With Lee in Virginia: A Story Of The American Civil War, by G. A. Henty, Chapter 7

With Lee in Virginia: A Story Of The American Civil War.

Chapter VII.
The Merrimac And The Monitor.

It was some weeks before Vincent was able to walk unaided. His convalescence was somewhat slow, for the shock to the system had been a severe one. The long rail-way journey had been injurious to him, for the bandage had become somewhat loose and the broken pieces of bone had grated upon each other, and were much longer in knitting together than they would have been had he been treated on the spot.

As soon as he could walk he began to be anxious to rejoin his troop, but the doctor said that many weeks must elapse before he would be ready to undergo the hardships of campaign. He was reconciled to some extent to the delay by letters from his friends with the troop and by the perusal of the papers. There was nothing whatever doing in Virginia. The two armies still faced each other, the Northerners protected by the strong fortifications they had thrown up round Washington—fortifications much too formidable to be attacked by the Confederates, held as they were by a force immensely superior to their own, both in numbers and arms.

The Northerners were indeed hard at work, collecting and organizing an army which was to crush out the rebellion. General Scott had been succeeded by McClellan in the supreme command, and the new general was indefatigable in organizing the vast masses of men raised in tho North. So great were the efforts that in a few months after the defeat of Bull Run the North had 650,000 men in arms.

But while no move had at present been made against Virginia there was sharp fighting in some of the border states, especially in Missouri and Kentucky, in both of which public opinion was much divided, and regiments were raised on both sides.

Various operations were now undertaken by the Federal fleet at points along the coast, and several important positions were taken and occupied, it being impossible for the Confederates to defend so long a line of sea-coast. The South had lost rather than gained ground in consequence of their victory at Bull Bun. For a time they had been unduly elated, and were disposed altogether to underrate their enemies and to believe that the struggle was as good as over. Thus, then, they made no effort at all corresponding to that of the North; but as time went on, and they saw the vastness of the preparations made for their conquest, the people of the Southern States again bestirred themselves.

Owing to the North having the command of the sea, and shutting up all the principal ports, they had to rely upon themselves for everything, while the North could draw arms and ammunition and all the requisites of war from the markets of Europe. Foundries were accordingly established for the manufacture of artillery, and factories for muskets, ammunition, and percussion caps. The South had, in fact, to manufacture everything down to the cloth for her soldiers uniforms and the leather for their shoes; and, as in the past she had relied wholly upon the North for such goods, it was for a time impossible to supply the troops with even the most necessary articles.

The women throughout the States were set to work, spinning and weaving rough cloth, and making uniforms from it. Leather, however, cannot be produced all at once, and indeed with all their efforts the Confederate authorities were never throughout the war able to provide a sufficient supply of boots for the troops, and many a battle was won by soldiers who fought almost barefooted and who reshod themselves for the most part by stripping the boots from their dead foes. Many other articles could not be produced in the Southern States, and the Confederates suffered much from the want of proper medicines and surgical appliances.

For these and many other necessaries they had to depend solely upon the ships which succeeded in making their way through the enemy’s cruisers and running the blockade of the ports. Wine, tea, coffee, and other imported articles soon became luxuries beyond the means of all, even the very wealthy. All sorts of substitutes were used; grain roasted and ground being chiefly used as a substitute for coffee. Hitherto the South had been principally occupied in raising cotton and tobacco, depending chiefly upon the North for food; and it was necessary now to abandon the cultivation of products for which they had no sale, and to devote the land to the growth of maize and other crops for food.

By the time that the long period of inaction came to a close, Vincent had completely recovered his strength, and was ready to rejoin the ranks as soon as the order came from Colonel Stuart, who had promised to send for him directly there was a prospect of active service.

One of Vincent’s first questions as soon as he became convalescent was whether a letter had been received from Tony. It had come, he was told, among the last batch of letters that crossed the frontier before the outbreak of hostilities, and Mrs. Wingfield, had, as he had requested, opened it. As had been arranged, it had merely contained Tony’s address at a village near Montreal; for Vincent had warned him to say nothing in the letter, for there was no saying, in the troubled times which were approaching when Tony left, into whose hands it might fall.

Vincent had before starting told his mother of the share he had taken in getting the negro safely away, and Mrs. Wingfield, brought up as she had been to regard those who assisted runaway slaves to escape in the same light as those who assisted to steal any other kind of property, was at first greatly shocked when she heard that her son had taken part in such an enterprise, however worthy of compassion the slave might be, and however brutal the master from whose hands he had fled. However, as Vincent was on the point of starting for the war to meet danger, and possibly death, in the defense of Virginia, she had said little, and that little was in reference rather to the imprudence of the course he had taken than to what she regarded in her own mind as its folly, and indeed its criminality.

She had, however, promised that as soon as Tony’s letter arrived she would, if it was still possible, forward Dinah and the child to him, supplying her with money for the journey, and giving her the papers freeing her from slavery which Vincent had duly signed in the presence of a justice. When the letter came, however, it was already too late. Fighting was on the point of commencing, all intercourse across the border was stopped, the trains were all taken up for the conveyance of troops, and even a man would have had great difficulty in passing northward, while for an unprotected negress with a baby such a journey would have been impossible.

Mrs. Wingfield had therefore written four times at fort-nightly intervals to Tony, saying that it was impossible to send Dinah off at present, but that she should be despatched as soon as the troubles were over, upon receipt of another letter from him saying that his address was unchanged, or giving a new one. These letters were duly posted, and it was probable that one or other of them would in time reach Tony, as mails were sent off to Europe whenever an opportunity offered for them to be taken by a steamer running the blockade from a Southern port. Dinah, therefore, still remained at the Orangery. She was well and happy, for her life there was a delightful one indeed after her toil and hardship at the Jackson’s; and although she was anxious to join her husband, the knowledge that he was well and safe from all pursuit, and that sooner or later she would join him with her child, was sufficient to make her perfectly contented.

During Vincent’s illness she had been his most constant attendant; for her child now no longer required her care, and passed much of its time down at the nursery, where the young children of the slaves were looked after by two or three aged negresses past active work. She had therefore begged Mrs. Wingfield to be allowed to take her place by the bedside of her young master, and, after giving her a trial, Mrs. Wingfield found her so quiet, gentle, and patient that she installed her there, and was able to obtain the rest she needed, with a feeling of confidence that Vincent would be well attended to in her absence.

When Vincent was well enough to be about again, his sisters were surprised at the change that had taken place in him since he had started a few months before for the war. It was not so much that he had grown, though he had done so considerably, but that he was much older in manner and appearance. He had been doing man’s work: work requiring vigilance, activity, and courage, and they could no longer treat him as a boy. As he became stronger he took to riding about the plantation; but not upon Wildfire, for his horse was still with the troop, Colonel Stuart having promised to see that the animal was well cared for, and that no one should ride upon it but himself.

“I hope you like Jonas Pearson better than you used to do, Vincent,” Mrs. Wingfield said a day or two before he started to rejoin his troop.

“I can’t say I do, mother,” he replied shortly. “The man is very civil to me now—too civil, in fact; but I don’t like him, and I don’t believe he is honest. I don’t mean that he would cheat you, though he may do so for anything I know; but he pretends to be a violent Secessionist, which as he comes from Vermont is not natural, and I imagine he would sing a different tune if the blue coats ever get to Richmond. Still I have nothing particular to say against him, except that I don’t like him and I don’t trust him. So long as everything goes on well for the Confederacy I don’t suppose it matters, but if we should ever get the worst of it you will see that fellow will be mischievous.

“However, I hear that he has obeyed your orders, and that there has been no flogging on the estate since I went away. In fact, as far as I can see, he does not keep anything like such a sharp hand over the slaves as he used to do; and in some of the fields the work seems to be done in a very slovenly way. What his game is I don’t know; but I have no doubt whatever that he has some game in his mind.”

“You are a most prejudiced boy,” Mrs. Wingfield said, laughing. “First of all the man is too strict, and you were furious about it; now you think he’s too lenient, and you at once suspect he has what you call a game of some sort or other on. You are hard to please indeed.”

Vincent smiled. “Well, as I told you once before, we shall see. I hope I am wrong, and that Pearson is all that you believe him to be. I own that I may be prejudiced against him; but nothing will persuade me that it was not from him that Jackson learned that Dinah was here, and it was to that we owe the visit of the sheriff and the searching the plantation for Tony. However, whatever the man is at heart, he can, as far as I see, do you no injury as long as things go on as they are, and I sincerely trust he will never have an opportunity of doing so.”

During the winter Vincent had made the acquaintance of many of the Southern leaders. The town was the center of the movement, the heart of the Confederacy. It was against it, as the capital of the Southern States, that the efforts of the Northerns were principally directed, and to it flocked the leading men from all parts of the country. Although every Virginian family had some of its members at the front, and a feeling of anxiety reigned everywhere, a semblance of gaiety was kept up. The theater was opened, and parties and balls given, in order to keep up the spirits of the people by the example of those of higher rank.

These balls differed widely in appearance from those of eighteen months before. The gentlemen were almost all in uniform, and already calicoes and other cheap fabrics were worn by many of the ladies, as foreign dress materials could no longer be purchased. Mrs. Wingfield made a point of always attending with her daughters at these entertainments, which to the young people afforded a cheerful break in the dullness and monotony of their usual life; for, owing to the absence of almost all the young men with the army, there had been a long cessation of the pleasant interchange of visits, impromptu parties, and social gatherings that had formed a feature in the life in Virginia.

The balls would have been but dull affairs had only the residents of Richmond been present; but leave was granted as much as possible to officers stationed with regiments within a railway run of the town, and as these eagerly availed themselves of the change from the monotony of camp life, the girls had no reason to complain of want of partners. Here and at the receptions given by President Davis, Vincent met all the leaders of the Confederacy, civil and military. Many of them had been personal friends of the Wingfields before the Secession movement began, and among them was General Magruder, who commanded the troops round Richmond.

Early in the winter the general had called at the Orangery. “We are going to make a call upon the patriotism of the planters of this neighborhood, Mrs. Wingfield,” he said during lunch time. “You see, our armies are facing those of the Federals opposite Washington, and can offer a firm front to any foe marching down from the North; but, unfortunately they have the command of the sea, and there is nothing to prevent their embarking an army on board ship and landing it in either the James or the York Rivers, and in that case they might make a rush upon Richmond before there would be time to bring down troops to our aid. I am therefore proposing to erect a chain of works between the two rivers, so as to be able to keep even a large army at bay until reinforcements arrive; but to do this a large number of hands will be required, and we are going to ask the proprietors of plantations to place as many negroes as they can spare at our disposal.”

“There can be no doubt as to the response your question will meet with, general. At present we have scarce enough work for our slaves to do. I intend to grow no tobacco next year, for it will only rot in the warehouse, and a comparatively small number of hands are required to raise corn crops. I have about a hundred and seventy working hands on the Orangery, and shall be happy to place a hundred at your disposal for as long a time as you may require them. If you want fifty more you can of course have them. Everything else must at present give way to the good of the cause.”

“I thank you much, Mrs. Wingfield, for your offers, and will put your name down the first on the list of contributors.”

“You seem quite to have recovered now,” he said to Vincent a few minutes afterward.

“Yes; I am quite ashamed of staying here so long, general. But I feel some pain at times; and as there is nothing doing at the front, and my doctor says that it is of importance I should have rest as long as possible, I have stayed on. Major Ashley has promised to recall me as soon as there is a prospect of active work.”

“I think it is quite likely that there will be active work here as soon as anywhere else,” the general said. “We know pretty well what is doing at Washington, and though nothing has been decided upon, there is a party in favor of a landing in force here; and if so, we shall have hot work. What do you say? If you like I will get you a commission and appoint you one of my aides-de-camp. Your knowledge of the country will make you useful, and as Ashley has specially mentioned your name in one of his despatches, you can have your commission by asking for it.

“If there is to be fighting round here, it will be of more interest to you defending your own home than in taking part in general engagements for the safety of the State. It will, too, enable you to be a good deal at home; and although so far the slaves have behaved extremely well, there is no saying exactly what may happen if the Northerners come among us. You can rejoin your own corps afterward, you know, if nothing comes of this.”

Vincent was at first inclined to decline the offer, but his mother and sisters were so pleased at having him near them that he finally accepted with thanks, being principally influenced by the general’s last argument, that possibly there might be trouble with the slaves in the event of a landing in the James Peninsula by the Northerners. A few days later there came an official intimation that he had received a commission in the cavalry, and had at General Magruder’s request been appointed to his staff, and he at once entered upon his new duties.

The fortress of Monroe, at the entrance of Hampton Roads, was still in the hands of the Federals, and a large Federal fleet was assembled here, and was only prevented from sailing up the James River by the Merrimac, a steamer which the Confederates had plated with railway iron. They had also constructed batteries upon some high bluffs on each side of the river. In a short time 5,000 negroes were set to work erecting batteries upon the York River at Yorktown and Gloucester Point, and upon a line of works extending from Warwick upon the James River to Ship Point on the York, through a line of wooded and swampy country intersected by streams emptying themselves into one or other of the rivers.

This line was some thirty miles in length, and would require 25,000 men to guard it; but Magruder hoped that there would be sufficient warning of an attack to enable reinforcements to arrive in time to raise his own command of about 10,000 men to that strength. The negroes worked cheerfully, for they received a certain amount of pay from the State; but the work was heavy and difficult, and different altogether to that which they were accustomed to perform. The batteries by the sides of the rivers made fair progress, but the advance of the long line of works across the peninsula was but slow. Vincent had, upon receiving his appointment, written at once to Major Ashley, sending his letter by Dan, who was ordered to bring back Wildfire. Vincent stated that had he consulted his personal feeling he should have preferred remaining in the ranks of his old corps; but that as the fighting might be close to his home, and there was no saying what might be the behavior of the slave population in the event of a Northern invasion, he had, for the sake of his mother and sisters, accepted the appointment, but as soon as the danger was over he hoped to rejoin the corps and serve under his former commander.

Dan, on his return with Wildfire, brought a letter from the major saying that although he should have been glad to have had him with him, he quite agreed with the decision at which he had, under the circumstances, arrived. Vincent now took up his quarters at the camp formed a short distance from the city, and much of his time was spent in riding to and from the peninsula, seeing that the works were being carried out according to the plan of the general, and reporting upon the manner in which the contractors for the supply of food to the negroes at work there performed their duties. Sometimes he was away for two or three days upon this work; but he generally managed once or twice a week to get home for a few hours.

The inhabitants of Richmond and its neighborhood were naturally greatly interested in the progress of the works for their defense, and parties were often organized to ride or drive to Yorktown, or to the batteries on the James River, to watch the progress made. Upon one occasion Vincent accompanied his mother and sisters, and a party of ladies and gentlemen from the neighboring plantations, to Drury’s Bluff, where an entrenched position named Fort Darling had been erected, and preparations made to sink vessels across the river, and close it against the advance of the enemy’s fleet should any misfortune happen to the Merrimac.

Several other parties had been made up, and each brought provisions with them. General Magruder and some of his officers received them upon their arrival, and conducted them over the works. After this the whole party sat down to a picnic meal on the ground, and no stranger could have guessed that the merry party formed part of a population threatened with invasion by a powerful foe. There were speeches and toasts, all of a patriotic character, and General Magruder raised the enthusiasm to the highest point by informing them that in a few days—the exact day was a secret, but it would be very shortly—the Merrimac, or, as she had been re-christened, the Virginia, would put out from Norfolk Harbor, and see what she could do to clear Hampton Roads of the fleet that now threatened them. As they were riding back to Richmond the general said to Vincent:

“I will tell you a little more than I told the others, Wingfield. I believe the Merrimac will go out the day after to-morrow. I wish I could get away myself to see the affair; but, unfortunately, I cannot do so. However, if you like to be present, I will give you three days’ leave, as you have been working very hard lately. You can start early to-morrow, and can get down by train to Norfolk in the evening. I should advise you to take your horse with you, and then you can ride in the morning to some spot from which you will get a fair view of the Roads, and be able to see what is going on.”

“Thank you very much, sir,” Vincent said. “I should like it immensely.”

The next day Vincent went down to Norfolk. Arriving there, he found that although there was a general expectation that the Merrimac would shortly go out to try her strength with the enemy, nothing was known of the fact that the next morning had been fixed for the encounter, the secret being kept to the last lest some spy or adherent of the North might take the news to the fleet. After putting up his horse Vincent went down to the navy yard, off which the Merrimac was lying.

This ship had been sunk by the Federals when at the commencement of hostilities they had evacuated Norfolk. Having been raised by the Confederates, the ship was cut down, and a sort of roof covered with iron was built over it, so that the vessel presented the appearance of a huge sunken house. A ram was fixed to her bow, and she was armed with ten guns. Her steam-power was very insufficient for her size, and she could only move through the water at the rate of five knots an hour.

“She is an ugly-looking thing,” a man observed to Vincent as he gazed at the ship.

“Frightfully ugly,” Vincent agreed. “She may be a formidable machine in the way of fighting, but one can scarcely call her a ship.”

“She is a floating-battery, and if they tried their best to turn out the ugliest thing that ever floated they could not have succeeded better. She is just like a Noah’s ark sunk down to the eaves of her roof.”

“Yes, she is a good deal like that,” Vincent agreed. “The very look of her ought to be enough to frighten the Federals, even if she did nothing else.”

“I expect it will not be long before she gives them a taste of her quality,” the man said. “She has got her coal and ammunition on board, and there’s nothing to prevent her going out this evening if she wants to.”

“It will be worth seeing when she does go out to fight the Northerners,” Vincent said. “It will be a new experiment in warfare, and, if she turns out a success, I suppose all the navies in the world will be taking to cover themselves up with iron.”

The next morning, which was the 8th of March—a date forever memorable in naval annals—smoke was seen pouring out from the funnels of the Merrimac, and there were signs of activity on board the Patrick Henry, of six guns, and the Jamestown, Raleigh, Beaufort, and Teazer, little craft carrying one gun each, and at eleven o’clock they all moved down the inlet on which Norfolk is situated. The news that the Merrimac was going out to attack the enemy had now spread, and the whole population of Norfolk turned out and hastened down toward the month of the inlet on horseback, in vehicles, or on foot, while Vincent rode to the batteries on Sewell’s Point, nearly facing Fort Monroe.

He left his horse at a farmhouse a quarter of a mile from the battery; for Wildfire was always restless under fire, and it was probable that the batteries would take a share in the affair. At one o’clock some of the small Federal lookout launches were seen to be at work signaling, a bustle could be observed prevailing among the large ships over by the fortress, and it was evident that the Merrimac was visible to them as she came down the inlet. The Cumberland and Congress men-of-war moved out in that direction, and the Minnesota and the St. Lawrence, which were at anchor, got under weigh, assisted by steam-tugs.

The Merrimac and the fleet of little gunboats were now visible from the battery, advancing against the Cumberland and Congress. The former opened fire upon her at a distance of a mile with her heavy pivot guns, but the Merrimac, without replying, continued her slow and steady course toward them. She first approached the Congress, and as she did so a puff of smoke burst from the forward end of her pent-house, and the water round the Congress was churned up by a hail of grape-shot. As they passed each other both vessels fired a broadside. The officers in the fort, provided with glasses, could see the effect of the Merrimac’s fire in the light patches that showed on the side of the Congress, but the Merrimac appeared entirely uninjured. She now approached the Cumberland, which poured several broadsides into her, but altogether without effect. The Merrimac, without replying, steamed straight on and struck the Cumberland with great force, knocking a large hole in her side, near the water-line. Then backing off she opened fire upon her.

For half an hour the crew of the Cumberland fought with great bravery. The ships lay about three hundred yards apart, and every shot from the Merrimac told on the wooden vessel. The water was pouring in through the breach. The shells of the Merrimac crushed through her side, and at one time set her on fire; but the crew worked their guns until the vessel sank beneath their feet. Some men succeeded in swimming to land, which was not far distant, others were saved by small boats from the shore, but nearly half of the crew of 400 men were either killed in action or drowned.

The Merrimac now turned her attention to the Congress, which was left to fight the battle alone, as the Minnesota had got aground, and the Roanoake and St. Lawrence could not approach near enough to render them assistance from their draught of water. The Merrimac poured broadside after broadside into her, until the officer in command and many of the crew were killed. The lieutenant who succeeded to the command, seeing there was no prospect of help, and that resistance was hopeless, hauled down the flag. A gunboat was sent alongside, with orders that the crew should leave the Congress and come on board, as the ship was to be burned. But the troops and artillery lining the shore now opened fire on the little gunboat, which consequently hauled off. The Merrimac, after firing several more shells into the Congress, moved away to attack the Minnesota, and the survivors of the 200 men who composed the crew of the Congress were conveyed to shore in small boats. The vessel was set on fire either by her own crew or the shells of the Merrimac, and by midnight blew up.

Owing to the shallowness of the water the Merrimac could not get near enough to the Minnesota to use her own small guns to advantage, and the gunboat was driven off by the heavy ten-inch gun of the Federal frigate, and therefore at seven o’clock the Merrimac and her consorts returned to Norfolk. The greatest delight was felt on shore at the success of the engagement, and on riding back to Norfolk Vincent learned that the ram would go out again next morning to engage the rest of the Federal fleet.

She herself had suffered somewhat in the fight. Her loss in men was only two killed and eight wounded; but two of her guns had the muzzles shot off, the armor was damaged in some places, and most serious of all she had badly twisted her ram in running into the Cumberland. Still it appeared that she was more than a match for the rest of the Federal fleet, and that these must either fly or be destroyed.

As the general had given him three days’ leave, Vincent was able to stay to see the close of the affair, and early next morning again rode down to Sewell’s Point, as the Merrimac was to start at daybreak. At six o’clock the ironclad came out from the river and made for the Minnesota, which was still aground. The latter was seen to run up a signal, and the spectators saw an object which they had not before perceived coming out as if to meet the ram. The glasses were directed toward it, and a general exclamation of surprise was heard.

“What is the thing? It looks like a raft with two round turrets upon it, and a funnel.” A moment’s consideration, and the truth burst upon them. It was the ship they had heard of as building at New York, and which had been launched six weeks before. It was indeed the Monitor, which had arrived during the night, just in time to save the rest of the Federal fleet. She was the first regular ironclad ever built. She was a turret ship, carrying two very heavy guns, and showing only between two and three feet above the water.

The excitement upon both shores as these adversaries approached each other was intense. They moved slowly, and not until they were within a hundred yards distance did the Monitor open fire, the Merrimac replying at once. The fire for a time was heavy and rapid, the distance between the combatants varying from fifty to two hundred yards. The Monitor had by far the greatest speed, and was much more easily turned than the Confederate ram, and her guns were very much heavier, and the Merrimac while still keeping up the fight made toward the mouth of the river.

Suddenly she turned and steamed directly at the Monitor, and before the latter could get out of her way struck her on the side; but the ram was bent and her weak engines were insufficient to propel her with the necessary force. Consequently she inflicted no damage on the Monitor, and the action continued, the turret-ship directing her fire at the iron roof of the ram, while the latter pointed her guns especially at the turret and pilot-house of the Monitor. At length, after a battle which had lasted six hours, the Monitor withdrew, one of the plates of her pilot-house being seriously damaged and her commander injured in the eyes.

When her foe drew off the Merrimac steamed back to Norfolk. There were no men killed in either battle, and each side claimed a victory; the Federals upon the ground that they had driven off the Merrimac, the Confederates because the Monitor had retreated from the fight. Each vessel however held the strength of the other in respect, the Monitor remaining as sentinel over the ships and transports at Fortress Monroe, while the Merrimac at Norfolk continued to guard the entrance into the James River.

As soon as the fight was over Vincent Wingfield, greatly pleased that he had witnessed so strange and interesting a combat, rode back to Norfolk, and the same evening reached Richmond, where his description of the fight was received with the greatest interest and excitement.

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