By Darryl Sannes and Jeffrey Williams
Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force
Friday marks the 150th anniversary of the famed duel between the ironclad ships, Monitor and Merrimack, and the Battle of Hampton Roads off of Sewell’s Point, Virginia.
Today, Sewell’s Point is better known as the Norfolk Naval Station, the largest naval base in the United States and home to the 75 vessels and 134 aircraft of the U.S. Navy’s Second Fleet, which spreads along 14 piers and 11 aircraft hangers. The U.S. Navy purchased the property as America entered World War I, but its location at the mouth of Hampton Roads proved to be a strategic location in the 1860s, which gave the Confederacy its only major shipyard with thousands of heavy guns, after the U.S. Navy abandoned the shipyard on April 20, 1861. Confederate Brigadier General Walter Gwynn erected batteries at Sewell’s Point to protect Norfolk and Hampton Roads from attack.
At 275 feet long and carrying 42 guns along her hull and deck, plus two 10-inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns in pivot mounts, the U.S.S. Minnesota steam frigate was one of the largest and most heavily armed vessels during the Civil War. It was built in the Washington Navy Yard in 1854, launched in late 1855 and commissioned in 1857 and named for the Minnesota River. The steamship was part of the East India Squadron and visited ports in Japan, China and Hong Kong in 1857 but was soon decommissioned in 1859. It was re-commissioned in 1861 at the start of the Civil War and served as the flagship of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The squadron was commanded by Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, who selected the U.S.S. Minnesota as his flagship.
Seven African-American sailors manned the forward gun of the vessel. This black crew mustered in at Boston, Mass., and included William Brown, Charles Johnson, George Moore, George H. Roberts, George Sales, William H. White and Henry Williams.
While off the Virginia coast at 12:45 p.m. on March 8, 1862, the U.S.S Minnesota and other Union warships encountered three Confederate warships, the ironclad C.S.S. Virginia, more commonly known by her pre-war name, the Merrimack, along with the C.S.S. Jamestown and C.S.S. Patrick Henry. While rounding Sewell’s point and preparing to engage, Gwynn’s batteries opened fire from the point and a shot crippled the Minnesota’s mainmast. The vessel was 1.5 miles from Newport News a short while later when she ran aground because of the low tide.
The Merrimack had already engaged the U.S.S. Congress and U.S.S. Cumberland, proving that wooden ships were no match for the iron-plated vessel, and by 4 p.m., all three Confederate vessels bored down on the helpless Minnesota. She managed to fend off her attackers for the next three hours before the Confederate vessels returned to Norfolk as darkness set in around 7 p.m.
Throughout the night, the ship’s entire crew worked diligently to free her from the mud, to no avail. At 2 a.m., the U.S.S. Monitor, an ironclad vessel in her own right, reported for duty alongside the Minnesota. “All on board felt we had a friend that would stand by us in our hour of trial,” wrote Captain Gershom Jacques Van Brunt, the vessel’s commander, in his official report the day after the engagement.
By 6 a.m., the Confederate ships were on the prowl again with the Merrimack in the lead. “Again, all hands were called to quarters, and when she approached within a mile of us I opened upon her with my stern guns and made a signal to the Monitor to attack the enemy,” Van Brunt added.
The Merrimack commenced pounding the helpless vessel with shells. “By the time she had fired her third shell the little Monitor had come down upon her, placing herself between us, and compelled her to change her position, in doing which she grounded, and again I poured into her all the guns which could be brought to bear upon her,” wrote Van Brunt.
The hunter soon became the prey. Gwynn’s shore batteries then fired upon the Monitor, causing extensive damage which forced the Federal ironclad to flee to Fort Monroe for safety. By midday, it appeared that the Merrimack was about the re-engage the crippled ship, but it, too, had extensive damages and was forced to head for Craney Island instead, leaving the Minnesota alone.
Without the harassment from the Confederate warships, the Minnesota was pulled to deeper water at 2 a.m. on the morning of March 10. After extensive repairs, it was able to serve during the balance of the war.
During the two-day engagement, the U.S.S. Minnesota shot off 78 rounds of 10-inch solid shot; 67 rounds of 10-inch solid shot with 15-second fuse; 169 rounds of 9-inch solid shot; 180 9-inch shells with 15-second fuse; 35 8-inch shells with 15-second fuse and 5,567.5 pounds of service powder.
Three crew members, Alexander Winslow, Henry Smith and Dennis Harrington were killed during the battle and 16 were wounded. Despite having the same name as the state, an examination of the ship’s roster shows that there were no Minnesotans aboard the frigate. Most of the crew were English and Irish immigrants with a few from Canada, Finland, Norway and Sweden, with the remaining crew members from the East Coast.
Generations of schoolchildren were brought up with the stories of the great battle between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack, while the target of one ironclad and the protectorate of the other, the U.S.S. Minnesota, often gets overlooked.
NOTE: The Minnesota Historical Society has the steering wheel from the U.S.S. Minnesota in its artifact collection.