April 23 1862- Battle between Cumberland & Merrimac (described by Kershner)
The Battle Between the “Cumberland” and the Rebel Steamer "Merrimac,”
By an Officer of the “Cumberland.”
About noon on the 8th of March, one of our quartermasters pointed out a dark looking object with Very large smokestack coming out from Norfolk and steaming down toward Sewells Point in company with two smaller steamers. From the description we received from time to time, of the Merrimac, we quickly came to the conclusion that it was this formidable and long expected rebel Iron Steamer. Every one hurried to the deck to get a sight of her. She had by this time nearly reached Sewell’s Point, and her outlines were quite apparent. Her covering was shaped like the roof of an old fashioned house, the eaves of which projected over its sides. Our crew was beat to quarters, and awaited her approach in silence. After reaching Sewell’s Point she turned toward Norfolk again, and we surmised that she probably was only out on a trial trip. Instead, however, of going into Norfolk, she passed Craney Island and stood for the mouth of Nansemund river, she then steamed directly across James River toward our ship, the “Cumberland.” The crew was again beat to quarters, and in a very few minutes the guns were manned, the magazine, shot and shell rooms opened, and everything was ready for action.
The engagement commenced by a shot from our six inch rifled pivot gun, when the Merrimac was a distance of about two miles. The rifled guns on shore immediately opened on her also. When she came within range all the guns of our ship, the frigate Congress, and the Newport News shore batteries were promptly brought to bear upon her.
But she heeded none, only giving the Congress a passing fire as she came under a full head of steam toward our ship. She did not fire into us, but ran her iron prow into our bows, tearing a large hole in the sides below the water line-. Our brave sailors worked the guns nobly, and gave her one broadside from our nine inch Dahlgrens a few yards distance, which momentarily stopped her, sinking her in the water nearly to her gunports.—
Our good old ship commenced to sink immediately after the collision, and it was soon told through the ship that we were rapidly going down, but each man was busy at his work, and no one appeared to care much where we went, only that we did not go to Richmond. After running into us she drew off and asked commander Morris to surrender. “I will never surrender,” replied Lieut. Morris. “Then I will sink you." “Sink away, replied Morris. A cheer went throughout the ship from stem to stern, and from the upper deck to the cockpit, at the brave reply, the echo of which was drowned by a sound move terrible, the sound of the Merrimac’s broadside, which cut our brave men down by the dozen, and the wounded in large numbers were brought into the sick bay, with broken bones and lacerated and splintered flesh, groaning and shrieking with pain. We did what we could for the poor fellows, immediately making them as comfortable as possible until we had time to give them better treatment. An exploding shell knocked the ventilator down on the heads of Surgeon Martin, his Assistant, and Steward, at the same time nearly deafening all in the bay. In a few minutes another exploded in the sick bay, instantly killing five of the wounded sufferers, and to add to the horrors of the scene the water now came rushing in on all sides, admonishing us to find a higher latitude. The wounded were quickly removed to the cockpit and steerage, which was already half filled with them. After firing into us she again withdrew a short distance and ran her prow into the ship sides the second time. Capt. Buchanan now came to a part of his ship and again asked Lieut. Morris to surrender. His reply was "no, we will die first." At the same time a well-aimed shot by a marine named Gates brought down the traitor Captain. Lieut. Morris now ordered the red flag to be raised to the fore mast-head, which, the rebels seeing imperfectly through the smoke, mistook for a white flag, and shouted over what they supposed to be a victory, but the shout was re-echoed from the “Cumberland," when it was seen to be the red flag of victory or death.
When the Merrimac ran into us, our good old ship tottered and quivered from the shock. An hour after the commencement of the battle the water commenced running into the after magazine the forward being already flooded, and several cases of powder were raised to the berth deck to keep it dry and enable them to work the guns until they were submerged beneath the waves, but it proved to be useless work, as all was destined soon to sink. The men worked nobly throughout the whole fight, not a moment did our brave tars cease to fire, but rained the solid nines and ten- inch shot continuously upon the iron roof of our novel and impregnable adversary, and above the noise of our heavy guns, the bursting shell and cracking timbers, could be heard the clear commanding voice of Lieut. Selfeege urging the men on in this hopeless battle. The same spirit animated officers and men. All determined to stand by the flag of our patriot fathers but the order was given for all to save themselves and all the other guns were beneath the water, Master Kandell discharged the last shot from the after pivot gun, the same gun which opened the battle two hours previous. Many of the wounded after having their wounds temporarily dressed were very anxious to return to the guns, saying they were strong enough to give the traitors a few more rounds, and it was with difficulty that they could be restrained from going. Many did not make any effort whatever to escape from the ship declaring that it had been for a long time their home and they would make it their sepulcher. The most melancholy feature of the whole affair was to see those brave and patriotic men, wounded and mangled in fighting for the honor of our flag, go down with the sinking ship without being able in the least to assist them in saving themselves.— Throughout the whole engagement all were cool and calm as if they were in their daily occupation and not as if they were in what we all knew to be one of the most hopeless conflicts ever recorded.— When the order was given to leave the ship there was no rush to the boats, no disorder, confusion or hurry: all moved with a calmness and quietude of which I never suppose human nature possessed amid such awful surroundings. I shall not attempt to describe the scene which met my view when I reached the spar deck. Upon the few feet which yet remained above the water were scattered in promiscuous confusion, splinters of wood, pieces of shell and flesh, dead bodies, blood, &c. Whilst all round the ship the water was filled with human beings all struggling to keep themselves above the waves which were about to engulph them. Nor was this sight rendered more pleasant by the thought that I too in a moment would be with them, battling with the waves for self-preservation. A plunge and the waves over me and as the waters gurgle in my ears all hopes of life are gone, but the arm of a Marine supports me and I am handed into the launch in time to see the noble old Flag settling with one hundred and sixteen of its heroic defenders beneath the waves. We pull to shore and soon partake of hospitality of the Union soldiers. Our Chaplin Mr. Lenhart, sank with the ship. Capt. Morris was nearly drowned remaining under water for sometime. He was rescued by Master’s Mate O’N[?] During the action but one man showed himself outside the iron case of the Merrimac, he was torn to pieces in an instant by a shell. When we attempted to board her our men slipped off of her sl[?]ing roof into the water. The rebel, and Commodores flags were both shot away from the Merrimac was also the small boats and anchors. When we reached the shore the shell were flying around us in every direction. One of our officers who was standing near where the flag was lowered on the Congress burst into tears and said he would he prefered death in the fight to live and see that flag hauled down. It has been asked why did the Merrimac pass the “Congress” and attack the “Cumberland” Capt. Buchanan of the Merrimac had a brother in the “Congress.” But a much better answer is found in the fact that the “Cumberland” assisted in destroying the Navy Yard at Norfolk last April.— She also assisted in destroying even the old Merrimac, burning her to the water edge and as all know, that hulk has been converted into the powerful war machine which now in her turn has sunk the Cumberland. It was [?] officers too who assisted in destroying the “Pennsylvania,” “Germantown” and “United States,” with other smaller vessels at that time. The rebels at that time were sure of taking “Cumberland” and even went so far as to ap[?] officers for her.— They also offered large sums of money to the Sailors to bribe them to s[?] guns that they might in that way take a [?]that they were too cowardly to fight for. This wa[?] cted by our patriotic sailors. The rebels [?] the loss of the Hatteras forts to the shell of [?] Cumberland
Herald of Freedom & Torch Light
The officer on the Cumberland in question was Dr. E. A. Kershner of Clear Spring.
The Merrimac is more correctly known, at the time of this battle, as the C.S.S. Virginia. The U. S.S. Merrimack had been captured and rebuilt by the Confederates as an ironclad and renamed the Virginia. The fact that the battle at Hampton Roads is often called the battle of "the Merrimack and the Monitor" rather than "the Virginia and the Monitor" may be because much of the press coverage was by Union newspapers and magazines who, along with the Union military, may have knowingly continued to use the prior name of the ship rather than her proper name. See Virginia, Merrimack, or Merrimac?
Washington County Free Library
Hagerstown (Md.), Newspapers; Maryland, History, Civil War, 1861-1865
Washington County (Md.), 1861-1865