His Admirals (Hardcover). Description: Abraham Lincoln began his presidency admitting that he knew "little about ships," but he quickly came to preside over the largest national armada to that time, not eclipsed until World War I. Written by prize-winning historian Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals unveils an aspect of Lincoln's presidency unexamined by historians until now, revealing how he managed the men who ran the naval side of the Civil War, and how the activities of the Union Navy ultimately affected the course of history. Continued below…

Beginning with a gripping account of the attempt to re-supply Fort Sumter--a comedy of errors that shows all too clearly the fledgling president's inexperience--Symonds traces Lincoln's steady growth as a wartime commander-in-chief. Absent a Secretary of Defense, he would eventually become de facto commander of joint operations along the coast and on the rivers. That involved dealing with the men who ran the Navy: the loyal but often cranky Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, the quiet and reliable David G. Farragut, the flamboyant and unpredictable Charles Wilkes, the ambitious ordnance expert John Dahlgren, the well-connected Samuel Phillips Lee, and the self-promoting and gregarious David Dixon Porter. Lincoln was remarkably patient; he often postponed critical decisions until the momentum of events made the consequences of those decisions evident. But Symonds also shows that Lincoln could act decisively. Disappointed by the lethargy of his senior naval officers on the scene, he stepped in and personally directed an amphibious assault on the Virginia coast, a successful operation that led to the capture of Norfolk. The man who knew "little about ships" had transformed himself into one of the greatest naval strategists of his age. A unique and riveting portrait of Lincoln and the admirals under his command, this book offers an illuminating account of Lincoln and the nation at war. In the bicentennial year of Lincoln's birth, it offers a memorable portrait of a side of his presidency often overlooked by historians.

 

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.

 

Recommended Reading: Naval Campaigns of the Civil War. Description: This analysis of naval engagements during the War Between the States presents the action from the efforts at Fort Sumter during the secession of South Carolina in 1860, through the battles in the Gulf of Mexico, on the Mississippi River, and along the eastern seaboard, to the final attack at Fort Fisher on the coast of North Carolina in January 1865. This work provides an understanding of the maritime problems facing both sides at the beginning of the war, their efforts to overcome these problems, and their attempts, both triumphant and tragic, to control the waterways of the South. The Union blockade, Confederate privateers and commerce raiders are discussed, as is the famous battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack. Continued below…

An overview of the events in the early months preceding the outbreak of the war is presented. The chronological arrangement of the campaigns allows for ready reference regarding a single event or an entire series of campaigns. Maps and an index are also included. About the Author: Paul Calore, a graduate of Johnson and Wales University, was the Operations Branch Chief with the Defense Logistics Agency of the Department of Defense before retiring. He is a supporting member of the U.S. Civil War Center and the Civil War Preservation Trust and has also written Land Campaigns of the Civil War (2000). He lives in Seekonk, Massachusetts.

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