AT Norfolk I had the pleasure of intercourse with such friends as John Tattnall, son of Commander Tattnall; Benjamin Loyall and Lieutenant Walter Butt of the ironclad "Virginia," with the clergy of the city and with many charming families. How can I ever forget the old-time Virginia hospitality that was meted out to me - the enthusiastic reception I had from all kinds and conditions of men? How well I remember Mr. Tazewell Taylor! He was well up in genealogy, and not only knew all of the old families of Virginia, but the principal families of the whole South. It was quite delightful to hear him, "in the midst of war's alarums," talk over "old times" and old folks. Those days before the war were all so different from what we have known since. No one born since the war can write intelligently of the blessed old days in the South.
But if any one would read a true account of the trials and woes of a Southern household during the dreadful war-time, let him read "The Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War," written by Mrs. Judith W. McGuire for the members of her family, "who were too young to remember those days." Mrs. McGuire's book is a wonderful record of hope, joys, sorrows and trials, and of the way in which, amid it all, the faithful women of the South cheered the hearts of the heroes in the field.
One Sunday in March I preached a sermon at St. Paul's Church, (old St. Paul's, built in 1739,) exhorting the people to the work before them, reminding them that in the conflict in which we were engaged, not only the rights of our people and the glory of our nation, but the Church of God was imperilled. It was my "old war sermon," rearranged for Virginia. At the solicitation of clergy and people formally presented, I repeated it several times in Norfolk. On Ash Wednesday I preached again in St. Paul's to a fine congregation and was requested to repeat my sermon, which was on the Good Samaritan, the following Sunday in the same church and subsequently in Christ Church.
I met many persons of distinction in the city. General Huger, who was in command in Norfolk, called upon me. General Howell Cobb was there as Commissioner on the part of the Confederate Government to arrange with General Wood on the part of the United States, about the exchange of prisoners.
In the latter part of February, I became interested in the transformation by which the "Merrimac" became the "Virginia" of the Confederate Navy. One day I slipped off from my patient, General Loring, while he was sleeping, and went to Portsmouth to visit the wonderful craft. The part that appeared above water suggested to me a book opened at an angle of forty-five degrees and the fore edges of its cover placed on a table. At the bow was a sharp projection by which it was expected to pierce the side of any ship it might run against.
All the machinery was below water. The roof was about thirty-eight inches in thickness, of timber very heavily plated with iron. The fore and aft guns were the heaviest, carrying shot and shell eighty-five and ninety pounds in weight. The others were very heavy also and magnificent of their kind. She carried ten guns in all. Her new steel-pointed and wrought iron shot were destined to do some terrific work. She was likely to escape injury unless struck below the water-line, and there was not much danger of that occurring as she was in a measure protected below that line also. She drew rather too much water, as Lieutenant Spotswood told me at the time of my visit.
While I was at Norfolk, the great battle between the "Virginia" and the "Monitor" and ships of war "Congress" and "Cumberland" took place. I witnessed the destruction of the "Congress" and the "Cumberland." The first days fight was on the 8th of March. By special invitation, the Rev. J. H. D. Wingfield, (who afterwards became Bishop of Northern California), celebrated the Blessed Sacrament in his church, (Trinity Church, Portsmouth), for the officers of the "Virginia" before they went into battle.
When the "Virginia" cast off her moorings at Norfolk Navy Yard and steamed down the river, the "Congress" and the "Cumberland" (frigates) had been lying for some time off Newport News. Officers and men on the "Virginia" were taking things quietly as if they were really on an ordinary trial trip. As they drew near the "Congress," Captain Buchanan, the Commander of the "Virginia," made a brief and stirring appeal to his crew, which was answered by cheers. He then took his place by the side of the pilot near the wheel.
My friend Lieutenant J. R. Eggleston commanded the nine-inch broadside guns next abaft the engine-room hatch, and he was ordered to serve one of them with hot shot. Suddenly he saw a great ship near at hand bearing down upon the "Virginia." In a moment twenty-five solid shot and shell struck the sloping side of the "Virginia" and glanced high into the air, many of the shells exploding in their upward flight.
In reply to this broadside from the "Congress" one red hot shot and three nine-inch shells were hurled into her and the "Virginia" steamed on without pausing. Suddenly there was a jar as if the vessel had run aground. There was a cheering forward and Lieutenant Eggleston passed aft, waving his hat and crying: "We have sunk the 'Cumberland.'" She had been struck about amidship by the prow of the "Virginia," and in sinking tore the prow from the bow of her assailant and carried it down with her. The "Virginia" then moved some distance up the river in order to turn about in the narrow channel.
As soon as the "Congress" saw her terrible foe coming down upon her, she tried to escape under sail, but ran aground in the effort. The "Virginia" took position under her stern and a few raking shots brought down her flag. Captain Porcher, in command of the Confederate ship "Beaufort," made an effort to take the officers and wounded men of the "Congress" prisoners. Two officers came on board the "Beaufort" and surrendered the "Congress." Captain Porcher asked them to get the officers and wounded men aboard his vessel as quickly as possible as he had been ordered to burn the "Congress." He was begged not to do so as there were sixty wounded men on board the "Congress," but his orders were peremptory.
While he was making every effort to move the wounded, a tremendous fire was opened on the "Beaufort" from the shore. The Federal officers begged him to hoist a white flag lest all the wounded men should be killed. The fact that the Federals were firing on a white flag flying from the mainmast of the "Congress" was brought to the attention of the Federal officers, who claimed, however, that they were powerless to stop the fire as it proceeded from a lot of volunteers who were not under the control of the officers on board the "Beaufort." The fire continuing, Captain Porcher returned it, but with little effect. He estimated the loss in the Federal fleet, in killed, drowned, wounded and missing, of nearly four hundred men. The total loss of the Confederates did not exceed sixty. Captain Buchanan and his flag-lieutenant were wounded and taken to the Naval Hospital at Norfolk. Catesby Jones succeeded to the command of the "Virginia." About an hour before midnight the fire reached the magazine of the "Congress" and she blew up.
The next day the "Virginia" steamed out towards the "Minnesota," when the "Monitor" made her appearance. The latter came gallantly forward, and then began the first battle ever fought between ironclads. It continued several hours, neither vessel, so far as could be ascertained at the time, inflicting by her fire any very serious damage on the other.
The "Virginia" then got ready to try what ramming would do for the "Monitor." What it did was to silence the latter forever in the presence of the "Virginia." Unfortunately, just before the "Virginia" struck the "Monitor," the former stopped her engine under the belief that the momentum of the ship would prove sufficient for the work. Had the "Virginia" kept on at full speed, she would undoubtedly have run the "Monitor" under. As it was, the latter got such a shaking up that she sought safety in shoal water whither she knew the "Virginia" could not follow her. It should be remembered that the "Virginia" drew twenty-two feet of water and was very hard to manage, whereas the "Monitor" was readily managed and drew but ten feet of water.
The following day the Rev. Mr. Wingfield was called upon to offer up prayers and thanksgiving for the victory, on board the gallant ship. It was a solemn, most impressive and affecting scene, as those valiant men of war fell upon their knees on the deck and bowed their heads in reverence and godly fear. The weather-beaten faces of many of the brave seamen were observed to be bathed in tears and trembling with emotion under the influence of that memorable service.
After this Commodore Tattnall was placed in command of the "Virginia," and on the morning of the 11th of April the "Virginia" went down Hampton Roads with the design of engaging the enemy to the fullest extent. I received a concise cypher telegram, ("Splinters," was all it said), from my dear friend John Tattnall, son of the Commodore, and I at once set out to see what was going on. With General Loring, (who was by that time fully recovered from his illness), and quite a party of friends and officers, I went down the bay in a cockle-shell of a steamer, to witness the engagement. In order to provoke the enemy, Commodore Tattnall ordered two of his gunboats to run into the transport anchorage and cut out such of the vessels as were lying nearest the "Virginia." This was successfully done within sight of and almost within gun-shot of the "Monitor," but she could not be drawn into an engagement. Although the enemy refused to fight, the "Monitor" threw a number of shells, several of which passed over our little steamer. We deemed it, therefore, good military, (and naval) tactics to withdraw and let the contestants attend to their own business.