The Monitor Uninjured
Fortress Monroe, Saturday, March 8 – The dullness of Old Point was startled today by the announcement that a suspicious looking vessel, supposed to be the Merrimac, looking like a submerged house, with the roof only above water, was mowing down from Norfolk by the channel in front of the Sowel’s Point batteries. Signal guns were also fired by the Cumberland and Congress, to notify the Minnesota, St. Lawrence and Roanoke of the approaching danger, and all was excitement in and about Fortress Monroe.
There was nothing protruding above the water but a flagstaff flying the rebel flag, and a short smokestack. She moved along slowly, and turned into the channel leading to Newport’s News, and streamed direct for the frigates Cumberland and Congress which were lying at the mouth of the James River.
As soon as she came within range of the Cumberland, the latter opened on her with heavy guns, but the balls struck and glanced off, having no more effect than peas from a pop-gun. Her ports were all closed, and she moved on in silence, but with a full head of steam.
In the meantime, as the Merrimac was approaching the two frigates on one side, the rebel iron-clad steamers Yorktown and Jamestown came down James River, and engaged our frigates on the other side. The batteries at New Port’s news also opened on the Yorktown and Jamestown, and did all in their power to assist the Cumberland and Congress, which, being sailing vessels, were at the mercy of the approaching steamers.
The Merrimac, in the meantime, kept steadily on her course, and slowly approached the Cumberland, when she and the Congress, at a distance of one hundred yards, rained full broadsides on the iron-clad monster, that took, no effect, the balls glancing upwards, and flying off having only the effect of checking her progress for a moment.
After receiving the first broadside of the two frigates, she ran on to the Cumberland, striking her about midships, and literally laying open her sides. She then drew off, and fired a broadside into the disabled ship, and again dashed against her with her iron-clad prow, and knocking in her side, left her to sink while she engaged the Congress, which laid about a quarter of a mile distant.
The Congress had, in the meantime, kept up a short engagement with the Yorktown and Jamestown and having no regular crew on board of her, and seeing the hopelessness of resisting the iron-clad steamer, at once struck her colors. Her crew had been discharged several days since, and three companies of the Naval Brigade had been put on board temporarily, until she could be relieved by the St. Lawrence, which was to have gone up on Monday to take her position as one of the blockading vessels of the James River.
On the Congress striking her colors, the Jamestown approached and took from on board of her, all her officers as prisoners, but allowed the crew to escape to boats. The vessel being thus cleared, was fired by the rebels, when the Merrimac and her two iron-clad companions opened with shell and shot on the Newport’s News batteries. The firing was briskly returned. Various reports have been received. . . Some of them represent that the garrison had been compelled to retreat from the batteries to the woods. Another was that the two smaller rebel steamers had been compelled to retreat from their guns.
In the meantime the steam-frigate Minnesota, having partly got up steam, was being towed up to the relief of the two frigates, but did not get up until it was too late to assist them. She was also followed up by the frigate St. Lawrence, which was taken in tow by several of the small harbor steamers. It is rumored, however, that neither of these vessels had pilots on board them, and after a short engagement, both of them seemed to be, in the opinion of the pilots on the Point, aground. The Minnesota either intentionally or from necessity, engaged the three steamers at about a mile distance, with only her two bow guns. The St. Lawrence also poured in shot from all the guns one could bring to bear, and it was the impression of the most experienced naval officers on the point that both had been considerably damaged. These statements, it must be borne in mind, are all based on what could be seen by a glass at a distance of nearly eight miles, and from a few panic stricken con-combatants who fled at almost the first gun from Newport’s News.
Previous to the departure of the steamer for Baltimore, no guns had been fired for half and hour, the last one being fired from the Minnesota. Some persons declared that immediately after this last gun was fired, a volume of vapor was seen to rise from the Merrimac, indicating the explosion of her boiler. Whether this is so or not, cannot be known, but it was the opinion that the rebel monster was hard aground.
Fears were of course for the safety of the Minnesota and St. Lawrence in such an unequal contest; but if the Merrimac was really ashore, she could do no more damage. It was the intention of the Minnesota, with her picked and gathered crew, to run into close quarters with the Merrimac, avoid her iron prow and board her. This the Merrimac seemed not inclined to give her an opportunity to do.
At 8 o’clock, when the baltimore boat left, a fleet of steam-tugs were being sent up to the relief of the Minnesota and the St. Lawrence, and an endeavor was to be made to draw them off the bar on which they had grounded. In the meantime the firing had suspended; whether from mutual consent or necessity, could not be ascertained.
The battery at Pig Point was also enabled to join in the combined attack on the Minnesota, and several gates were fired at last from Sewall’s Point as she went up. None of them struck her, but one or two of them passed over her.