Captain G.J. Van Brunt of the USS Minnesota Reports on the Battle of Hampton Roads

The March 8th-9th Action Included the Battle Between the USS Monitor and CSS Merrimack, (also known as  CSS Virginia)


On March 8th, 1862, the 40 gun steam frigate USS Minnesota was on blockade duty at Hampton Roads, Virginia, anchored near Fort Monroe. That day, the CSS Merrimack (also referred to as the CSS Virginia) and two other gunboats, the CSS Yorktown and CSS Jamestown, steamed out of the Elizabeth River near Norfolk and entered Hampton Roads. CSS Merrimack was an ironclad built by the Confederates on the hull of the USS Merrimack, a frigate that had been burned at the Gosport Navy Yard by retreating U.S. forces in 1861.

Merrimack went into action, firing at and then ramming the 24 gun frigate USS Cumberland and sinking her. Cumberland’s shots merely bounced off the Confederate ironclad.

Capt. Franklin Buchanon, CSN

Merrimack then went after the 55 gun frigate USS Congress, whose captain had grounded her to keep the 22 foot draft ironclad from getting close enough to ram his vessel. But Merrimack’s ram had broken off in the encounter with Cumberland; instead, it severely damaged  Congress with its guns, and the vessel surrendered. It blew up overnight when fires on board reached the ship’s magazine.

Meanwhile, Minnesota had left its position to the north and headed toward the action. But the frigate ran aground, and was in the unenviable position of having to exchange fire with Merrimack while being unable to maneuver. Minnesota’s shots for the most part bounced off Virginia, but one did wound Captain Franklin Buchanon, who turned command over to his executive officer. As nightfall approached, Merrimack withdrew back up the Elizabeth River, intending to return the next day and finish off Minnesota.

USS Minnesota

While the captain and crew of Minnesota pondered the grim outlook for the next day, the U.S. Navy’s own ironclad, the USS Monitor, arrived around 9 P.M. and was ordered to assist the stranded vessel. With only an 11 foot draft, Monitor was able to stick close by Minnesota despite the shallow water.

John L. Worden, Commanding Officer of USS Monitor

Merrimack reappeared on the scene the next morning to finish off Minnesota and continue wreaking havoc on the Union Navy blockading vessels. But the Rebel ironclad was met by an unexpected new opponent. Monitor fired its first shot at Merrimack at 8:30 a.m. and the first battle between ironclads was underway. For about 3 ½ hours, the two ships maneuvered and fired at each other, inflicting some damage but not stopping either vessel. One of Merrimack’s shots hit near a viewport on Monitor, temporarily blinding the commanding officer, Lieutenant John Worden. The battle ended shortly after that, and while there was some dispute over which ship broke off the attack first, neither vessel sunk, disabled, or captured the other. The historic battle was a draw.

The Monitor and Merrimack by Louis Prang

Captain G.J. Van Brunt, commanding USS Minnesota, was both a participant in the Battle of Hampton Roads and a witness of the battle between the Monitor and Virginia a.k.a. Merrimack. His official report is a good eyewitness account of the battle.

U.S.S. MINNESOTA, March10, 1862.

SIR: On Saturday, the 8th instant, at 12:45 p. m., three small steamers, in appearance, were discovered rounding Sewell’s Point, and as soon as they came into full broadside view I was convinced that one was the iron-plated steam battery Merrimack, from the large size of her smoke pipe. They were heading for Newport News, and I, in obedience to a signal from the senior officer present, Captain J. Marston, immediately called all hands, slipped my cables, and got underway for that point to engage her. While rapidly passing Sewell’s Point the rebels there opened fire upon us from a rifle battery, one shot from which going through and crippling my mainmast. I returned the tire with my broadside guns and forecastle pivot. We ran without further difficulty within about 1 1/2miles of Newport News, and there, unfortunately, grounded. The tide was running ebb, and although in the channel, there was not sufficient water for this ship, which draws 23 feet. I knew that the bottom was soft and lumpy, and endeavored to force the ship over, but found it impossible so to do.

At this time it was reported to me that the Merrimack bad passed the frigate Congress and run into the sloop of war Cumberland, and in fifteen minutes after I saw the latter going down by the head. The Merrimack then hauled off, taking a position, and about 2: 30 p. m. engaged the Congress, throwing shot and shell into her with terrific effect, while the shot from the Congress glanced from her iron-plated sloping sides without doing any apparent damage. At 3: 30 p. m. the Congress was compelled to haul down her colors. Of the extent of her loss and injury you will be informed from the official report.

At 4 p. m. the Merrimack, Jamestown, and Patrick Henry bore down upon my vessel. Very fortunately the iron battery drew too much water to come within a mile of us. She took a position on my starboard bow, but did not fire with accuracy, and only one shot passed through the ship’s bow.

Captain G.J. Van Brunt USN

The other two steamers took their position on my port bow and stern, and their fire did most damage in killing and wounding men, inasmuch as they fired with rifled guns; but with the heavy gun that I could bring to bear upon them I drove them off, one of them apparently in a crippled condition. I fired upon the Merrimack with my pivot 10-inch gun without apparent effect, and at 7 p. m. she too hauled off and all three vessels steamed toward Norfolk. The tremendous firing of my broadside guns had crowded me farther upon the mud bank, into which the ship seemed to have made for herself a cradle. From 10 p.m., when the tide commenced to run flood until 4 a.m., I had all hands at work with steam tugs and hawsers, endeavoring to haul the ship off of the bank, but without avail, as the tide had then fallen considerably. I suspended further operations at that time. At 2 a. m. the iron battery Monitor, Commander [Lieutenant]. John L. Worden, which had arrived the previous evening at Hampton Roads, came alongside and reported for duty, and then all on board felt that we had a friend that would stand by us in our hour of trial.

Map of the Battle of Hampton Roads

At 6 a.m. the enemy again appeared, coming down from Craney Island, and I beat to quarters, but they ran past my ship and were heading for Fortress Monroe, and the retreat was beaten to allow my men to get something to eat. The Merrimack ran down near to the Rip Raps, and then turned into the channel through which I had come. 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 signal to the Monitor to attack the enemy. She immediately ran down in my wake, right within the range of the Merrimack, completely covering my ship as far as was possible with her dimensions, and, much to my astonishment, laid herself right alongside of the Merrimack, and the contrast was that of a pigmy to a giant. Gun after gun was fired by the Monitor, which was returned with whole broadsides from the rebels with no more effect, apparently, than so many pebblestones thrown by a child. After a while they commenced maneuvering, and, we could see the little battery point her bow for the rebels, with the intention, as I thought, of sending a shot through her bow porthole; then she would shoot by her and rake her through her stern. In the meantime the rebel was pouring broadside after broadside, but almost all her shot flew over the little submerged propeller, and when they struck the bombproof tower the shot glanced off without producing any effect, clearly establishing the fact that wooden vessels can not contend successfully with ironclad ones; for never before was anything like it dreamed of by the greatest enthusiast in maritime warfare. The Merrimack, finding that she could make nothing-of the Monitor, turned her attention once more to me. In the morning she had put a 11-inch shot under my counter near the water line, and now, on her second approach, I opened upon her with all my broadside guns and l0-inch pivot a broadside which would have blown out of water any timber-built ship in the world. She returned my fire with her rifled bow gun with shell, which passed through the chief engineer’s stateroom, through the engineer’s mess room, amidships, and burst in the boatswain’s room, tearing four rooms all into one in its passage, exploding two charges of powder, which set the ship on fire, but it was promptly extinguished by a party headed by my first lieutenant; her second went through the boiler of the tugboat Dragon, exploding it and causing some consternation on board my ship for the moment, until the matter was explained. This time I had concentrated upon her an incessant fire from my gun deck, spar deck, and forecastle pivot guns, and was informed by my marine officer, who was stationed on the poop, that at least fifty solid shot struck her on her slanting side without producing any apparent effect. 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. As soon as she got off she stood down the bay, the little battery chasing her with all speed, when suddenly the Merrimack turned around and ran full speed into her antagonist. For a moment I was anxious, but instantly I saw a shot plunge into the iron roof of the Merrimack, which surely must have damaged her. For some time after the rebels concentrated their whole battery upon the tower and pilot house of the Monitor, and soon after the latter stood down for Fortress Monroe, and we thought it probable she had exhausted her supply of ammunition or sustained some injury. Soon after the Merrimack and the two other steamers headed for my ship, and I then felt to the fullest extent my condition. I was hard and immovably aground, and they could take position under my stern and rake me. I had expended most of my solid shot and my ship was badly crippled and my officers and men were worn out with fatigue, but even then, in this extreme dilemma, I determined never to give up the ship to the rebels, and after consulting my officers, I ordered every preparation to be made to destroy the ship after all hope was gone to save her. On ascending the poop deck I observed that the enemy’s vessels had changed their course and were heading for Craney Island. Then I determined to lighten the ship by throwing overboard my 8 inch guns, hoisting out provisions, starting water, etc. At 2 p.m. I proceeded to make another attempt to save the ship, by the use of a number of powerful tugs and the steamer S. R. Spaulding, kindly sent to my assistance by Captain Tallmadge, quartermaster at Fortress Monroe, and succeeded in dragging her half a mile distant, and then she again was immovable , the tide having fallen. At 2 a.m. this morning I succeeded in getting the ship once more afloat, and am now at anchor opposite Fortress Monroe.

Battle Between Monitor and Merrimack by Kurz & Allison

It gives me great pleasure to say that during the whole of these trying scenes the officers and men conducted themselves with great courage and coolness.

I have the honor to be, your very obedient servant,

Captain, U. S. Navy, Commanding Frigate Minnesota.

Secretary of the Navy, Washington, D.C.

The Battle of Hampton Roads was the only time the Merrimack and Monitor battled each other. Neither ship survived 1862. In May, as General George McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign ramped up, Confederate forces withdrew up the James River. The deep draft of the Merrimack prevented it from going up the James, and the Rebels blew it up on May 11th to prevent its capture. On New Years Eve, the Monitor sank in a storm off the North Carolina coast while it was being towed to the Charleston, South Carolina area to participate in a naval attack there.


By Sea and By River: The Naval History of the Civil War by Bern Anderson

The First Fight of Ironclads by John Taylor Wood. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I, Edited by Robert U. Johnson and Clarence C. Buel

Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series I, Volume 7.

War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson

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