Mar 8

Battle of Hampton Roads – The Little Known Story of USS Cumberland

Saturday, March 8, 2014 8:00 AM
Ramming of the U.S.S. Cumberland by the Merrimac (C.S.S. Virginia), Hampton Roads, March 8, 1862 Alexander Charles Stuart - 1880

Ramming of the U.S.S. Cumberland by the Merrimac (C.S.S. Virginia), Hampton Roads, March 8, 1862
Alexander Charles Stuart – 1880

By Naval History and Heritage Command

On Mar. 8, 1862, in the southern part of Virginia where the Elizabeth and Nansemond Rivers meet the James River to empty into the Chesapeake Bay, in the region known as Hampton Roads, the first battle between ironclad warships occurred. Most of us remember the famous duel, which ended in a stalemate, between the two iron-clad, steam ships, USS Monitor, and CSS Virginia, which had been a decommissioned U.S. Navy ship called Merrimack.

Often forgotten are the other ships that were there, USS Cumberland, USS Congress and USS Minnesota. Before Virginia met her match in Monitor, she wreaked havoc on those ships destroying Congress and Cumberland, then pummeling Minnesota. But according to Historian Gordon Calhoun of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, the crew of Cumberland has earned the admiration of many. Their bravery echoes through the ages because despite impossible odds they never surrendered. Cumberland never struck her colors.

USS Cumberland

USS Cumberland

A year earlier on April 19, 1861, President Lincoln ordered the blockade of all ports in the seceded states, a group Virginia joined when it left the union on April 27. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles gave the order to scuttle all federal ships and 3,000 guns that could be used by separatist states. Nine ships were burned. The USS Cumberland had just arrived at the Navy Yard from her overseas duty station off the coast of Mexico. Her company was given the impossible task of carrying out the scuttling order. After doing what they could, the steam sloop USS Pawnee and the tug USS Yankee towed the ship up the Elizabeth River to safety.

Model of CSS Virginia by Alexander Lynch, 1939

Model of CSS Virginia by Alexander Lynch, 1939

Union Sailors were only able to burn Merrimack to the waterline on April 20, 1861. Her hull and steam engine were still intact. Merrimack would end up becoming the only ship with an intact engine for the Confederacy in the Chesapeake Bay area. Even the dry dock was barely destroyed. Confederate forces easily restored it to retrofit Merrimack into the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia. Her engine and hull were refurbished with a significant addition: her prow, the forward most position of the bow above the waterline, was augmented with an iron ram. As Calhoun put it, the Confederacy had gone “back to the Roman Empire” reverting to old naval warfare by ramming opponents. She was also fitted with six, nine-inch Dahlgren guns and four six- to seven-inch Brooke rifles, which could pierce up to eight inches of armor plating. Virginia’s armor plating was two layers of 2-inch thick plates and surrounded her 14 gun ports. Within six months of Lincoln’s blockade and Welles’ order to scuttle her as the USS Merrimack, CSS Virginia was ready and commissioned Feb. 17, 1862.

CSS Virginia by Clary Ray

CSS Virginia by Clary Ray

On March 8,1862, Virginia made her assault on the sloop of war, Cumberland, which had been in commission for twenty years. She had been the flagship of the African Squadron stalking slave ships off of the African coast. Back then, Cumberland boasted 50 guns when she was a frigate, but in 1857, she was converted into a sloop-of-war which required removing her top deck and all guns from her spar deck. When asked if this adversely affected Cumberland’s ability, Calhoun said, “Not really. It definitely extended her life.” Cumberland was able to accommodate more versatile guns — she had 22 with 12 on her broad side as opposed to Virginia’s three. He added that Cumberland’s only fault was that she was an oak-wood-hulled sailing ship that depended on the wind, and on March 8, a calm day, she went “zero knots.”

Between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., Virginia rammed Cumberland’s starboard bow. This was nearly also Virginia’s undoing. By ramming Cumberland, she wedged and trapped herself in Cumberland’s thick oak hull. In fact, Virginia nearly sank with Cumberland, but broke free as Cumberland listed. By 3:30,Congress had surrendered. But not Cumberland. She would not surrender. Even though she had taken on water up to the main hatchway, her officers and crew continued fighting. According to her acting commanding officer, Lieutenant George Morris, “It is impossible for me to individualize; alike officers and men all behaved in the most gallant manner,”and “showed the most perfect coolness….” Even the Confederate flag officer aboard Virginia was impressed and noted once Cumberland “commenced sinking, gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water. She went down with her colors flying.”

CSS Virginia Rams USS Cumberland

CSS Virginia Rams USS Cumberland

According to the account made by Capt. Marston aboard the screw frigate USS Roanoke, on March 8,1862, sometime after 1 p.m., Virginia “…was soon discovered passing out by Sewell’s Point, standing up toward Newport News,” and “…went up and immediately attacked the Congress and Cumberland, but particularly the latter ship,once she returned Virginia’s fire.”Cumberland’s nine and ten-inch Dahlgren guns, which at the time were popular and versatile, didn’t even phase Virginia.Also, the tide was against her. She could only use a few of her guns at a bad angle to attack Virginia.

Between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m., Virginia rammed Cumberland’s starboard bow. This was nearly also Virginia’s undoing. By ramming Cumberland, she wedged and trapped herself in Cumberland’s thick oak hull. In fact, Virginia nearly sank with Cumberland, but broke free as Cumberland listed. By 3:30,Congress had surrendered. But not Cumberland. She would not surrender. Even though she had taken on water up to the main hatchway, her officers and crew continued fighting. According to her acting commanding officer, Lieutenant George Morris, “It is impossible for me to individualize; alike officers and men all behaved in the most gallant manner,”and “showed the most perfect coolness….” Even the Confederate flag officer aboard Virginia was impressed and noted once Cumberland “commenced sinking, gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water. She went down with her colors flying.”

The battle had an immense impact on the U.S. Navy. According to Calhoun, the day Cumberland and Congress were destroyed, March 8, 1862, was recognized as a “disaster for the Navy,” having lost two major ships and more than 200 sailors. It was a “pivotal” moment in naval history as it was the last time the Navy would depend on sail ships in combat. In fact, the Navy immediately recalled all sail ships and, with few exceptions, used only ships equipped steam-powered engines. Navy Yards immediately began to fit ships with steam-powered engines that “did not need the wind or the tides to depend on”.

Cumberland’s 120 officers and crew went down in the James River still fighting,refusing to surrender or strike their colors. Cumberland also damaged two of Virginia’s guns. Congress would later give accolades to Cumberland noting she did more damage to Virginia than Monitor did.

Monitor-Merrimac-combat1

The next day CSS Virginia would attempt the same tactic — to ram and run over Monitor which arrived in the area on March 9, 1862. According to Monitor’s chief engineer, “She tried to run us down and sink us, as she did the Cumberland yesterday, but she got the worst of it. Her bow passed over our deck and our sharp upper edged side cut through the light iron shoe upon her stem and well into her oak.”

He added, “She will not try that again.”

Crewmen on deck of USS Monitor, July 1862

Crewmen on deck of USS Monitor, July 1862

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Cumberland’s wreck is currently a Federally-protected site and is monitored during occasional visits by joint expeditions sponsored by NOAA’s Monitor Marine Sanctuary office, the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archeology branch, and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum. Artifacts from Cumberland can be seen at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in Norfolk, Va., one of NHHC’s nine official museums. More information on the history of Cumberland, artifacts from the ship, and the men who served on the vessel can be found at:

http://www.history.navy.mil/museums/hrnm/resources-uss-cumberland-center.html

USS Monitor Versus CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack) and the Battle for Hampton Roads, 8-9 March 1862:
Selected Original Documents can be found at:

http://www.history.navy.mil/docs/civilwar/hamptonroads.htm

For more information on the Battle at Hampton Roads, visit the following links:

http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=72338

http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=72520

http://www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=72578