MoboReader > Literature > The Long Roll

   Chapter 14 THE IRON-CLADS

The Long Roll By Mary Johnston Characters: 45852

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Miss Lucy Cary, knitting in hand, stood beside the hearth and surveyed the large Greenwood parlour. "The lining of the window curtains," she said, "is good, stout, small figured chintz. My mother got it from England. Four windows-four yards to a side-say thirty-two yards. That's enough for a dozen good shirts. The damask itself?-I don't know what use they could make of it, but they can surely do something. The net curtains will do to stretch over hospital beds. Call one of the boys, Julius, and have them all taken down.-Well, what is it?"

"Miss Lucy, chile, when you done sont de curtains ter Richmon', how is you gwine surmantle de windows?"

"We will leave them bare, Julius. All the more sunlight."

Unity came in, knitting. "Aunt Lucy, the velvet piano cover could go."

"That's a good idea, dear. A capital blanket!"

"A soldier won't mind the embroidery. What is it, Julius?"

"Miss Unity, when you done sont dat kiver ter Richmon', what you gwine investigate dat piano wif?"

"Why, we'll leave it bare, Julius! The grain of the wood shows better so."

"The bishop," said Miss Lucy thoughtfully-"the bishop sent his study carpet last week. What do you think, Unity?"

Unity, her head to one side, studied the carpet. "Do you reckon they would really sleep under those roses and tulips, Aunt Lucy? Just imagine Edward!-But if you think it would do any good-"

"We might wait awhile, seeing that spring is here. If the war should last until next winter, of course we shall send it."

Unity laughed. "Julius looks ten years younger! Why, Uncle Julius, we have bare floors in summer, anyhow!"

"Yaas, Miss Unity," said Julius solemnly. "An' on de hottes' day ob July you hab in de back ob yo' haid dat de cyarpets is superimposin' in de garret, in de cedar closet, ready fer de fust day ob November. How you gwine feel when you see November on de road, an' de cedar closet bar ez er bone? Hit ain' right ter take de Greenwood cyarpets an' curtains, an' my tablecloths an' de blankets an' sheets an' Ole Miss's fringed counterpanes-no'm, hit ain't right eben if de ginerals do sequesterate supplies! How de house gwine look when marster come home?"

Molly entered with her knitting. "The forsythia is in bloom! Aunt Lucy, please show me how to turn this heel. Car'line says you told her not to make sugar cakes for Sunday?"

"Yes, dear, I did. I am sorry, for I know that you like them. But everything is so hard to get-and the armies-and the poor people. I've told Car'line to give us no more desserts."

"Oh!" cried Molly. "I wasn't complaining! It was Car'line who was fussing. I'd give the army every loaf of sugar, and all the flour. Is that the way you turn it?

Knit-knit-knit-

The soldiers' feet to fit!"

She curled herself up on the long sofa, and her needles went click, click! Unity lifted the music from the piano lid, drew off the velvet cover, and began to fold it. Muttering and shaking his head, Julius left the room. Miss Lucy went over and stood before the portrait of her mother. "Unity," she said, "would you send the great coffee urn to Richmond for the Gunboat Fair, or would you send lace?"

Unity pondered the question. "The lace would be easier to send, but maybe they would rather have the silver. I don't see who is to buy at the Fair-every one is giving. Oh, I wish we had a thousand gunboats and a hundred Virginias-"

A door banged in the distance and the windows of the parlour rattled. The room grew darker. "I knew we should have a storm!" said Miss Lucy. "If it lightens, put by your needles."

Judith came in suddenly. "There's going to be a great storm! The wind is blowing the elms almost to the ground! There are black clouds in the east. I hope that there are clouds over the ocean, and over Chesapeake, and over Hampton Roads-except where the Merrimac lies! I hope that there it is still and sunny. Clouds, and a wind like a hurricane, a wind that will make high waves and drive the ships-and drive the Monitor! There will be a great storm. If the elms break, masts would break, too! Oh, if this night the Federal fleet would only go to the bottom of the sea!"

She crossed the room, opened the French window, and stood, a hand on either side of the window frame, facing the darkened sky and the wind-tossed oaks. Behind her, in the large old parlour, there was an instant's silence. Molly broke it with a shocked cry, "Judith Jacqueline Cary!"

Judith did not answer. She stood with her hair lifted by the wind, her hands wide, touching the window sides, her dark eyes upon the bending oaks. In the room behind her Miss Lucy spoke. "It is they or us, Molly! They or all we love. The sooner they suffer the sooner they will let us alone. They have shut up all our ports. God forgive me, but I am blithe when I hear of their ships gone down at sea!"

"Yes," said Judith, without turning. "Not stranded as they were before Roanoke Island, but wrecked and sunken. Come, look, Unity, at the wild storm!"

Unity came and stood beside her. The oaks outside, like the elms at the back of the house, were moving in the blast. Over them hurried the clouds, black, large, and low. Down the driveway the yellow forsythias, the red pyrus japonicas showed in blurs of colours. The lightning flashed, and a long roll of thunder jarred the room. "You were the dreamer," said Unity, "and you had most of the milk of human kindness, and now you have been caught up beyond us all!"

Her sister looked at her, but with a distant gaze. "It is because I can dream-no, not dream, see! I follow all the time-I follow with my mind the troops upon the march, and the ships on the sea. I do not hate the ships-they are beautiful, with the green waves about them and the sea-gulls with shining wings. And yet I wish that they would sink-down, down quickly, before there was much suffering, before the men on them had time for thought. They should go like a stone to the bottom, without suffering, and they should lie there, peacefully, until their spirits are called again. And our ports should be open, and less blood would be shed. Less blood, less anger, less wretchedness, less pain, less shedding of tears, less watching, watching, watching-"

"Look!" cried Unity. "The great oak bough is going!"

A vast spreading bough, large itself as a tree, snapped by the wind from the trunk, came crashing down and out upon the lawn. The thunder rolled again, and large raindrops began to splash on the gravel paths.

"Some one is coming up the drive," exclaimed Unity. "It's a soldier! He's singing!"

The wind, blowing toward the house, brought the air and the quality of the voice that sang it.

"Beau chevalier qui partez pour la guerre,

Qu'allez-vous faire

Si loin d'ici?

Voyez-vous pas que la nuit est profonde,

Et que le monde

N'est que souci?"

"Edward!" cried Judith. "It is Edward!"

The Greenwood ladies ran out on the front porch. Around the house appeared the dogs, then, in the storm, two or three turbaned negresses. Mammy, coifed and kerchiefed, came down the stairs and through the house. "O my Lawd! Hit's my baby! O glory be! Singin' jes' lak he uster sing, layin' in my lap-mammy singin' ter him, an' he singin' ter mammy! O Marse Jesus! let me look at him-"

"Beau chevalier qui partez pour la guerre,

Qu'allez-vous faire

Si loin de nous?-"

Judith ran down the steps and over the grass, through the storm. Beyond the nearer trees, by the great pyrus japonica bush, flame-red, she met a ragged spectre, an Orpheus afoot and travel-stained, a demigod showing signs of service in the trenches, Edward Cary, in short, beautiful still, but gaunt as any wolf. The two embraced; they had always been comrades. "Edward, Edward-"

"Eleven months," said Edward. "Judith, Judith, if you knew how good home looks-"

"How thin you are, and brown! And walking!-Where is Prince John-and Jeames?"

"Didn't I tell you in my last letter? Prince John was killed in a fight we had on the Warwick River.... Jeames is in Richmond down with fever. He cried to come, but the doctor said he mustn't. I've only three days myself. Furloughs are hard to get, but just now the government will do anything for anybody who was on the Merrimac-You're worn yourself, Judith, and your eyes are so big and dark!-Is it Maury Stafford or Richard Cleave?"

Amid the leaping of the dogs they reached the gravelled space before the house. Miss Lucy folded her nephew in her arms. "God bless you, Edward-" She held him off and looked at him. "I never saw it before-but you're like your grandfather, my dear; you're like my dear father!-O child, how thin you are!"

Unity and Molly hung upon him. "The papers told us that you were on the Merrimac-though we don't know how you got there! Did you come from Richmond? Have you seen father?"

"Yes, for a few moments. He has come up from the south with General Lee. General Lee is to be commander of all the forces of the Confederacy. Father is well. He sent his dear love to you all. I saw Fauquier, too-"

Mammy met him at the top of the steps. "Oh, my lamb! O glory hallelujah! What you doin' wid dem worn-out close? An' yo' sh'ut tohn dat-er-way? What dey been doin' ter you-dat's what I wants ter know? My po' lamb!-Marse Edward, don' you laugh kaze mammy done fergit you ain' er baby still-"

Edward hugged her. "One night in the trenches, not long ago, I swear I heard you singing, mammy! I couldn't sleep. And at last I said, 'I'll put my head in mammy's lap, and she'll sing me

The Buzzards and the Butterflies-

and I'll go to sleep.' I did it, and I went off like a baby-Well, Julius, and how are you?"

Within the parlour there were explanations, ejaculations, questions, and answers. "So short a furlough-when we have not seen you for almost a year! Never mind-of course, you must get back. We'll have a little party for you to-morrow night. Oh, how brown you are, and your uniform's so ragged! Never mind-we've got a bolt of Confederate cloth and Johnny Bates shall come out to-morrow.... All well. Knitting and watching, watching and knitting. The house has been full of refugees-Fairfaxes and Fauntleroys. They've gone on to Richmond, and we're alone just now. We take turn about at the hospitals in Charlottesville-there are three hundred sick-and we look after the servants and the place and the poor families whose men are gone, and we read the papers over and over, every word-and we learn letters off by heart, and we make lint, and we twist and turn and manage, and we knit and knit and wait and wait-Here's Julius with the wine! And your room's ready-fire and hot water, and young Cato to take Jeames's place. Car'line is making sugar cakes, and we shall have coffee for supper.... Hurry down, Edward, Edward darling!"

Edward darling came down clean, faintly perfumed, shaven, thin, extremely handsome and debonair. Supper went off beautifully, with the last of the coffee poured from the urn that had not yet gone to the Gunboat Fair, with the Greenwood ladies dressed in the best of their last year's gowns, with flowers in Judith's hair and at Unity's throat, with a reckless use of candles, with Julius and Tom, the dining-room boy, duskily smiling in the background, with the spring rain beating against the panes, with the light-wood burning on the hearth, with Churchill and Cary and Dandridge portraits, now in shadow, now in gleam upon the walls-with all the cheer, the light, the gracious warmth of Home. None of the women spoke of how seldom they burned candles now, of how the coffee had been saved against an emergency, and of the luxury white bread was becoming. They ignored, too, the troubles of the plantation. They would not trouble their soldier with the growing difficulty of finding food for the servants and for the stock, of the plough horses gone, and no seed for the sowing, of the problem it was to clothe the men, women, and children, with osnaburgh at thirty-eight cents a yard, with the difficulties of healing the sick, medicine having been declared contraband of war and the home supply failing. They would not trouble him with the makeshifts of women, their forebodings as to shoes, as to letter paper, their windings here and there through a maze of difficulties strange to them as a landscape of the moon. They would learn, and it was but little harder than being in the field. Not that they thought of it in that light; they thought the field as much harder as it was more glorious. Nothing was too good for their soldier; they would have starved a week to have given him the white bread, the loaf sugar, and the Mocha.

Supper over, he went down to the house quarter to speak to the men and women there; then, in the parlour, at the piano, he played with his masterly touch "The Last Waltz," and then he came to the fire, took his grandfather's chair, and described to the women the battle at sea.

"We were encamped on the Warwick River-infantry, and a cavalry company, and a battalion from New Orleans. Around us were green flats, black mud, winding creeks, waterfowl, earthworks, and what guns they could give us. At the mouth of the river, across the channel, we had sunk twenty canal boats, to the end that Burnside should not get by. Besides the canal boats and the guns and the waterfowl there was a deal of fever-malarial-of exposure, of wet, of mouldy bread, of homesickness and general desolation. Some courage existed, too, and singing at times. We had been down there a long time among the marshes-all winter, in fact. About two weeks ago-"

"Oh, Edward, were you very homesick?"

"Devilish. For the certain production of a very curious feeling, give me picket duty on a wet marsh underneath the stars! Poetic places-marshes-with a strong suggestion about them of The Last Man.... Where was I? Down to our camp one morning about two weeks ago came El Capitan Colorado-General Magruder, you know-gold lace, stars, and black plume! With him came Lieutenant Wood, C. S. N. We were paraded-"

"Edward, try as I may, I cannot get over the strangeness of your being in the ranks!"

Edward laughed. "There's many a better man than I in them, Aunt Lucy! They make the best of crows'-nests from which to spy on life, and that is what I always wanted to do-to spy on life!-The men were paraded, and Lieutenant Wood made us a speech. 'The old Merrimac, you know, men, that was burnt last year when the Yankees left Norfolk?-well, we've raised her, and cut her down to her berth deck, and made of her what we call an iron-clad. An iron-clad is a new man-of-war that's going to take the place of the old. The Merrimac is not a frigate any longer; she's the iron-clad Virginia, and we rather think she's going to make her name remembered. She's over there at the Gosport Navy Yard, and she's almost ready. She's covered over with iron plates, and she's got an iron beak, or ram, and she carries ten guns. On the whole, she's the ugliest beauty that you ever saw! She's almost ready to send to Davy Jones's locker a Yankee ship or two. Commodore Buchanan commands her, and you know who he is! She's got her full quota of officers, and, the speaker excepted, they're as fine a set as you'll find on the high seas! But man-of-war's men are scarcer, my friends, than hen's teeth! It's what comes of having no maritime population. Every man Jack that isn't on our few little ships is in the army-and the Virginia wants a crew of three hundred of the bravest of the brave! Now, I am talking to Virginians and Louisianians. Many of you are from New Orleans, and that means that some of you may very well have been seamen-seamen at an emergency, anyhow! Anyhow, when it comes to an emergency Virginians and Louisianians are there to meet it-on sea or on land! Just now there is an emergency-the Virginia's got to have a crew. General Magruder, for all he's got only a small force with which to hold a long line-General Magruder, like the patriot that he is, has said that I may ask this morning for volunteers. Men! any seaman among you has the chance to gather laurels from the strangest deck of the strangest ship that ever you saw! No fear for the laurels! They're fresh and green even under our belching smokestack. The Merrimac is up like the ph?nix; and the last state of her is greater than the first, and her name is going down in history! Louisianians and Virginians, who volunteers?'

"About two hundred volunteered-"

"Edward, what did you know about seamanship?"

"Precious little. Chiefly, Unity, what you have read to me from novels. But the laurels sounded enticing, and I was curious about the ship. Well, Wood chose about eighty-all who had been seamen or gunners and a baker's dozen of ignoramuses beside. I came in with that portion of the elect. And off we went, in boats, across the James to the southern shore and to the Gosport Navy Yard. That was a week before the battle."

"What does it look like, Edward-the Merrimac?"

"It looks, Judith, like Hamlet's cloud. Sometimes there is an appearance of a barn with everything but the roof submerged-or of Noah's Ark, three fourths under water! Sometimes, when the flag is flying, she has the air of a piece of earthworks, mysteriously floated off into the river. Ordinarily, though, she is rather like a turtle, with a chimney sticking up from her shell. The shell is made of pitch pine and oak, and it is covered with two-inch thick plates of Tredegar iron. The beak is of cast iron, standing four feet out from the bow; that, with the rest of the old berth deck, is just awash. Both ends of the shell are rounded for pivot guns. Over the gun deck is an iron grating on which you can walk at need. There is the pilot-house covered with iron, and there is the smokestack. Below are the engines and boilers, condemned after the Merrimac's last cruise, and, since then, lying in the ooze at the bottom of the river. They are very wheezy, trembling, poor old men of the sea! It was hard work to get the coal for them to eat; it was brought at last from away out in Montgomery County, from the Price coal-fields. The guns are two 7-inch rifles, two 6-inch rifles, and six 9-inch smoothbores; ten in all.-Yes, call her a turtle, plated with iron; she looks as much like that as like anything else.

"When we eighty men from the Warwick first saw her, she was swarming with workmen. They continued to cover her over, and to make impossible any drill or exercise upon her. Hammer, hammer upon belated plates from the Tredegar! Tinker, tinker with the poor old engines! Make shift here and make shift there; work through the day and work through the night, for there was a rumour abroad that the Ericsson, that we knew was building, was coming down the coast! There was no chance to drill, to become acquainted with the turtle and her temperament. Her species had never gone to war before, and when you looked at her there was room for doubt as to how she would behave! Officers and men were strange to one another-and the gunners could not try the guns for the swarming workmen. There wasn't so much of the Montgomery coal that it could be wasted on experiments in firing up-and, indeed, it seemed wise not to experiment at all with the ancient engines! So we stood about the navy yard, and looked down the Elizabeth and across the flats to Hampton Roads, where we could see the Cumberland, the Congress, and the Minnesota, Federal ships lying off Newport News-and the workmen rivetted the last plates-and smoke began to come out of the smokestack-and suddenly Commodore Buchanan, with his lieutenants behind him, appeared between us and the Merrimac-or the Virginia. Most of us still call her the Merrimac. It was the morning of the eighth. The sun shone brightly and the water was very blue-blue and still. There were sea-gulls, I remember, flying overhead, screaming as they flew-and the marshes were growing emerald-"

"Yes, yes! What did Commodore Buchanan want?"

"Don't be impatient, Molly! You women don't in the least look like Griseldas! Aunt Lucy has the air of her pioneer great-grandmother who has heard an Indian calling! And as for Judith-Judith!"

"Yes, Edward."

"Come back to Greenwood. You looked a listening Jeanne d'Arc. What did you hear?"

"I heard the engines working, and the sea fowl screaming, and the wind in the rigging of the Cumberland. Go on, Edward."

"We soldiers turned seamen came to attention. 'Get on board, men,' said Commodore Buchanan. 'We are going out in the Roads and introduce a new era.' So off the workmen came and on we went-the flag officers and the lieutenants and the midshipmen and the surgeons and the volunteer aides and the men. The engineers were already below and the gunners were looking at the guns. The smoke rolled up very black, the ropes were cast off, a bugle blew, out streamed the stars and bars, all the workmen on the dock swung their hats, and down the Elizabeth moved the Merrimac. She moved slowly enough with her poor old engines, and she steered badly, and she drew twenty-two feet, and she was ugly, ugly, ugly,-poor thing!

"Now we were opposite Craney Island, at the mouth of the Elizabeth. There's a battery there, you know, part of General Colston's line, and there are forts upon the main along the James. All these were now crowded with men, hurrahing, waving their caps.... As we passed Craney they were singing 'Dixie.' So we came out into the James to Hampton Roads.

"Now all the southern shore from Willoughby's Spit to Ragged Island is as grey as a dove, and all the northern shore from Old Point Comfort to Newport News is blue where the enemy has settled. In between are the shining Roads. Between the Rip Raps and Old Point swung at anchor the Roanoke, the Saint Lawrence, a number of gunboats, store ships, and transports, and also a French man-of-war. Far and near over the Roads were many small craft. The Minnesota, a large ship, lay halfway between Old Point and Newport News. At the latter place there is a large Federal garrison, and almost in the shadow of its batteries rode at anchor the frigate Congress and the sloop Cumberland. The first had fifty guns, the second thirty. The Virginia, or the Merrimac, or the turtle, creeping out from the Elizabeth, crept slowly and puffing black smoke into the South Channel. The pilot, in his iron-clad pilot-house no bigger than a hickory nut, put her head to the northwest. The turtle began to swim toward Newport News.

"Until now not a few of us within her shell, and almost all of the soldiers and the forts along the shore, had thought her upon a trial trip only,-down the Elizabeth, past Craney Island, turn at Sewell's Point, and back to the dock of the Gosport Navy Yard! When she did not turn, the cheering on the shore stopped; you felt the breathlessness. When she passed the point and took to the South Channel, when her head turned upstream, when she came a

breast of the Middle Ground, when they saw that the turtle was going to fight, from along the shore to Craney and from Sewell's Point there arose a yell. Every man in grey yelled. They swung hat or cap; they shouted themselves hoarse. All the flags streamed suddenly out, trumpets blared, the sky lifted, and we drank the sunshine in like wine; that is, some of us did. To others it came cold like hemlock against the lip. Fear is a horrible sensation. I was dreadfully afraid-"

"Edward!"

"Dreadfully. But you see I didn't tell any one I was afraid, and that makes all the difference! Besides, it wore off.... It was a spring day and high tide, and the Federal works at Newport News and the Congress and the Cumberland and the more distant Minnesota all looked asleep in the calm, sweet weather. Washing day it was on the Congress, and clothes were drying in the rigging. That aspect as of painted ships, painted breastworks, a painted sea-piece, lasted until the turtle reached mid-channel. Then the other side woke up. Upon the shore appeared a blue swarm-men running to and fro. Bugles signalled. A commotion, too, arose upon the Congress and the Cumberland. Her head toward the latter ship, the turtle puffed forth black smoke and wallowed across the channel. An uglier poor thing you never saw, nor a bolder! Squat to the water, belching black smoke, her engines wheezing and repining, unwieldy of management, her bottom scraping every hummock of sand in all the shoaly Roads-ah, she was ugly and courageous! Our two small gunboats, the Raleigh and the Beaufort, coming from Norfolk, now overtook us,-we went on together. I was forward with the crew of the 7-inch pivot gun. I could see through the port, above the muzzle. Officers and men, we were all cooped under the turtle's shell; in order by the open ports, and the guns all ready.... We came to within a mile of the Cumberland, tall and graceful with her masts and spars and all the blue sky above. She looked a swan, and we, the Ugly Duckling.... Our ram, you know, was under water-seventy feet of the old berth deck, ending in a four-foot beak of cast iron.... We came nearer. At three quarters of a mile, we opened with the bow gun. The Cumberland answered, and the Congress, and their gunboats and shore batteries. Then began a frightful uproar that shook the marshes and sent the sea birds screaming. Smoke arose, and flashing fire, and an excitement-an excitement-an excitement.-Then it was, ladies, that I forgot to be afraid. The turtle swam on, toward the Cumberland, swimming as fast as Montgomery coal and the engines that had lain at the bottom of the sea could make her go. There was a frightful noise within her shell, a humming, a shaking. The Congress, the gunboats and the shore batteries kept firing broadsides. There was an enormous, thundering noise, and the air was grown sulphurous cloud. Their shot came pattering like hail, and like hail it rebounded from the iron-clad. We passed the Congress-very close to her tall side. She gave us a withering fire. We returned it, and steered on for the Cumberland. A word ran from end to end of the turtle's shell, 'We are going to ram her-stand by, men!'

"Within easy range we fired the pivot gun. I was of her crew; half naked we were, powder-blackened and streaming with sweat. The shell she sent burst above the Cumberland's stern pivot, killing or wounding most of her crew that served it.... We went on.... Through the port I could now see the Cumberland plainly, her starboard side just ahead of us, men in the shrouds and running to and fro on her deck. When we were all but on her, her starboard blazed. That broadside tore up the carriage of our pivot gun, cut another off at the trunnions, and the muzzle from a third, riddled the smokestack and steam-pipe, carried away an anchor, and killed or wounded nineteen men. The Virginia answered with three guns; a cloud of smoke came between the iron-clad and the armed sloop; it lifted-and we were on her. We struck her under the fore rigging with a dull and grinding sound. The iron beak with which we were armed was wrested off.

"The Virginia shivered, hung a moment, then backed clear of the Cumberland, in whose side there was now a ragged and a gaping hole. The pilot in the iron-clad pilot-house turned her head upstream. The water was shoal; she had to run up the James some way before she could turn and come back to attack the Congress. Her keel was in the mud; she was creeping now like a land turtle, and all the iron shore was firing at her.... She turned at last in freer water and came down the Roads. Through the port we could see the Cumberland that we had rammed. She had listed to port and was sinking. The water had reached her main deck; all her men were now on the spar deck, where they yet served the pivot guns. She fought to the last. A man of ours, stepping for one moment through a port to the outside of the turtle's shell, was cut in two. As the water rose and rose, the sound of her guns was like a lessening thunder. One by one they stopped.... To the last she flew her colours. The Cumberland went down.

"By now there had joined us the small, small James River squadron that had been anchored far up the river. The Patrick Henry had twelve guns, the Jamestown had two, and the Teaser one. Down they scurried like three valiant marsh hens to aid the turtle. With the Beaufort and the Raleigh there were five valiant pygmies, and they fired at the shore batteries, and the shore batteries answered like an angry Jove with solid shot, with shell, with grape, and with canister! A shot wrecked the boiler of the Patrick Henry, scalding to death the men who were near.... The turtle sank a transport steamer lying alongside the wharf at Newport News, and then she rounded the point and bore down upon the Congress.

"The frigate had showed discretion, which is the better part of valour. Noting how deeply we drew, she had slipped her cables and run aground in the shallows where she was safe from the ram of the Merrimac. We could get no nearer than two hundred feet. There we took up position, and there we began to rake her, the Beaufort, the Raleigh, and the Jamestown giving us what aid they might. She had fifty guns, and there were the heavy shore batteries, and below her the Minnesota. This ship, also aground in the Middle Channel, now came into action with a roar. A hundred guns were trained upon the Merrimac. The iron hail beat down every point, not iron-clad, that showed above our shell. The muzzle of two guns were shot away, the stanchions, the boat davits, the flagstaff. Again and again the flagstaff fell, and again and again we replaced it. At last we tied the colours to the smokestack. Beside the nineteen poor fellows that the Cumberland's guns had mowed down, we now had other killed and wounded. Commodore Buchanan was badly hurt, and the flag lieutenant, Minor. The hundred guns thundered against the Merrimac, and the Merrimac thundered against the Congress. The tall frigate and her fifty guns wished herself an iron-clad; the swan would have blithely changed with the ugly duckling. We brought down her mainmast, we disabled her guns, we strewed her decks with blood and anguish (war is a wild beast, nothing more, and I'll hail the day when it lies slain). We smashed in her sides and we set her afire. She hauled down her colours and ran up a white flag. The Merrimac ceased firing and signalled to the Beaufort. The Beaufort ran alongside, and the frigate's ranking officer gave up his colours and his sword. The Beaufort's and the Congress's own boats removed the crew and the wounded.... The shore batteries, the Minnesota, the picket boat Zouave, kept up a heavy firing all the while upon the Merrimac, upon the Raleigh and the Jamestown, and also upon the Beaufort. We waited until the crew was clear of the Congress, and then we gave her a round of hot shot that presently set her afire from stem to stern. This done, we turned to other work.

"The Minnesota lay aground in the North Channel. To her aid hurrying up from Old Point came the Roanoke and the Saint Lawrence. Our own batteries at Sewell's Point opened upon these two ships as they passed, and they answered with broadsides. We fed our engines, and under a billow of black smoke ran down to the Minnesota. Like the Congress, she lay upon a sand bar, beyond fear of ramming. We could only man?uvre for deep water, near enough to her to be deadly. It was now late afternoon. I could see through the port of the bow pivot the slant sunlight upon the water, and how the blue of the sky was paling. The Minnesota lay just ahead; very tall she looked, another of the Congress breed; the old warships singing their death song. As we came on we fired the bow gun, then, lying nearer her, began with broadsides. But we could not get near enough; she was lifted high upon the sand, the tide was going out, and we drew twenty-three feet. We did her great harm, but we were not disabling her. An hour passed and the sun drew on to setting. The Roanoke turned and went back under the guns of Old Point, but the Saint Lawrence remained to thunder at the turtle's iron shell. The Merrimac was most unhandy, and on the ebb tide there would be shoals enough between us and a berth for the night.... The Minnesota could not get away, at dawn she would be yet aground, and we would then take her for our prize. 'Stay till dusk, and the blessed old iron box will ground herself where Noah's flood won't float her!' The pilot ruled, and in the gold and purple sunset we drew off. As we passed, the Minnesota blazed with all her guns; we answered her, and answered, too, the Saint Lawrence. The evening star was shining when we anchored off Sewell's Point. The wounded were taken ashore, for we had no place for wounded men under the turtle's shell. Commodore Buchanan leaving us, Lieutenant Catesby Ap Rice Jones took command.

"I do not remember what we had for supper. We had not eaten since early morning, so we must have had something. But we were too tired to think or to reason or to remember. We dropped beside our guns and slept, but not for long. Three hours, perhaps, we slept, and then a whisper seemed to run through the Merrimac. It was as though the iron-clad herself had spoken, 'Come! watch the Congress die!' Most of us arose from beside the guns and mounted to the iron grating above, to the top of the turtle's shell. It was a night as soft as silk; the water smooth, in long, faint, olive swells; a half-moon in the sky. There were lights across at Old Point, lights on the battery at the Rip Raps, lights in the frightened shipping, huddled under the guns of Fortress Monroe, lights along either shore. There were lanterns in the rigging of the Minnesota where she lay upon the sand bar, and lanterns on the Saint Lawrence and the Roanoke. As we looked a small moving light, as low as possible to the water, appeared between the Saint Lawrence and the Minnesota. A man said, 'What's that? Must be a rowboat.' Another answered, 'It's going too fast for a rowboat-funny! right on the water like that!' 'A launch, I reckon,' said a third, 'with plenty of rowers. Now it's behind the Minnesota.'-'Shut up, you talkers,' said a midshipman, 'I want to look at the Congress!'

"Four miles away, off Newport News, lay the burning Congress. In the still, clear night, she seemed almost at hand. All her masts, her spars, and her rigging showed black in the heart of a great ring of firelight. Her hull, lifted high by the sand bank which held her, had round red eyes. Her ports were windows lit from within. She made a vision of beauty and of horror. One by one, as they were reached by the flame, her guns exploded-a loud and awful sound in the night above the Roads. We stood and watched that sea picture, and we watched in silence. We are seeing giant things, and ere this war is ended we shall see more. At two o'clock in the morning the fire reached her powder magazine. She blew up. A column like the Israelite's Pillar shot to the zenith; there came an earthquake sound, sullen and deep; when all cleared there was only her hull upborne by the sand and still burning. It burned until the dawn, when it smouldered and went out."

The narrator arose, walked the length of the parlour, and came back to the four women. "Haven't you had enough for to-night? Unity looks sleepy, and Judith's knitting has lain this half-hour on the floor. Judith!"

Molly spoke. "Judith says that if there is fighting around Richmond she is going there to the hospitals, to be a nurse. The doctors here say that she does better than any one-"

"Go on, Edward," said Judith. "What happened at dawn?"

"We got the turtle in order, and those ancient mariners, our engines, began to work, wheezing and slow. We ran up a new flagstaff, and every man stood to the guns, and the Merrimac moved from Sewell's Point, her head turned to the Minnesota, away across, grounded on a sand bank in the North Channel. The sky was as pink as the inside of a shell, and a thin white mist hung over the marshes and the shore and the great stretch of Hampton Roads. It was so thin that the masts of the ships huddled below Fortress Monroe rose clear of it into the flush of the coming sun. All their pennants were flying-the French man-of-war, and the northern ships. At that hour the sea-gulls are abroad, searching for their food. They went past the ports, screaming and moving their silver wings.

"The Minnesota grew in size. Every man of us looked eagerly-from the pilot-house, from the bow ports, and as we drew parallel with her from the ports of the side. We fired the bow gun as we came on and the shot told. There was some cheering; the morning air was so fine and the prize so sure! The turtle was in spirits-poor old turtle with her battered shell and her flag put back as fast as it was torn away! Her engines, this morning, were mortal slow and weak; they wheezed and whined, and she drew so deep that, in that shoaly water, she went aground twice between Sewell's Point and the stretch she had now reached of smooth pink water, with the sea-gulls dipping between her and the Minnesota. Despite the engines she was happy, and the gunners were all ready at the starboard ports-"

Leaning over, he took the poker and stirred the fire.

"The best laid plans of mice and men

Do aften gang agley-"

Miss Lucy's needles clicked. "Yes, the papers told us. The Ericsson."

"There came," said Edward, "there came from behind the Minnesota a cheese-box on a shingle. It had lain there hidden by her bulk since midnight. It was its single light that we had watched and thought no more of! A cheese-box on a shingle-and now it darted into the open as though a boy's arm had sent it! It was little beside the Minnesota. It was little even beside the turtle. There was a silence when we saw it, a silence of astonishment. It had come so quietly upon the scene-a deus ex machina, indeed, dropped from the clouds between us and our prey. In a moment we knew it for the Ericsson-the looked-for other iron-clad we knew to be a-building. The Monitor, they call it.... The shingle was just awash; the cheese-box turned out to be a revolving turret, mail-clad and carrying two large, modern guns-11-inch. The whole thing was armoured, had the best of engines, and drew only twelve feet.... Well, the Merrimac had a startled breath, to be sure-there is no denying the drama of the Monitor's appearance-and then she righted and began firing. She gave to the cheese-box, or to the armoured turret, one after the other, three broadsides. The turret blazed and answered, and the balls rebounded from each armoured champion." He laughed. "By Heaven! it was like our old favourites, Ivanhoe and De Bois Guilbert-the ugliest squat gnomes of an Ivanhoe and of a Brian de Bois Guilbert that ever came out of a nightmare! We thundered in the lists, and then we passed each other, turned, and again encountered. Sometimes we were a long way apart, and sometimes there was not ten feet of water between those sunken decks from which arose the iron shell of the Merrimac and the iron turret of the Monitor. She fired every seven minutes; we as rapidly as we could load. Now it was the bow gun, now the after pivot, now a full broadside. Once or twice we thought her done for, but always her turret revolved, and her 11-inch guns opened again. In her lighter draught she had a great advantage; she could turn and wind where we could not. The Minnesota took a hand, and an iron battery from the shore. We were striving to ram the Ericsson, but we could not get close to her; our iron beak, too, was sticking in the side of the sunken Cumberland-we could only ram with the blunt prow. The Minnesota, as we passed, gave us all her broadside guns-a tremendous fusillade at point-blank range, which would have sunk any ship of the swan breed. The turtle shook off shot and shell, grape and canister, and answered with her bow gun. The shell which it threw entered the side of the frigate, and, bursting amidship, exploded a store of powder and set the ship on fire. Leaving disaster aboard the Minnesota, we turned and sunk the tugboat Dragon. Then came man?uvre and man?uvre to gain position where we could ram the Monitor....

"We got it at last. The engines made an effort like the leap of the spirit before expiring. 'Go ahead! Full speed!' We went; we bore down upon the Monitor, now in deeper water. But at the moment that we saw victory she turned. Our bow, lacking the iron beak, gave but a glancing stroke. It was heavy as it was; the Monitor shook like a man with the ague, but she did not share the fate of the Cumberland. There was no ragged hole in her side; her armour was good, and held. She backed, gathered herself together, then rushed forward, striving to ram us in her turn. But our armour, too, was good, and held. Then she came upon the Merrimac's quarter, laid her bow against the shell, and fired her 11-inch guns twice in succession. We were so close, each to the other, that it was as though two duelists were standing upon the same cloak. Frightful enough was the concussion of those guns.

"That charge drove in the Merrimac's iron side three inches or more. The shots struck above the ports of the after guns, and every man at those guns was knocked down by the impact and bled at the nose and ears. The Monitor dropped astern, and again we turned and tried to ram her. But her far lighter draught put her where we could not go; our bow, too, was now twisted and splintered. Our powder was getting low. We did not spare it, we could not; we sent shot and shell continuously against the Monitor, and she answered in kind. Monitor and Merrimac, we went now this way, now that, the Ericsson much the lighter and quickest, the Merrimac fettered by her poor old engines, and her great length, and her twenty-three feet draught. It was two o'clock in the afternoon.... The duelists stepped from off the cloak, tried operations at a distance, hung for a moment in the wind of indecision, then put down the match from the gunners' hands. The Monitor darted from us, her head toward the shoal water known as the Middle Ground. She reached it and rested triumphant, out of all danger from our ram, and yet where she could still protect the Minnesota.... A curious silence fell upon the Roads; sullen like the hush before a thunderstorm, and yet not like that, for we had had the thunderstorm. It was the stillness, perhaps, of exhaustion. It was late afternoon, the fighting had been heavy. The air was filled with smoke; in the water were floating spars and wreckage of the ships we had destroyed. The weather was sultry and still. The dogged booming of a gun from a shore battery sounded lonely and remote as a bell buoy. The tide was falling; there were sand-bars enough between us and Sewell's Point. We waited an hour. The Monitor was rightly content with the Middle Ground, and would not come back for all our charming. We fired at intervals, upon her and upon the Minnesota, but at last our powder grew so low that we ceased. The tide continued to fall, and the pilot had much to say.... The red sun sank in the west; the engineers fed the ancient mariners with Montgomery coal; black smoke gushed forth and pilots felt their way into the South Channel, and slowly, slowly back toward Sewell's Point. The day closed in a murky evening with a taste of smoke in the air. In the night-time the Monitor went down the Roads to Fortress Monroe, and in the morning we took the Merrimac into dry dock at Norfolk. Her armour was dented all over, though not pierced. Her bow was bent and twisted, the iron beak lost in the side of the Cumberland. Her boats were gone, and her smokestack as full of holes as any colander, and the engines at the last gasp. Several of the guns were injured, and coal and powder and ammunition all lacked. We put her there-the dear and ugly warship, the first of the iron-clads-we put her there in dry dock, and there she's apt to stay for some weeks to come. Lieutenant Wood was sent to Richmond with the report for the president and the secretary of the navy. He carried, too, the flag of the Congress, and I was one of the men detailed for its charge.... And now I have told you of the Merrimac and the Monitor."

Rising, he went to the piano, sat down and played "Malbrook s'en va-t-en guerre." Miss Lucy took up her knitting, and knitted very rapidly, her eyes now upon her nephew, now upon her father's portrait. Judith, rising from the old cross-stitch tabouret where she had been sitting, laid a fresh log on the fire, then went and stood beside the long window, looking out upon the rainy night.

"What," asked Edward between two chords, "what do you hear from the Valley?"

Unity answered: "General Banks has crossed the Potomac and entered Winchester-poor, poor Winchester! General Jackson hasn't quite five thousand men. He has withdrawn toward Woodstock. In spite of that dreadful Romney march, General Johnston and the soldiers seem to have confidence in him-"

Molly came in with her soft little voice. "Major Stafford has been transferred. He is with General Ewell on the Rappahannock. He writes to Judith every week. They are beautiful letters-they make you see everything that is done."

"What do you hear from Richard Cleave?"

"He never writes."

Judith came back from the window. "It is raining, raining! The petals are falling from the pyrus japonica, and all the trees are bending! Edward, war is terrible, but it lifts you up...." She locked her hands behind her head. "It lifts you up, out in the storm or listening to what the ships have done, or to the stories that are told! And then you look at the unploughed land, and you wait for the bulletins, and you go to the hospital down there, ... and you say, 'Never-oh, nevermore let us have war!'"

* * *

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares