Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

The Cumberland

E ARLY in 1862 a war-ship made her appearance at Hampton Roads, off Fortress Monroe, in Virginia, which was destined to change the naval battles of the future. The vessel was a Confederate ironclad called the Merrimac. An old ship had been altered by having a wedge-shaped prow of cast-iron project about two feet in front of the bow, and covering a wooden roof which sloped to the water-line with two iron plates of armor. A battery of ten guns was placed inside the ironclad. So constructed, it was thought that the new type of war-ship could readily destroy the old-fashioned Union frigates, and herself escape without injury.

Five Union ships, the fifty gun frigate Congress, the twenty-four gun sloop Cumberland, and the frigates St. Lawrence, Roanoke, and Minnesota, lay near Newport News on March 8, 1862, when about noon the new ship Merrimac suddenly appeared from the James River. The three nearest frigates, believing they could easily defeat the stranger, immediately slipped their cables, but, as all were of deep draft, shortly grounded in shallow water. The two other Union ships, together with the shore batteries, opened fire upon the strange black vessel that looked like a crocodile or some unknown sea-monster. To their surprise the shot bounced off the sloping back of the ironclad like rubber balls, and seemed to do no damage.

Lieutenant George Upham Morris was in command of the Cumberland, and as he saw the strange ship advancing to attack him he ordered broadsides of shot and shell poured at her. The heavy fire had no effect. The monster steamed on, and rammed her iron prow into the wooden side of the Cumberland. The frigate sank in fifty-five minutes, carrying down officers and crew, one hundred and twenty-five in all. Her flag was still flying as she sank, and her guns fired even when the water had reached the gunwales.

The Merrimac then turned to the Congress, which had made for the shore, and riddled her with shot until she caught on fire, and an exploding powder-magazine destroyed her. The Merrimac finally retired at nightfall to the shelter of the Confederate batteries, having spread consternation through the Union fleet.

Next morning, however, when the victorious Merrimac steamed out to destroy the three remaining frigates, she found that a tiny vessel named the Monitor had arrived at Hampton Roads over night, and was ready to meet her. This Monitor showed only a thin edge of surface above the water-line, and an iron turret revolved in sight, from which two guns could be fired in any direction. As the Northern papers said, this ship looked like a "cheese-box on a raft."

The Goliath of a Merrimac advanced to meet the David of a Monitor, and a three hours' battle followed. Neither could force the other to surrender, but finally the larger ironclad began to leak and had to withdraw, leaving the little Monitor in possession of the Roads.

This marked the beginning of the change from wooden ships-of-war to ironclads.

The Cumberland

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

At anchor in Hampton Roads we lay,

On board of the Cumberland, sloop-of-war;

And at times from the fortress across the bay

The alarum of drums swept past,

Or a bugle blast

From the camp on the shore.

Then far away to the south uprose

A little feather of snow-white smoke,

And we knew that the iron ship of our foes

Was steadily steering its course

To try the force

Of our ribs of oak.

Down upon us heavily runs,

Silent and sullen, the floating fort;

Then comes a puff of smoke from her guns,

And leaps the terrible death,

With fiery breath,

From each open port.

We are not idle, but send her straight

Defiance back in a full broadside!

As hail rebounds from a roof of slate,

Rebounds our heavier hail

From each iron scale

Of the monster's hide.

"Strike your flag!" the rebel cries,

In his arrogant old plantation strain.

"Never!" our gallant Morris replies;

"It is better to sink than to yield!"

And the whole air pealed

With the cheers of our men.

Then, like a kraken huge and black,

She crushed our ribs in her iron grasp!

Down went the Cumberland all a wrack,

With a sudden shudder of death,

And the cannon's breath

For her dying gasp.

Next morn, as the sun rose over the bay,

Still floated our flag at the mainmast head.

Lord, how beautiful was Thy day!

Every waft of the air

Was a whisper of prayer,

Or a dirge for the dead.

Ho! brave hearts that went down in the seas!

Ye are at peace in the troubled stream;

Ho! brave land! with hearts like these,

Thy flag, that is rent in twain,

Shall be one again,

And without a seam!

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