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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Admiral Franklin Buchanan

Charles Lee Lewis

published by
The Norman, Remington Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 14

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.


Chapter XIII

When the Merrimac Fought in Hampton Roads​a

When Buchanan reached Richmond, which had become on April 29, 1861 the capital of the Confederacy, he lost no time in identifying himself with the cause of the South. He at once offered his services to the Confederate Navy, and on September 5 he became a captain in that service. He was soon thereafter made Chief of the Office of Orders and Detail, a position of great responsibility and importance, somewhat similar to the present Chief of Operations in the organization of the United States Navy. In those early months of the war the Confederate naval officers were employed in erecting defensive batteries on the rivers and other water approaches to important cities and strategic points in the South, and just a few days after Buchanan's joining the South, Federal correspondence reveals that "Captain Buchanan, late U. S. Navy, is engaged in erecting a battery near the White House".​1 This appears to have been a part of the Confederate plan to close the Potomac effectually by the erection of powerful batteries, or defend the capital Richmond against an invasion from  p175 the south. A few days later, Buchanan wrote to Secretary of the Navy Mallory​2 that the batteries in the neighborhood of Norfolk and on the various rivers were not as efficient as they should be, and that naval officers ought to be placed in command of the naval guns in these batteries and of the soldiers manning them; and these recommendations were approved by Mr. Mallory.

Buchanan's work, during those early months of service in the Confederate Navy, was not confined to Virginia. For example, he was sent to Savannah with Captain Sinclair, C. S. Navy by General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Lee early in November to consult with General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.A. R. Lawton, commanding in Georgia, as to proper means of defending the water approaches to Brunswick and Cumberland which, Lee declared, "must be secured".​3 This was just four days after the capture of Port Royal, South Carolina by Captain Samuel F. Du Pont commanding an expedition of twenty-five ships of war and about 13,000 troops under Brigadier-General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Thomas W. Sherman, against which Commodore Tattnall's four little gunboats and Forts Beauregard and Walker could not offer an effectual resistance.

Buchanan was destined, however, soon to be afforded an opportunity to display his courage and ability in action, in the waters of Hampton Roads. On the night of the 20th of April, when the Federal forces retired from the Gosport (Norfolk) Navy Yard, they hastily attempted to destroy the stores and guns and to scuttle the nine ships stationed there. In this way a vast quantity of munitions of war, including over 1000  p176 cannon,​4 ranging from 11‑inch guns to 32‑pounders, fell into the hands of the Confederates. These were the guns which were used so effectively in the batteries erected to defend Southern rivers and harbors.

Of the ships​5 thus destroyed, the Merrimac, a steam frigate of 3500 tons, was raised by authority of the Governor of Virginia in May, 1861 at a cost of $5000 and placed in dry dock. In June, the Confederate Navy Department decided to develop the vessel into an ironclad, and the successful accomplishment of the plan was due to three men; namely, Lieutenant John M. Brooke, whose plans for the reconstructing of the vessel were approved by Secretary Mallory and who prepared her armor and guns, John L. Porter, Naval Constructor, who had charge of the building of the hull, and Chief Engineer W. P. Williamson,​6 who superintended the preparation of her machinery.

When completed, the vessel, which was renamed the Virginia, was a strange, grim-looking craft. She had a casemate, looking somewhat like the roof of a barn, which sloped at an angle of about 35 degrees. This was  p177 built upon the original hull which had been cut down to the berth deck. This casemate was constructed of pitch pine twenty inches thick overlaid with three inches of oak, over which was placed two layers of iron. These plates, two inches thick and from seven to eight inches wide, were rolled at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. The first layer was placed horizontally and the second up and down at right angles to the former, and all were bolted through the wood and securely held — four inches of iron over twenty-four inches of wood. This shield was about seven feet high and one hundred seventy feet long at the base; over the top, which was about twenty feet wide, was a light grating or iron two inches thick, providing for ventilation and at the same time serving as a protection for the gun crews. A pilot house of cast iron, in the shape of a pyramid with walls twelve inches thick and pierced with several small holes for observation, was placed at the bow end of the upper deck. The guns consisted of two 7‑inch Brooke rifles, placed at bow and stern, which had been reenforced with 3‑inch steel bands that had been shrunk on the breech; the shield was so rounded as to provide for three gun ports for each of these guns which could thus be used in three different directions. Besides these fore‑and-aft guns, there were two 6.4‑inch rifles, also Brooke single-banded, and six 9‑inch smooth-bore Dahlgren guns, all in broadside. The Virginia had attached to her prow a wedge-shaped ram of cast iron, projecting two feet forward and two feet under the surface of the water, and weighing about 1500 pounds. Her engines had not been improved by being submerged in sea water and were as a consequence very unreliable. They gave her an estimated speed of only six or seven miles per hour, and it  p178 took her thirty or forty minutes to turn round. In battle trim she drew about twenty‑two feet of water, and sunk so that the lower line of her shield was some two feet under the water line, and the unprotected part of her deck, which was about two hundred sixty-three feet long, was awash.

Such was the vessel which became Buchanan's flagship when he was placed in command of the Naval Defenses of the James River by Secretary Mallory on February 24, 1862. In his orders, Mallory wrote,

"The Virginia is a novelty in naval construction, is untried, and her powers unknown, and the Department will not give specific orders as to her attack upon the enemy. Her powers as a ram are regarded as very formidable, and it is hoped that you may be able to test them. Like the bayonet charge of infantry, this mode of attack, while the most distinctive, will commend itself to you in the present scarcity of ammunition. It is one also that may be rendered destructive at night against the enemy at anchor. Even without guns the ship would be formidable as a ram. Could you pass Old Point and make a dashing cruise on the Potomac as far as Washington, its effect upon the public mind would be important to the cause. The condition of our country, and the painful reverses we have just suffered, demand our utmost exertions, and convinced as I am that the opportunity and the means of striking a decided blow for our navy are now for the first time presented, I congratulate you upon it, and know that your judgment and gallantry will meet all just expectations. Action — prompt and successful action — now would be of serious importance to our cause."

It was, indeed, a time of anxiety for the South, as  p179 they had suffered their first serious defeats in the loss of Forts Henry and Donelson, which threw open the gates to an invasion of Tennessee, and it had become known that General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.McClellan would soon attack Richmond in an advance from Fortress Monroe up the peninsula between the York and James Rivers. There was every reason, therefore, for "action — prompt and successful action" against the Union blockaders at the mouth of the Chesapeake.

Other ships belonging to Buchanan's squadron were the side wheel steamer Patrick Henry, of twelve guns, an ocean-going vessel of 1400 tons, formerly the Yorktown, which had been commandeered in the James River at the outbreak of war and armed with two 32‑pounder rifles, and three 8‑inch and one 10‑inch smooth-bores, and manned with a crew of one hundred and fifty men; the steamer Jamestown, with two guns; and the little gunboats Teaser, Beaufort, and Raleigh, with one gun each. Altogether, then, Buchanan had only twenty-seven guns; and, in fact, only the Patrick Henry, in addition to the Virginia, was strong enough to be of any consequence.

The Union forces in those waters then numbered eleven vessels. Off Fortress Monroe lay the screw frigates Minnesota and Roanoke with forty-seven and forty‑six guns respectively, and the sailing ship St. Lawrence of fifty‑two guns, together with the gunboats Dragon, Mystic, Whitehall, Oregon, Zouave, and Cambridge; while somewhat nearer at Newport News lay at anchor the Cumberland of twenty-four guns and the Congress with fifty guns. The total number of their heavier ordnance, not including the armament of the gunboats and the batteries at Newport News, Fortress Monroe, and the Rip‑Raps, amounted to about two hundred  p180 twenty guns. These larger vessels, according to Soley,​7 "were the pride of the navy, and before the war had been regarded as the highest and most perfect type of the men-of‑war of the period. Yet it required but the experience of a single afternoon in Hampton Roads, in the month of March, 1862, to show that all of them were antiquated, displaced, superseded, and that a new era had opened in naval warfare".

Every possible exertion was made to get the Virginia ready for sea, the blacksmiths, finishers, and strikers patriotically volunteering to work over-time for nothing in order to complete the ironclad. It was known by the North that this vessel was under construction, and three or four months after it had been begun, work was commenced at Green Point, Long Island on the famous Monitor, designed by John Ericsson. This, in turn, became known at the South, and was another reason for the haste in getting the Virginia ready for service at the earliest possible moment.

When Buchanan took command at Norfolk on March 4, 1862, he entered upon his duties with his accustomed vigor and fearlessness. The very day he received notice of his appointment by the Secretary he wrote, March 3, to Commander John R. Tucker, "I am informed by the honorable Secretary of the Navy that the Patrick Henry under your command, the Jamestown, Lieutenant Commanding Barney, and the Teaser, Lieutenant Commanding Webb, are placed under my command as composing part of my squadron. It is my intention, if no accident occurs to this ship to prevent it, to appear before the enemy off Newport News at daylight on Friday morning next. You will, with the Jamestown and  p181 Teaser, be prepared to join me. My object is first to destroy the frigates Congress and Cumberland, if possible, and then turn my attention to the destruction of the battery on shore and the gunboats. You will, in the absence of signals, use your best exertions to injure and destroy the enemy. Much is expected of this ship and those who cooperate with her, by our countrymen, and I expect and hope that our acts will prove our desire to do our duty, to reflect credit upon the country and the navy. You will communicate this communication to Lieutenants Commanding Barney and Webb. No. 1 signal hoisted under by pennant indicates 'Sink before you surrender'." He also wrote his intentions to General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Magruder, commanding at Yorktown, who was to cooperate with him, and to Secretary Mallory, acknowledging the receipt of his orders. He informed the Secretary, however, that an attack on Washington was not practicable. "From the best and most reliable information I can obtain from experienced pilots", he wrote, "it will be impossible to ascend the Potomac in the Virginia with the present draft of water, nearly 22 feet".

There had been great difficulty in assembling a suitable crew of 320 men and about 30 officers.​8 Lieutenant  p182 Catesby ap Roger Jones was the executive officer. The officers, who were brave, skillful, and experienced, had a high opinion of Buchanan and great confidence in his leader­ship. For example, Lieutenant John Taylor Wood wrote of him as "an energetic and high-toned officer, who combined with daring courage great professional ability, standing deservedly at the head of his profession".​9 The uncompleted condition of the vessel had, of course, interfered with the drills, for up to the hour of sailing to engage the enemy she was filled with busy workmen. The crew and the officers were strangers to one another and also to the ship which was something entirely new in naval architecture. Not one of her guns had been fired, hardly a revolution of her engines had been made when she started off on what many supposed was merely a trial run. It was, indeed, a trial, but such a one as no ship had ever made before in naval warfare. "At that time nothing was known of our destination", wrote Acting Chief Engineer H. Ashton Ramsay.​10 "All we knew was that we were off at last. Buchanan sent for me. The veteran sailor, the beau idéal of a naval officer of the old school, with his tall form, harsh features, piercing eyes, was pa­cing the deck with a stride I found it difficult to match, although he was then over sixty and I but twenty-four. 'Ramsay', he asked, 'what would happen to your engines and boilers if there should be a collision?' 'They are braced tight', I assured him; 'though the boilers stand fourteen feet, they are so securely fastened that no collision could budge them'. 'I am going to ram the Cumberland', said  p183 my commander. 'I'm told she has the new rifled guns, the only ones in the whole fleet we have cause to fear. The moment we are in the Roads I'm going to make right for her and ram her'.

It was eleven o'clock in the morning of March 8 (Saturday) when the Virginia left the navy yard, accompanied by the small gunboats Raleigh, Lieutenant Commanding J. W. Alexander, and Beaufort, Lieutenant Commanding W. H. Parker. The day was bright and clear, after the storm of the preceding day, with a slight breeze from the northward, and weather unusually mild for the time of year. The tide was at half flood and would be at the full height at 1.40 in the afternoon. It was for this reason that Buchanan had not come out earlier in the morning. This tide in the affairs of men had to be taken at the full, if success was to be gained with a ship drawing twenty‑two feet of water. Buchanan was thus one day later in coming out than he had planned. "It was fixed for Thursday night, March 6th, 1862", declared Commodore Catesby ap Roger Jones;​11 "the pilots, of whom there were five, having been previously consulted. . . . All preparations were made, including lights at obstructions. After dark the pilots claimed that they could not pilot the ship during the night". It was probably the storm on Friday that prevented an attack from being made that day. As will be seen later, it was fortunate for the Union naval forces that Fate should thus have ordered the course of events.

As the Virginia moved slowly down the Elizabeth River, the citizens of Norfolk and Portsmouth were hurrying by land and water to Sewell's Point, Craney Island, and other points from which they might see the  p184 outcome of the undertaking, whatever it might be. As the ships passed down the river, they were repeatedly "saluted by the waving of caps and handkerchiefs; but no voice broke the silence of the scene; all hearts were too full for utterance. . . . There were many who thought that as soon as the Merrimac rammed a vessel she would sink with all hands inclosed in an iron-plated coffin".​12

It was 12.40 when the Virginia and her consorts arrived at the mouth of the river near Sewell's Point, whence the white tents of the Union soldiers at Newport News and the blockading ships Congress and Cumberland, with every spar outlined clearly in the blue March sky, could be distinctly seen across Hampton Roads. These ships were unprepared for action; their boats hung idly to the lower booms and the newly washed sailors' clothes fluttered from the rigging. Just about 12 o'clock, the quartermaster of the Congress remarked to one of the officers, "I wish you would take the glass and have a look over there, sir. I believe that thing is a‑comin' down at last".​13 Then in great haste the ships were cleared for action.

Accompanied by the gunboats, the Virginia immediately turned her iron-shod prow toward Newport News and the Union vessels Congress and Cumberland. Then signal flags began to run up and down the masts of the ships off Fortress Monroe, and smoke began to pour from the funnels of the frigates Minnesota and Roanoke. As the Confederate ironclad approached her antagonists Buchanan called "all hands to muster" and delivered to them this short spirited address: "Men, the eyes of  p185 your country are upon you. You are fighting for your rights — your liberties — your wives and children. You must not be content with only doing your duty, but do more than your duty! Those ships" (pointing to the Union fleet) "must be taken, and you shall not complain that I do not take you close enough. Go to your guns!"​14

The Virginia reserved her fire until within less than a mile from the Cumberland, when Lieutenant Charles C. Simms opened fire with the forward pivot‑gun, killing or wounding most of the crew of the after pivot‑gun on the Cumberland. This was a little after two o'clock. The action then became general as the Virginia grimly advanced against a concentrated fire from the two Union ships and the shore batteries. George H. Boker thus poetically portrays this stage of the fight:

"Meanwhile the shapeless iron mass

Came moving o'er the wave,

As gloomy as a passing hearse,

As silent as the grave.

Her ports were closed; from stem to stern

No sign of life appeared.

We wondered, questioned, strained our eyes,

Joked — everything but feared.

She reached our range. Our broadsides rang,

Our heavy pivots roared;

And shot and shell, a fire of hell,

Against her sides we poured.

 p186  God's mercy! from her sloping roof

The iron tempest glanced,

As hail bounds from a cottage-thatch,

And round her leaped and danced. "​15

The Virginia delivered a terrible broadside at the Congress at a distance of two hundred yards. The results were ghastly, one shell dismounting an eight-inch gun and killing or wounding every man in her crew and other shells making altogether a fearful slaughter. She did not permit herself to be swerved aside, however, from the more heavily armed ship, the Cumberland, which Buchanan with sound strategy had determined to destroy first. The commanding officer of that vessel, Commander William Radford, was absent from his ship at a court of inquiry on the Roanoke, but the Cumberland was bravely fought by the executive officer, Lieutenant George U. Morris. In about fifteen minutes after the action began, the iron ram of the Virginia crashed into the Cumberland's starboard side under the fore rigging, with a noise that was distinctly heard aboard the Confederate ship. The Virginia then backed clear, breaking off a large part of her ram in doing so, and proceeded up the James River a short distance in order to turn round. Thus was passed safely an uneasy moment for Buchanan, for when his ironclad rammed the Cumberland she dipped forward until the water almost entered her bow port. Had this happened, she would have gone down like lead, and all the pessimistic prophesies concerning the vessel's fate would have been dreadfully fulfilled. Perhaps it was fortunate for her,  p187 after all, that her iron prow did break off, for otherwise she might not have been able to free herself from her doomed antagonist.

The Virginia's guns had also done their destructive work on the Union vessel and her decks were by that time a shambles of dead and wounded men; but even while the ship was sinking under them her gallant crew continued to fire the guns that were still serviceable. Buchanan's ship was not altogether uninjured at that stage of the battle. One of the Cumberland's shells had struck the sill of the bow port and exploded, killing two men and wounding several others with the fragments. The 9‑inch gun aft, which was already loaded and firing, was struck by a shell which broke off the end of the muzzle and fired the gun. Another gun also had its muzzle shot off, and this so shortened the gun that each time it was afterwards discharged the gun port was set on fire. The damage to the ironclad's armor, however, was negligible, and she was in good condition to continue the engagement. The Cumberland, however, at 2.40 went down, carrying with her 121 men of her crew of 376, but leaving her pennant still flying above the surface of the water.

While the Virginia was swinging round, she again opened fire on the Congress which, seeing the fate of the Cumberland, slipped her anchor, put on sail, and endeavored to escape. The tug Zouave tried to assist her, but she grounded where she was safe from being rammed by the Virginia but was at the mercy of her guns. In the destruction of the Congress which then followed the ironclad was assisted by the Patrick Henry, Jamestown, and Teaser, which arrived about time the Cumberland sunk, from a point near the mouth of  p188 the James River where they had been anxiously watching for the appearance of the Virginia. "They all came nobly into action", proudly wrote Buchanan,​16 "and were soon exposed to the heavy fire of shore batteries. Their escape was miraculous, as they were under a galling fire of solid shot, shell, grape, and canister, a number of which passed through the vessels without doing any serious injury, except to the Patrick Henry, through whose boiler a shot passed, scalding to death four persons and wounding others." The Virginia was constantly on the point of grounding, and this interfered with her maneuvering for a favorable position from which to attack, and postponed the destruction of the Congress. The Union vessel stood the terrific fire until about four o'clock; then, her commanding officer Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith​17 having been killed, the executive officer Lieutenant Austin Pendergrast, realizing that his men were being killed with no hope of relief from the other Union ships, hoisted the white flag.

Firing immediately ceased on the Virginia, and Buchanan ordered Lieutenant Commanding Parker of the Beaufort, which had been signaled to come within hail, "to take possession of the Congress, secure the officers as prisoners, allow the crew to land, and burn the ship".​18 While the Beaufort, assisted by the Raleigh, was  p189 receiving the surrender of the ship, which involved the lowering of her flag and the receiving of Pendergrast's sword, and was transferring the wounded from the captured vessel, a tremendous fire was opened on the Confederate gunboats by a regiment of soldiers of the 20th Indiana with both artillery and small arms, in spite of the fact that the white flag was flying from the Congress and the Confederates were engaged in the humane act of removing her wounded men. Several men of the Beaufort were wounded, and some were killed; hence it became necessary to retire and leave some of the enemy wounded on the doomed vessel, to be gotten off by their own people as best they could. "As I was determined that the Congress should not again fall into the hands of the enemy", reported Buchanan, "I remarked to that gallant officer Flag Lieutenant Minor, 'That ship must be burned'. He promptly volunteered to take a boat and burn her, and the Teaser, Lieutenant Commanding Webb, was ordered to cover the boat. Lieutenant Minor had scarcely reached within fifty yards of the Congress when a deadly fire was opened upon him, wounding him severely and several of his men. On witnessing this vile treachery, I instantly recalled the boat and ordered the Congress destroyed by hot shot and incendiary shell".​19

Shortly after the wounding of Minor, Buchanan, who was upon the upper deck of the Virginia observing​20 the  p190 attempt to burn the Congress, was himself wounded in the thigh by a Minie ball from the shore. The ball passed entirely through the fleshy portion of the thigh, grazing the femoral artery and inflicting so serious a wound that Buchanan was forced to turn over the command of the ironclad to Lieutenant Catesby Jones. When the commanding officer was taken below a feeling of depression spread throughout the crew; but this was soon dispelled when Minor, though wounded himself, appeared on deck and delivered this message from Buchanan: "Tell Mr. Jones to fight the ship to the last. Tell the men that I am not mortally wounded, and hope to be with them very soon".​21 This was greeted with resounding cheers, and every man returned to his post with renewed energy and determination.

The Roanoke, Minnesota, and St. Lawrence, lying off Old Point Comfort at the beginning of the engagement, attempted to come to the assistance of their sister ships. The first, unable to move under her own steam because of broken machinery (though she got up steam in order to deceive the Confederates), was towed by the tugs Dragon and Young America up toward Newport News. The Minnesota got under way at about the same time, 1.15 P.M., and steamed toward the Congress and Cumberland. The St. Lawrence, in tow of the Cambridge, did not get under way until 2 o'clock. As these Union ships passed Sewell's Point, they exchanged broadsides with the Confederate batteries. The Minnesota, when about a mile and a half from Newport News, went aground at 3 o'clock and there stuck fast. Both the other vessels also went aground before reaching the scene of action, and after being pulled off by tugs they retired to  p191 Fortress Monroe without injury except that the St. Lawrence was struck by a shell from the Virginia at 900 yards, which did great damage even though it did not explode.

The Minnesota was attacked, after the Congress was disposed of, by the Virginia, Jamestown, and Patrick Henry, and very severely punished at long range. But the tide was then ebbing and daylight fast going, and before the ship could be destroyed the pilots strongly advised that the Virginia retire to deeper water. This was ordered, with the full expectation of returning to complete the destruction of the Minnesota the following day. Accordingly, the ironclad withdrew and anchored for the night off Sewell's Point, followed by the rest of the squadron. From here the burning Congress could be seen, "her loaded guns being successively discharged as the flames reached them, until a few minutes past midnight, when her magazine exploded with a tremendous report".​22 She had lost 136 men, killed, wounded, or missing. This brought the total number of Union losses in the engagement to 299 men.

The losses suffered in the Confederate squadron amounted to not more than sixty men, killed and wounded. Of this number, the Virginia lost twenty‑one men, two killed and nineteen wounded.​23 No serious damages to the hull of the ironclad had been received; but the prow was somewhat twisted when the ram was broken off in the Cumberland, and the anchors and flagstaffs were shot away, the smokestack and steam pipe were riddled, and the muzzles of two of the guns were  p192 broken off as port-covers had not then been provided for all the guns. Practically all injuries and most of the casualties had been received from the Cumberland.​24

The news of this victory was received throughout the South with the wildest rejoicings. The newspapers indulged in the most unrestrained statements as to what might be expected of the Virginia. The blockade would be raised, Washington would be destroyed, and New York would be forced to pay tribute. Lieutenant John Taylor Wood was sent post haste to Richmond with dispatches and the captured flag of the Congress, and was received on his arrival by the President Davis and distinguished members of his cabinet. When the flag was unfolded, it was unexpectedly found to be saturated with blood in places, and was then quickly rolled up and sent to the Navy Department where it doubtless was afterwards destroyed when that building was burned at the close of the war.

Mallory wrote Buchanan, on March 17, inquiring,

"Can the Virginia steam to New York and attack and burn the city? She can, I doubt not, pass Old Point safely, and, in good weather and a smooth sea, could doubtless go to New York. Once in the bay, she could shell and burn the city and the shipping. Such an event would eclipse all the glories of the combats of the sea, would place every man in it preeminently high, and would strike a blow from which the enemy could never recover. Peace would inevitably follow. Bankers would withdraw their capital from the city. Brooklyn Navy  p193 Yard and its magazines and all the lower part of the city would be destroyed, and such an event, by a single ship, would do more to achieve our immediate independence than would the results of many campaigns".

To these roseate prospects, Buchanan replied, two days later,

"The Virginia is yet an experiment, and by no means invulnerable as has already been proven in her conflict on the 8th and 9th inst. when two or three of her heavy beams and plating were crushed in by the enemy's shot and shell. The Monitor is, from the best information I can obtain from the officers of this ship, her equal. The Virginia may probably succeed in passing Old Point Comfort and the Rip‑Raps, but she will then be subjected to some of the heaviest guns known to the enemy, and which she as yet has never tested. Supposing her having passed the Rip‑Raps, she has then to be tested in a seaway; with a green crew two thirds of whom have never been seasick. Should she encounter a gale, or a very heavy swell, I think it more than probable she would founder. On her passage to New York she would no doubt be followed by the heavy steam ships of the enemy and the Monitor, and having the speed of the Virginia would annoy her exceedingly with their guns. When off New York, I consider it would be impossible to obtain pilots who would venture to run the ship over the shoals and through the channels, with such an exposure of life as they would be subjected to. Under the present state of things no confidence can be placeº in any New York or New Jersey pilot. Ships drawing twenty‑two feet of water are frequently obliged to remain outside of New York Bar a week or more before they are able to enter. I have passed the Bar in a frigate drawing twenty‑one feet of water and stuck. I have  p194 also with an experienced pilot stirred up mud in a sloop of war coming out. The fortifications of the harbor of New York near which the ship is obliged to pass are armed with the heaviest guns. Should the Virginia succeed in getting off the city, she would doubtless strike a panic and do much injury to shipping and city, but with the determination and enterprise of our enemy, she never would be permitted to return. The river would certainly be blocked up, and fire rafts and ships would cover the river. One of the most vulnerable points of the Virginia is her projecting stern with her propeller and rudder, and had the Monitor succeeded in running against it as she attempted, the result would have been disastrous to this ship. I consider it all important that some means should be adopted as speedily as possible for throwing hot water or some other combustible material on the crew through the perforations on the top of the Monitor which would drive the men from their guns. I consider the Virginia the most important protection to the safety of Norfolk, and her services can be made very valuable in this neighborhood, taking her opportunity to make a bold dash at some other point".

This letter shows that Buchanan, at least, kept his head and was able properly to estimate the situation.

In the North, the consternation was as great as was the rejoi­cing in the South. There was, indeed, reason for it. No such losses in a naval battle had ever been experienced by the United States since the founding of the government. When Mr. Lincoln received the news, he called a meeting of the cabinet. Secretary Welles vividly describes the fear of the Secretary of War on that occasion as follows:

"But the most frightened man on that gloomy day, the most so I think of any during  p195 the Rebellion, was the Secretary of War. He was at times almost frantic and as he walked the room with his eyes fixed on me, I saw well the estimation in which he held me with my unmoved and unexcited manner and conversation. The Merrimac, he said, would destroy every vessel in the service, could lay every city on the coast under contribution, could take Fortress Monroe; McClellan's mistaken purpose to advance by the Peninsula must be abandoned, and Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Burnside would inevitably be captured. Likely the first movement of the Merrimac would be to come up the Potomac and disperse Congress, destroy the Capitol and public buildings; or she might go to New York and Boston and destroy those cities, or levy from them contributions to carry on the war. . . . In all that painful time my composure was not disturbed, so that I did not perhaps as fully realize and comprehend the whole impending calamity as others, and yet to me there was throughout the whole day something inexpressibly ludicrous in the wild, frantic talk, action, and rage of Stanton as he ran from room to room, sat down and jumped up after writing a few words, swung his arms, scolded, and raved. . . . Both he (Lincoln) and Stanton went repeatedly to the window and looked down the Potomac — the view being uninterrupted for miles — to see if the Merrimac was not coming to Washington".​25

This tension was, of course, relieved when the news of the battle between the Virginia and the Monitor on March 9 was received in Washington. The details of that engagement will not be given here, inasmuch as Buchanan had no part in it. He had made arrangements for his cot to be carried on the gun‑deck of his  p196 ship, and from there he had expected to continue the fight on that day. But early on that morning, before the Confederate vessel set out to finish the Minnesota, both he and Lieutenant Minor, at the urgent solicitation of the surgeons, were taken ashore at Sewell's Point and sent by steamer to a hospital in Norfolk; and the command of the Virginia then devolved upon Lieutenant Catesby Jones.

When the Virginia approached the Minnesota on the morning of the 9th, she found in the vicinity a strange-looking craft, which had dramatically arrived the preceding night from New York just in the nick of time to save a very bad situation. It was the famous single-turreted ram, designed by Ericsson, hurriedly completed, and rushed to those waters under command of Lieutenant John L. Worden. The battle which then ensued was the first in history between ironclads. It lasted four hours; then the Monitor withdrew to shoal water where the Virginia could not attack her effectively, and the latter retired to Norfolk.​26 Tactically it was a drawn battle. Twice afterwards the Confederate vessel came out, after she had been supplied with a new ram, had iron plating placed on her submerged hull, and had iron port covers in place for all her guns, and tried in vain to provoke the Monitor to fight again. But it was to the advantage of the Union vessel to maintain the blockade without risking another battle, and a few months later, May 11, the Virginia had to be burned by her commander, Commodore Tattnall, when the Confederates were forced to evacuate Norfolk.

For his remarkable achievement, Buchanan was  p197 handsomely rewarded. A resolution of thanks was tendered him "and all under his command for their unsurpassed gallantry" by the Congress of the Confederate States of America. Buchanan was also greatly pleased to receive congratulatory resolutions from the "Maryland Society" in Richmond, passed on March 17. In reply, he wrote, "We felt proud on that occasion to strike a blow for the Southern Confederacy, and for myself as a Marylander, I was especially gratified at having an opportunity of showing my devotion to our dear old state".​27 His old friend Tattnall wrote, "I congratulate you, my dear friend, with all my heart and soul, on the glory you have gained for the Confederacy and yourself. The whole affair is unexampled, and will carry your name to every corner of the Christian world and be on the tongue of every man who deals in salt water. That which I admire most in the whole affair is the bold confidence with which you undertook an untried thing. To have faltered, or to have doubted, might have been fatal, and you proved yourself (as the old navy always esteemed you) a man not of doubt or faltering when you had undertaken an adventure. If your wound be severe, I shall regret it, but if it be not so, your friends will not find fault, as it crowns your worth. I hope that Congress will make you an admiral, and put you at the head of the navy. You have my vote for it from my very heart, and I am sure that all your seniors will cry 'Amen'. You do not know how much you have aided in removing the gloom which recent military events had cast over us. Do let some friend at your bedside write me one line to tell me the nature of your wound. God  p198 bless you, my dear Buchanan".​28 Tattnall's hopes as to Buchanan's promotion were fulfilled, for on August 19, 1862 he was recommended by Secretary Mallory to President Davis for promotion to the rank of admiral "for gallant and meritorious conduct in attacking the enemy's fleet in Hampton Roads and destroying the frigate Congress, sloop of war Cumberland, and three small steamers, whilst in command of the squadron in the waters of Virginia, on the 8th of March, 1862".​29

These honors and rewards were modestly received by Buchanan. In fact, he showed no egotism or vainglory in his official report of the battle but gave the highest praise to Lieutenant Jones, and made personal mention of the praiseworthy services of other officers on the Virginia as well as those on the other vessels of his squadron. Nor did he fail to recognize, in his report, the gallantry of the defenders of the Cumberland. In regard to his promotion, he went so far as to write the Secretary on April 28, 1862 as follows: "As much, dear Sir, as I like professional advancement, to which I have been looking forward with pride all my life, I cannot avoid making a strong appeal to you to change your views as to pla­cing me at the head of the Admirals List. I do this upon due reflection, and from a sense of justice and personal feelings towards a worthy, gallant officer and friend, who is an honor to the navy. I allude to Commodore Tattnall; he is my senior in the Service, and an officer of high tone, bearing, and gallantry, one whose associates in the Service all esteem as such. I therefore  p199 sincerely hope he may be placed above me; it will not only be gratifying to me, but I am convinced it would meet the approbation of the officers generally in the navy".

It is unusual, to say the least, to find such an example of unselfish friendship in the midst of war when ambition and the baser passions usually walk rough shod over the tender and gentle emotions of the human heart. This chivalrous friendship between these two old naval officers, who had served together in the old days in time of danger and knew each other through and through, shines forth in those troublous days in their correspondence like "a good deed in a naughty world", and still has power to move the heart in sympathy.

Here ends the story of Buchanan and the Virginia, an episode of fearless experiment which inflicted the greatest naval disaster ever suffered by the United States and, but for the wounding of Buchanan in the first day's engagement, might have resulted in a decisive victory over the Monitor the following day and might have thus changed vitally the whole course of the war.

The Author's Notes:

1 Inclosure in note from Assistant Secretary of the Navy G. V. Fox to T. T. Craven, commanding Potomac Flotilla, September 13, 1861. This place was up the York River near Richmond, or possibly Whitestone Point near the mouth of the Rappahannock.

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2 Buchanan to S. R. Mallory, September 26, 1861.

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3 General Robert E. Lee to General A. H. Lawton, from headquarters at Coosawhatchie, South Carolina, November 11, 1861.

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4 There were 1195, according to the report of William H. Peters who took an inventory for the Governor of Virginia, as given in Parker's "Recollections of a Naval Officer," p247.

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5 These ships were the following: Pennsylvania, three-decker; the Delaware and the Columbus, 74's; the frigates Merrimac, Columbia, and Raritan; the sloops of war Germantown and Plymouth; and the brig Dolphin. Among these were two ships Buchanan had served on; namely, the Germantown and the Delaware. The United States was also there but she "was in so decayed a condition that it was deemed unnecessary to waste the material of turpentine upon her." (Captain Charles Wilkes to Flag Officer Hiram Paulding, April 22, 1861.)

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6 For controversy over the question as to who originated the plans for rebuilding the Merrimac, see Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XIX.3 et seq. and Battles and Leaders, Vol. I, as regards Brooke and Porter; and The End of an Era by John Wise, pp172‑173, 192, 193, and The Asheville Times of August 22, 1926, as regards Commander Gabriel Galt Williamson, U. S. Navy, half-brother to William P. Williamson.

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7 James Russell Soley's The Blockade and the Cruisers, p60.

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8 They were, in addition to Buchanan and Jones, Lieutenants Charles C. Simms, R. D. Minor (flag), C. Hunter Davidson, John Taylor Wood, J. R. Eggleston, and Walter R. Butt; Midshipmen R. C. Foute, H. H. Marmaduke, H. B. Littlepage, W. J. Craig, J. C. Long, and L. H. Rootes; Paymaster James A. Semple; Surgeon D. B. Phillips; Assistant Surgeon Algernon S. Garnett; Captain of Marines Reuben Thorn; Acting Chief Engineer H. A. Ramsay; Assistant Engineers John W. Tynan, Loudon Campbell, Benjamin Herring, E. A. Jack, and E. V. White; Acting Master William Parrish; Boatswain Charles H. Hasker; Gunner C. B. Oliver; Carpenter Hugh Lindsay; Captain's Clerk Arthur Sinclair, Jr.; Paymaster's Clerk E. Albright; Volunteer Aide, Lieutenant Douglas Forrest, C. S. Army; Captain Kevil, commanding a detachment of Norfolk United Artillery; and Sergeant Tabb, Signal Corps. The Muster Roll throws doubt on the fact that the above named Boatswain, Gunner, and Carpenter were on the vessel at the time of the battle in Hampton Roads.

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9 Battles and Leaders, I.694.

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10 The Monitor and the Merrimac: Both Sides of the Story, told by Worden, Greene, and Ramsay, pp31, 32.

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11 In Southern Historical Society Papers, XI.66.

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12 W. H. Parker's Recollections of a Naval Officer, pp252, 253.

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13 Edward Shippen's Thirty Years at Sea, p280.

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14 J. T. Scharf's History of the Confederate States Navy, p154. Ramsay's "Merrimac and Monitor," pp34, 35, gives different words, but the same substance. Probably neither are exact, but set down from memory afterwards.

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15 From "On Board the Cumberland" by George Henry Boker.

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16 In his Official Report of March 27, 1862.

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17 Lieutenant Smith had been a midshipman at the Naval School while Buchanan was superintendent. Buchanan's brother McKean was paymaster on the Congress, and in the engagement, "while the fight was progressing, although he knew his brother was in command of the Merrimac, he volunteered to Lieutenant Commanding Joseph B. Smith, for duty on either of the upper decks. He was ordered to take charge of the berth-deck, where he acted with marked gallantry throughout the action." (Boston Post of March 20, 1862.) Fortunately he escaped uninjured.

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18 Buchanan's Official Report of March 27, 1862.

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19 Ibid. As a matter of fact, fires were started on the Congress early in the action, which were never entirely extinguished and eventually destroyed the vessel. (Shippen's "Thirty Years at Sea," p282.)

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20 "Commodore Buchanan, who was naturally high-tempered and easily excited, was standing upon the hurricane deck and witnessed this treacherous proceeding. He immediately snatched a carbine from the hands of one of our men, and shouting to Catesby Jones below, 'Burn that damned ship, Mr. Jones, she is firing upon our boat under her flags of surrender,' he commenced firing upon her in total forgetfulness of his own danger, and in a short time was handed below, seriously wounded." ("Career of the Virginia," by Surgeon D. B. Phillips in Virginia Historical Society Papers, VI.204.)

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21 Scharf's History of the Confederate States Navy, p155.

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22 Buchanan's Official Report of March 27, 1862.

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23 Surgeon Phillips of the Virginia reported only two killed and eight wounded. Therefore the other wounded must have been but slightly hurt.

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24 Summary of Forces and Losses. The Federals had, to count only the Cumberland, Congress, and Minnesota which were the vessels most actively engaged, 1350 men and 121 guns, and lost a total of 299, killed and wounded. The Confederates had about 650 men and 27 guns, and their casualties amounted to approximately 60 men, killed and wounded.

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25 Diary of Gideon Welles, I.62‑65.

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26 Cf. History of Maryland by Matthew Page Andrews, p536 footnote.

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27 Letter of April 21, 1862.

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28 From Savannah, Georgia, March 12, 1862.

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29 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Vol. 7, p62. Buchanan's commission as an admiral bore the date of August 26, 1862, according to "Register of the Commissioned and Warrant Officers of the Navy of the Confederate States to January 1, 1863".

Thayer's Note:

a If you are interested in pursuing the subject in depth, a good "working bibliography" was compiled by USAMHI (the United States Army Military History Institute) in June 1993; it is onsite.

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Page updated: 6 Oct 21