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Naval Engagement on the James River.


March/April 1862

From The Missouri Democrat, Monday, March 10, 1862.



Sunday Night Dispatches







&C., &C., &C.

Engagement between the Rebel Steamer Merrimac and U. S. Vessels.

WASHINGTON, March 9.—Government has received information from Fortress Monroe that yesterday the iron clad steamer Merrimac and the gunboats Jamestown and Yorktown attacked our fleet and sunk the Cumberland and took the Congress.

The Minnesota was aground. When the Fortress Monroe boat left the stars and stripes waved over Cockpit Point. About 2 P. M. to-day the rebels commenced to fire their tents and other property difficult of removal. They also burned the steamer Page, and all other craft in the creek. Our gunboats opened fire on the Cockpit Point battery about three o’clock P. M., and at half past four landed and ran up the glorious old flag.

From Fortress Monroe.

FORTRESS MONROE, March 8.—The dullness of Old Point was startled at 10 o’clock, by the announcement that a mysterious vessel, supposed to be the Merrimac, and looking like a submerged house with the roof only above water, was moving down the Norfolk by the channel in front of the Sewall’s Point battery.

Signal guns were also fired by the Cumberland and Congress to notify the Minnesota, St. Lawrence and Roanoke of the approaching danger, and all was excitement in and about Fortress Monroe. There was nothing protruding above water but the flagstaff flying the rebel flag, and a short smoke stack.

She moved along slowly, and turning into the channel leading to Newport News, steamed directly for the frigates Cumberland and Congress, which were lying at the mouth of James River. As soon as she came within range of the Cumberland she opened on her with her heavy guns, but the balls struck and glanced off, having no more effect than her peas from a pop-gun.

Her ports were all closed, and she moved on in silence, but with a full head of steam. In the meantime, as the Merrimac was approaching, the frigates on one side, the rebel iron clad steamers Yorktown and Jamestown came down James river, and engaged our frigates on the other side.

The batteries as Newport News also opened on the Jamestown and Yorktown, and did all in their power to assist the Cumberland and Congress, which being sailing vessels were at the mercy of the approaching steamers. The Merrimac in the meantime kept on her course, and slowly approached the Cumberland, when she and the Congress, at a distance of one hundred yards, rained full broadsides on the Merrimac.

The shot took no effect, glancing upward and flying off, having only the effect of checking her for a moment. After receiving the first broadside of the two frigates, she ran on to the Cumberland, striking her sides. She then drew off, fired a broadside into the disabled ship and again dashed against her with her iron clad prow, knocking in her side, left her to sink, while she engaged the Congress, which laid about a quarter of a mile distant.

The crew on board of her, seeing the hopelessness of resisting the iron-clad steamer, at once struck her colors.

Her crew had been discharged several days since, and three companies of the Naval Brigade had been put on board temporarily, until she should be relieved by the St. Lawrence, which was to have gone up Monday to take her position as our blockading vessel at James river.

On the Congress striking her colors the Jamestown approached and took from on board of her all the officers as prisoners, but allowed the crew to escape in boats. The vessel being thus cleared was fired by the rebels. Then the Merrimac and her two iron clad companions opened with shell and shot on the Newport News batteries, and the firing was briskly returned. Various reports have been received, principally from frightened sutlers’ clerks. Some of them represented the garrison had been compelled to retreat from the batteries to the woods. Another was the two smaller rebel steamers had been compelled to retreat from their guns. In the meantime, the steam frigate Minnesota having partly got up steam, was being towed up to the relief of the two frigates, but did not get up until too late to assist them. She was also followed up by the St. Lawrence, which was taken in tow by several of the small harbor steamers.

It is said, however, that neither of these vessels had pilots on board, and after a short engagement both seemed to be in the opinion of pilots on the point, aground. The Minnesota either intentionally or from necessity engaged the three steamers at about a mile distance, with only her two guns. The St. Lawrence also poured in shot from all the guns she could bring to bear, and it was the impression of the most experienced naval officer on the point that both had been considerably damaged.

These statements, it must be borne in mind, are all based on what could be seen by a glass at a distance of nearly eight miles, and by a few panic stricken non-combatants, who fled at almost the first gun from Newport News. In the meantime darkness approached, though the moon shone brightly, nothing but occasional flashing of the guns could be seen.

The Merrimac was also believed to be aground, as she remained stationary at a distance of a mile from the Minnesota, making no attempt to attack or molest her.

Previous to the departure of the steamer for Baltimore, no guns had been fired for half an hour. The last was fired from the Minnesota.

Some persons declared that immediately after this last gun was fired, a dense volume of vapor was seen to raise from the Merrimac, indicating an explosion of her boilers. Whether this was so or not cannot be known, but it was the universal opinion the rebel monster was hard aground. Fears were entertained for the safety of the Minnesota and St. Lawrence in such an unequal contest, but if the Merrimac was really ashore she could do no further harm.

It was the intention of the Minnesota, with her picked and gallant crew, to have run into close quarters with the Merrimac, avoided her iron prow, and boarded her. In this the Merrimac seemed not inclined to give her an opportunity of doing, being afraid to approach her at close quarters when aground.

At 8 o’clock, when the Baltimore boat left, a fleet of steam-tugs were being sent up to the relief of the Minnesota and St. Lawrence, and an endeavor was to be made to draw them off from the bar on which they had been grounded.

In the meantime firing had been suspended, but whether from mutual consent or necessity, it could not be ascertained. The rebel battery at Pig Point was also enabled to join in the combined attack on the Minnesota, and several guns were fired at her from Sewell’s Point as she went up none of them, however, struck her, but one or two of them passed over her. The Baltimore boat left Old Point at 8 o’clock; about half an hour after she left the wharf the iron-clad Ericsson steamer Monitor passed her going in, towed by a large steamer.

The Monitor undoubtedly reached Fortress Monroe by nine o’clock, and may have immediately gone into service, if not, she would be ready to take a hand early on Sunday morning.


WASHINGTON, March 9, 7 P. M.—Last night the Monitor arrived at Fortress Monroe, and early this morning she was attacked by three vessels, the Merrimac, Yorktown and Jamestown. After five hours contest they were driven off, the Merrimac in a sinking condition. This is official.

FORTRESS MONROE, March 9.—The Monitor arrived at 10 o’clock last night, and immediately went to the protection of the Minnesota. The Merrimac, Yorktown, Jamestown and several tugs went toward the Minnesota and opened fire on her.

The Monitor met them and opened fire, when the enemy’s vessels retired, excepting the Merrimac.

The two iron clad vessels fought from 8 o’clock until noon, part of the time touching each other when the Merrimac retired. The Monitor was commanded by Lieut. Worden, and was handled with great skill, assisted by Chief Engineer Stemer. The Minnesota was somewhat injured, but kept up a continuous fire. The Monitor is uninjured and ready for another attack.

WASHINGTON, March 9.—General McClellan received a dispatch from General Wool, dated 6 o’clock this evening, confirming above; also stating the Minnesota had got off. The Merrimac was driven off in sinking condition, towed by the Jamestown, Yorktown and other boats, towards Norfolk, probably to get her in the dry dock.

A dispatch was also received by the Secretary of the Navy from Assistant Secretary Fox, saying in addition to the above, that the Merrimac retreated, but it was impossible to say whether she was injured or not. Lieutenant Worden, the Commander of the Monitor, was injured by cement from the pilot house being driven into his eyes-probably not seriously.

NEW YORK, March 9.—The Tribune’s Fortress Monroe special states the frigate Cumberland had a crew of nearly 500 men, and nearly half were lost. A negro who swam ashore reports the loss about 100.