Naval Intelligence in Hampton Roads: 1861-1862

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CSS Virginia.
The Mariners’ Museum.

There was no formal naval intelligence system established during the American Civil War. While a few examples exist of Northern sympathizers, free Blacks, like Mary Louvestre of Portsmouth, sent messages to various Union commanders about the Confederate ironclad construction effort. These links were unofficial and were generally between one Union officer and an individual. The Union nor the Confederacy needed to rely on such clandestine methods since Northern and Southern newspapers provided ample information, usually in a boastful manner. Each antagonist simply needed to obtain a copy of The New York Times or Mobile Register to gather all they needed to know about ironclad development. 

Union intelligence was able to receive valuable knowledge about the construction and impending attack of CSS Virginia. The information appeared to flow back and forth across Hampton Roads. On October 6, 1861, Major General John Ellis Wool, stationed at Fort Monroe as commander of the Union Department of Virginia, wrote to Lieutenant General Winfield Scott:   Read more

Lots of Mud, a Battleship, a Ferry, a T-shirt, High Tides, and a UFO.

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USS Wisconsin (BB-63)

What do a Battleship, 1950, mud, high tides, a Hudson River Ferry, a T-shirt, and a UFO all have in common?

To find out how they interconnect, let’s start with the Battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63). In 1950, the ship was already famous for her participation in WWII, and because the surrender that ended the war was signed on her deck. MISSOURI was nicknamed the “Mighty Mo” by her crew, but she was also known as the “Big Mo” to the public and in news reports. She would soon live up to them both names when she managed to get into a mighty big mess.

It all began on January 17, 1950. MISSOURI left Norfolk Naval Base and headed towards the Atlantic Ocean to begin a routine training cruise to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Her Captain, William D. Brown, was new to the battleship, having just joined the crew in December. While he was an experienced naval officer, his previous commands had been submarines and destroyers and he had been on shore duty since the end of World War II. Although Captain Brown had taken MISSOURI on a few short trips off the coast of Virginia after he took command, he was essentially unfamiliar with the battleship and this would be his first time taking her out for a cruise.

The Navy had set up an acoustic range to capture the signature sounds made by ships and it was close to MISSOURI’s departure point. Captain Brown had been asked to take a previously unplanned trip through the range on his way out, and he was told that buoys had been set up to mark the area. This was important since the range was very close to shallow water.

Things started to go wrong pretty quickly. It turned out that some of the buoys had been removed and the navigational charts hadn’t been updated with that information. Not all the ship’s officers knew about the plan to take MISSOURI through the range, and some of them only heard about it just before the battleship headed in that direction. Another complication was that the range area was close to a fishing channel that was also marked with buoys.

Brown spotted what he thought was the marker for the right edge of the acoustic range and ordered the battleship to the left of the buoy. He ignored warnings by the navigator and the executive officer’s attempts to alert him, not realizing until much too late that he had made a mistake. Even though the tide was unusually high that day, MISSOURI was heading into the fishing channel and shallow water.

At 8:17 am, the “Mighty Mo” hit a sandbank in the Chesapeake Bay, about a mile and a half from Thimble Shoal Light and a mile off Old Point Comfort. The battleship, traveling at 12.5 knots, plowed 2,500 feet into the sandbar, bottoming out the ship and lifting her out of the water about seven feet above the waterline.
Now the ship was stuck just off the Army base at Fort Monroe, close to Thimble Shoals Lighthouse, the shipping channel, and within sight of the Naval Base.

Within a couple days, articles would start appearing in newspapers all across the country that “Mighty Mo” or “Big Mo” had grounded. These articles were quickly followed by reports of multiple failed attempts to free the battleship over the next two weeks. Bringing not only amusement to the onlookers and readers, but also quite a bit of humiliation to the Navy. Army personnel, finding the entire situation hilarious, discovered a new hobby. Partaking in the amenities of the Fort Monroe Officer’s Club while writing letters and composing telegrams containing suggestions on how to free the battleship. The public also got involved and sent suggestions too. The Navy was inundated with ideas, including one from a five-year-old boy in Indiana who told them they just needed to fix the bottom of the ship so she could float again.

After numerous failed attempts using a large number of tugboats, military vessels, small explosive charges, dredging, large cables, and other methods, MISSOURI was finally refloated on February 1, 1950, during another unusually high tide. Even after the ship was freed, the jokes continued. For most of 1950, anytime an accident involved a large amount of mud, the nickname “Mo” surfaced again. A situation was a “Big Mo,” like a plane that slid off an icy runway into the mud. A car that imitated the “Big Mo” or two boats that went aground in mud off New Jersey on the same day and the efforts to free them was named “Operation Big Mo”.

So now on to April 1950, the ferryboat and a point on the Hudson River in New York. There, two cities are located across from each other on the river. Newburgh, located in Orange County, and just one and a half miles away,  Beacon in Dutchess County. Both cities are about 55 miles from the New York metropolitan area. The Newburgh-Beacon Ferry system provided transport between the two cities with three commuter ferries named ORANGE, DUTCHESS, and BEACON. Usually, two of the three boats were in service at the same time, each moored at the opposite side of the river and they passed each other in the middle during their runs. The first run of the day began around 7am and it took about 15 minutes to reach the other side of the river.   Read more

USS Cumberland – Sink Before Surrender

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U.S. Frigate Cumberland. Lithograph. Published by Currier & Ives,
ca. 1843-1848. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

USS Cumberland, flagship of the US Navy’s Home Squadron, was dispatched to Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, upon the sloop’s return from a brief cruise to Veracruz, Mexico. It was hoped that the warship’s presence would deter any effort to capture the yard during the secession crisis. Gosport was the largest and most advanced navy yard in the United States. Besides its granite dry dock and other ship repair/construction facilities, Gosport housed 14 warships, including the steam screw frigate USS Merrimack awaiting repair and others in ordinary like USS Raritan. The Cumberland, then commanded by Captain Garrett J. Pendergrast, was anchored just off Gosport so its firepower could be utilized to defend the yard or cover the release of ships.  

Three days after Virginia left the Union on April 17, the Union abandoned the yard. Cumberland’s crew helped to destroy the facility and various ships. By 4:20 a.m. on April 21, Cumberland, loaded with sailors and Marines, was towed out of the yard by USS Pawnee supported by the tug USS Yankee. Cumberland slowly passed the burning Merrimack, not realizing that what seemed to be a burning hulk would become the sloop’s death knell less than one year later.

Increase of the US Navy

Following the War of 1812, Congress passed an “act for the gradual increase” of the US Navy in 1816. Several ships of the line and frigates were to be constructed. One of these, USS Cumberland, was laid down in 1824 at the Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston. Designed by William Doughty along the lines of USF Constellation, the frigate was part of the heavily armed Raritan-class.

Money Troubles

Financial issues delayed Cumberland’s completion. The frigate was commissioned on November 9, 1842, and placed under the command of Captain S. L. Beese. The vessel became the flagship of Commodore Joseph Smith’s Mediterranean Squadron. After an uneventful cruise, Cumberland returned to the United States and was immediately pressed into service as the Home Squadron’s flagship. Commodore David Conner commanded the squadron; Thomas Dulay captained Cumberland. When Dulay became ill, Captain French Forrest replaced him. The Cumberland ran aground July 28, 1846, off the coast of Alvardo, Mexico. Eventually, the frigate returned to Hampton Roads, Virginia, for repairs at Gosport Navy Yard.

In the Mediterranean Sea

Cumberland then had two cruises as part of the Mediterranean Squadron: 1849 to 1851 and 1852 to 1855. The third deployment was action-packed as the frigate served as Commodore Silas Horton Stringham’s flagship. Cumberland supported the work of George Perkins Marsh, environmentalist and ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Marsh had to intercede with King Otto of Greece about the treatment of American missionaries. More importantly, was Marsh’s diplomatic work when the Crimean War erupted. March and Stringham offered the flagship as a safe place for Americans who needed assistance or protection when the conflict began. 

After this three-year cruise, Cumberland was sent to the Charlestown Navy Yard, where the ship was razed into a sloop of war and rearmed. The warship was now better able to serve the needs of the US Navy as it was faster, lighter, and less expensive to operate. The new armament included twenty-two IX-inch Dahlgren shell guns and two X-inch Dahlgrens as pivot guns. 

USS Cumberland (Razee) Characteristics

Length: 175 ft.

Beam:    45 ft.

Draft:   21.1 ft.


one X-inch shell gun on fore spar deck pivot

one 70-pounder rifle (probably 60- or 80-pounder Parrott) on aft spar deck pivot

22 IX-inch Dahlgren shell guns

On Slave Patrol

The repairs were completed in 1857 and Cumberland was sent to the west coast of Africa as the flagship of the African Squadron. This squadron’s primary duty was the suppression of the slave trade. In 1859, the sloop returned to the United States and was named flagship of the Home Squadron and assigned to the Gosport Navy Yard.

Flashpoint Gosport

When Virginia left the Union on April 17, 1861, all eyes were on Gosport Navy Yard. Located on the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, Virginia, and was capable of building any warship the nation needed. Gosport’s commandant, Flag Officer Charles Stewart McCauley, was not up to the task of defending the yard against the Virginians who were demanding control of Gosport. Union secretary of the navy Gideon Welles ordered McCauley to get USS Merrimack ready for sea. However, the commandant hesitated and refused to allow the steam screw frigate to leave Gosport. Flag Officer McCauley’s indecision and inaction were based on Welles’s order:  “Do nothing to upset the Virginians.” 

The 67-year-old McCauley had served in the US Navy since he was fifteen. Rumor had it that he had taken to drink, and he was ridiculed for being too old for active command. Recognizing that McCauley was unable or unwilling to defend the yard, on April 16, 1861, Welles ordered Captain Garrett J. Pendergrast to keep Cumberland at Gosport because: “events of recent occurrence and the threatening attitude of affairs in some parts of our country, call for the exercise of great vigilance and energy at Norfolk.” 

Pendergrast then moved Cumberland up the Elizabeth River to a new position near the Portsmouth Naval Hospital just off the naval yard. The sloop could be utilized to defend the yard or cover the release of ships in port. Besides Merrimack, USS Dolphin, Germantown, and Plymouth were the only warships considered in relatively good condition to warrant saving. Welles needed every available ship for blockade duty.

On April 20, 1861, McCauley, believing his command was surrounded with no relief in sight, made the fateful decision to abandon and burn the yard. Local citizens clamored for the Federals not to destroy the yard. A group of firebrands tried to capture the tiny sidewheel steamer Yankee, which Pendergrast had commandeered to tow Cumberland out of the Elizabeth River. The attempt failed, according to Private Daniel O’Connor of Cumberland’s Marine Guard, because when “they seized her…they let her go very quick when we pointed our pivot gun at her.” O’Connor remembered the rejected trouble makers yelling “of massacring the whole of us or taking the navy yard that night and shipping but we intended to sell our lives as dear as possible.”

Lieutenant Thomas O. Selfridge Jr. remembered a more humorous incident. One particular steamer filled with Rebels continued to hover near the yard, shouting threats and abusive language at the loyal workmen busy destroying the yard. Selfridge and members of Cumberland’s crew rigged an underwater line from the yard to a tug on the other side of the channel. When the firebrand’s tug approached the yard for another round of abuse, the hawser line was pulled taut, raking the entire length of the tug, knocking off the vessel’s smokestack, and pushing several men overboard. After this episode, there were no other attempts to approach the yard by way of the Elizabeth River.

Cumberland Escapes

Gosport Navy Yard and most of the ships stationed there began to burn when a relief expedition commanded by Flag Officer Hiram Paulding arrived aboard USS Pawnee. The Cumberland’s crew joined in this destructive work until about 4:20 a.m. when Paulding ordered all the men to the ships. Flag Officer McCauley, demoralized, was taken aboard Cumberland in tears.

The small flotilla slowly made its way with the rising tide down the Elizabeth River. Now the Federal ships crossed the obstructions sunk in the channel by Southern volunteers before dawn. “We were dragged over the obstructions,” remembered Lieutenant Selfridge of Cumberland, “and anchored off Fort Monroe.” USS Cumberland immediately became the nucleus of the Federal Blockading Squadron blocking Hampton Roads and the lower Chesapeake Bay. The sloop had left three men behind at Gosport. Lieutenant John Maury and Paymaster John DeBree had joined the Virginia Navy when Virginia left the Union. As Cumberland left Gosport, Master Tailor Albert C. Griswold jumped ship and eventually served on USS Virginia.

Active Service 

After the sloop escaped from Gosport, the vessel remained in Hampton Roads as a blockader. Cumberland captured several blockade runners between April 23 and May 11, including the tug Young America and sailing vessels like the Sarah & Mary, Elite, and Dorothy Haines. The warship was then sent to Boston for minor repairs at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Of great importance was the improvement to the Cumberland’s battery. The aft X-inch Dahlgren was replaced with a 70-pounder rifle. (Note: This type of gun was not in the US Navy ordnance inventory. The rifled gun was probably a 60- or 80-pounder Parrott gun). The sloop of war was assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and returned to Hampton Roads in time to participate in Flag Officer Silas Horton Stringham’s capture of Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, on August 28-29, 1861.  USS Wabash towed Cumberland as the powerful US warships turned in a circle to shell Forts Hatteras and Clark. Cumberland then returned to Hampton Roads and was stationed with the 52-gun sailing frigate USS Congress off Camp Butler on Newport News Point. 

Defending Hampton Roads

Stories about the conversion of the former USS Merrimack into the Confederate ironclad ram soon to be renamed CSS Virginia began to spread across Hampton Roads. Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commander of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, knew that the ironclad would be “exceedingly formidable” and stationed the 47-gun steam screw frigate Minnesota, the 42-gun steam screw frigate Roanoke, and the 50-gun sailing frigate St. Lawrence near Fort Monroe on Old Point Comfort where Hampton Roads emptied into the Chesapeake Bay. Two armed tugs, USS Zouave and USS Dragon, were assigned to support the two sailing warships at Newport News Point. 

By March 1862, the Union anticipated the emergence of Merrimack almost any day. “Rumors of her expected appearance came so often,” Lieutenant Thomas O. Selfridge Jr. of Cumberland later wrote, “that at last it became a standing joke with the ship’s company.” The crewmen were ready for “a chance for active operations.” They had been on alert throughout the winter and drilled “until every man knew not only the duties of their station at quarters, but those of every station as well,” remembered Master Moses S. Stuyvesant of Cumberland

While many were anxious to test the ironclad’s strength, others feared the impending attack. “She will most certainly commit great depredations to our armed and unarmed vessels in Hampton Roads,” wrote steam ram expert Lieutenant Colonel Charles Ellet. “Nothing I think,” wrote Flag Officer Goldsborough, “but very close work can be of service in accomplishing the destruction of the Merrimack.” There were concerns that the Union’s wooden warships, without the support of an armored vessel, might be unable to stop the Confederate ironclad. Goldsborough longed for USS Monitor to arrive in Hampton Roads and wrote Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, “I ask therefore if it would not be good to send the Ericsson to contend with that vessel on her own terms.”

The Eve of Destruction

A gale had blown through Hampton Roads on March 6 and 7, delaying Virginia’s plans to attack the Union fleet in the harbor. Captain Franklin Buchanan decided to take his ironclad down the Elizabeth River on a ‘shake-down’ cruise. During that voyage, Buchanan was told by Chief Engineer Ashton Ramsay that the machinery was securely braced and the engines were working beyond his expectations. Buchanan was satisfied with Ramsay’s opinion and declared, “I am going to ram the Cumberland. I am told she has the new rifled guns, the only ones in their whole fleet we have cause to fear. The moment we are out in the Roads, I’m going to make right for her and ram her.” He then called many of the crew onto the gundeck and gave them a speech with a Nelsonian flourish stating: the “Confederacy expects every man to do his duty.” According to Midshipman Hardin Littlepage, Buchanan reminded everyone that the “whole world is watching you today,” and commanded them, “Go to your guns!” 

No one in the Union fleet expected the Confederates to attack that day. “The 8th of March 1862, came and a finer morning I never saw in that southern latitude,” wrote Seaman William Reblen of USS Cumberland. “The sun came up smiling in all of its splendor. It was ‘up hammocks’ that morning and then ‘holystone’ and wash decks as usual. After breakfast (it being Saturday) it was ‘up all bags’ and every old tar went through his bag mending and getting ready for the Sunday muster ‘round the capstan.’” 

A Boston Journal correspondent noted: the “hours crept lazily along, the sea and the shore in this region saw nothing to vary the monotony of the scene.” He also reflected that many “a sailor might be noted, on ship board telling how much he hoped the Merrimack would show itself, and how certainly she would be sunk by our war vessels.”


The calm scene was quickly disrupted as CSS Virginia emerged from Sewell’s Point with two supporting armed tugs, CSS Beaufort and CSS Raleigh. The Confederate ironclad, “different from any vessel seen before,” was investigated by Zouave. “It did not take us long to find out,” noted Zouave’s Acting Master Henry Reaney, “…when we saw what all appeared to be the roof of a very big barn belching forth smoke from a chimney on fire.” The Zouave fired several shells from its 30-pounder Parrott at the ironclad and returned to Newport News Point.

“Suddenly, huge volumes of smoke began to pour from the funnels of the frigates Minnesota and Roanoke at Old Point,” Ashton Ramsay recalled. “They had seen us and were getting up steam. Bright colored signal flags were run up and down the masts of…all of the Federal fleet, Ramsay continued. “The Congress shook out her topsails, down came the clotheslines on the Cumberland, and boats were lowered and dropped astern.” Brigadier General Joseph King Fenno Mansfield at Camp Butler telegraphed Major General John Ellis Wool at Fort Monroe, “The Merrimack is close at hand.”

As the crews and officers of Congress and Cumberland readied themselves for combat, other vessels in the Federal fleet struggled to reach Newport News Point. Roanoke, her engines disabled, was taken undertow, and Minnesota got underway. Another tug was ordered to guide St. Lawrence into action. Buchanan knew that these ships would soon be brought into action. His first concern was Cumberland with its 70-pounder rifle. Littlepage recalled Buchanan’s talk with his officers en route, “He had already urged us to hurry with the work before us,” and “that is, the destruction of the Cumberland and Congress, as the heaviest of the enemy’s ships were following in our wake.”

First Shot

It took Virginia more than one hour to steam across Hampton Roads. Once within range, the Union ships and shore batteries began shelling the ironclad. The shot “had no effect on her,” as Thomas O. Selfridge recounted, “but glanced off like pebble stones.” The CSS Beaufort fired the first Confederate shot of the day at 2:20 p.m. Buchanan; however, waited until the range was less than 1,500 yards. He then ordered Lt. Charles Carroll Simms to fire the bow Brooke rifle at the Union sloop. That shell hit Cumberland at the starboard rail, showering splinters and shrapnel across the deck tumbling some Marines.

“The groans of these men,” remembered Lt. Selfridge, “the first to fall, as they were carried below, was something new” to many of the crew. The second shell fired by Simms hit just below the sloop’s forward rifled pivot gun. The gun was disabled, and the entire gun crew decimated. Dead and wounded were everywhere. “No one flinched,” Selfridge recalled, “but went on leading and firing, taking the place of some comrade, killed or wounded.” One Northern correspondent wrote that he saw “from the ship’s scuppers running streams of crimson gore.”

USS Congress

Virginia had now come abreast of Congress. The frigate fired a broadside at the Confederate ironclad, which harmlessly bounced off the iron-plated casemate. As the ironclad passed the hapless frigate, she unleashed her starboard broadside of four guns at Congress. The effect was devastating. One shell went through a gun port, dismounting the gun and “sweeping the men around it back into a heap, bruised and bleeding.” Hot shot from Lt. John Randolph Eggleston’s gun rumbled through the frigate, starting two fires, one of which threatened to ignite Congress’s powder magazine. 

Virginia was armed with hot shot guns just for this purpose. They were a deadly weapon against wooden warships and were placed on board the Confederate ironclad to give it yet another technological advantage. The combination of hot shot and explosive shells was too much for Congress. The frigate was critically damaged by Virginia’s broadside; however, Buchanan did not pause to finish off the stricken prey as nothing would delay the flag officer’s intended rendezvous with USS Cumberland. “The pilot at the wheel has drawn a bead upon the Cumberland,” wrote William Norris, “and holds her true as a needle for the doomed ship.”

“Sink Before Surrender”

Virginia continued toward the sloop “like some devilish and superhuman monster, or the horrid creature of a nightmare.” Cumberland kept up her fire against the oncoming ironclad, but her shot “struck and glanced off, having no more effect than peas from a pop-gun.” Virginia was pounded with shot as it approached the sloop, creating a terrific din within the casemate, losing its flagstaff to enemy shot. Just before Virginia reached Cumberland, Ordinary Seaman Richard Curtis peered out a gun port and “saw a sight…all on the starboard side of the Cumberland was lined with officers and men with rifles and boarding pikes, all ready to repel us, thinking we intended to board her; I saw an officer, hat off and his sword raised, cheering on his men.” Cumberland appeared doomed as the ironclad rushed toward Virginia at almost six knots. “At her prow I could see the iron ram projecting,” Cumberland’s pilot A. B. Smith remembered, “straight forward, somewhat above the water’s edge, and apparently a mass of iron.” Smith sadly reflected, “it was impossible for our vessel to get out of her way.”

The Power of Iron Over Wood

“Like a huge half-submerged crocodile,” Virginia broke through the anti-torpedo obstructions and rammed the sloop on the starboard side. Executive Officer Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones recalled, “the noise was heard above the din of battle.” The 1,500-pound ram punched a hole into Cumberland’s berth deck. According to Lieutenant John Taylor Wood, the hole was “wide enough to drive in a horse and cart.” Cumberland was mortally wounded, the ramming made only worse by a simultaneous shot from Virginia’s bow rifle. Lieutenant Robert Minor would write the “crash into the Cumberland was terrific in its results. Our cleaver fairly opened her side.” Tons of water were now gushing into Cumberland, and the vessel began to sink rapidly. 

“Soon, however, I heard the reports of our own guns, and then there came a tremor throughout the whole ship,” wrote Third Assistant E. A. Jack. “This is when we drove into Cumberland with our ram. Then, the cracking and breaking of her timbers told full well how fatal to her that collision was. Then, there was a settling motion of our vessel that aroused suspicion that our ship had been injured too, and was sinking.” Just before the ramming of the sloop, Buchanan ordered it to be reversed, yet there was an “awful phase,” Ashton Ramsay recalled. Virginia was caught by the weight of the sinking Cumberland as the ironclad’s engines labored to free itself. The crisis was quickly over, as the current turned the ironclad alongside Cumberland. The ram, which was faultily mounted, broke off when the weight of the stricken sloop rested upon it, and Virginia was freed. “Like a wasp we could sting but once,” Ramsay wrote, “leaving the sting in the wound.”

Lieutenant Thomas O. Selfridge later lamented that he had failed to seize the initiative to drop the sloop’s starboard anchor onto Virginia’s deck as the ironclad stood alongside Cumberland. Selfridge believed the anchor could have acted as a grappling hook, pulling the ironclad under the James River as Cumberland sank. This moment of opportunity, limited by the mounting casualties, quickly slipped away from Selfridge. Virginia’s engines finally reversed. The ram broke off, and the ironclad was freed from the sinking sloop.

The Change in Naval Warfare

Buchanan now positioned the ironclad parallel to Cumberland, and the next half hour, they exchanged cannon fire. Both ships were engulfed in smoke as Cumberland sent several broadsides into Virginia at a range of fewer than one hundred yards. Selfridge was “fighting mad when I saw were producing no effect upon the iron sides of the Merrimac.” Unbeknownst to the Union crew, the sloop inflicted severe damage to Virginia. “She did us more damage than all of the rest of the fleet and batteries,” noted Ashton Ramsay, “…put together.” When Virginia rammed the sloop, the ironclad was struck by a tremendous broadside from Cumberland. Richard Curtis, a member of the bow rifle crew, recalled, “as the gun recoiled back …then Brave {Charles} Dunbar…a good friend…jumped over the breechin, threw his head partly out of the port and was instantly killed…he fell at my feet.” 

A shell struck the port sill and sent fragments inside Virginia, killing two men and wounding several others. The ironclad’s smokestack was riddled by this broadside. The damaged funnel caused the gundeck to fill with smoke and caused the steamer to lessen its speed. One shot cut the anchor chain, which whipped inboard, wounding a few more men. Cumberland’s three broadsides swept away Virginia’s starboard cutter, guard howitzers, stanchions, and iron railings. Two of the Confederate ship’s guns had their muzzles shot off, killing one and injuring others. Sharpshooters fired into Virginia’s open ports, wounding two men. While there was little damage to the iron casemate, Catesby Jones noted that had the sloop’s guns “been concentrated at the water-line we would have been seriously hurt, if not sunk.”

Virginia’s sloped sides, coated with grease to help deflect shot, began to crackle and pop from the heat and the flames caused by exploding shells. Midshipman Littlepage wrote that the ironclad seemed to be “frying from one end to the other.” He overheard an exchange between crew members Jack Cronin and John Hunt: “Jack, don’t this smell like hell?” “It certainly does and I think that we will be there in a few minutes.”

It was indeed hell on Cumberland. Master Moses S. Stuyvesant remembered it as a “scene of carnage and destruction never to be recalled without horror.” “The shot and shell from the Merrimack crashed through the wooden sides of the Cumberland as if they had been made of paper,” remembered Acting Master’s Mate Charles O’Neil, “carrying huge splinters with them and dealing death and destruction on every hand.” O’Neil was spattered with the “blood and brains” of Master’s Mate John M. Harrington when a shell whizzed past. He remembered how “Cumberland’s once clean and beautiful deck was slippery with blood, blackened with powder and looked like a slaughterhouse.”

“Give Them a Broadsides, As She Goes!”

Lieutenant George Upham Morris, Cumberland’s executive officer and acting commander, strove to save the Union vessel. Command of the sloop fell upon Morris on March 8, 1862, because its captain, William Radford, was assigned to court-martial duty aboard USS Roanoke. Radford rushed to his ship on horseback when Virginia entered Hampton Roads but arrived too late. Meanwhile, Morris attempted to turn Cumberland on her anchor cable to either bring more guns into action or cut the cable to save the ship by running her around. It was too late, as water had already reached Cumberland’s berth deck. The ship was doomed. About 3:35 p.m., Morris gave the order to abandon ship, extorting the remaining crew members: “Give them a Broadsides boys, as She goes!” “She went down bravely, with her colors flying,” Catesby Jones remembered. Cumberland’s masts protruded above the waves, the flag marking the spot where 121 Union sailors perished.

The Flag Still Flies

Cumberland’s flag still hanging from the sunken sloop’s mast sent a chilling message to the rest of the Federal fleet in Hampton Roads. Virginia, however, had not finished its destructive work for the day. The Confederate ironclad slowly turned about and sank USS Congress and two transports, captured a schooner, and damaged the tug Zouave and the frigates Minnesota and St. Lawrence. With 247 casualties, it was the worst US Navy defeat until Pearl Harbor, 88 years later.  

Only darkness and a receding tide had stopped Virginia from inflicting more damage on the Union warships. They seemed powerless to defend themselves against the return of Virginia. When the Confederate ironclad had rammed and sunk USS Cumberland, the ironclad had proven the power of iron over wood. It was considered a super-weapon destined to control the American coastline. Lieutenant Robert Minor, flag lieutenant of Virginia, expressed that it was “a great victory. The Iron and the heavy guns did the work.” Despite the Confederates rejoicing, their tactical control of Hampton Roads was short-lived. The next day, CSS Virginia dueled to a standstill with the Union ironclad, USS Monitor. Iron now ruled the waves.


Source:  John V. Quarstein, USS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012.   


Read more about the capture of Hatteras Inlet here: 


Biscuits Off the Beaten Path

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A menu from the centennial celebration of The Baltimore Steam Packet Company on May 23, 1940. Collection Number: Ms0015—01365

Easy to Overlook

Well, well, well. I’ve definitely done it this time. You’ll hear from museum professionals over and over about the idea of falling down the proverbial rabbit hole. Something captures our attention, and away we go, sometimes spending hours upon hours digging into the topic du jour. It can be anything that causes this condition. It might be a shipwreck, a painting, a moment in time, an exciting person, etc. Sometimes it’s a side dish on a menu. Yeah, you read that right. Come to think of it, though, a side dish might even be too grand a description.

I recently had cause to photograph some of our ephemera (a fancy word for printed memorabilia) from The Baltimore Steam Packet Company. You may be more familiar with their moniker “Old Bay Line.” One of the items I digitized was the menu for the Baltimore Steam Packet Company’s centennial celebration dinner on May 23, 1940. From the menu, it’s safe to assume that it was a grand affair featuring such sophisticated dishes as seafood cocktail, terrapin a la Chesapeake, golden roast pheasant, Maryland Beaten Biscuits, Cen–

Wait. Just. One. Minute. 

I’m sorry. Maryland, what now?

A Bit About Old Bay Line

Before we go any further, it seems prudent to know a little more about The Baltimore Steam Packet Company, or Old Bay Line as it was more commonly known. A “steam packet” is a medium-sized steamboat, usually operating on rivers, canals, and bays, in this instance. It ferried mail, typically on a government contract, in addition to freight and passengers. In the latter part of the 19th century, packet lines referred to boats operating on a fixed daily schedule between two or more ports. 

On March 18, 1840, The Baltimore Steam Packet Company was granted a 20-year charter by the Maryland legislature to provide overnight service on the Chesapeake Bay. They began with three vessels acquired from the recently collapsed Maryland & Virginia Steam Boat Company: Pocahontas, Georgia, and Jewess. The Old Bay Line ran predominantly between Baltimore and the “Old Dominion” ports at Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Old Point Comfort (Hampton). It offered daily overnight service, except on Sunday, to both passengers and freight. By 1848, the Old Bay Line’s Herald could make the journey in less than 12 hours. 

Based in Baltimore, the Old Bay Line brought together the best of northern technology and engineering with the south’s ease, comfort, and famed hospitality. This seamless blending led to boats that were known for their sophisticated service and steadfast reliability. 

So About Those Biscuits? 

The Baltimore Steam Packet Company prided itself on serving the best of Chesapeake Bay specialties. That included, at least in the instance of their centennial, Maryland Beaten Biscuits. So what exactly are they? 

Maryland Beaten Biscuits are, essentially, a cousin of English naval hardtack. If you’re unfamiliar, hardtack was a simple blend of whole wheat flour, water, and salt. It was mixed and then baked, sometimes upwards of four times, to remove any moisture from the resulting bread altogether. With no water, the flour blocks would last for years and years without going bad. Hardtack was made using whole wheat flour because it provided a good source of protein, vitamins, and calories. 

When English settlers came to North America, they brought hardtack with them. It became a staple for survival and the army. It was cheap, easy to prepare, and never went rancid so long as it remained dry. That said, it was not something most people would consider tasty. Hardtack required soaking in coffee, beer, salt water, or any liquid on hand before eating. While dry, it was inedible and was likely to break teeth if you tried. 

Cut forward to the 19th century Maryland homestead, and you’ll find a similar problem that requires a slightly different solution. How do you create a simple bread product that can be stored for long periods with no refrigeration, last in the tobacco fields, but, additionally, taste good? Cue the beaten biscuit. 

Biscuit Ingenuity

Homestead cooks would have easily had access to the same ingredients required for hardtack; water, salt, and flour. They had the advantage of also having access to another biscuit staple in the form of lard. Lard would have added some flavor, moisture, and more calories to the classic recipe. What they didn’t have easy access to was yeast or chemical leavening. So how do you make these basic ingredients softer and more palatable? Clever home cooks decided to grab a hammer. Or a rolling pin. Or the flat of an ax. Or a baseball bat.

Once you mix all the ingredients into a sticky lump, you remove it from the bowl, place it on a board (or a flattened stump of a tree), and give it a good whack. Well, a lot of good whacks. You must beat the dough between 30 and 60 minutes, depending on how tender you want the resulting biscuits. My favorite description comes from the Delmarva Heritage and Traditions video featuring Barrie Parsons Tilghman and her sister Ellen Hitch. Barrie says the best rule of thumb is “thirty minutes for family and an hour for company.”

Food Science at Work

So, what’s happening to the dough during the beating process? I reached out to Dr. Dennis D. Miller, professor emeritus of food science at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, for answers. “When wheat flour is combined with salt and water and mixed, the gluten in the flour forms a continuous protein network that is capable of trapping air and/or carbon dioxide from leavening agents such as yeast or baking powder,” said Dr. Miller. “This network results in what is called a visco-elastic dough, meaning that it is viscous but will stretch. My guess is that the pounding of the dough will fracture some of the protein network making the length of the protein chains shorter and this will result in a softer final product.”

In traditional yeasted bread baking, you want to use a “strong” flour and knead the dough to create long strings of gluten, the protein found in wheat. These long chains help to trap air bubbles that give the bread its signature webbed texture inside. It also results in it having a more rigid exterior. By beating the dough for as long as possible, you create very short strands of protein and end up with a very soft, very dense final product. 

After beating, the dough is rolled into a snake and torn into individual pieces. Each piece should be about the size of a clementine. Each piece is kneaded slightly to smooth it and rolled into a ball. The ball is then poked on top with a fork or a custom pricker to let out moisture, and then they are baked until cooked through but still pale blonde. Traditionally, the biscuits are eaten with butter, country ham, cheddar cheese, or blackstrap molasses. Everyone has their preference, but the neutral flavor of the biscuits allows for plenty of options.

But Did You Make Some?

I attempted to make two batches of Maryland Beaten Biscuits, and, to be honest, I don’t think it went so well. To be fair, I’ve never eaten one before, so all I had to go on was written accounts and the words of people that I’ve spoken to. Don’t get me wrong, they tasted delicious, but the texture didn’t seem to come out the way I had expected. In most accounts, the biscuits are firm on the outside and very dense and soft on the inside. Mine turned out much drier than expected and had a more crumbly texture like a regular biscuit might.

However, it was an interesting and enjoyable process, so I highly encourage you to give it a try. If you are interested in making your own batch, I used Ellen Hitch’s family recipe and followed along with this video:

Family Traditions

The Maryland Beaten Biscuit has remained a staple of Chesapeake Bay families in Maryland. You are unlikely to find anyone making them for Tuesday night’s dinner, but they tend to appear on most holidays and special occasions. Unfortunately, you will not find them commercially produced anymore, either. Orrell’s Maryland Beaten Biscuits, the last commercial biscuit maker, closed its doors in 2013 after the passing of the family patriarch and company founder, Dick Orrell. They are currently working on a documentary project about the company and the tradition of beaten biscuits.

Still, the tradition persists in Maryland communities. Families pass down their biscuit tools like a board, hammer, and pricker. The pricker is an essential part of the making process by letting out moisture, preventing too much rise, and denoting who made the batch of biscuits. Every biscuit maker has their mark. Prickers handed down through families usually have a single point removed to change the pattern for the new maker.

I was fortunate enough to have a call with several people familiar with the making or eating of Maryland Beaten Biscuits. Jan Plotczyk, George Shivers, and Peter Heck, writers for Common Sense Eastern Shore (, sat down with me via Zoom to discuss their ties to Maryland Beaten Biscuits. We had a delightful conversation about the biscuits, and everyone, in turn, shared stories of making them, a family member who would make them, or just enjoying eating them and the comfort they brought. George showed me his family’s biscuit beater and pricker, handed down to him through the generations. Peter recounted a story of his early working days when he would go to the grocery store and get biscuits and country ham for a quick lunch. They all offered sage wisdom on the preparation and recipe for the biscuits and helped to guide me.

A Lesson in Connection

The Mariners’ Museum and Park connects people to the world’s waters because through the waters, through our shared maritime heritage, we are connected to each other. That’s our goal, our hope. I have firsthand seen this play out time and time again. There isn’t an employee at the Museum who doesn’t have a story of connecting with a former stranger because of shared interests, a common hope, or a family story. I have those stories, as well. But this, well, this just solidifies for me how true that capacity to connect really is. 

I spotted something small and seemingly insignificant on a single piece of our vast collections. A biscuit I’d never heard of. It was a thread, and when I pulled at it, I found people on the other end. I found a food scientist with knowledge and passion for his job. I found fellow writers excited and eager to share their traditions with me, welcome me into their world, and connect with me. If only for moments, if only through emails or Zoom calls, we came together to share knowledge, stories, traditions, heritage, pieces of ourselves given freely.

That’s the real power of The Mariners’ Museum and Park. That’s the real power of connecting to one another. Food, much like our oceans, has such capacity to bring us all together. 

HRPE: The American Red Cross

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Two American Red Cross volunteers hand out donuts to soldiers. Accession # P0003-01–L-16193


We return to our research on the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation (HRPE) with the American Red Cross. The Red Cross played a vital role in maintaining morale and the mental health of those in the military, especially those abroad. During World War II, the Red Cross was the only civilian service organization authorized to work with overseas military personnel, and in fact began providing aid to civilian victims of the war in Europe before the US entered the war in 1941. Red Cross members were a mix of volunteers and employees, who served both at home and abroad. The Red Cross provided supplies, aid, and refreshments to all those who needed it. Many volunteers signed up to be nurses aids through the Red Cross. However, during WWII the Red Cross was probably most famous for their free donuts, to the point that many volunteers were referred to as ‘Donut Dollies’! 

Like many organizations at the time, the American Red Cross held applicants to a very high standard. Female volunteers had to be college graduates, at least 25 years of age, have excellent reference letters and pass physical examinations. The application standards were so high, only 1 in 6 applicants were accepted. After accepting the volunteer position, women were then sent for training in Washington D.C. before being assigned a position on the Homefront or abroad. 

Those who passed through HRPE to serve overseas might be going to work at Red Cross Service Clubs. At the height of the war there were 2000 Service clubs abroad, including the Mobile Club Units, which were often military trucks or English public buses that had been modified to serve hot food.  These trucks would be driven just behind the front lines, to serve soldiers who needed it most, operated only by three American Red Cross women and a local driver. The Mobile Clubs were famous for the “Donut Dollies” (the Red Cross women volunteers) serving fresh donuts and coffee. Over the entirety of WWII the American Red Cross served 163 million cups of coffee and 254 million doughnuts.  If available, the “Donut Dollies” might also distribute newspapers, cigarettes, and gum. Occasionally volunteers would fit a radio, phonograph, or even a small piano in the Mobile Club Unit, to give the soldiers a bit of entertainment and reminder of home. 

Many Red Cross volunteers were stationed at HRPE. Some served as nurses’ aids, who not only helped to treat and lift the spirits of injured soldiers, but they also relieved many overburdened nurses in both civilian and military hospitals.

 Others worked to keep up morale for those at HRPE and abroad. The American Red Cross often made ‘ditty bags’ for those serving overseas–small bags filled with comforts from home that might not be available overseas and on the front lines. Candy bars, paperback novels, handkerchiefs, sewing kits, and extra boot laces were common inclusions. The Red Cross also hosted dinners and events at HRPE, to help keep up morale. This allowed many soldiers to remember the pleasures of civilian life and stay motivated in their work.

At the end of the war, many soldiers returning home needed help adjusting back to civilian life. At every step of the way, the Red Cross was there. They provided cheer to those patiently waiting for their turn to return home. Volunteers were stationed at high traffic train stations and ports to help returning service members find their next stop on the way home. They aided and nursed injured soldiers on their journey to state-side hospitals. And others were there to answer questions about the GI bill, benefits, and veteran’s hospitals. The American Red Cross was there to help service members every step of the way. 

To learn more about how the American Red Cross aided in World War II, check out the sources below. You can also explore the Mariners’ Museum online collection for more images of Red Cross volunteers at HRPE.