‘Relentless as Fate’

Published 9:46 pm Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A postcard depicts the sinking of the USS Cumberland by the CSS Virginia on March 8, 1862. More than 120 men died on the Cumberland and another 120 lost their lives in a subsequent attack on the USS Congress. The actions were the beginning of the Battle of Hampton Roads, which took place in the water off what is now Craney Island and the old TCC campus.

When the CSS Virginia sailed into Hampton Roads on what was ostensibly a shakedown cruise on the afternoon of March 8, 1862, what lay before the newly rebuilt and refitted ship was a veritable shooting gallery of wooden-hulled vessels of the U.S. naval fleet.

The Virginia, which had been known as the Merrimack during her service to the federal government, had been raised from where it had been burned to the waterline and sunk by federal forces evacuating the Gosport shipyard the previous year. The Confederates almost immediately began converting the steam frigate into an ironclad.

The Virginia wasn’t the first ironclad to sail, but on March 8 — and then, in a different way, on March 9 — she put an emphatic end to the days of wooden-hulled warships.

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Covered by the confederates with “a roof of two-inch iron plates” in the words of Col. William Norris, Chief of Signal Corps for the Confederate Army — who claimed to have watched the battle “from a safe position” — the Virginia sailed into a harbor packed with U.S. ships aiming to enforce a blockade and deny the rebels trade and resupply routes. Commanders aboard the federal ships would quickly learn that their weapons were useless against the frigate’s armor.

Steaming out of Gosport in the morning, the Virginia followed the Elizabeth River out past Sewell’s Point and then turned west, heading past what is now Craney Island and the old TCC campus in Suffolk, and area known then as Pig Point. By 1:30 p.m., passing the area where the Middle Ground Lighthouse now stands at the mouth of the James River, the Virginia had her sights set on her first test, the USS Cumberland, one of the largest and best-armed federal ships in the area.

The Cumberland was a corvette of 1,700 tons, with 22 nine-inch Dahlgren guns mounted on her and carrying a crew of 376 men.

At about 2 p.m., having already delivered a passing broadside to the USS Congress and then to the Cumberland, the Virginia struck its most devastating blow, plowing into the Cumberland with a 1,500-pound iron spar that had been affixed to the bow of the ironclad.

Here, the words of Col. Norris: “Relentless as Fate we rush down upon her, and crushing through the barricade of heavy spars (torpedo fenders), we strike below the starboard fore chains and crash far into her hull.”

The effect of the blow was shatteringly and swiftly lethal.

Col. Norris again: “We back off, and now, the blue waters are rushing in, to fill the cavern we have made in the beautiful frigate; she reels, and rolls, and staggers, and now the waves engulf her….”

Cumberland sank with her colors still flying and her guns still firing. Aboard the doomed ship, 121 men died. Many others were rescued by lifeboats out of Newport News.

But the Virginia lost its spar in the attack and was unable to turn it on the Congress, to which the Confederate sailors’ attention had turned.

That ship, an 1,867-ton sail frigate with 50 32-pound guns, grounded itself on a nearby shoal while trying to escape the fate of the Cumberland, and the Confederates’ James River Fleet had her pinned down with heavy fire. By 4 p.m., the Cumberland rested at the bottom of the James River and the Congress had surrendered, having lost 120 of its 434-man crew.

By the end of the day, no less than eight federal ships had been sunk or damaged by the Confederates. Things had changed in naval warfare, and the rebels held the upper hand.

But things would change during the night, with the arrival in Hampton Roads of another Ironclad, the USS Monitor.

Check Friday’s edition of the Suffolk News-Herald for an account of the epic battle that ensued between the two ironclads on the following day.