« AnteriorContinuar »
federate ; and the inmates of the camps, the garrison of Fortress Monroe, the crews of the ships at anchor under its guns, all gazed with eager eyes over the open waters of the bay, their interest in the coming contest as intense as Roman audience ever displayed for the life and death struggle in the gladiatorial arena. Before them lay a mightier amphitheatre than that of the Coliseum, and before them was to be fought a more notable struggle for life and death than ever took place within the walls of mighty Rome.
It was in the afternoon of the 8th, about one o'clock, that the long roll sounded in the camps on shore, and the cry resounded from camp to camp, “The Merrimac is coming!" For several weeks she had been looked for, and preparations made for her reception. The frigates bore a powerful armament of heavy guns, ready to batter her iron-clad sides, and strong hopes were entertained that this modern leviathan would soon cease to trouble the deep. The lesson fixed by fate for that day bad not yet been learned.
Down the bay she came, looking at a distance like a flood-borne house, its sides drowned, only its sloping roof visible. The strange-appearing craft moved slowly, accompanied by two small gunboats as tenders. As she came near no signs of life were visible, while her iron sides displayed no evidence of guns. Yet within that threatening monster was a crew of three hundred men, and her armament embraced ten heavy cannon. Hinged lids closed the gun-ports ; raised only when the guns were thrust forward
for firing. As for the men, they were hidden somewhere under that iron roof; to be felt, but not
What followed has been told in song and story; it need be repeated here but in epitome. The first assault of the Merrimac was upon the Cumberland, a thirty-gun frigate. Again and again the thirty heavy balls of the frigate rattled upon the impenetrable sides of the iron-clad monster, and bounded off uselessly into the deep. The Merrimac came on at full speed, as heedless of this fusillade as though she was being fired at with peas. As she approached, two heavy balls from her guns tore through the timbers of the Cumberland. They were followed by a stunning blow from her iron beak, that opened a gaping wound in the defenceless side of her victim. Then she drew off, leaving her broken beak sticking in the ship’s side, and began firing broadsides into the helpless frigate; raking her fore and aft with shell and grape, despite the fact that she had already got her death-blow, and was rapidly filling with water.
Never ship was fought more nobly than the doomed Cumberland. With the decks sinking under their feet, the men fought with unflinching courage. When the bow guns were under water, the rear guns were made to do double duty. The captain was called on to surrender. He sternly refused. The last shot was fired from a gun on a level with the waves. Then, with sails spread and flags flying, the Cumberland went down, carrying with her nearly one hundred of her crew, the remainder swimming ashore. The water was deep, but the topmast of the doomed vessel still rose above the surface, with its pennant waving in the wind. For months afterwards that old flag continued to fly, as if to say, “ The Cumberland sinks, but never surrenders.”
The Congress, a fifty-gun frigate, was next attacked, and handled so severely that her commander ran her ashore, and soon after hoisted the white flag, destruction appearing inevitable. Boats were sent by the enemy to take possession, but a sharp fire from the shore drove them off.
“Is this in accordance with military law ?" asked one of the officers in the camp. “Since the ship bas surrendered, has not the enemy the right to take possession of her ?”
This legal knot was quickly and decisively cut by General Mansfield, in an unanswerable decision.
“I know the d— d ship has surrendered,” he said. “But we haven't.” And the firing continued.
The Merrimac, not being able to seize her prize, opened fire with hot shot on the Congress, and quickly set her on fire. Night was now at hand, and the conquering iron-clad drew off. The Congress continued to burn, her loaded guns roaring her requiem one after another, as the fire spread along her decks. About one o'clock her magazine was reached, and she blew up with a tremendous explosion, the shock being so great as to prostrate many of those on the shore.
So ended that momentous day. It had shown one thing conclusively, that “wooden walls” could no longer “rule the wave.” Iron had proved its su
periority in naval construction. The next day was to behold another novel sight,—the struggle of iron with iron.
Morning came. The atmosphere was bazy. Only as the mist slowly lifted were the gladiators of that liquid arena successively made visible. Here, just above the water, defiantly floated the flag of the sunken Cumberland. There smoked the still-burning hull of the Congress. Here, up the bay, steamed the Merrimac, with two attendants, the Yorktown and the Patrick Henry. Yonder lay the great bull of the steåm-frigate Minnesota, which had taken some part in the battle of the day before, but had unfortunately gone ashore on a mud-bank, from which the utmost efforts failed to force her off. Other Union naval vessels were visible in the distance.
The Merrimac made her way towards the Minnesota, as towards a certain prey. Her commander felt confident that an hour or two would enable him to reduce this great vessel to the condition of her recent companions.
Yet an odd sight met his vision. Alongside the Minnesota floated the strangest-looking craft that human eye had ever gazed upon. An insignificant affair it appeared; a “cheese-box on a raft” it was irreverently designated. The deck, a level expanse of iron, came scarcely above the surface. Above it rose a circular turret, capable of being revolved, and with port-holes for two great guns, among the largest up to that time used in naval warfare..
How this odd contrivance came there so opportunely
nay be briefly told. It was the conception of John Ericsson, the eminent Swedish engineer, and was being rapidly built in New York while the Merri. mac was being plated with thick iron bars in Norfolk. A contest for time took place between these two unlike craft. Spies were in both places, to report progress. Fortunately, the Monitor was finished a day or two before her competitor. Immediately she steamed away for Hampton Roads. The passage was a severe one. Three days were consumed, during which the seas swept repeatedly over the low deck, the men being often half suffocated in their confined quarters, the turret alone standing above the water. As they approached Fortress Monroe the sound of cannonading was heard. Tarrying but a few minutes at the fort, the Monitor, as this odd vessel had been named, approached the Minnesota, and reached her side at a late hour of the night.
And now, with the new day, back to the fray came the Merrimac, looking like a giant in comparison with this dwarfish antagonist. As she approached, the little craft glided swiftly in front of her grounded consort, like a new David offering battle to a modern Goliath. As if in disdain of this puny antagonist, the Merrimac began an attack on the Minnesota. But when the two eleven-inch guns of the Monitor opened fire, hurling solid balls of one hundred and sixty-eight pounds' weight against the iron sides of her great opponent, it became at once evident that a new move had opened in the game, and that the Merrimac had no longer the best of the play.