"CONGRESS" AND THE "MERRIMAC."
The Story of Frederick H. Curtis, a Gunner on the "Congress."
Retold by Frank Stedman Alger.
The stirring scenes in naval circles during the past few months and the concentration of the battleships in the spring at Hampton Roads recall to mind the spring of 1862, thirty-six years ago, when the eyes of the civilized world were turned to that spot, where the famous "Monitor" and "Merrimac" fought the celebrated duel that astonished all nations, and which changed the method of modern warfare. For months prior to this famous duel, the people of the North were in an uncertain state as to what would become of their large seaport cities and towns if the "Merrimac" succeeded in carrying all before her, as it was then expected that she would easily be able to do, there then being nothing in the Northern navy that could hope successfully to cope with the powerful ram.
The day previous to the duel between the "Monitor" and the "Merrimac" the latter had created havoc in the fleet of naval vessels then anchored in Hampton Roads off Fortress Monroe. In this fleet were the "Cumberland," the "Congress" and the "Minnesota." Wherever one of these names is mentioned, it is a reminder of that eventful day when the "Merrimac" began in a leisurely way to exterminate the warships of the United States navy. After destroying the "Congress" and the "Cumberland," she returned to Norfolk at nightfall, intending to return the following day and complete her work. The appearance on the scene that night of the little "Monitor" changed into victory what was generally believed would end in the expulsion from Hampton Roads of the Union vessels and the taking of Fortress Monroe by the Confederate land forces a short distance away.
The frigate "Congress," which was burned on the day previous to the  conflict between the "Monitor" and the "Merrimac," was commanded by Capt. Joseph B. Smith, whose father was a native of Hanover, Massachusetts. On board the "Congress" was a young man by the name of Frederick H. Curtis, who also came from Hanover; and his story of that memorable day is an interesting one. Young Curtis enlisted in the navy at the Charlestown, Massachusetts, navy yard, and after a few months of blockading service at Wilmington, North Carolina, was transferred to the "Congress," which had just returned from a service of several years at a South American station. From early in January till March, 1862, the "Congress," in company with the "Cumberland," "Minnesota," "Roanoke" and other vessels, lay off Newport News, opposite the Federal batteries, blockading the entrance to the James River, and shutting off all communication with either Richmond or Norfolk, the latter about twelve miles away. Fortress Monroe was about eight miles away, and the Confederate batteries on Sewall's Point were only about six miles off. As spring opened, it was generally believed that an attempt would soon be made by the rebels to drive away the fleet then blockading the mouth of the James. The rebel truce boats would appear every day and warn the war ships that they were soon coming out to sink the whole fleet.
Saturday morning, the 8th of March, 1862, dawned calm and clear, and the crews on the various vessels were cleaning ship preparatory to the Sunday morning inspection. Young Curtis had been busy at his work all the morning, when he was summoned to the captain's cabin to do some repairing. While engaged in the work, the captain began to talk with him, and asked him who he was, and where he came from. On being told that he came from Hanover, Massachusetts, the captain became interested and said his father was also a native of that town. After a pleasant conversation with the captain, the young man returned to the deck, little realizing that this was the last time that he would ever see his captain alive. On returning to the deck the word was passed that the '' Merrimac'' was coming. Off towards Norfolk a black smoke could be seen, as the rebel ram made its way towards the Union fleet. Towards Sewall's Point several small steamers were steaming in the direction of Fortress Monroe. Orders were immediately given to clear the decks for action. The fourth cutter was ordered alongside at once, and orders were immediately sent ashore, the "Congress" at that time being the flagship. On leaving orders ashore, the cutter rowed to the "Cumberland," which was then stationed about a gunshot away from the "Congress," and left orders for the captain. This was probably the last Union boat ever to
go alongside the "Cumberland." On returning to the "Congress," it was to find intense excitement prevailing. The decks had been cleared and the guns run out ready for action. What followed may best be told in Mr. Curtis' own words:
"The 'Merrimac' was steaming slowly towards us, and every eye on the vessel was on her. Not a word was spoken, and the silence that prevailed was awful. The time seemed hours before she reached us. As the 'Merrimac' steamed along by the 'Cumberland,' the latter opened fire as soon as she got a broadside on the 'Merrimac.' The ram did not reply to the fire of the 'Cumberland,' but kept steadily on her course towards the 'Congress.' She came within about fifty yards of us and demanded that we surrender, but our captain replied that he would see them in Hades first. On receiving this reply, the 'Merrimac' opened on us. All I remember about that broadside was of feeling something warm, and the next instant I found myself lying on the deck beside a number of my shipmates. I was captain of No. 8 gun, and a shell from the 'Merrimac' came  into the porthole of gun No. 7, striking the gun carriage, dismounting the gun, and sweeping the men about it back into a heap, bruised and bleeding. The shell struck right back of me and took my left-hand man. The 'Congress' was in the meantime trying to swing around so as to bear broadside on the 'Merrimac,' but it being slack water, she was unable to do so. We returned their fire; but the order was soon given to repel boarders. We scrambled to the deck with the expectation that the crew of the 'Merrimac' were about to board us. The ram kept up a continual fire at us for a short time, and then hauled off and steamed towards the 'Cumberland.' She ran into the 'Cumberland' with her long iron nose and struck her in her starboard side. She then backed off and got aground.
"In the meantime the rebel gunboats 'Yorktown' and 'Jamestown' came down the river from the direction of Richmond and began to pelt our fleet at long range. Their shots failed to do much damage, but we returned their fire and got a shell into the boiler of one of them, and she blew up. At the beginning of the bombardment, the Union war ships 'Minnesota' and 'Roanoke,' lying near Fortress Monroe, started towards us to help drive back the intruder. The 'Minnesota' got aground about a mile away, and the 'Roanoke' got frightened and put back to her station near the fort. The 'Minnesota' began to shell the 'Merrimac,' but she was too far away to do much damage. The 'Merrimac' had by this time got afloat again, and she was doing fearful execution, firing into the fated 'Cumberland,' which was rapidly sinking.
"We had succeeded in swinging the 'Congress' around broadside with the 'Merrimac,' and kept up a steady fire at her. Our shots, however, did her little damage. They would strike her and glance off into the water beyond. The 'Cumberland' was rapidly sinking, and the crew were trying to save themselves in the best way they could. A small launch was towing astern, and some of the crew piled into that and made their escape to the shore. Others jumped into the water and swam ashore, and others climbed to the rigging where they remained until the firing had ceased. The rebels did not attempt to trouble them; but out of a crew of about four hundred only about half of them survived.
"We were kept pretty busy shelling the 'Merrimac,' and after she had destroyed the 'Cumberland' she turned her attention to us. About this time our vessel took fire in the wardroom from a shell exploding there. It was very near the after magazine, and it became necessary to flood the magazine at once to prevent our being blown up. The fire company was immediately ordered to fight fire and soon had its pumps at work. It was a pretty busy time aboard just then, and the men were much excited. Our little powder boy, a lad of only thirteen years of age, would bring us ammunition, with the tears streaming down his cheeks. He had pure grit and stuck to his duties like a man. The order was then passed for us to cease firing, and our colors were struck. My gun was loaded at the time, and, although the order had been given to cease firing, I pulled the lanyard and fired what proved to be the last shot ever fired on board the fated 'Congress.'
"As soon as our colors were struck, it was learned that our captain had been killed. He was struck in the head by a piece of flying shell early in the fight, just as he was coming down off the quarter to the main deck. The news of his death caused a gloom to settle over the whole ship. We then began to pay attention to the wounded who were lying about the decks. With the assistance of one of my shipmates, I picked up one of the men of my gun who had his foot shot off, and carried him below. His wounds were fatal, and he died soon after. The sight in the cockpit was an awful one. Wounded and dead were lying all  around, and cries of anguish filled the air. On returning to the main deck, we were ordered below by the officer of the deck. The officer was very much excited and had his sword in his hand. His name was Buchanan, and his brother was then in command of the 'Merrimac.' When we got on deck the crew were making preparations to get ashore. Most of the boats had been shot away, but the crew were lowering the others, and everybody seemed to think only of getting away from the vessel. As I was standing in the port, the fourth cutter came alongside full of men. As she came abreast, one of my shipmates, Jesse H. Jewett, came rushing through the port and swung himself out and hung on by his hands. He had been fighting the fire below, and his hair was singed from his head and his back was badly burned. I hailed the cutter and said, 'For God's sake, take this man aboard.' They hove to and took him aboard. His injuries were fatal, and I helped bury him in the sand the next day. Another boat followed the fourth cutter, and the rebels began to fire musket shots at them. The coxswain of one of the boats stood up in the stern sheets and waved his hands at them derisively, for which act he was heartily cheered by those on board the 'Congress.' About this time the word was passed that a tug was steaming towards us. She was seen in the distance coming swiftly towards the 'Congress.' She was flying the French flag, and at first we did not know whether she was a friend or foe. We soon found out that it was the rebel tug boat 'Teaser,' and that she was flying the French flag in honor of a French war ship then anchored in Hampton Roads. She steamed alongside, and her officers and men boarded us and ordered us to go aboard of her. Some of the men went, and the officers, what were left of them, the captain, the pilot, sailing master, and second lieutenant, having been killed. Some of the rebels acted like crazy men and would drive our men about like cattle. They became so abusive that one of our men, a darky, shot one of them. I did not think much of such treatment, and went below. The sharpshooters on shore had got the range of the rebel tug, and began to fire on her. The fire became so hot that the tug was forced to cast off and leave the 'Congress.' By so doing the rebels left several of our officers whom they had permitted to return on board the 'Congress' to get their clothing. The captain of the 'Teaser' was afterwards court-martialed at Norfolk for permitting these officers to escape. I saw the captain when he came on board the 'Congress,' and thought him a brave man. He was smoking a cigar and seemed to be very cool. When he saw what havoc the shots from the 'Merrimac' had done on board, he said: 'My God, this is terrible. I wish this war was over.' After the tug had cast off from the 'Congress,' the 'Merrimac' began to fire into us again, and then hauled out abreast of the batteries on Sewall's Point and began to shell the soldiers' camps at Newport News.
"When I reached the post where my gun was stationed, I found a bucket lanyard hanging out of the port, which had been used to draw water to extinguish the fire in the wardroom. I swung myself out and dropped into the water. I sank well under, and on rising to the surface picked up my hat and started for the shore. The water about me was filled with men. Keeping as far away from them as possible, I started for the shore nearly half a mile away. I soon found that I had undertaken quite a job and that if I hurried I would surely become exhausted and drown. I saw several of my comrades drown, but was powerless to help them. In time I reached the shore, but on leaving the water I was so weak that I was hardly able to stand. After resting, I started over back of a little ravine, and there found some clothing which was lying on the  ground to dry, and exchanged it for mine, which was wringing wet. The shells from the 'Merrimac' were flying over my head, and I started for the soldiers' camp in the distance, where I found several of my comrades. We remained there a short time and then started to return to the shore. A shell passed near enough for us to feel the wind of it, and we put back under the bank. We started for the beach again, and I went over to where our batteries were. Here I found that there were only two guns that were in condition. One of the guns had a shell rammed half way home, and another was dismounted. As I stood there a shell from the 'Merrimac' struck the hospital and passed through it. It struck in the sand, and one of the men from the 'Congress,' who was helping the soldiers man the guns, was covered all over. He was not hurt, but was pretty thoroughly frightened.
"The 'Minnesota' still lay aground. She was keeping up a continual fire at the 'Merrimac,' but her shots did not seem to do a great deal of damage. It was now getting to be nearly dark, and a dozen or more of us began to talk of getting back to the 'Congress,' to get our clothing, and, if possible, to get some of the wounded ashore. A party of us started down the beach and found a boat, which was partly filled with water. The 'Merrimac' lay just abreast of us, and as we were tipping the water out of the boat she fired two shots at us. The grapeshot struck the water a few feet from us, and we were forced to abandon all thoughts of using that boat at least. We then started down the beach and found another small boat drawn up on the beach. The 'Congress' was now between us and the 'Merrimac,' and we soon launched the boat and started for our ship, keeping as much out of sight of the 'Merrimac' as possible. It was getting to be quite dark when we got on board ship again. The 'Merrimac' was getting under way to return to Norfolk, and the firing was about over. As she passed along to return to Norfolk, the brave 'Minnesota' gave her a parting shot. We were not sorry to see the rebel ram depart, but we all expected to see her back the next day to complete the destruction of the fleet.
"On our arrival on board the 'Congress,' we found about twenty men and a few officers, those who had been left by the rebel tug. They wanted us to take the captain's body on board, —and this was done. A number of the wounded, whom it was deemed advisable to move, were also taken aboard. I started down to the gun deck to get some of my clothing and a little box that I had there. The vessel was still on fire in the wardroom; we had supposed the fire had been extinguished early in the day. The smoke was so thick and stifling below decks that it was almost impossible to see anything; but with the aid of the cook, a little Irishman, who had a small piece of candle, we managed to get our belongings, and returned to the spar deck. The carpenter wanted to get the men below and try to put out the fire. I told him that it would be useless to try to put the fire out, as the smoke was so dense below that the men would suffocate, and I did not believe that we would be able to do it. We then made preparations to leave the ship, little realizing what the morrow would bring forth. As we approached the shore the beach was lined with soldiers from the camps near by, and the sailors from the 'Congress' were invited to spend the night with them. I went with a party of the 5th Indiana, and shall never forget their kindness to us poor stranded sailors. Late in the night we were all awakened by a loud explosion, which was found to be the forward magazine of the 'Congress.' The fated vessel was soon a mass of flames, and it was with feelings of sorrow that we saw her burn to the water's edge.
"There was not much more sleep in that camp that night, and it was a  long and dreary night to us. We all expected to be taken prisoners the next day, as we had heard that Magruder was then marching down from Yorktown with 10,000 men, and as they had the assistance of the 'Merrimac,' we did not see what could prevent the place from falling into the hands of the rebels. Soon after midnight we could hear a great cheering on board the 'Minnesota.' We supposed then that she had got afloat once more; but in the morning we learned that the cheering was caused by the arrival of the little 'Monitor,' which had hauled up alongside the 'Minnesota.' We could not see the 'Monitor from where we were, for she was on the other side of the 'Minnesota.' About three o'clock in the morning a boat load of sutlers' store came over from Pig's Point with four men in her. They supposed the place was then in rebel hands, but they soon learned their mistake, as the soldiers soon cleaned them out of all they had. So the night wore away, the scenes all about us full of excitement. Off across the water was the poor 'Congress,' a seething mass of flames, and we watched her as she burned to the water's edge. Some of the guns on board the fated ship had been left loaded, and as fast as the guns grew hot they exploded. One of the shots struck a small schooner lying near and sunk her.
"The Sabbath morning dawned bright and clear. It was indeed a beautiful morning. The warm sun shone over what should have been a quiet scene; but here it did not seem at all like Sunday. Ammunition trains were coming in from Fortress Monroe, and the troops were getting into line to march out and meet Magruder. Everything was bustle, and it was fully expected that there would be a fight that day. After watching the troops for some time I strolled away to the beach, where a number of the crew of the 'Congress' had congregated. We kept our eyes anxiously in the direction of Norfolk, and between six and seven o'clock we saw the 'Merrimac' coming. Just ahead of her were several transports coming out from Sewall's Point. These transports were all loaded with troops, and it was evidently their intention to land over where we were. They did not know, however, that the little 'Monitor' had arrived during the night. They soon found that the Yankees had turned a new trick on them. As the transports came along, the 'Monitor' steamed out from near the 'Minnesota' and fired several shots at them. They put back to Sewall's Point much faster than they came out.
"The 'Merrimac' was not daunted at the strange looking craft, and she steamed boldly towards her. The 'Monitor' stood her ground, and we on shore awaited the onslaught with much interest. To tell the truth, we did not have much faith in the 'Monitor'; we all expected to see the Merrimac' destroy her. The 'Monitor' waited until the rebel ram got within a short distance, and in answer to a shot from the 'Merrimac' began one of the grandest fights between two war vessels that the world had ever seen. We soon saw that the 'Merrimac' had met a worthy antagonist; and, as the fight wore on, our faith in the little 'cheese box' began to grow. All through the calm Sabbath morning, from seven until twelve o'clock, the battle raged. Sometimes it seemed as if one would win, and then the other. At times the two boats would touch each other, and each was pouring its deadly fire into the other. The 'Merrimac' would try its best to run the 'Monitor' down; but she would always round to again all right. I watched the fight from the top of a tree, and although I could not tell who the victor would be, I saw that the 'Monitor' was holding her own and that the 'Merrimac' would not have her own way in the work of destroying the rest of our fleet in Hampton Roads. About noon the 'Merrimac' seemed to be crippled, and she  started slowly back to Norfolk. We soon learned that she was in a sinking condition, and our joy knew no bounds. All on shore cheered the brave little 'Monitor' until they were hoarse, and many hugged one another for joy to know that the hated rebel ram was whipped. So closed two of the most anxious and thrilling days of my experience in the war.
"Of the four hundred and fifty men on board the 'Congress,' only one hundred and seventy-five were saved, including about thirty who were taken prisoners. That Sunday night what remained of the crew of the 'Congress' were sent to Fortress Monroe; and the next day we were assigned war ships lying off the fort. Some were put on the 'Minnesota,' and some on the 'Roanoke.' We were soon on our way to North Carolina on the gunboat of Commodore Barney, to join Burnside's expedition, after which we returned to the James River and supported the Army of the Potomac in the Seven Days' fight. We assisted the army every day and saw some pretty hard fighting."
So ends Mr. Curtis's story. Since the war the crew of the "Congress" have become pretty thoroughly scattered over the country, and a reunion of the survivors of that memorable day in Hampton Roads has never been held. Last year Mr. Curtis and his wife made a trip to the scene of the battle, and, while calling at the Portsmouth navy yard, he met one of his comrades whom he had not seen since that day. He had supposed that the man was dead, and the meeting of the two old comrades was a most affecting one. This man, Mr. John T. Lawrence, is an employee of the navy yard at Portsmouth. Through him Mr. Curtis found traces of other shipmates who were in the "Congress" on that fated day, and after his return home he began to communicate with them. A few weeks ago, in response to urgent invitations, he made a trip to New York and visited his old companions. Of those that are now living, all, so far as is known, in this part of the country, are John Pierce of Hingham, Mass., William Bangs of Boston, Franklin Ryder, Robert Roper and James Sheverly of Brooklyn, and John T. Lawrence of Portsmouth, Va. The meeting of the old shipmates in New York was a happy one, and the experiences of the day when the "Congress" went down were pretty thoroughly discussed by these men, boys then, who stood by their guns and fired shot after shot into the "Merrimac" when their ship was being riddled with shot and shell and on fire between the decks below.