In the gathering dusk of Saturday, March 8, 1862, a young Union telegrapher, John Emmet O’Brien, stood on the ramparts of Fortress Monroe on Old Point Comfort dominating the entrance to Hampton Roads, Virginia. He looked to the right and watched the USS Congress flaming like a gigantic torch stuck in the mud. The once-mighty warship had been blown to splinters and set afire by the new Confederate ironclad, CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack. That afternoon, Virginia also rammed and sank the USS Cumberland; O’Brien’s cousin had been among the crew.
Looking to the left out into the Chesapeake Bay, O’Brien recalled, “about 10 p.m. I saw the dim outline of a queer, barge-like craft come into the Roads.” He hurried to headquarters where his fellow telegrapher was tapping out a message from the commanding general to Washington: “The ironclad Ericsson battery Monitor has arrived and will proceed to take care of the Merrimac in the morning.”
In the previous few months, O’Brien’s light duties had provided ample opportunity to explore “the great fortress, with all its mysteries of moat, casemates, ramparts, and water-battery; the big guns (Columbiads) mounted en barbette, some of which I could almost crawl into; the mortars with their piles of shot and shell, and the brick furnaces for heating hot shot, all on the ramparts. I wandered on the beach, listened to the sobbing of the tide, and saw the ships and steamers come and go, and, above all, admired the great sailing war-ships of the old navy.”
You too can stand on those ramparts, like John O’Brien. Fort Monroe is still there and a wonderful place to visit. He had seen, “the flagship Minnesota, with her graceful spars and long tiers of forty guns; the Roanoke; the frigate Congress and the sloop-of-war Cumberland, all peacefully at anchor in the Roads and seemingly invulnerable to any flotilla the enemy could improvise and send down either river against them.”
O’Brien watched the destruction wrought by Virginia. At about 2:00 a.m., powder magazines on Congress exploded sending a thunderous, giant fireball hundreds of feet into the air. The next day, he observed the contest between Virginia and the USS Monitor. They’re all gone now, but you might see their descendants, gigantic aircraft carriers and sleek destroyers of today’s navy, along with a constant stream of big merchant vessels and countless other craft.
That’s not all. The fort has 400 years of history to explore as wonderfully described in a recent post by Michael Nelson: Fort Monroe: History & Personal Reflections. Also see the National Park website for details. You can even drive a few miles and see Monitor herself at the The USS Monitor Center nestled in a beautiful setting at The Mariners’ Museum & Park, Newport News, Virginia. Lots of Civil War history to see around Hampton Roads.
Reference: John Emmet O’Brien, Telegraphing in Battle: Reminiscences of the Civil War (Wilkes-Barre, Pa, 1910), 60-62. Excerpts from the forthcoming book, With Mutual Fierceness: The Battles of Hampton Roads, by Dwight Hughes for the Emerging Civil War Series.