John S. (John Sergeant) Wise.

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south, Lambert s Point and Craney Island were plainly
visible three miles off.

Upon the battlements of Fortress Monroe and the Rip-
Raps great numbers of Union troops could be seen
through field-glasses, and we could also make out the
camps and fortifications of the enemy at Newport News,
and between that point and Hampton, while our own
people lined the shores and crowded the ramparts at
Craney Island and Lambert s Point.

Anchored in the Roads were a great number of ves
sels of every description, steam and sail, from the smallest
tugs and sloops to the largest transports and warships.
Rumors of the attack had brought down to Sewell s
Point a number of civilians, and the whole appearance
of the scene was suggestive of the greatest performance
ever given in the largest theatre ever seen. The Merri-
mac and her attendants had passed Craney Island, and
were coming down the channel east of Craney Island
light, when we arrived. As she passed our fortifications,
she was saluted and cheered, and returned the salutes.
From the way in which she was shaping her course
when first seen, it looked to the uninitiated as if she
proposed to sail directly upon the Rip-Raps. Such
hurrying and scurrying was seen among the non-combat
ant craft in the Roads as was never witnessed before.
From great three-masters and double-deck steamers to


little tugs and sailboats, all weighed or slipped anchor
and made sail or steam for Fortress Monroe, except three
dauntless war vessels, two steamers, the Minnesota and
the Roanoke, and one sailing vessel, the St. Lawrence,
whose duty called them in the opposite direction. A
long tongue of shoal, running out from Craney Island,
compelled the Merrimac to go below Sewell s Point
before she struck the main channel ; then she swung
into it and pointed westward, showing her destination,
for she headed straight for Newport News, where the
masts and spars of the Congress and the Cumberland were
plainly visible.

It was now past midday. The Merrimac on her new
course was nearly stern to us, and grew smaller and
smaller as she followed the south channel to Newport
News. The three United States vessels Minnesota,
Roanoke, and St. Lawrence started after her by what
is known as the north channel. It was a bitter disap
pointment to us that the battle was to be waged so far
away, but the ships and their movements were still in
view. The sun was shining, and a fresh March breeze
would, we thought, blow away the smoke. It seemed an
eternity before the first gun was fired. The Merrimac,
Cumberland, and Congress were nearly ranged in our
line of vision. The Merrimac appeared to us as if she
was almost in contact with the nearest of the two vessels.
Captain Buchanan states in his report that he was within
less than a mile of the Cumberland when he commenced
the engagement by a shot at her from his bow gun. We
saw a great puff of smoke roll up and float off from the
Merrimac ; a moment later, the flashes of broadsides
and tremendous rolls of smoke from the Congress, the
Cumberland, the batteries on shore, and the Union gun
boats; and then came the thunderous sounds, follow-


ing each other in the same order iii which we had seen
the smoke. The engagement had begun.

It was a time of supreme excitement and supreme
suspense ; for the details, we who had no glasses were
dependent upon those who had. " She has passed the
Congress ! " exclaimed an officer, who was straining for
ward, trying to descry the positions of the ships through
the smoke, which now enveloped the point of Newport
News and the water beyond. Bang crash roar -
went the guns, single shots and broadsides, making all
the noise that any boy could wish. " She is heading
direct for the Cumberland ! " shouted another between
the thunders of the broadsides. " She has rammed the
Cumberland ! " was announced fifteen minutes after the
first gun was heard, and our people gave three cheers.
Our teeth chattering with excitement, we awaited the
next announcement ; it soon came : " The Cumberland
is sinking ! " and again we cheered. Then came an
ominous lull, the meaning of which we did not know.
Those watching through the glasses notified us that three
steamers were in sight, standing down James River,
and we knew it was Commander Tucker with the Pat
rick Henry, Jamestown, and Teazer. Think of it ! The
Jamestown, which, but four years ago, had brought the re
mains of President Monroe to Richmond, with the New
York Seventh Regiment, on that visit of fraternity and
good-will. Here she was, armed as a war-vessel, fight
ing those very men !

Once more the cannon belched and thundered. This
time what we saw and heard was alarming : " The Merri-
mac is running up the river, away from the Congress and
other vessels ; she is fighting the shore batteries as she
goes." It looked indeed as if she was disabled in some
way ; again a lull and anxious waiting. " The Merrimac


is turning around and coming back ! : Again the roar

of a hot engagement with the forts; another lull and
another heavy roll. " She is back pounding the Congress,
and raking her fore and aft. The Congress is aground."
Again our people went wild with enthusiasm. Poor fel
lows on the Congress ! When the Merrirnac withdrew
and passed upstream, it was only to gain deep water in
order to wind her, for where she had rammed the Cum
berland, her keel was in the mud and she could not be
put about. The fearless sailors on the Congress, deluded
by the appearance of retreat, believed that she had hauled
off, and, leaving their guns, gave three cheers. Having
brought his ship around into position to attack the Con
gress, Captain Buchanan now came back at her, and, as
he approached, blew up a transport alongside the wharf,
sunk one schooner, captured another, and proceeded to
rake the Congress where she had run ashore in shoal

Describing this stage of the fight, Captain Buchanan
says in his report : " The carnage, havoc, and dismay
caused by our fire compelled them to haul down their
colors and to hoist a white flag at their gaff and half mast,
and another at the main. The crew instantly took to
their boats and landed. Our fire immediately ceased, and
a signal was made for the Beaufort to come within hail.
He then ordered Lieutenant Commander Parker to take
possession of the Congress, secure the officers as prison
ers, allow the crew to land, and burn the ship. This
Captain Parker did, receiving her flag and surrender
from Commander Smith and Lieutenant Pendergrast,
with the sidearms of those officers. They delivered them
selves as prisoners of war on board the Beaufort, and
afterwards being permitted, at their own request, to
return to the ship to assist in removing the wounded,


never returned. The Beaufort and Raleigh, while along
side the Congress after her surrender/ and while she had
two white flags flying, were subjected to a heavy fire from
the shore and from the Congress, and withdrew without
setting her afire, after losing several valuable officers and

Then Lieutenant Minor was sent to burn the ship,
when he was fired upon and severely wounded. His boat
was recalled, and Captain Buchanan ordered the Congress
to be destroyed by hot shot and incendiary shell.

By this time the ships from Old Point opened fire upon
the Merrimac. The Minnesota grounded in the North
channel ; the shoalness of the water prevented the near
approach of the Merrimac. The Roanoke and St. Law
rence, warned by the fate of the Cumberland and Con
gress, retired under the guns of Fortress Monroe. The
Merrimac pounded away at the grounded Minnesota until
the pilots warned her commander that it was no longer
safe to remain in that position ; then, returning by the
south channel, she had an opportunity to open again upon
the Minnesota, although the shallow water was between
the two ; and afterwards upon the St. Lawrence, which
responded with several broadsides. It was too tantalizing
to see these vessels, which in deep water would have been
completely at her mercy, protected from her assaults by
the shoals. By this time it was dark, and the Merrimac
anchored off Sewell s Point. The western sky was illu
minated with the burning Congress, her loaded guns were
successively discharged as the flames reached them, until,
a few minutes past midnight, her magazine exploded
with a tremendous report.

Thus ended the first day s doings of the Merrimac.
Soon after she anchored, some of her officers came ashore,
and we, who had been waiting all day, and who had now


decided to remain all night in order to see the next day s
operations, were gratified with a full and graphic descrip
tion of the fighting. Captain Buchanan, Lieutenant
Minor, and the other wounded were sent to Norfolk.
Having been tendered the hospitality of Sewell s Point
by some of the officers, our party remained, and were
lulled to sleep by the firing of the guns of the burning
Congress, and rudely aroused about midnight by the
tremendous explosion of her magazine.

Up betimes in the morning, we saw the Minnesota still
ashore. She was nearly in line with us, and about a mile
nearer to us than Newport News. A tug was beside her,
and a very odd-looking iron battery. We expected great
things from this day s operations. About eight o clock,
the Merrimac ran down to engage them, firing at the
Minnesota, and occasionally at the iron battery. She was
now under command of Lieutenant Jones. We confi
dently expected her to be able to get very near to the
Minnesota, but in this the pilots were mistaken. When
about a mile from the frigate, she ran ashore, and was
some time backing before she got afloat. Her great
length and draught rendered it difficult to work her.
Notwithstanding these delays, she succeeded in damaging
the Minnesota seriously, and in blowing up the tug-boat
Dragon lying alongside her.

While this was going on, the iron battery, which looked
like a cheese-box floating on a shingle, moved out from
behind the frigate and advanced to meet the Merrimac.
The disparity in size between the two was remarkable ;
we could not doubt that the Merrimac would, either by
shot or by ramming, make short work of the cheese-box ;
but as time wore on, we began to realize that the new
comer was a tough customer. Her turret resisted the
shells of the Merrimac, and not only was she speedier,


but her draught was so much less than that of her an
tagonist that she could run off into shallow water and
prevent the Merrimac from ramming her. There was no
lack of pluck shown by either vessel. The little Monitor
came right up and laid herself alongside as if she had
been a giant. She was quicker in every way than her
antagonist, and presented the appearance of a saucy
kingbird pecking at a very large and very black crow.

The first shot fired by the Merrimac missed the Moni
tor, which was a novel experience for the gunners who
had been riddling the hulls of frigates. Then, again, when
the eleven-inch solid shot struck the casemates, knock
ing the men of the Merrimac down and leaving them
dazed and bleeding at the nose from the tremendous
impact, they realized that the cheese-box was loaded as
none of the other vessels had been. Neither vessel could
penetrate the armor of the other ; both tried ramming
unsuccessfully : the Monitor had not mass sufficient to
injure the Merrimac ; the Merrimac only gave the Moni
tor a glancing ram, weakened by the Monitor s superior
speed ; and then the Monitor ran off into shallow water,
safe from pursuit.

Twice we thought the Merrimac had won the fight.
On the first occasion, the Monitor went out of action, it
seems, to replenish the ammunition in the turret, it being
impossible to use the scuttle by which ammunition was
passed unless the turret was stationary and in a certain
position. The second occasion was about eleven o clock,
when a shell from the Merrimac struck the Monitor s
pilot-house, and seemed to have penetrated the ship.
She drifted off aimlessly towards shoal water ; her guns
were silent, and the people on board the Minnesota gave
up hope and prepared to burn her. This was when
Lieutenant Worden, commander of the Monitor, was


blinded and the steersman stunned. Their position was
so isolated that no one knew their condition for some
minutes ; then Lieutenant Greene discovered it, took
command, and brought the vessel back into action.

Shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Jones withdrew the
Merrimac. In his report of the action, he said : " The
pilots declaring that we could get no nearer the Minne
sota, and believing her to be entirely disabled, and the
Monitor having run into shoal water, which prevented
our doing her any further injury, we ceased firing at
twelve o clock and proceeded to Norfolk. The stem is
twisted and the ship leaks ; we have lost the prow, star
board anchor, and all the boats. The armor is somewhat
damaged, the steam-pipe and smoke-stack both riddled ;
the muzzles of two of the guns shot away."

When from the shore we saw the Merrimac haul off
and head for Norfolk, we could not credit the evidence of
our own senses. " Ah ! " we thought, " dear old Buch
anan would never have done it." Lieutenant Jones was
afterwards fully justified by his superiors, but it did
seem to us that he ought to have stayed there until he
drove the Monitor away. Beside the reasons assigned
above, Lieutenant Jones declared that it was necesary to
leave when he did, in order to cross the Elizabeth River
bar. The inconclusive result of that fight has left to
endless discussion among naval men the question, " Which
was the better ship of the two?" It is not within the
scope of this volume to investigate that problem. It is
certain that, up to the time the Monitor appeared, the
Merrimac seemed irresistible, and that but for the pre
sence of the Monitor, she would have made short work
of the Minnesota. It is equally certain that the Moni
tor performed her task of defense. It is said she was
anxious to renew the fight ; but two weeks later, the


Merrimac went down into deep water, where the Monitor
was lying under the guns of Fortress Monroe, and tried to
coax her out, but she would not come, and even permitted
the Jamestown and Beaufort to sail up to Hampton and
capture two schooners laden with hay. The truth is
that, if the Merrimac could have induced the Monitor to
meet her in deep water, she would easily have rammed
and sunk her.

On our ride back to the city, my father, while greatly
elated at what had been done, continued to deplore the
errors of construction in the Merrimac, which the two
days fighting had made all the more manifest ; but we
boys thought she had earned glory enough, and joined the
others in the general jubilation.

Everybody in Norfolk knew the officers and men on
board our ships ; many of them were natives of the town.
When they were granted shore leave, they were given a
triumphal reception. Some time since, I read an account
of the Dutch admiral, De Kuyter, who, the day after his
four days battle with the English fleet, was seen in his
yard in his shirt-sleeves, with a basket on his arm, feeding
his hens and sweeping out his cabin. It reminded me
of the simple lives and unpretentious behavior of those
splendid fellows who handled the Merrimac. Yesterday,
they revolutionized the naval warfare of the world ; to-day,
they were walking about the streets of Norfolk, or sitting
at their firesides, as if unaware that fame was trumpeting
their names to the ends of the earth.


NOTWITHSTANDING our elation over the performances
of the Merrimac, which every one in the Confederacy re
garded as brilliant victories, the fact that Norfolk was in
imminent peril became more and more apparent.

The lodgment gained by the Union forces at Roanoke,
and their possession of the sounds and rivers on the North
Carolina coast, had given them control of the canals tribu
tary to the city, and their presence was a constant menace
to the railroads, which were now the chief remaining
means of supplies. Union troops could at any time be
transported up the North Carolina rivers to within a few
miles of the Seaboard and Petersburg lines.

If our army should at any time retreat from the lower
peninsula between the York and the James, the Peters
burg line would be further imperiled ; for in that event, it
would be easy to throw a force of Union troops across the
James to cut the railroad. The fifteen thousand Con
federate troops in and about Norfolk would then be in a
position of extreme danger.

These things were, of course, much more apparent to
those in command than to us boys ; but throughout March
and April we saw and heard enough to make us realize
that there was a grave prospect that Norfolk might at any
time be evacuated, and our hornet left within the Union

My father became so thoroughly satisfied of the ap-


preaching evacuation of Norfolk that he suspended farm
ing operations, directed the sale of surplus stock to the
Confederate commissary, ordered that all the hogs should
be killed and cured, and that all the corn upon the place
should be ground and sold. Out of abundant precaution,
the family was removed in the latter part of April to the
vicinity of Richmond, and thither also were sent a num
ber of the young, able-bodied slaves.

Meanwhile, his military duties called him to Richmond,
where he was placed in command of the inner line of de
fenses at Chaffin s farm, on the James River.

Our home was thus left in the temporary custody of the
miller, a white man, and a few of the old trusted slaves,
my father having arranged with a friend in Norfolk, a
man past the age of military service, that, in the event of
the evacuation of the city, he would move out and take
possession of Rolleston, occupy it, and as far as possible
act as protector.

About May 1, satisfied that the crisis was near at hand,
my father gave my brother Richard a leave of absence,
and he and I, with an orderly, were sent to Rolleston to
do what we could towards disposing of the remaining
stock, and shipping our movables to a place of safety.

The plans of the military authorities were of course
guarded with as much secrecy as possible, but upon our
journey to Norfolk, the crowded condition of the railroads
and the immense shipments of government stores and
munitions not only confirmed us in the opinion that
this was preparatory to evacuation, but satisfied us it was
almost idle to hope to secure transportation for our pri
vate effects.

Still, we hustled around in a very lively way. We sold
some horses and cattle to the government, and, with a
little more time, would have succeeded fairly well in strip-


ping the old place " down to bare poles," as the sailors
say. It was a sad and lonely mission. The farm was
just beginning to assume an orderly and well-kept appear
ance. Two years of hard work, and the expenditure of a
large amount of money in new buildings and fences and
in painting, had brought it out wonderfully. New roads
had been built, trees had been planted, and ragged spots
had been cleaned up, until Rolleston, while nothing grand
or fine, was a sweet, home-like old farm, endeared to us
especially by the memory of the delightful days of boy
hood which we had spent there. Now everything about
it was gloomy and sad enough. Not a human being was
in the house with us, except Skaggs, the white orderly,
who was sent to assist us, and old Aunt Mary Anne, the
cook, and Jim, the butler. Jim my father regarded as
his man Friday. Jim was to accompany us on our return
to Richmond. Nobody doubted that one so faithful and
so long trusted would prove true in this emergency.

We wandered back and forth through the old house,
looking over the deserted rooms to see what particular
articles, most prized, we might wrap in small packages
for removal, in case we could not arrange for the trans
portation of everything. It was a difficult problem to
solve. The house was filled with souvenirs from all parts
of Europe and North and South America. That was
before the days of bricabrac, but our house abounded in
the things now so called. Our drawing-room contained
several pictures of great value, and many valuable histori
cal relics. Among the pictures were the original of Her
ring s Village Blacksmith ; a beautiful Bacchante, painted
in 1829 by Pauline Laurent, presented to my father by
Baron Lomonizoff ; and a set of exquisite Teniers (paint
ings of Dutch drinking-scenes), beside sundry works of
less note but great value. The cabinets were literally


loaded with pretty souvenirs of foreign travel, and articles
of historic interest.

We determined that these things should be first packed
and shipped, and had succeeded, on our visit to the city
the day before, in securing a promise from a friend in the
transportation department that, if we had them in Norfolk
the next day, he would send them through for us, even
if they went along with government goods. Accordingly,
we had ordered up the lumber for boxing them, and with
Skaggs and Jim were just preparing to pack, when, look
ing out of the window, we saw, rapidly approaching in a
buggy, the friend whom our father had engaged to occupy
the farm in case Norfolk was evacuated. As he drove up
to the yard gate, opened it hastily, and hurried to the
front steps, he exclaimed excitedly, even before alighting,
" The Yankees are coming ! The Yankees are coming !
You had better get out of here quickly, if you don t want
them to catch you ! " Then, in calmer tones, he told us
that the city was being evacuated ; that the garrison from
Sewell s Point and Lambert s Point had been withdrawn
during the night, and, together with the troops in the
intrenched camps between us and Norfolk, had all been
marched into the city, and transported quietly under
cover of darkness to the south side of the Elizabeth River ;
that the work of destroying the Gosport Navy Yard at
Portsmouth had begun ; that the Merrimac had sailed out
of the harbor to go up James River ; that the enemy at
Fortress Monroe were landing troops at Sewell s Point and
Willoughby s Spit ; that they were rapidly approaching,
if they had not already reached, the city ; and that there
was not a Confederate soldier between us and them.

It took us about two minutes to decide upon our course
of action. By taking the Princess Anne County road
via Great Bridge, we could pass around the head of the


eastern branch of the Elizabeth River, and, going thence
westwardly to Suffolk, get once more within the Confed
erate lines. We bore in mind that the Union troops in
North Carolina were probably acting in concert with those
at Fortress Monroe, and, marching up from the South,
might intercept us. Skaggs hurried to the stable, har
nessed four mules to a farm wagon, and went straight to
the smoke house. We harnessed a pair of carriage horses
to our best carriage, and proceeded to the house. The
faithful Jim was on hand to aid in loading the carriage
with such silverware and valuables as it would hold, and
such of the farm hands as were left aided Skaggs in
loading the wagon with meat.

Just before we were ready to start, Jim disappeared.
In vain we called and searched for him. W r e never saw
him again. The prospect of freedom overcame a lifetime
of love and loyalty. There never was an hour of his life
at which he could not have had his freedom for the
asking. He had several times refused it. But now the
opportunity was irresistible.

Skaggs with his wagon drove out ahead of us. My
brother for the last time disappeared in the house. When
he returned, he had in his hands a long roll of canvas.
He had with his knife cut " The Village Blacksmith " out
of its frame, and wrapped it upon a roller. We tied it
firmly, and strapped it in the top of the carriage. After
the war, we sold that picture for fifteen hundred dollars,
and the money came at a very good time. During the
present year (1897), the press has announced its sale in
England at a very large sum. Some years afterwards,
I found the Bacchante of Pauline Laurent in the parlor
of a Union volunteer general in Washington, and have it
now. He delivered it upon a very persuasive note from
General Schofield, then Secretary of War. Our Teniers


paintings, and several others of considerable value, have

Online LibraryJohn S. (John Sergeant) WiseThe end of an era → online text (page 15 of 35)