On Saturday, March 8, 1862, one year after the onset of the Civil War, the crewmen of the Union blockade squadron standing off at Hampton Roads, Virginia, had grown bored waiting for the
enemy’s arrival. While the laundry hung on the Union ships’ rigging drying in the midday sun, the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia steamed slowly from Norfolk toward the Union fleet. Until that day, no one knew how an ironclad would perform in battle against a fleet of wooden ships. The engagement began close to 3 p.m. When it was over, before dark, the USS Cumberland was sunk,
the USS Minnesota had been forced aground, and the USS Congress surrendered and then was burned. With the support of the Confederate gunships CSS Beaufort and CSS Raleigh, the
Virginia had devastated the Union fleet, signaling that the era of wooden battleships would soon come to an end. The USS Cumberland was fired upon,
rammed, and sunk, in a dramatic demonstration of the ironclad’s superiority in battle. The gallantry of the Cumberland’s crew—who fought beyond
all hope, refusing to surrender even as their ship went down—was immortalized in poems by Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and others. Lt. Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., who commanded one of the ship’s gun divisions, survived the battle, and wrote this vivid and graphic account of it twenty-three years later.