Thursday, March 8, 2012

March 8-9, 1862: CSS Virginia vs. USS Monitor; Death of Rev. John Lenhart

In March 1862, Private Eugene A. Goodwin, former Belvidere School teacher, was a member of the 99th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, assigned to the Naval Brigade, at Camp Hamilton, Fortress Monroe, Virginia.  Goodwin enlisted in Company F, 99th NYV in New York City in 1861.  He became a war correspondent for The Belvidere Intelligencer. 

On March 8, 1862, the ironclad CSS VIRGINIA (formerly the USS MERRIMAC) had attacked and/or sunk three Federal wooden ships of the line at Hampton roads, near Newport News Point, Virginia.  The Federal ironclad USS MONITOR was steaming toward Virginia to take on the VIRGINIA in battle.  Goodwin's unit was ordered to march to Newport News to hold off Confederate land forces that were reported to be only three miles away.

Goodwin wrote to Franklin Pierce Sellers, publisher/editor of The Belvidere Intelligencer, "From here [Fortress Monroe] to Newport News, the distance by land is ten miles. We march up in two-and-a-half hours.  We left the camp in such a hurray that very few of the men took anything with them, not even a canteen of water, consequently they suffered many inconveniences for several days, until their blankets and coats could be sent up.  However, it is a good lesson for us, teaching us to have our things always packed and ready to move at a moment's notice.

"When we arrived within a mile of Newport News, we met quite a number of sailors who had escaped from the CUMBERLAND and CONGRESS, with quite a number of colored people hastily making their way to Fortress Monroe.  Their reports were very discouraging; however, we pushed on determined to know the worst and do our best. I certainly expected to have some severe fighting to do, and indeed, it would have fared ill with us if the Rebs had come upon us that night as they could easily have done."

The VIRGINIA had sunk the USS CUMBERLAND and the USS CONGRESS.  Reverend John L. Lenhart, of Independence Township, Warren County, NJ was the chaplain aboard the CUMBERLAND.  Rev.  Lenhart was the Chaplain of the US Senate before the war. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1861.  He was killed in action when the CUMBERLAND was sunk on March 8, 1862 because he went down with his ship while comforting the wounded and dying sailors.

The VIRGINIA had broken off its attack on the USS MINNESOTA, which was stuck on a sand bar, for fear of running aground on the bar.  On the night of March 8, the MONITOR arrived and took up a position to defend the wooden ship.  On March 9, the VIRGINIA returned, and the first battle between ironclads took place.  The VIRGINIA was slow and difficult to maneuver because of its deep draft and undersized old steam engine. [The engine was left over from the wooden USS MERRIMAC.] The MONITOR was more maneuverable , but its officers ordered 15 pounds of gunpowder per cannon shot instead of 30 pounds so it could not penetrate VIRGINIA's armor.  Both ships steamed away with each crew thinking they were the victors.

On shore, Goodwin and members of three New York regiments watched and waited for Confederate troops.  Goodwin wrote,"If the MERRIMAC had continued the attack, and the land force marched upon us, we would have been cut up and taken prisoner. But they play it a little too strong, for on Sunday that neat little contrivance, the MONITOR, just cleared the harbor of the rebel craft, and the land force dared not come on, altho' there were ten thousand only three miles off, which we marched out to meet together with the New York 20th and 7th Regiments.  We lay by our arms all that night (Sunday) expecting to be routed up early in the morning for a little exercise, but we heard no more of rebels; yet our regiment remained there until last Sunday, when we marched back to Camp Hamilton - glad enough to get our old quarters.  We had no tents till the last two days we were in Newport News, so the men made little bowers of sticks and boughs, making a very picturesque scene, more like a picnic party than an encampment of troops.  I cannot cease admiring and wondering at the special Providence that so signally interposed in our behalf on the 9th instant, although our naval force was allowed to be somewhat crippled, and  a number of brave men to find sudden death.  I trust that the Government will need no more incentives to urge them to a speedy construction of a good number of ironclad steamers and fighting batteries.  

"A great deal of praise and honor are awarded to the officers and crew of the MONITOR, on account of their great bravery.  It is  true they did well, yet they well knew, or soon found out, that they were securely protected, and how could they help doing well.  I think the officers and the crew of the CUMBERLAND deserve the highest praise; when they knew they could not successfully resist, they spurned the idea of surrendering, but on the contrary, flung the red flag from their fore peak, which means no surrender.  Thus the noble ship went down, the men bravely fighting, and the glorious  old flag waving on high.  And now only the upper part of her masts are seen, yet the flags are there.  All honor to the noble officers and crew.  By all appearances, the rebels are clearing out of this vicinity.  I think Sewell's Point and Pig Point are evacuated.  Indeed, I think it is quite time for them to leave.

"Occasionally, I spend a short time very pleasantly in the camp of Harlan's Pennsylvania Cavalry, among my old friends, Lieutenant Butts, G. C. Angle, and some of the boys who used to go to school to me while I taught in Belvidere.  Then I had not the least idea that I was educating those who would take up arms in defense of their country.  I am highly pleased to meet them here, and I know they will act their part well.  May God preserve them and return them safely to their friends is my sincerest wish.  All troops here are under marching orders - knapsacks all packed, ready to start at the shortest notice.  Now our army is in motion.  I hope we'll be able to make short work of this affair.  I think I have scribbled about enough so I will close by sending my best respects to all my friends. I am, as ever, yours respectfully, E. A. G."

Copyright 1997-2012: Jay C. Richards  

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