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How the Cumberland Went Down

by Moses S. Stuyvesant, Lieutenant-Commander, U.S. Navy
(First Published 1892)

As an historical event, the sinking of the United States ship Cumberland, by the rebel ironclad steamer Merrimac, March 8, 1862, was not of great importance. It had no influence upon the campaign in progress, nor did it teach us anything before unknown in the science of naval warfare. It was an episode merely, but will nevertheless always have place in the history of the memorable rebellion, and will doubtless serve as an inspiration to coming generations as long as we shall have a flag to fight under.

One who was at the time a very young officer, holding but a subordinate position on board the Cumberland, may be permitted to relate, briefly, a history of heroism and patriotism not often equaled in the records of battles.

The Cumberland was one of the old sailing frigates, cut down, or razeed, as the term was, and rated in the navy resister as a sloop of war. She carried for those days, a formidable battery, consisting of a 10-inch pivot gun forward on the spar deck, a rifled 80-pounder Dahlgren gun aft, and on the gun deck, in broadside, 22 9-inch guns. She was a great favorite among the older officers, being, an excellent sea vessel - comfortable, speedy, and easily handled in all weather. Full sparred, she carried a 11 "cloud" of canvas, requiring necessarily a large crew, which numbered about 350, and contained a large proportion of trained men-of-warsmen. The Cumberland was probably the last thorough representative of the navy of former days, when the people fostered it, when tars were tars, and seamanship had its value.

We had spent several months cruising, off Hatteras, as part of the first blockading squadron organized, and upon being relieved from that duty, proceeded to Newport News for the winter. This was a newly formed camp on the east shore of the James River, where the latter empties into Hampton Roads, and about four miles from Fortress Monroe.

We found anchorage in about 12 fathoms, distant a few hundred yards from some batteries on the water side of the camp, and about ten miles front Norfolk, Va.

There does not appear to have been overmuch for us to do during the winter months of our stay at Newport News. The daily routine of man-of-war life was faithfully carried on, varied only, that I can recall, by an attempted night attack by our boats on a rebel battery on the opposite shore of the James, there several miles broad.

But life was made interesting, if not anxious, by almost daily reports of the progress toward completion of a powerful ironclad vessel being constructed in Norfolk. Our exposed position invited attack, and we looked for it day and night for months. As the navy department had full information on the subject, the subsequent loss of the frigate was a needless sacrifice. It is difficult to imagine why she was left there to become the easy prey of the enemy, nor why, if the rebels, with limited resources, could reconstruct the Merrimac and cover her with iron in a few months, we could not have done as much in as many weeks.

But then we are today unprepared for defense even, while spluttering of war with the most powerful maritime nation in the world!

Ordinarily, our ships of war are trim and orderly in the extreme, but for months, the Cumberland was stripped for battle - guns double breached - decks littered with full shot-racks - the small arms within reach - and the crew were constantly under drill, until every man knew not only the duties of his own station at quarters, but those of every station as well. With plenty of sea room, a breeze, and an English frigate, or two of them, as our foe, there might have been a chance for victory. But when the armored Merrimac steamed out of Norfolk and threaded her way among, the shoals toward us, we stood no chance - none whatever. It was iron and steam against a sailing vessel of wood in a dead calm.

It was about one o'clock in the afternoon of a bright spring, day. There were probably 20,000 men in blue and in gray on either shore of the river to view the combat. There was no wind to fill our sails, nor was the tide making, much, if any. As soon as it became evident that the enemy was about to call upon us, we went to quarters, opened magazines and shell-rooms, reloaded the guns, sanded the decks so that the blood of the fallen should not trip tip the living, and then waited - probably ten minutes - for her to come within range. The Merrimac, after rounding the long shoal off the point, headed directly for us, firing once in passing at our sister ship, the Congress, and receiving at the same time a shot from our forward pivot sun. Her first shot at us struck the starboard quarter-rail, throwing the pieces among the guard of marines, wounding several of them. The second shot struck the waterways, under the forward pivot, which was our heaviest gun, and disabled it. Our firing became at once very rapid from the few guns we could bring to bear as she approached slowly, heading for our starboard bow, where she rammed us under or forward of the fore-chains. The shock of the collision was, of course, perceptible, but was not violent, and was followed by a rapid fire from her forward ports. The report speedily came up from below of large quantities of water pouring through the gap made by the ram, making it very evident that the good ship was certain to go to the bottom.

Meanwhile, the Merrimac was being, swung around by the making, tide, her ram breaking off in the operation, and was soon in position abreast of us, distant say twenty feet, both vessels firing, rapidly, and every gun bearing.

Her shells found nothing to impede them, and passed through the side of our ship, throwing splinters and fragments of iron among our men on the gun deck, and producing, in the course of the half hour ensuing, a scene of carnage and destruction never to be recalled without horror. In that time, our loss was not less than 100 out of about 190 men stationed at the batteries on the gun deck, where occurred most of the fighting and casualties. The wounded were carried below to the surgeon, from time to time, but the dead and their fragments were thrown to the other side of the deck out of the way.

It was a hopeless fight. Our shot, striking the inclined sides of the Merrimac, bounded up and flew over, dropping into the water beyond. The gun captains, observing this, were cool enough - some of them - to reserve fire until the enemy, opening a port to run out their reloaded guns, appeared to present the opportunity of throwing, a shell into the casemate. But the openings were narrow and nearly filled with the muzzles of their guns projecting.

The ship, slowly sinking by the head, now had the water up to the gun-trucks, on the gun deck forward, and probably most of the wounded below were drowned at this stage - but the firing continued. At one time, when the current brought the enemy close alongside, we were called away from the guns to board her, but, the two vessels widening the interval again, prevented our getting on her, which was undoubtedly very fortunate. The constructor of the Merrimac has since stated that we could not have penetrated the vessel, as she only had one hatchway into the casemate, and that a very narrow one.

Failing this, the men returned to their guns and continued the action ; but the enemy now appeared to consider the matter settled, and dropped astern. During this wonderful combat, there was no sign of flinching, even at the most appalling moments. Young boys, bringing powder, performed their duties attentively from the beginning to the end of the action. We read of decimated regiments. One--third of the Cumberland's crew are coffined in her. She sank slowly by the head, every man at his post, until the vessel, careening to port in the final throes, the last gun was fired in the air, and the order given to abandon ship.

The wounded below, as before stated, were all drowned. The survivors were mostly able to jump into the boats before the final plunge. Some swam ashore, and a few were taken off the masts and yards later, when the good ship finally rested on the bottom of the river. The Merrimac was lying, off in the stream, not over one hundred feet distant, while the survivors were seeking safety from the sinking ship carrying down with it - the flag yet flying at the peak -more than a hundred of brave shipmates. All of the officers of the Merrimac, and most of her crew, had served in our navy. One can imagine that their feelings were not to be envied as they then contemplated the destruction they had wrought. We gathered in our boats around the ensign, by that time trailing in the water, gave it three cheers, and pulled ashore, where we took position with our army brethren in the water batteries, and continued the fight until sundown.

As an example to the navy, the sacrifice of the Cumberland was not needed. The navy of today, as has been the case since its earliest history, can be depended upon to do its whole duty under all circumstances. But its personnel are composed of much too good material to be recklessly imperiled in unequal warfare. If it is to be called upon to defend the national honor, or to maintain the policy of the government upon any international question, it is entitled to adequate weapons. The question of expense is, or ought to be, secondary.

The blue jackets should have ships - ships enough -the very best and fastest possible, carrying the most destructive guns afloat - ships planned, not by Congress, but by the men who will handle them.

Anything short of this will be unworthy a great people, and unjust to as fine a body of men as can be found in any profession in any land.  


Moses Sherwood Stuyvesant was born at Mt. Vernon, Indiana, August 17, 1841. While attending the high school at Cincinnati, Ohio, to which place he, with his parents had moved, he was appointed to the Naval Academy in August, 1856, the appointment coming through the Honorable J. Scott Harrison, then Congressman, who in notifying young Stuyvesant of his appoint-ment, wrote him: "You are indebted for this appointment alone to your standing as a scholar and a gentleman. Continue to maintain this character in the school to which you are appointed. If you hope to become a distinguished officer, you must be a student, and to be respected by your brother officers, you must be a gentleman." Stuyvesant observed this precept not only during his naval career, but throughout his life.

On June 15, 1860, being in his 19th year, he graduated from Annapolis and served as Midshipman, first on the U.S.S. Paunee, then on the Powhatan, cruising in the latter in the Gulf of Mexico. He was then transferred to the U.S.S. Cumberland, then in those waters, being appointed aide to Commodore George J. Pendergrast, the Cumberland being his flagship. In this capacity Stuyvesant rendered valuable service as he spoke Spanish fluently, in interpreting between his Commodore and President Jaurez, then ruling in that Republic and at the beginning of the troubles which culminated, first in the Maximillian-French venture and then in the firm establishment of Jaurez and in freeing our sister Republic from foreign invasion.

Still with the Cumberland when our troubles broke out, he was Midshipman on her when early in March, 1861, she reached Norfolk, Virginia. While there, the Navy Yard was partly destroyed and abandoned, and the Cumberland was placed on blockade duty, and took part in the capture of Forts Hatteras and Clark.

Writing of this last, Stuyvesant calls attention to the fact that "it was probably the last fight in which a ship was handled under sail. All other vessels present were steamships, and the older officers must have enjoyed observing the old time frigate Cumberland, as she worked into position every morning and ran off shore at night for an offing under sail."

In September 1861, Stuyvesant still a Midshipman on the Cumberland, went with her to Newport News and on September 19, 1861, was promoted to the rank of Master.

On March 8, 1862, this old frigate Cumberland and her officers and men made history. Shot to pieces by the powerful guns of the ironclad Merrimac (formerly known as the Virginia), the old wooden frigate went down, fighting to the last, "The Flag" flying. In this action, Stuyvesant, a youth of 20 years, bore a gallant and conspicuous part and it is claimed for him, that, when the question arose as to whether the flag should be taken down and borne away from the sinking vessel by her commander and crew, that Stuyvesant was the man who said: "No, the ship will sink in fifteen minutes, and she will look a d-d sight better with her flag up." Though wounded in the arm he commanded two crews of survivors who manned land guns during the next day's battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac.

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