“The Cumberland Crew”


The crew of the Cumberland, attacked by the CSS Virginia/Merrimac, fight back as best they can, though their shot bounces off the Confederate's armored hull. The Cumberland fights until it is rammed and sunk


To tell this song from "The Cumberland," refer to this text from the broadside version of 1887:

Oh, shipmates, come gather and join in my ditty,

Of a terrible battle that happened of late;

Let each Union tar shed a sad tear of pity

When he thinks of the once-gallant Cumberland's fate.

The eighth day of March told a terrible story,

And many a brave tar to this world bid adieu,

Yet our flag it was wrapped in a mantle of glory

By the heroic deeds of the 'Cumberland' crew."

The first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, March 8, 1862, has been called the worst day in the history of the United States Navy prior to Pearl Harbor (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 148. For the references cited in this note, see the Bibliography near the end).

The _Monitor_ and the _Virginia/Merrimack_ are often referred to as the "first ironclads," that is, the first ships with iron armor. This is absolutely false; Preston, p. 15, reports that France and Britain had fiddled with wrought iron ships as early as the 1840s, but temporarily abandoned the idea because the iron splintered too much when hit by solid shot.

Several things changed the equation. The Crimean War caused such terrific casualties that it became vital to build armored floating batteries, technological progress made metal less brittle -- and the introduction of shell-firing naval guns meant that the old wooden walls were just too vulnerable to fire; a way had to be found to make ships safe against burning. The French were the first out of the gate, producing in 1859 _La Gloire_, a wooden ship fitted with iron plating (Preston, pp. 16-17). She was ugly and slow, but at least one hot shot could not sink her.

Britain promptly went one better, with _Warrior_ -- the first all-iron warship ever built (Paine, p. 566).

Nelson, p. 3,notes that the combatants at Hampton Roads were not even the first *American* ironclads. The Confederates at New Orleans had tried to build one, the _Louisiana_ (though she was still incomplete when the city fell; McPherson, p. 420), and on the Tennessee front, the Union had built "Pook's Turtles," light ironclads designed for work in shallow waters. They had a lot of problems, but they fought at Forts Henry and Donelson in February 1862 (Nelson,p. 183, describes them as the first ironclads in Federal service, and praises their performance, though Woodworth, pp. 76-77, 90-91, in giving details of their activity notes that the light armor of these vessels could not always stop a heavy cannonball). Nelson, p. 144, argues that the very first ironclad in action was in fact the Confederate ram _Manasses_, which went into action at the mouth of the Mississipi in 1861 (though it wasn't much of an action).

But neither the British nor the French ironclads had ever fired a gun in anger in 1862, and while the American ships had, they had not engaged other ships of the same type. The Battle of Hampton Roads was the first *battle* of self-powered ironclad vessels. What's more, _La Gloire_ and _Warrior_ were basically conventional designs, designed to fight under steam but cross large distances under sail, and both fired standard broadsides. The American designs would be radically different. (In the Confederate case, largely by necessity; Nelson, p. 162, reports that the Confederate navy had concluded that "[t]here was no possibility of building such a ship in the Confederacy.")

From the moment the Civil War began, both sides tried for control of the sea and rivers. The Union, which controlled the American navy, striving to blockade the Confederacy so that it could not sell its cotton or gain raw materials from outside, while the southerners tried to break the blockade.

Given Union naval superiority, the Confederacy had no hope of winning a pitched battle on water. Rather, they had to try to nibble a little bit here and there -- or they had to come up with a superweapon. Holzer/Mulligan, p. 23, reports that the Confederates briefly tried to buy _La Gloire_ or one of its sisters. The French, who still had only a handful of ironclads, weren't selling. The Confederates would have to do it on their own.

And where better to do it than in Chesapeake Bay? It controlled the sea approach to both Richmond and Washington. If the Confederates could somehow clear out the Union navy from the bay's outlet near Hampton Roads, it could change the course of the war.

And, in that quest, the Union had given the Confederacy a great gift: the Gosport naval yard in Norfolk, Virginia, its chief naval base. Not only were there naval facilities there, there were even some salvagable ships. When Virginia seceded, the commander of the yard, 67-year-old Charles Stewart McCauley (an alcoholic, according to Nelson, p. 37, and he certainly sounds senile), had feared the Confederates, and ordered a premature and disorderly abandonment of Norfolk (Holzer/Mulligan, pp. 23-24; even Wood-BL, a Confederate officer, says that Norfolk was "hurriedly abandoned by the Federals, why no one could tell"; Wood-BL, p. 98). The one vessel to escape the chaos was the U.S.S. _Cumberland_, the subject of this song, since she was properly manned and able to sail (Nelson, p. 53)

Not so fortunate was the USS _Merrimack_ (correct spelling). She was one of the newest and strongest vessels in the U. S. navy, having been built in 1854 and commissioned in 1855 (Paine, pp. 557-558; Nelson, p.36, gives her year of commission as 1856). But her engines were incredibly balky; they had been overhauled in 1857 (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 25), and by 1861 were out of commission again -- the main reason she was rotting in port (Nelson, p. 37, says she was "all but disassembled," and adds on p. 141 that "the engine was so bad that the [United States] navy had decided to condemn it". H. Ashton Ramsey, who had been an engineer on _Merrimac_ before the war and then went south to become the new vessel's chief engineer, called them "radically defective"; Nelson, p. 140). The navy tried to rescue the ship (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 60), but McCauley, confused and fearful of provoking the locals, interfered with the repair attempts.

Official Washington made several attempts to get the ship away (this is the primary subject of Nelson, pp. 36-50). But the government did not want to provoke the state of Virginia, which was teetering on the brink of secession. That, combined with McCauley's inept attempt to prevent trouble, eventually gave rise to a situation in which _Merrimack_ was able to sail, but had no crew and no weapons. No one seemed able to figure out what to do from there. An expedition was finally sent to Norfolk, but it arrived just a few hours too late to save the ship or the naval yard (Nelson, p. 50). By then, the (mostly secessionist) workers at the yard had quit (Nelson, p. 51), so the few naval personnel could no longer accomplish any real repairs. It is just possible that the naval yard could have been saved -- the _Cumberland_, after all, was in the waters of Hampton Roads, and had enough heavy guns to make any infantly attacker think twice (Nelson, p. 52), and another heavy ship, the _Pawnee_, was soon to arrive. But McCauley had already ordered the several ships in the yard, destroyed. (When Commodore Pauling of the _Pawnee_ heard about that, he had McCauley relieved; Nelson, p. 55.) Still, those ships were of relatively little value. It was _Merrimack_ that everyone wanted.

By then, the ship was settling in the water; she too had been scuttled. At this point, confusion in command took hold. Paulding, who had hoped to save the naval yard, concluded that McCauley had given too much away; the yard could not be defended (a debatable point, given the weakness of Confederate forces in the area; Nelson, pp. 63-64). So he ordered its destruction instead.

This was done rather ineptly. Quite a few buildings were damaged or destroyed, but there wasn't enough time to destroy most of the heavy guns (Nelson, p. 56). And, in a blatantly stupid move, _Merrimack_ was one of the things set afire as she sank -- which meant that the rising waters put out the flames before they could reach the lower decks (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 62). Instead of being destroyed, the ship's hull and engines were largely intact (as balky as ever -- Wood-BL says "We could not depend on them for six hours at a time" -- but intact). The ship's rig was gone, and the engines suffered further damage from salt water -- but they could be used. In particular, the propeller shaft remained whole (Nelson, p. 95) -- one of the trickiest thing for the Confederates to fabricate.

"If the federals had simply burned _Merrimack_ as she floated on her waterline, and not scuttled her first, there would have been nothing for the Confederates to salvage. But as it was, the water flooding the hull protected the lower part of the vessel from the flames, and left it virtually intact" (Nelson, p. 95). In a way, the damage actually helped the Confederacy: It was cheaper to rebuild the _Merrimack_ without masts than with. And a ship without masts could mount a heavier broadside and was less vulnerable to damage.

A rebuild was easily undertaken because the attempts to render the yard unusable had been a complete failure. As the officer who occupied it noted, "Only an inconsiderable portion of the property, with the exception of the ships, was destroyed" (Nelson, p. 67). "The U. S. Navy left for the southerners 130 gun carriages and over a thousand guns, from 11-inch to 32-pounders. They left most of the machinery in repairable condition. They left two thousand barrels of gunpowder, thousands of cartridges, thousands and thousands of shot and shells" (Nelson, p. 68). The yard did end up somewhat debilitated, but that was mostly the fault of the Confederates themselves, engineers would complain that the yard had been stripped of both essential equipment and personnel (Nelson, p. 159).

It was quickly decided to rebuild _Merrimack_. After some discussion, the Confederates settled on a design that "reminded observers of a barn floating with only its roof above water" (McPherson, p. 373). In simplest terms, they cut off the top of the ship right about at the waterline, put a sheathe of iron over it as a deck, then built a small iron citadel, with sides sloped at 36 degrees, on top (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 24). The citadel wasn't the whole ship, but it was all that could be seen at a distance; hence the barn-like apearance.

Armoring the ship proved a major challenge. The major structural element of the armored citadel was in fact wood (several feet of it, running in different directions and of several different types), but this had to be plated with iron -- a difficult item to obtain, since the total amount of iron needed was very large -- nearly 800 tons, according to Holzer/Mulligan, p. 25, or even 1000 tons, accoring to Nelson, p. 109. I've often seen it stated that the _Merrimack_ was plated with rail iron (e.g. Foote, p. 255) -- which gave me the impression that someone covered her sides with sections of track. Not quite -- but the Confederates took up a lot of railroad iron (Nelson, p. 109) and melted it down so the Tredegar Iron Works (the only place in the Confederacy capable of producing the plates) could make the plating. It was a desperate measure that would prove costly later on, as the Confederate rails wore out. And even so, it took months for all the armor to be rolled; the first deliveries were in October 1861, and the last did not arrive until February 1862 (Holzer/Mulligan, pp. 25-26).

The ship almost didn't make it into action; workmen put in long hours, seven days a week (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 69), but the Confederacy was not an industrial nation. (Just to give an illustration of how hard this was for them, there are no photographs at all of _Virginia_, and no authoritative plans; scholars aren't even sure how many pilothouses she had; Nelson, p. 142).

The problems with creating materials meant that frantic changes had to be made once tests showed that the 1-inch-thick iron plates originally specified were not strong enough; 2-inch plates had to be substituted. Even the Tredegar Iron Works -- the only place in the Confederacy that was up to dealing with all that metal -- had trouble with that; the plates were hard to roll, and the holes for bolts could not be punched; they had to be drilled (Nelson, pp. 112-113). Even transporting the stuff was almost impossible. But Tredegar rebuilt its facilities, and eventually they worked out the transport, too. The designers were constantly fiddling with the design, as well. They even created a new type of rifled gun (Nelson, pp. 109-110). But finally they managed to put her in the water.

She wasn't a healthy ship; her ventilation was terrible, and the citadel on top had no roof except a grating, so it was open to rain; her officers reported that dozens of crewmen were sick on most days (Nelson, p. 195. Her opponent the _Monitor_ was also very bad in that regard; Greene-BL, p. 118, declares that "Probably no ship ever devised was so uncomfortable for her crew"). Still, she floated, and she could fight.

The result was renamed CSS _Virginia_, but is often (perversely) called the _Merrimac_ (note the different spelling). The confusion is partly the Confederate fault; several of the new ship's officers (including even her commander Franklin Buchannan -- Nelson, p. 180 -- and her executive officer, Catesby ap Roger Jones, who commanded her on March 9) had served aboard her in the U. S. Navy and tended to keep the old name. And some of them misspelled it _Merrimac_ (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 58). According to Nelson, p. 193, the name _Virginia_ didn't take hold until about the time she was relaunched.

Whatever they called her, she had one major advantage. As Foote says, "What she lacked in looks, and she was totally lacking there, she made up for in her ability to give and take a pounding" (p. 255).

Had she taken much longer, Union general George B. McClellan's Peninsular Campaign might have stopped work on her before she even went to sea. Plus her design was wrong: Her displacement had been miscalculated, so that her hull rode too high, exposing the unarmored portions that were supposed to be below the waterline (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 69). Ballast was added, but as she burned shot and coal, she would rise and expose her underbelly. Plus her ram, which was her most deadly weapon, was not attached very securely. She also suffered from having a crew with inadequate sea experience (Holzer/Mulligan, pp. 69-70; Nelson, pp. 180-181, tells how Lt. Wood, of Wood-BL, had to scour army artillery units to find gunners).

It wasn't until March 4, 1862 that the new ship was ready for a shakedown cruise (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 71). Even her guns had hardly been proved -- they were a new design, but her officers has been alotted only 300 pounds of gunpowder to test it! (Nelson, p. 177; Wood-BL, p. 103, reports that at one point on her voyage, her guns would stop firing for fear of wasting powder. To put this powder-pinching in perspective, she would sail with some 18,000 pounds of powder; Nelson, p. 211). But her commander, Franklin Buchanan, decided to make that test run a trial by fire -- though he didn't even tell most of his crew until the trip was underway. This even though workmen had still been on the ship that very morning and much work still had to be done: Her weapons to prevent boarding had not been fitted,she needed shutters over most of her gunports (Nelson, p. 213), and the guns themselves were untested (Nelson, p. 7), her rudder was giving problems, and her internal arrangements were incomplete (Konstam, pp. 16-17).

(We might note incidentally that, technically speaking, Buchanan wasn't her captain; _Virginia_ never had a captain. This is because Buchanan was junior to some other naval officers who had headed south, and who considered themselves more deserving of being ship's captains. The Navy department circumvented this by making Buchanan a commodore; Nelson, pp. 195-196. This made him technically a fleet commander, not a ship commander -- but in practice he commanded _Virginia_ as well as the whole James River squadron. Buchanan's career was full of such contradictions -- he had resigned from the United States navy when he thought Maryland would secede, but it didn't leave the Union. He tried to rescind his resignation, but this understandably was not allowed, so he went to the Confederacy; Nelson, pp. 198-199.)

Bad weather on March 6 and 7 forced Buchanan to wait until March 8 (Holzer/Mulligan, p.72). But when he did, he came out with a bang.

It was quickly discovered that _Virginia_ was hideously hard to handle. One of her officers reported that the best possible speed she could make was five knots (Wood-BL, p. 100), and that was with everything perfect: smokestacks intact and drawing well, the ship level, the crew at full strength. Other estimates vary; Nelson, p. 8, estimates her speed at seven knots before battle damage affected her smokestack -- though a comment on p. 108 implies that her propeller was too high in the water to be very efficient. No matter which calculation is right, she was not fast. And it took her at least half an hour to turn about (Wood-BL, p. 100, says "it took from thirty to forty minutes to turn" -- and it also required a lot of room, because of _Virginia's_ deep draught. Most of Hampton Roads was so shallow that she literally could not turn about. By comparison, the _Monitor_, which could make eight knots, could turn in four minutes and fifteen seconds; Nelson, p. 227). And she drew so much water (22 feet) that she couldn't really maneuver at all in the James River; it was too shallow for her rudder to have much effect (Holzer/Mulligan, pp. 72-73). Plus there were many places in Hampton Roads which were accessible to other ships where she simply could not sail -- to some extent Union ships could avoid her (or at least her ram) by putting a shoal between them.

To be sure, the Confederates had other ships in the area -- Konstam, pp. 18-19, lists five other Confederate vessels based in Norfolk and on the James River, two of which, though armed, served mostly as tugs to get the _Virginia_ to where she would fight (Nelson, p. 10); most of the rest would sortie with her. But the five combined mounted only about two dozen guns (the biggest, _Patrick Henry_, had ten, but was a sidewheel steamer, which made her very vulnerable; Nelson, p. 216); on their own, they were not even as strong as one of the Union blockading ships. They did fight, and take casualties (Nelson, p. 233) and in one case fairly severe damage (Nelson, p. 247); indeed, the _Jamestown_ and _Patrick Henry_ did most of the slight damage to the _Minnesota_ (Nelson, p. 249).. But they were sort of like cavalry raiders hiding behind an infantry screen: more irritant than anything else; they could only fight because, if they had to, they could hide behind the big ironclad. It was essentially the _Virginia_ against the entire Union fleet.

As long as _Virginia_ couldn't be hurt, it hardly mattered. Maybe she couldn't catch the enemy ships, but they could not survive where she was.

When she came out on March 8, there were five major representatives of the Union navy in Hampton Roads: The _Cumberland_ (26 guns, under Captain William Radford), the _Congress_ (52 guns; under Lieutenant Joseph Smith), the _Minnesota_ (47 guns; Captain Gershon Van Brunt), the _Roanoke_ (42 guns; Captain John Marston, though her engines were temporarily disabled; Nelson, p. 234), and the _St. Lawrence_ (50 guns; Captain H. Purveyance) (for the ship's armaments, see Holzer/Mulligan, p. 73; for their skippers, Konstam, p. 22). _Roanoke_ and _Minnesota_ were in fact sisters of the _Merrimack_ (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 58. Nelson, p. 73, notes the irony that Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory was chair of the Senate committee which approved these ships, and had been one of the senators most responsible for their construction). Many of them had been on blockade duty for quite a while; Nelson, p. 11, says that _Cumberland_ and _Congress_ had been at Hampton Roads since at least November.

The ironclad's first shots went into _Congress_, which was closest (Nelson, p. 14), but _Virginia_ fired on her only in passing. She was heading for the _Cumberland_, which had been laid down in 1826 and finally finished in 1842 as a 50-gun frigate; she was razeed (i.e. had her upper deck taken off) in 1856 and converted to a 24-gun sloop-of-war (though the guns were of heavier weight than those of the _Congress_, making her potentially more deadly to the _Virginia_; Nelson, p. 14). She was exclusively a sailing ship; without engines (Paine, p. 127) -- and there was no wind on the day of the Battle of Hampton Roads (Nelson, p. 236), so she was effectively unable to move. Indeed, both _Cumberland_ and _Congress_ were thought so vulnerable that tentative orders had been given to withdraw them from Hampton Roads (Nelson, p. 11).

When the _Virginia_ came out, _Cumberland_ was in bad shape to fight -- it was washing day (Hoehling, p. 65, Nelson, p. 12), and her captain William Radford was away on a court-martial board at the time, leaving the ship in the hands of Lieutenant George U. Morris (Hoehling, p. 66).

Hoehling, p. 67, says that 121 men died on the _Cumberland_ -- roughly a third of the ship's crew of 376 (Nelson, p. 239).

Still, she did most of the damage to the _Virginia_. The ironclad's guns tore _Cumberland_ to shreds, but then the Confederate ship decided to ram. The big blade tore a fatal hole in the _Cumberlnd_, causing her to sink quickly, with her flag famously still flying. She almost took the _Virginia_ with her; the ship rocked so violently when the ram went in that it nearly suberged the ironclad's nose (Nelson, p. 18), and one Federal officer thought he could have sunk her simply by dropping an anchor onto her as _Cumberland_ went down (Nelson, pp. 229-230). But Captain Buchanan had been clever; he had ordered the engines reversed before impact (Nelson, pp. 14, 18), and she was able to pull free.

Wood-BL, written by a man who served on the _Virginia_ during the fight, describes her end on p. 101: "[T]he _Cumberland_ continued to fight, though our ram had opened her side wide enough to drive in a horse and cart. soon she listed to port and filled rapidly. The crew were driven by the advancing water to the spar-deck, and there worked her pivot-guns until she went down with a roar, the colors still flying. No ship ever fought more gallantly."

Greene-BL, telling of arriving in Hampton Roads (without a pilot, so great was the hurry to get to the battle site) reports, "Near us, too, at the bottom of the river, lay the _Cumberland_, with her silent crew of brave men, who died while fighting their guns to the water's edge, and whose colors were still flying at the peak."

As it turned out, that heroic fight was not without its effect. _Cumberland's_ earlier broadsides had done no damage (Nelson, p. 14, says that a hundred heavy guns were fired at _Virginia_ without causing her any harm), but the collision tore off the _Virginia's_ ram (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 87), and the shots fired by the crew after they were rammed caused much harm to the _Virginia's_ upper works -- including her smokestack (Nelson, p. 229), further reducing the Confederate vessel's speed (since it reduced the draw through her furnaces; "after the loss of the smoke-stack, Mr.Ramsey, chief engineer, reported that the draft was so poor that it was with great difficulty he could keep up steam" -- WoodBL, p. 103). Hoehling, p. 68, adds that her engineers noted structural problems as well, incluing loose plates and broken beams. Nelson, p. 230, reports that several of _Virginia's_ guns were damaged by the three broadsides _Cumberland_ fired after being mortally wounded. On p. 255, Nelson adds this catalog of damage whih she had sustained by the end of the day: her surgeon would count 98 dents in her ironworks (though the yard would list the number as 97, according to Nelson, p. 301, with only six of her outer plates of iron broken and none of her inner plates); her flagstaff was down, her "less substantial gear ha been annihilated," and her bow timber was twisted and leaky as a result of the loss of the ram

The damage was significant but did not in any way threaten _Virginia's_ buoyancy; there was no reason for her to give up the fight. She turned to destroy the USS _Congress_. The Federal ship was handled very badly -- apparently her captain ran her aground on purpose (Hoehling, p. 66) to save her from being rammed. But that made her almost useless offensively: Even without engines, she was more maneuverable than _Virginia_ and might have been able to "cross the T" on the Confederate vessel (though Nelson, p.12, notes that most of her veteran sailors had been paid off; it might have been hard for her inexperienced crew to handle her in battle). Instead, she had made herself a big fat target, and was unable to fire her broadside at the Confederate ship (Paine, p. 119).

The Confederates happily took advantage. The "crossed the T" on _Congress_, pouring their fire into her stern (Nelson, p. 237). Eventually, after her captain had been killed, the _Congress_ surrendered (Nelson, p. 238), but because she was aground in shallow water, _Virginia_ could not take her in tow. Total casualties on the _Congress_ were 136 killed, wounded, and missing out of 434 aboard (Nelson, p. 239).

Shore batteries continued to fire on _Virginia_ after the _Congress_ hauled down her flag (Nelson, p. 243, though he notes that the Federals actually caused as many casualties among their own surrendered sailors as the enemy), and Buchanan was injured while firing back at them; he would not be aboard for the next day's big fight (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 87). The Confederates would also claim that _Congress_ fired after putting up the white flag (Nelson, p. 244, though he thinks the claim false). Buchanan then orderered hot shot to be fired into the _Congress_, setting her afire (Wood-BL,p. 102); she blew up in the night (Hoehling, p. 68, says he did this in response to being wounded; he decided to take revenge. But destroying the _Congress_ was reasonable; if he did not destroy her, the Federals were better equipped to take her away than the Confederates. His only fault was in destroying her before the sailors got off).

Having dealt with the two weakest vessels in the blockade, _Virginia_ then turned to deal with the _Minnesota_, which had also gone aground. But her extreme draught of 22 feet kept her from reaching the _Minnesota_, so _Virginia_ headed back into port to prepare to fight the next day. Overnight, strenuous attempts were made to free the _Minnesota_, but she moved only a short distance before getting stuck again. There was every reason to think that the _Virginia_ could destroy her the next day. There was panic in Hampton Roads, in Newport News, and in Washington once word arrived by cable -- Secretary of War Stanton, who was prone to fits of near-insanity, started sending telegraphing "the sky is falling" messages to cities all along the East Coast (Nelson, p. 264).

Except that, overnight, the _Monitor_ arrived an changed everything. The _Monitor_ arrived at Hampton Roads the night of March 8/9, and took position to protect the grounded _Minnesota_. Small as it was, it inspired little confidence in the Federal naval officers (Hoehling, p. 73). Events were to prove them wrong.

Early in the war, the Union was confident in the strength of its navy; it researched ironclads, but did very little about constructing seagoing iron ship. They started to have second thoughts, according to Holzer/Mulligan, pp. 126-127, when the _Trent_ affair made it possible that there might be war with Britain. The Americans knew perfectly well that their wooden walls couldn't fight _Warrior_ and her sisters.

When word came of the building of the _Virginia_, the urgency increased. There were, at that time, only two serious designs on the table, which would later become the _New Ironsides_ and the _Galena_ (McPherson, p. 374; Konstam, p. 20. For the latter disastrous design, see the notes to "Old Johnston Thought It Rather Hard"). _New Ironsides_ (which in some ways resembled the _Virginia_, save that the armored citadel covered the entire hull) was a successful design, but could not be ready in time. _Galena_ also probably would take too long. But Cornelius Bushnell, the shipbuilder on the _Galena_, had called in the brilliant but cantankerous Swedish inventor John Ericsson to look over his designs (the Navy board had not quite trusted the _Galena's_ stability, and demanded more calculations, which Bushnell could not perform but Ericsson could; Nelson, p. 102-103), and it turned out that Ericsson had his own easy-to-build ironclad concept on the shelf -- he had designed it for the French in the Crimean War, but after that war ended, Napoleon III lost interest (Nelson, p. 104).

After complicated machinations, the navy department ordered the construction of the _Monitor_ (Holzer/Mulligan, pp. 26-29; Nelson, p. 146, notes that, despite the wrangling, the urgency was such that the contract was signed only eight days after Bushnell talked to Ericsson. The flip side is, the contractors were on the hook if the ship failed; the navy would only pay if she proved a successful design; Nelson, pp. 150-151. The Navy's delays in paying the amounts it had promised caused some construction delays; Nelson,p 188).

The _Monitor_ was in many ways the weakest of the three designs; it was to prove almost unseaworthy (with only 18 inches of freeboard -- that is, height above water -- waves could easily swamp it; Konstam, p. 21), and it involved so many new ideas that naturally some of them failed to work. The pilothouse would prove severe weakness; it was almost too small for the three sailors it needed to hold (captain, pilot, and helmsman), and yet it was large enough that the guns could not be fired near it; her internal communications systems easily broke down (Greene-BL, p. 115). Many changes would be made in future designs of this type.

But Ericsson claimed it could be built in ninety days. He was close to right; construction was started October 25, 1861, and she was launched 93 days later (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 30. Nelson, p. 146, states that claim was that she could be finished in a hundred days. Presumably one estimate counts the time needed to write the contract, the other does not. Nelson's count on p. 190 is that it took 118 days from contract signing to launch, or 105 working days. Clearly not what was promised -- but still pretty amazing.).

If the _Virginia_ looked like a barn, the _Monitor_ was the "tin can on a shingle" (Catton, p. 201): "A heavily armored turret carrying two 11-inch guns... on a long, armored hullthat had no more than a foot or two of freeboard; there was a little knob of a pilothouse forward and a smokestack aft, and nothing more."

There are a lot of what-ifs about the battle of the two ironclads. Neither ship was finished, and at the time they met, _Virginia_ was both slower (due to the damage to her stacks) and less potent (due to the loss of her ram) than before the action against the _Cumberland_.

The situation on _Monitor_ was similar. The ship itself was intact, but a lot of rough edges were left (literally -- e.g. the edges of the gunholes in the turrets had not been smoothed; Nelson, p. 188). In addition, the crew was inexperienced; it had been decided to take only volunteers, and few of the men aboard had enough service time to rate even the designation of Ordinary Seaman (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 32; Konstam, p. 22). Plus the ship had run into a storm on the way down to Hampton Roads (the same storm that had delayed the _Virginia's_ sortie), which nearly caused the _Monitor_ to go under. The heavy seas had started to flood the ship, the smokestacks poured water into the engineering spaces, and the ventilators went out in the wet (Greene-BL, pp. 112-113. Ericsson, against the advice of experienced seamens, had insisted on vent tubes that didn't extend far enough above the water; Nelson, p. 23). As a result, the blowers failed as the belts got wet, water hit the fireboxes, the engine started leaking fumes, and the pumps went out. (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 41, points out that the entire operation of the ship depended on the ventilation system, and it proved insufficient for the task. Improved designs would eventually largely cure these problems, but of course the _Monitor_ was the first of its kind. In warmer weather, the bad ventilation would also cause the ship to become almost unendurably hot; Holzer/Mulligan, p. 49).

The crew, seasick and breathing bad air, ended up extremely unwell and barely kept the ship afloat, so they were exhausted going into the big battle (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 33). Finally, the armament of their ship was not what was wanted. This was not what Ericsson had wanted; his original proposal was for two short 15 inch guns, but these were not available and were considered too big for the turret anyway; Nelson, pp. 222-223. Ericsson's next proposal was for 12-inch guns; none were to be had. They settled for 11-inch guns -- and even those had not been tested; the ship was ordered to fire undersized powder charges (15 pounds instead of thiry), significantly reducing the penetrating power of her guns (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 31) -- the more so since her cannon were not rifled (Nelson, p. 223). This may have cost her her chance at outright victory; Wood-BL, p. 103, reports that shots at point-blank range from the _Monitor_ "forced the side in bodily two or three inches." With a full charge of powder, it is possibly that some might have penetrated.

The flip side is, the Confederate cannon had no solid shot to fire (another consequence of the inadequate industrial facilities of the Confederacy; Nelson, pp. 177-178), and might have cracked the _Monitor_ had she been able to fire shot rather than shell.

There were also command and control problems on _Monitor_. Except when the gun ports were opened, the turret crew of the _Monitor_ had no way to view the outside world. They had to fire and then ask the crew in the pilothouse whether they had hit. (Ericsson's plan had been to leave the gun ports open and rotate the turret away during reloading; Nelson, p. 274. But the turret machinery proved sticky enough -- the seawater let in by the storm had damaged it; Nelson, pp. 274-275 --that the crew eventually gave up trying to start and stop it, and just left it rotating, firing when the _Virginia_ was in sight. There was little though of really aiming the thing; they just relied on the fact that they were close enough to be almost sure to hit; Nelson, p. 279) And the speaking tube connecting the turret to the pilothouse either didn't work or was damaged, so the turret crew had to keep sending runners forward (Holzer/Mulligan, pp. 44-45; Nelson, p. 271).

Aiming was a problem for other reasons. Because the turret was closed off, they had no way of knowing where the guns were pointing relative to the axis of the ship; they had chalked markings on the floor, but these were soon rubbed off (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 45).

On March 9, the _Virginia_, now commanded by executive officer Catesby ap Roger Jones (the nephew of Thomas ap Catesby Jones, who had occupied California during the Mexican War, and an ordnance expert highly esteemed by both sides; Hoehling, p. 72), headed back for the _Minnesota_. At first the _Virginia_ tried to attend to both _Minnesota_ and _Monitor_, but finding the _Monitor_ much harder to deal with, the Confederate ship quickly gave the _Monitor_ her full attention.

It was quickly evident that neither ship had weapons capable of breaching the other's armor. At best, they might get a ball into a firing shutter, or maybe get a lucky hit below the waterline or at a vulnerable seam or the like. The _Virginia_ tried to ram (though she no longer had her ram beak), but the _Monitor_ was much faster and more maneuverable; the impact was trivial (Hoehling, p. 76). So the two ships did little except throw iron at each other for several hours.

In the case of the _Virginia_, she soon gave up on firing at the _Monitor's_ turret and started firing on the pilothouse. That was too small a target, though, so she decided to go back to hitting at _Minnesota_ -- only to run aground (Nelson, p. 281). It was a dangerous fix; if the _Virginia_ couldn't move, _Monitor_ could finally pick a spot to attack her. Fortunately for the Confederate ship, the Union officers did not choose wisely (Nelson, p. 282). The Confederates almost burst their boilers, but they finally worked the _Virginia_ free (Nelson, p. 283). After that, the _Virginia_ stopped worrying about _Minnesota_ and went back to slugging at the _Monitor_. She made an attempt to ram, despite having lost her ram bow, but the only real effect of this was to make the leak in her bow worse (Nelson, p. 285).

Eventually a lucky shot from _Virginia_ hit the _Monitor's_ pilothouse, injuring commander John Worden though it luckily did not affect _Monitor's_ steering (Nelson, pp. 288-289). (Incidentally, there was a sort of a "Brave Wolfe" moment in the battle; Worden was bruised and temporarily blinded by the debris, and had to ask, "Have I saved the _Minnesota_? Told he had, and that the _Virginia_ was leaving, he declared, "Then I don't care what happens to me." See Greene-BL, p. 117. But he would live, though he carried metal in his face for the rest of his life, and he also recovered his sight -- at least in one eye; Nelson, p. 341).

Given her communications problems, it took some time for the exec to make his way from the turret to the front; as a result, the ship backed away from the fighting for half an hour. Confederates sometimes claim victory in the battle on this basis (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 88). But _Monitor_ was still functional, and the retreat would probably have been temporary had _Virginia_ tried to continue the fight.

But the battle was over. The _Virginia_ made one more run at the _Minnesota_, but then Lieutenant Jones talked to his officers and decided to head for home (Nelson, pp. 290-291); safer, in her case, to spend the night in port -- and to refill her coal bunkers and shot lockers; the more she used up, the higher she rose, and her armor ended not much below the waterline even when she was full. After another day without refilling, she would be very vulnerable. This led Union newspapers, which claimed she was towed from the battle (which she was not), to assert victory (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 93).

You still see occasional claims that one ship or the other "won" -- e.g. Mabry Tyson's article in Holzer/Mulligan claims victory for the _Virginia_ (p. 109). But Tyson is the great-grandson of Catesby ap Roger Jones; his is hardly an unbiased view!

From a pure tactical standpoint, it was a draw (unless you count the damage the _Virginia_ did to the _Minnesota_ during the engagement, which was fairly severe -- she had briefly been on fire, and her crew was exhausted and her ammunition nearly gone; Hoehling, p. 79). Neither ship could damage the other significantly (men were stunned if they touched the armor when it was hit -- Hoehling, p. 77 -- but eventually learned not to do that). The _Monitor_ suffered no real damage, and the damage to the _Virginia_ was almost all from the _Cumberland_, so they were well-matched. A case could be made that, had the _Virginia_ met the _Monitor_ on the first day, she might have won (_Monitor's_ armor stopped cannonballs, but would not be enough to stop _Virginia's_ ram if it hit home straight-on, and _Monitor_ certainly didn't have the reserve buoyancy to survive such a blow!). Or you might claim the _Virginia_ won "on points": although both ships withdrew, the _Monitor_ withdrew first.

That, though, is like claiming Germany won the Battle of Jutland because they sank more ships: The latter part of the claim is true but doesn't mean anything. Strategically, the Battle of Hampton Roads was a clear Union victory; _Virginia_ could not clear the Roads of Federal shipping, and while _Monitor_ could not stop blockade runners, she could guard the faster frigates that could. And, over the following months, additional ironclads would support her. For _Virginia_, it was win in March or not at all -- and she didn't win in March. Due, in no small part, to the damage inflicted by the _Cumberland_ .

Nelson, p. 295, cites Jones's report on damage to _Virginia_: "Our loss is 2 killed and 19 wounded. The stem is twisted and the ship leaks. We have lost the prow, starboard anchor, and all the boats. The armor is somewhat damages; the steam pipe and smokestack both riddled; the muzzles of two of the guns shot away. It was not wasy to keep a flag flying. The flagstaffs were repeately shot away." Nelson adds: "Virtually all of the damage and casualties occurred on the first day of fighting. _Monitor_ had inflicted alost no injury at all."

Nelson's conclusion is that both Jones of _Virginia_ and Greene of _Monitor_ were right to break off the fight, even though it raised questions about their characters (Nelson, p. 297). _Virginia_ really needed time in dry-dock to replenish and to make minor fixes; _Monitor_ was in better shape, but the crew was bone-weary and there were hardly enough officers left even to stand watches -- a major concern with a scratch crew.

The Confederates probably thought _Virginia_ would be back in service soon. Certainly it would have taken only a little while to patch up her leaks. But the _Virginia_ spent most of a month in dry dock, where her damage was repaired, her ram replaced, and some of her more glaring problems remedied, including the fitting of some additional armor near the waterline (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 76; Nelson, p. 308) -- though this cost her another knot of speed (Wood-BL, p. 105), and left her engines even more overburdened than before; the engineer now said they could be relied on for only a few hours (Nelson, p. 308).

Now commanded by Josiah Tattnall, _Virginia_ made one more brief sortie on April 10/11, with some officers contemplating a harebrained scheme to try to board the _Monitor_ (Nelson, pp. 310-311), but by this time the _Monitor_ had been joined by another ironclad, _Naugatuck_, and in essence the two Union ships stood guard while the rest of the Northern ships fled. The two sides didn't really engage, and the _Virginia_ eventually headed back to base (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 78). According to Nelson, p. 313, Tattnall commanded _Virginia_ for 45 days, and she spent 32 of them in dry-dock or under repair, though she made a total of five trips toward Hampton Roads (the others were even less eventful than the sortie of April 11). Mostly she just made her men miserable, since living conditions were terrible and steam had to be kept up at all times to allow her to respond quickly in the event of Union action.

In May, as Union general George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac approached Richmond during the Peninsular campaign, the Confederates decided (almost certainly correctly) that they had to scrape up every available man to defend the city. The division defending Norfolk was taken north of the James on May 3 (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 79). The _Virginia_ for the time being stayed at Norfolk, but now she was vulnerable to being captured from land. At the very least, she had to be kept from Federal hands.

It was Abraham Lincoln himself who ordered federal troops to make a move on Norfolk on May 9 (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 90). When the last Confederate forces pulled out, no one even told the _Virginia's_ commander (Wood-BL, p. 106; Nelson, pp. 317-318).

Foote, p. 415, notes that the Confederates made desperate attempts to take the _Virginia_ up the James River (the only other alternative being a death-or-glory attack on the Federal blockade). They lightened her enough to expose several feet of unarmoured hull. But then came word that conditions on the James had changed; although the ship had been lightened enough that she drew "only" 18 feet, which was supposed to be sufficient to get her to within 40 miles of Richmond (Nelson, p. 318), conditions had changed and she would have to work her way up a channel only 15 feet deep. That was impossible (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 81; Wood-BL, p. 107), and there was no time for more lightening anyway.

Tattnall, understandably upset, thought that the pilots were cowards who had concocted their story to keep the ship from battle.(Nelson, p. 319). Lightening ship meant that she would be floating with her armor deck above water level. With her hull exposed, _Virginia_ could no longer fight as an ironclad, ruling out the death-or-glory ride.

The only remaining alternative was to scuttle her. After only three months afloat, and two months of active serve, she was -- for the second time -- set on fire on May 11, 1862 (Wood-BL, p. 107, tells of being one of the last two men aboard, and of setting her afire). And the Confederates did what the Union navy had not done: They successfully destroyed the hull of the _Merrimack_. She would rise no more. Her second commander, Josiah Tattnall, was savaged in the press and a preliminary court of inquiry, and demanded a court-martial, which acquitted him (Wood-BL, pp. 107-108; Nelson, p. 344).

After _Virginia_ was out of the way, _Monitor_ was taken up the Potomac for various improvements (Nelson, p. 323). She then was ordered to Wilmington, North Carolina. Once again there was bad weather along the way (Nelson, p. 324). The _Monitor_ sank in a storm at the end of December 1862 off Cape Hatteras (Holzer/Mulligan, p. 51). Her wreck has of course been discovered (e.g. Delgado, pp. 117-119), and portions are being brought to the surface to highlight a museum (Holzer/Mulligan in fact was inspired by the opening of the Mariner's Museum; pp. xiii, xviii).

Nelson, p. 339, makes an interesting point about this song and the whole fame of the Battle of Hampton Roads: It became a household name simply because of the timing. Had _Monitor_ arrived on any day other than the day it did, there would have been no battle (had it arrived, say, a month earlier), or a likely draw with no Union ships sunk (had it arrived a day earlier), or a complete Union fiasco (had it arrived even one day later). Hanpton Roads became famous only because the _Monitor_ arrived exactly when it did, like the cavalry coming to the rescue (to use Nelson?s metaphor).

Despite _Monitor's_ poor sea qualities, there was a rush to build monitors around the world. Jane's-WWI, pp. 63-64, lists ten named monitors (including two christened _Erebus_ and _Terror_) and fifteen numbered monitors in service with the British navy in World War I, and p. 314 lists eight that were lost during the War or in the operations in Russia in 1919. Marshall-Encyclopedia, entry on the _Florida_, says that the U. S. Navy built its last class of monitors in 1901, with one of them not decomissioned until 1939. But they were hardly ships that John Ericsson would have recognized. The ones I've seen all had large upperworks, and in most of the British examples, the turret was raised high above the waterline, and the ships had masts. They were monitors only in the sense that they had very little freeboard.

And I never heard of any of those twentieth century monitors doing anything useful. _Monitor_ included many ideas which would be very useful in future warships -- the turret being the most important -- but the ships themselves were just too problematic. And their low profiles, which made them harder to hit with cannon, would become nearly useless once self-propelled torpedoes were invented.

The _Cumberland_, like the _Monitor_, has been rediscovered. Delgado, p. 115, notes that she was found in 1980. Unfortunately, she is in shallow water, and souvenir hunters did a great deal of damage before serious efforts were made to protect the wreck.


Catton: Bruce Catton, _Terrible Swift Sword_. (being the second volume of The Centennial History of the Civil War), Doubleday, 1963 (I use the 1976 Pocket Books edition)

Greene-BL: S. Dana Greene, "We thought we had gained a great victory: In the 'Monitor' Turret," article in Clarence C. Buel and Robert U. Johnson, editors, _Battles and Leaders of the Civil War_, four volumes, 1888. For convenience of transport, I used the version of the article printed in the abbreviated one-volume edition "edited" (read: hacked down almost to uselessness) by Ned Bradford, 1956; page references are to the 1979 Fairfax Press edition. Greene was the executive officer of the _Monitor_ and commanded the turret in the early stages of Hampton Roads, then briefly commanded the whole ship. (He notes ironically that _Monitor_ had five captains, but he was her only executive officer; p.111).

Delgado: James P. Delgado, _Lost Waships: An Archaeological Tour of War at Sea_, Checkmark, 2001

Foote: Shelby Foote, _The Civil War: A Narrative_, Volume I: Fort Sumter to Perryville, Random House, 1958

Hoehling: A. A. Hoehling, _Shipts That Changed History_, 1992 (I use the 2007 Barnes & Noble edition)

Holzer/Mulligan: Harold Holzer and Tim Mulligan, Editors, _The Battle of Hampton Roads_ (a collection of nine essays; Fordham/Mariner's Museum, 2006)

Jane's-WWI: _Jane's Fighting Ships of World War I_ (1919; I use the 1990 Studio Editions reprint with modern foreword by Captain John Moore, RN). Not entirely accurate, but the best in-one-place catalog of naval vessels serving c. 1918.

Konstam: Angus Konstam, _Hampton Roads 1862: First Clash of the Ironclads_, Praeger, 2004

Marshall-Encyclopedia: Chris Marshall, editor, _The Encyclopedia of Ships_ (Barnes & Noble, 1995, based at least in part on an Italian original). Silhouettes with very brief descriptions. Most useful for finding ship's specifications.

McPherson: James M. McPherson, The Battle Cry of Freedom (The Oxford History of the United States: The Civil War Era; Oxford, 1988)

Nelson: James L. Nelson, _Reign of Iron: The Story of the first Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merimack_, Perennial, 2004

Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, _Ships of the World_ (Houghton Mifflin, 19970

Preston: Antony Preston, _Battleships_, Gallery, 1981

Wood-BL: John Taylor Wood, Colonel, C.S.A., "The battle was a drawn one: The first fight of iron-clads," article in Clarence C. Buel and Robert U. Johnson, editors, _Battles and Leaders of the Civil War_, four volumes, 1888. For convenience of transport, I used the version of the article printed in the abbreviated one-volume edition "edited" (read: hacked down almost to uselessness) by Ned Bradford, 1956; page references are to the 1979 Fairfax Press edition. Wood was a lieutenant on the _Virginia_ before joining the Confederate army.

Woodworth: Steven E.Woodworth, _Nothing But Victory: The Army of the Tennessee 1861-1865_, Vintage, 2005


Broadside LOCSinging sb10061b: H. De Marsan dating per _Studying Nineteenth-Century Popular Song_ by Paul Charosh in American Music, Winter 1997, Vol 15.4, Table 1, available at FindArticles site. - BS

Historical references

  • March 8, 1862 - U.S. frigates Congress and Cumberland sunk by the CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack). The Minnesota runs aground; had not the Monitor arrived the next day, the Merrimac would have sunk that ship also

Cross references


  • Bodleian, Harding B 18(108), "Cumberland's Crew," Bell and Co. (San Francisco), c.1860; also Firth c.12(72), "The Cumberland's Crew"
  • LOCSinging, sb10061b, "The Cumberland's Crew," H. De Marsan (New York), 1861-1864


  • Stanley Baby, "The 'Cumberland's Crew (1)'" (on GreatLakes1)
  • Orlo Brandon, "The 'Cumberland's Crew (2)'" (on GreatLakes1)
  • Warde Ford, "The Cumberland crew (The Cumberland's crew)" [fragment] (AFS 4202 B5, 1938; tr.; in AMMEM/Cowell)


  1. Laws A18, "The Cumberland Crew"
  2. Doerflinger, pp. 134-135, "The Cumberland's Crew" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Rickaby 39, "The Cumberland's Crew" (1 tune, partial text)
  4. Dean, pp. 36-37, "The Cumberland's Crew" (1 text)
  5. Smith/Hatt, pp. 102-103, "The Cumberland's Crew" (1 text)
  6. Ranson, pp. 106-107, "The Cumberland's Crew" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. Beck 87, "The Fate of the 'Cumberland' Crew" (1 text)
  8. Creighton-NovaScotia 113, "Cumberland's Crew" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. Ives-DullCare, pp. 16-17,244, "The Cumberland's Crew" (1 text, 1 tune)
  10. Silber-CivWar, pp. 24-25, "The Cumberland Crew" (1 text, 1 tune)
  11. DT 366, CUMBCREW*
  12. Roud #707
  13. BI, LA18


Author: unknown
Earliest date: before 1865 (broadside, LOCSinging sb10061b)
Keywords: Civilwar ship
Found in: US(MA,MW,NE) Canada(Mar,Ont) Ireland