Monday, June 4, 2012

The USS Cumberland

Midday of March 8, 1862 brought what looked to some to be “The roof of a very large barn, belching smoke as from a chimney on fire.” coming out of the mouth of the Elizabeth River and into Hampton Roads. The CSS Virginia was on the prowl, and churning its way across the Roads toward its targets, USS Congress and USS Cumberland anchored at Newport News. They were rapidly becoming part of a bygone era, and by nightfall that era would end. They were of wooden structure, and propelled by the wind in their sails. Today they would face Virginia, and her steam propulsion and her iron encased hull, and neither ship would last the day.

Three other Federal warships were anchored at nearby Fortress Monroe, the frigates Minnesota and Roanoke, also of wooden construction but with steam auxiliary power, and the St. Lawrence, strictly wood and sail. All would lend some weight to the fight this day, but Minnesota and St. Lawrence would run aground and Roanoke was immobile due to a damaged propeller. She gave long range “moral support” , if ineffectual, fire. Federal shore batteries would also add to the maelstrom.

Congress and Cumberland had seen the monster coming and had slipped their anchors and cleared for action. The two big ships maneuvered as best they could to bring broadsides to bear against Virginia, but had difficulty in doing so. Yet they poured a hot fire as best they could at the unwieldy beast. Virginia was no mosquito, and she, too, had problems bringing all of her guns to bear at once. Her fire was devastating to the wooden vessels where as theirs was of little effect on the iron skin of their foe.

Virginia ran by Congress, unleashing a broadside as she went, then plowed her iron beak into the starboard side of Cumberland. The two ships stuck together as Cumberland took on water and Virginia wrestled to wrench herself free. Finally the two separated only as Cumberland began to settle and Virginia's iron snout was broken off. Cumberland soon settled to the bottom, her gun crews at their pieces to the very last. Their last broadside blew the muzzles off of two of Virginia’s guns.

Virginia now turned her attention again toward Congress, now run hard aground in her attempt to get to water the captain suspected would be to shallow for Virginia to maneuver in, only finding the depth much to shallow for his own craft. Virginia closed in and poured devastating fire into the stricken ship. Congress finally struck her colors and hoisted a white flag.

At dusk the fight would end. Light was fading and the tide was ebbing, so Virginia retreated to the mouth of the Elizabeth River. Congress was burning and would explode near midnight. Cumberland was under the waters of the Roads. Minnesota, St. Lawrence, and Roanoke were helpless, or nearly so. March 9, 1862 would possibly see the end of the Yankee fleet at Hampton Roads. It must have been a long night for the men there. But a new day brought forth a new era in the form of a “cheese box on a raft”... the USS Monitor. [1]

The above is to give some background of the first day of the fight at Hampton Roads and is in no way intended to be a definitive history on the battle. I did feel that some idea of what took place there would help the reader appreciate the following poem more, or if you are a stickler for detail, less appreciation.
The poem was published in 1863 by one of the 19th century's literary giants, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and inspired by the fight put up by the Cumberland and her crew on the first day of the battle. It is interesting to see he chose this subject rather than the more glamorous fight between Virginia and Monitor. Although it was published in 1863, the poem likely was written sometime in 1862 and shortly after the battle.
The Cumberland
At anchor in Hampton Roads we lay,
On board of the Cumberland, sloop-of-war;
And at times from the fortress across the bay
The alarum of drums swept past,
Or a bugle blast
From the camp on the shore.
Then far away to the south uprose
A little feather of snow-white smoke,
And we knew that the iron ship of our foes
Was steadily steering its course
To try the force
Of our ribs of oak.
Down upon us heavily runs,
Silent and sullen, the floating fort;
Then comes a puff of smoke from her guns,
And leaps the terrible death,
With fiery breath,
From each open port.
We are not idle, but send her straight
Defiance back in a full broadside!
As hail rebounds from a roof of slate,
Rebounds our heavier hail
From each iron scale
Of the monster's hide.
"Strike your flag!" the rebel cries,
In his arrogant old plantation strain.
"Never!" our gallant Morris replies;
"It is better to sink than to yield!"
And the whole air pealed
With the cheers of our men.
Then, like a kraken huge and black,
She crushed our ribs in her iron grasp!
Down went the Cumberland all a wrack,
With a sudden shudder of death,
And the cannon's breath
For her dying gasp.
Next morn, as the sun rose over the bay,
Still floated our flag at the mainmast head.
Lord, how beautiful was Thy day!
Every waft of the air
Was a whisper of prayer,
Or a dirge for the dead.
Ho! brave hearts that went down in the seas!
Ye are at peace in the troubled stream;
Ho! brave land! with hearts like these,
Thy flag, that is rent in twain,
Shall be one again,
And without a seam! [2]
There are facts woven into the poem that have not been distorted by poetic license. Parts one would expect to be romanticized indeed happened such as; Franklin Buchanan, commander of Virginia on the 8th did demand Cumberland's surrender as she was sinking and was indeed met by a resounding “NO”. Also, when she went down she settled upright, and one mast bearing the Stars and Stripes remained above water. And finally, if not prophetically,
Thy flag, that is rent in twain.
Shall be one again,
And without a seam!”

The Picket

1) Catton, Bruce, Terrible Swift Sword, pages 193-199, 1963

2) Pictures retrieved from 4 June, 2012
3) Poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 1863, retrieved from, 4 June, 2012

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