March 8: Virginia Wreaks Havoc On Wooden Union Warships
The battle began when the large and unwieldy CSS Virginia steamed into Hampton Roads on the morning of March 8, 1862. Captain Buchanan intended to attack as soon as possible. Virginia was accompanied from her moorings on the Elizabeth River by Raleigh and Beaufort, and was joined at Hampton Roads by the James River Squadron, Patrick Henry, Jamestown, and Teaser. When they were passing the Union batteries at Newport News, Patrick Henry was temporarily disabled by a shot in her boiler that killed four of her crew. After repairs, she returned and rejoined the others.
At this time, the Union Navy had five warships in the roadstead, in addition to several support vessels. The sloop-of-war USS Cumberland and frigate Congress were anchored in the channel near Newport News. Frigate St. Lawrence and the steam frigates Roanoke and Minnesota were near Fort Monroe, along with the storeship USS Brandywine (1825). The latter three got under way as soon as they saw Virginia approaching, but all soon ran aground. St. Lawrence and Roanoke took no further important part in the battle.
Virginia headed directly for the Union squadron. The battle opened when Union tug Zouave fired on the advancing enemy, and Beaufort replied. This preliminary skirmishing had no effect. Virginia did not open fire until she was within easy range of Cumberland. Return fire from Cumberland and Congress bounced off the iron plates without penetrating. Virginia rammed Cumberland below the waterline and she sank rapidly, "gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water," according to Buchanan. She took 121 seamen down with her; those wounded brought the casualty total to nearly 150.
Ramming Cumberland nearly resulted in the sinking of Virginia as well. Virginia's bow ram got stuck in the enemy ship's hull, and as Cumberland listed and began to go down, she almost pulled Virginia under with her. At the time the vessels were locked, one of Cumberland's anchors was hanging directly above the foredeck of Virginia. Had it come loose, the two ships might have gone down together. Virginia broke free, however, her ram breaking off as she backed away.
Buchanan next turned Virginia on Congress. Seeing what had happened to Cumberland, Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, captain of Congress, ordered his ship grounded in shallow water. By this time, the James River Squadron, commanded by John Randolph Tucker, had arrived and joined Virginia in the attack on Congress. After an hour of unequal combat, the badly damaged Congress surrendered. While the surviving crewmen of Congress were being ferried off the ship, a Union battery on the north shore opened fire on Virginia. In retaliation, Buchanan ordered Congress fired upon with hot shot, cannon balls heated red-hot. Congress caught fire and burned throughout the rest of the day. Near midnight, the flames reached her magazine and she exploded and sank, stern first. Personnel losses included 110 killed or missing and presumed drowned. Another 26 were wounded, of whom ten died within days.
Although she had not suffered anything like the damage she had inflicted, Virginia was not completely unscathed. Shots from Cumberland, Congress, and Union troops ashore had riddled her smokestack, reducing her already low speed. Two of her guns were disabled and several armor plates had been loosened. Two of her crew were killed, and more were wounded. One of the wounded was Captain Buchanan, whose left thigh was pierced by a rifle shot.
Meanwhile, the James River Squadron had turned its attention to Minnesota, which had left Fort Monroe to join in the battle and had run aground. After Virginia had dealt with the surrender of Congress, she joined the James River Squadron despite her damage. Because of her deep draft and the falling tide, however, Virginia was unable to get close enough to be effective, and darkness prevented the rest of the squadron from aiming their guns to any effect. The attack was therefore suspended. Virginia left with the expectation of returning the next day and completing the task. She retreated into the safety of Confederate-controlled waters off Sewell's Point for the night, but had killed 400 enemy sailors and had lost two. The Union had lost two ships and three were aground.
The United States Navy's greatest defeat until World War II caused panic in Washington. As Lincoln's Cabinet met to discuss the disaster, the frightened Secretary of War Edwin Stanton told the others that the Virginia might attack East coast cities, and even shell the White House before the meeting ended. Welles assured his colleagues that they were safe as the ship could not traverse the Potomac river. He added that the Union also had an ironclad, and that it was heading to meet the Virginia.
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