The Merrimac, one of the finest steam-frigate in the United States Navy, had been set on fire and scuttled when the Gosport navy-yard was abandoned in April, 1861. The noble vessel sank to the bottom before the flames had injured her much, and the Confederates soon raised heir, cut down her upper deck, and built upon her a very strong timber covering, with sloping sides, like the roof of a house. The outside of this was plated with iron thick enough to be proof against shot from the most powerful guns then in use. Her bow and stern were both under water, and her bow was made sharp and fitted with a castiron beak, to be used as a ram. This novel war-vessel, which was finished early in March, 1862, and renamed the Virginia (tho her new name did not stick to her), was armed with ten heavy guns, four on each side, one in the bow, and one in the stern, and was put under the command of Captain Franklin Buchanan, formerly of the United States Navy.

The Confederates hoped that this vessel would enable them to open Hampton Roads, which the ships of the Union had kept closely blockaded since the beginning of the war, and which had been the starting-place of the naval expeditions that had done so much damage to their coasts. Vague rumors of this new engine of war had found their way North, and created no little fear, for it was suggested that she might easily ascend the Potomac and destroy Washington, or steam into the harbor of New York and fire the city with her shells, or force the inhabitants to buy safety with a vast sum of money. These rumors probably had the effect of hastening the Government in building ironclads, several of which had already been planned. At last, without any warning, the dreaded sea-monster made her appearance in Hampton Roads. . . .

The drums of the Cumberland and the Congress beat to quarters, and the ships were prepared for action. Their crews watched curiously every movement of the Confederate battery, of which they had heard such terrible reports. On she came, steaming slowly toward them, her chimneys belching black smoke, and her flag fluttering defiantly in the breeze, while the two little steamers followed close behind. When she was about a mile distant the Cumberland opened fire upon her, but the "house afloat," as some of the sailors called her, came on without replying. As she passed the Congress, that vessel poured a broadside into her, but the balls bounded from her mailed sides as if they were made of india rubber. The Merrimac, conscious of her strength, steamed grimly on through the iron storm which would have sunk any common vessel, and steered directly for the Cumberland, which lay with her side toward her so as to bring her broadside to bear.

The Cumberland opened a heavy fire on the monster which she could not escape, and the Merrimac, amid the flash and roar of her guns and enveloped in a pall of smoke that nearly hid her from view, went with a crash through the side of the doomed ship. The Cumberland shivered from end to end, and when the Merrimac drew slowly back it was found that her iron beak had passed through her, making a ragged hole into which the water rushed rapidly. The Merrimac then fired broadside after broadside into her sinking foe; but the gallant men of the Cumberland, never dreaming of surrender, stood by their guns to the last. In three-quarters of an hour after she was struck the noble ship went down in fifty-four feet of water, with her flag flying at the peak. The dead and wounded sank with her; of the rest of the crew some swam to the shore and some were picked up by small boats, but of 376 men, 121 were lost.

Meanwhile the two little vessels, the Beaufort and the Raleigh, had been firing into the Congress, and three other small gunboats—the Patrick Henry, the Jamestown, and the Teazer—joined them in the attack. The Congress replied bravely to their fire until the fate of the Cumberland showed her commander what he had to expect, and he ordered her to be run ashore, so that the enemy could not ram her. The Merrimac then fired shells into her with great effect, dismounting her guns, and killing many of her men. At last her commander, Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, and a large part of her crew, having fallen, and the ship being on fire in several places, her colors were hauled down. Some of her men were taken prisoners by one of the Confederate steamers, and some escaped to the shore; but many were killed or wounded, and only about half of her crew of 434 answered the roll-call next morning.

The three frigates that had left Fortress Monroe to go to the aid of these unfortunate ships had grounded in shallow water, and had watched the unequal struggle more than a mile away, powerless to help. After the destruction of the Cumberland and the Congress, the Merrimac and the gunboats bore down to attack the others. But the day was fast waning, and about 7 o'clock the Confederates left their prey and steamed slowly back toward Norfolk.

Saturday night was a dismal one at Fortress Monroe, and few eyes closed in sleep. The return of the Merrimac on the morrow was a certainty, and there appeared to be little chance of saving the Minnesota. What the monster would do next was a question that no one could decide. General John E. Woll, the commander of the fortress, telegraphed to Washington that probably both the Minnesota and the St. Lawrence would be captured, and that it was thought the enemy's vessels would pass the fortress.

About 9 o'clock in the evening a queer-looking vessel came into Hampton Roads, and anchored near the fort. It was a novel steam battery—the now famous Monitor—which had been building near New York under the eye of her inventor, John Ericsson, a Swede by birth, but long a resident of the United States. Much had been heard of this vessel, and a great deal had been promised for her by her builder, but when she came into the Roads everybody was disappointed. What could this puny thing do against the great Merrimac, more than five times her tonnage! Her sides were but little above the water, and nothing was to be seen on her deck but a kind of round iron box in the middle, a pilot-house forward, and a small smokestack aft.

At a mile's distance she might be taken for a raft—indeed, the Confederates well described her when they called her a "Yankee cheese-box on a plank." But when one went on board, her great strength was seen: her deck was plated with shell-proof iron, and her round box, called a turret, was made of iron plates eight to nine inches thick. Inside this turret, which was made to turn around, were two eleven-inch Dahlgren guns, placed side by side, so that both could be fired together at the same object. Ordinary ships have to be turned so as to bring their guns to bear on an enemy, but by revolving the turret of the Monitor her guns could be fired forward, backward, or sidewise, without changing the position of the ship. Her bow, too, was made strong and sharp, so that she could ram in the side of an enemy's vessel. This odd-shaped craft had been named by her inventor the Monitor, because, he said, he expected that she would be a monitor to the great nations of Europe, and teach them that the days of old-fashioned ships had passed away forever.

The little vessel took a position alongside the Minnesota, between her and the fort, where she could not be seen by the Confederates, but could be ready to slip out in case the Merrimac and her gunboats came to finish their work. The whole bay and the shores were lighted up by the flames of the Congress, which had been burning many hours. Her guns went off one by one as the fire reached them, and at last, a little after midnight, her magazine, which contained five tons of gunpowder, went off with a grand explosion, which threw the blazing fragments of the ship over the waters to a great distance around.

The Monitor did not have to wait long, for early on Sunday morning the monster was seen coming down again, followed by two gunboats crowded with troops. The Confederates evidently hoped to board the Minnesota and capture both her and her crew, and this is probably the reason they did not destroy her the night before.

As the Merrimac approached, the Monitor slipt out from behind the Minnesota and steamed straight at her. She looked like a pigmy beside the great mailed battery, whose black sides rose higher than the top of her turret. The crew of the Merrimac did not know what to make of the odd little craft, that had appeared as suddenly as if it had risen from the depths of the sea, but they soon found out that it had teeth, for when the Monitor had come within a hundred yards of her foe, she opened fire with her great guns. The Merrimac, astonished at her reception, threw open her ports and poured into her several broadsides such as had sunk the wooden ships; but the steel shot glanced as harmlessly from her turret as had the balls of the Cumberland and the Congress from her own armor and her crew cried out in wonder, "The cheese-box is made of iron!"

From 8 o'clock until noon the battle raged. The Monitor, more easily managed than her antagonist, sailed around and around the Merrimac, firing and receiving her broadsides in return, the two being often so near to each other that their sides touched. Once the Merrimac got aground, but getting afloat again she turned savagely upon the Monitor and ran directly at her, hoping to run her down. But tho she struck her so hard that the Monitor's crew were nearly thrown off their feet, she did not damage the vessel in the least.

The Merrimac, finding that she was only wasting her ammunition on the Monitor, fired a shell into the Minnesota, setting her on fire. Another shell struck the boiler of a tugboat near the Minnesota, and blew her up. But the Monitor was not to be cheated in this way. She steamed up between the Minnesota and the Merrimac and renewed the battle. The Merrimac now trained her guns on the Monitor's pilot-house, which was built of wrought-iron beams a foot thick. A solid shot broke one of these beams, and drove it inward an inch and a half. Lieutenant Worden, who at the time had his eyes close to a slit between the bars, watching the Merrimac, was severely wounded in the face so as to lose his eyesight for a long time. He was therefore obliged to give up the command to Lieutenant Greene, who continued the fight. But after a few more broadsides, the Merrimac, finding that she could do nothing with her enemy, gave up the battle and steamed back to Norfolk, followed by her gunboats.

The breaking of the beam in the pilot-house was the only damage the Monitor received, altho she was struck twenty-two times. The Merrimac's iron beak was twisted, some of her armorplates damaged, her smoke and steam-pipes riddled, and her anchor and flagstaffs shot away. Two of her guns also had their muzzles shot off. The Monitor returned to Fortress Monroe and remained there on the watch for her rival, but the Merrimac did not see fit to try her mettle again.

The Monitor did far more than save a few ships and a fortress—it settled the question of naval power in favor of the Union, and taught the nations of the Old World who wished to see our country divided that it would be dangerous for them to interfere in the quarrel. The Government, which had built the Monitor on trial, recognized her great value and at once began to construct other vessels of the same model, and by the next year the United States had a fleet of iron ships afloat able to defend their coasts against the navies of all the rest of the world.

1 From Champlin's "Young Folks History of the War for the Union." By permission of the publishers, Henry Holt & Co. Copyright, 1881.
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