The Amazing Archivists of Springfield, Illinois: An interview with Mr. John A. Lupton

John Lupton–Historian for the Illinois Supreme Court

I first met John Lupton during my on-going search for anything and everything Ellsworthy. I wrote about an exciting part of my journey HERE and promised that I would interview John Lupton in the near future. Readers, meet Mr. John Lupton.

MG: Please introduce yourself and tell us exactly what you do for the great state of Illinois.

JL: My name is John Lupton.  I’m the historian for the Illinois Supreme Court and director of the Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission.  I have a master’s degree in history, and I’ve been working in the field of legal history for the State of Illinois for more than 25 years.  I worked for the Lincoln Legal Papers and the Papers of Abraham Lincoln documentary, editing projects from 1991 to 2009, helping to compile documents and lawsuits related to Lincoln’s law practice.  Since 2009, I’ve been with Court, helping to preserve the judicial history of Illinois with programs, exhibits, and publications. Our most successful effort has been our History on Trial series, in which we did theater productions of famous trials in history, including Mary Surratt’s conspiracy trial, Mary Lincoln’s insanity trial, Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith’s habeas corpus hearings, and an Illinois school desegregation case.

MG: How did you become aware that the paperwork concerning the granting of law licenses in Illinois was in any danger?

JL: A number of files were stored in the basement of the Illinois Supreme Court Building, including attorney oaths.  Oaths are the document that an attorney signs promising to support the Constitution upon becoming a lawyer.  In effect, it is the last step in becoming an attorney in Illinois.

The Clerk of the Supreme Court turned over its entire collection of attorney oaths to the Illinois State Archives in 2010 for preservation purposes, while the Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission provided the archival materials (acid free folders, etc.). It’s a great partnership among three state agencies. Since then, the Archives had been working for several years to flat-file and store the oaths properly.  At the end of their work, after properly preserving about 142,000 oaths, there were about 1,100 oaths that had mold damage from being stored in the Supreme Court Building basement for nearly 100 years and, at some point, being exposed to heavy moisture.  Most of them were ok, just with slight mold on them, but they couldn’t be stored with the larger collection lest the mold spread. A handful of oaths—a couple hundred—had fused together.  Separating them was a big task in itself.

MG: What changed to make rescuing this information even possible?

JL: Nothing really changed. I would say it was more that we wanted to get the 141,000 done first, and then figure out what to do with the 1,100. We had finally reached that point where the Clerk of the Supreme Court, the Director of the Archives, and myself could begin to wrap our heads around what to do with these fused, moldy documents and how best to save the information in case we couldn’t save the physical document.

Old State House, Springfield, Sangamon County, IL (LOC)

MG: As a historian, I think this work is vitally important. Why didn’t this effort get more publicity?

JL: Both the Court and the Archives issued news releases, but honestly, I think history news gets lost in the quickly changing news cycles, not because of any ill feelings toward history, but because of bigger and sexier stories—political intrigue and big personalities always get bigger headlines. I’ll give you an extreme example.  When I worked for the Lincoln Legal Papers, I researched onsite at the National Archives in Washington DC looking for Lincoln legal activities.  In records relating to pension payments, I found that Lincoln had worked as a pension attorney (a person who receives money for a veteran pensioner).  This work by Lincoln had never been mentioned before in any book or article.  I discovered about 60 or so previously unknown Lincoln signatures, including the ONLY time I ever saw him sign his name as “Abram” Lincoln.  Our press person and the National Archives public affairs person knew this would be a huge story.  The day the news release went out was the same day the United States invaded Haiti in the summer of 1994. Instead of the big story, the Lincoln discovery was relegated to page 20 and a couple paragraphs! Timing is everything.

MG: Who did the actual work? Who are the “amazing archivists” of Springfield who saved history?

JL: It really was a group effort.  Dottie Hopkins was the conservator at the Illinois State Archives and did much of the flat-filing work until she retired. Alex Dixon, the new conservator at the Archives, completed the flat-filing and had forwarded me a list of the names he was able to see on fused oath coverstock.  I went through the names and recognized E. E. Ellsworth, Charles Guiteau, Joseph Cannon, several Illinois governors, and several Illinois Supreme Court justices.  I passed the list around to other prominent historians in the state, and we uncovered a few others.  Those “famous” people, we decided to segregate from the rest of the moldy oaths.

Original document: permission to use granted

Alex carefully separated the coverstock from the documents contained within, and he encapsulated the documents to prevent the mold from spreading to uninfected documents.  Some of the documents were so faded, like Ellsworth’s, they were very difficult to read with the naked eye. David Joens, the Director of the State Archives; Carolyn Grosboll, the Clerk of the Supreme Court, and I arranged for the Justices of the Illinois Supreme Court to visit the Archives and examine these documents themselves.  They had many questions and provided guidance in making the final determination as to what to do with these documents.

MG: What exactly are these documents?

JL: Becoming an attorney in Illinois is a multi-step process. In the 19thcentury, the first step was obtaining a legal education.  There were only a handful of law schools, so most prospective lawyers studied in the law office of an established attorney.  Some, like Lincoln, just read the books and studied alone. The second step was to obtain a certificate of good moral character from any court of record.  The third was to take an oral exam before several of the Supreme Court justices or a committee.  If you passed, you would receive your license and you had to take the oath of office. In Lincoln’s time, the signed oath was a section on the license itself.  By the 1860s, there was a separate oath signed by the attorney and filed with the Court.

Again, there are 142,000 of these oaths in this collection, beginning in 1860s, meaning we don’t have Lincoln’s oath or Stephen Douglas’s oath—those would have been a part of the license itself. However, we do have some significant oaths, including a number of Illinois governors, Senators, etc. Probably the most significant oaths are that of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson Obama.  In fact, Michelle Obama’s oath is currently on display at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum’s new exhibit on the four presidents who called Illinois home.

MG: Can you tell us about the digital process used to recreate Ellsworth’s letter of acceptance?

JL: The Ellsworth file was one of the more heavily damaged ones. In fact, the coverstock had basically fused together. Alex Dixon, the Archives conservator, was finally able to open the coverstock, and there was only one document in it.  There was no signed oath but only a letter from Justice Pinkney Walker to the Clerk of the Supreme Court William Turney instructing Turney to send a license to Ellsworth.  This indicates that Ellsworth completed the three steps I outlined above.

Original document: permission to use granted

The letter was very, very faded due to water damage, and it was barely readable with the naked eye.  The conservator scanned the document at a high resolution, and I was able to examine the document more closely using Photoshop and zooming in as far as I could.  I could discern ink, but was really unable to tell what letter was being formed because of the high zoom level.  In Photoshop, I began to painstakingly color areas where I could tell there was ink. Once I was done with the document, I returned it to normal size, and I was able to read the document, mostly.  There were some areas where the ink had faded away completely or there was a tear. But because most of the words were clear, I could figure out what the likely missing words were.

MG: Which discovery is your personal favorite?

JL: While the Ellsworth letter certainly tugs at my sometime Lincoln-centric universe, I think the discovery that fascinated me most was Charles Guiteau’s attorney oath.  Guiteau, as you know, was the assassin of President James Garfield.  He was also a licensed Illinois attorney!

Assassination of President Garfield

MG: What does Illinois plan to do with this marvelous, now-reconstructed collection?

JL: I should note that only the Ellsworth document was reconstructed. It was done because we knew it would attract the most attention—I wrote up a short article on it for the Abraham Lincoln Association. The amount of time to put into doing the others would be massive at this point. That said, the entire collection of 142,000 is stored in proper conditions at the Illinois State Archives.  At some point in the future, it would be great to at least create a database of all 142,000, and perhaps even digitize them.  But both of those projects would take a great deal of money and time. I’m not saying it won’t be done, but at least not in the near future.  Also, a lot of my time and effort this year and into next year is going into the Illinois bicentennial.  As you probably know, Illinois is celebrating its 200thanniversary as a state in the Union in 2018.

Thank you very much, Mr. Lupton. I know the work of the archivists in Springfield was difficult and painstaking, as were your Ellsworthian efforts on the Colonel’s behalf. Emerging Civil War is pleased to be able to give your team some proper notice, and we look forward to celebrating the Illinois Bicentennial along with you. I know you will agree with me that, without your efforts, it would be just a little more difficult to “Remember Ellsworth!”

Book Review: “The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865”

Let me say right up front that The War Outside My Window is NOT the feel-good book of 2018. In fact, it is just the opposite. The war is lost, the boy dies, and animals are harmed in the passing of this time period in Georgia. Nevertheless, with a cup of good coffee and a positive attitude, it is one of the most interesting books published in a long time.

This book is the diary of young LeRoy Gresham, the youngest son of an affluent slaveholding family in Macon, Georgia. He was twelve years old in 1860, and an invalid due to a combination of a serious leg injury from a fallen chimney that crushed his leg and skeletal tuberculosis, specifically Pott’s disease. Google up some images of this affliction and you will get a good idea of the misery that was a daily companion to this bright, inquisitive, witty, well-read, and sensitive young man.

LeRoy began keeping his journal on June 12, 1860, with a very mundane entry: “Mother has gone to the serving society.” As time continued, he began to find his own, very authentic voice. The diary is not a series of maudlin, self-pitying entries. Rather it is a view of the South from the beginning to the end of the Civil War, as Macon reacted to secession and gathered men for volunteer soldiering (in a state with a governor who did not necessarily want to send them), until the surrender at Appomattox and beyond. Interwoven among the usually inaccurate news reports, Leroy gave evidence of his deteriorating physical condition.  This amazing young man who read Greek and Roman classics along with Shakespeare and Dickens, loved math and solving puzzles, and played chess on a very high level, lay in his bed and observed the collapse of his world. To relieve the tedium of dying, his family somehow came up with a cart or small wagon to relieve his bedridden condition. A relative or more often, a young slave, pulled him around town so that LeRoy could immerse himself in the goings-on of the day.

News came in the form of newspapers, letters, and gossip. The reader will be struck with the military inaccuracies, especially as to casualty counts. Young LeRoy read every newspaper he could get and bemoaned the diminishing sources of current news as the war went on. His immediate family was impacted directly. His older brother, Thomas, served in Lee’s army in Virginia and many others in the extended group of family and friends served as well. The home front deteriorated, as evidenced by the actions of LeRoy’s mother and sister. New bonnets were made of palmetto, and dresses were repurposed in order to attend local gatherings and church. Homespun cloth was sent up from the family plantations along with meat and vegetables for the table, and to share among the less fortunate.

LeRoy wrote about everything, from social events to family matters. Deaths (many), weather (hot or raining, it seemed), and his pets were recurring topics. He named his various dogs for Confederate generals, but most were ill-behaved and ended up changing ownership. His declining health was addressed regularly, and the reader gets a solid look at family medicine in the 1860s. LeRoy’s parents could afford the very best for their son, but without an understanding of germs or disease, most of the efforts of doctors did little to alleviate his discomfort or alter the progression of his disease. Both the Preface and the Appendices have detailed accounts of how editor Janet Elizabeth Croon, publisher Theodore P. Savas, and Dennis A. Rasbach, MD, FACS worked to solve the mystery of LeRoy’s diagnosis. His care is analyzed piece by piece and compared to modern medicine, making for fascinating, if painstaking, reading. LeRoy wrote: “I am weaker and more helpless than I ever was . . . I have been sick with a pain in my back and heart all day . . . Saw off my leg.” He did not realize until the very end of his life that he was dying, and the reality of this came as a shock to young LeRoy.

Editor Janet Croon, an educated educator in her own right, has given the reader much more than just a glimpse into the past. The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Journal of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865 presents the compelling story of a doomed young man of white privilege who was dying at exactly the same time the southern dream of an independent Confederacy was dying. Eventually, both fail. Without the efforts of Croon, Savas, and Rasbach, LeRoy Gresham’s voice, which speaks as powerfully to us from the past as does that of Anne Frank, would have continued to be unheard. Readers will remember LeRoy long after the covers of the book have closed. As sad and difficult as this book is to read, it is definitely an important addition to the understanding of the Southern home front.

Janet Elizabeth Croon, Editor–The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865

Savas Beatie, LLC, 2018

401 pages

Publisher’s Preface, Introduction, Medical Forward, Dramatis Personae, LeRoy Wiley Gresham Obituary, Postscript, Medical Afterwords, Appendix, Note on Sources, Acknowledgements, Index, Maps and Illustrations

Bittersweet Appomattox

Robert Pratt (Vermont Historical Society)

First Lieutenant Robert Pratt belonged to the 5th Vermont Infantry, a regiment that rightfully claimed credit as the first unit to irreparably break the Confederate lines southwest of Petersburg on April 2, 1865. Pratt played a pivotal role in the Union assault that morning and survived to tell the story of the battle that forced the Confederate evacuation of Richmond and their surrender a week later. The day after Appomattox, Pratt reflected on the Petersburg breakthrough. He looked forward to the bright future ahead of him but had lost several close friends during the decisive combat. The nineteen year old officer attempted to sort these feelings out in his diary entry of April 10, 1865.

“We know now that the war is ended and how it thrills me with joy to know that we have accomplished what we have fought [four] years for. I can hardly get through my head that we can go on picket and not keep a vigilant look out for rebels. All I want now is an education and I am bound to have one. We think the fighting is done and that the day is not far distant when we will start for home. We often think of Ed Brownlee and Charlie Ford. How hard it seems that they should get killed in the last fight.”

Both fallen soldiers belonged to Captain Charles Gould’s Company H of the 5th Vermont Infantry. Sergeant Edward Brownlee, a native of Montreal, was killed on the parapet during the charge on April 2nd. Lieutenant Colonel Ronald A. Kennedy, commanding the 5th Vermont, wrote Brownlee fell “in the thickest of the strife while cheering on the men of [Company H].” Though Pratt was just yards away at the time, the lieutenant did not learn that his friend was killed until that night.

Two of Corporal Charlie Ford’s brothers had already been killed during the war–one at Mine Run, the other at Spotsylvania. The twenty-two year old was among the first to reach the Confederate lines and was cut down by a bullet while cheering, “Come on boys, the works are ours!” Both Brownlee and Ford were buried on the battlefield and later reinterred at Poplar Grove National Cemetery, today a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield.

Lieutenant Pratt also acted gallantly that morning. Kennedy wrote that Pratt “added materially to his reputation of being a soldier in every sense of the word, as well as one of the most unequaled daring.” The lieutenant charged forward armed with his officers’ sword. When just a few hundred yards away from their target, Captain Gould shouted orders to “Bear to the left.” Pratt guided about fifty men into a defilade where they took cover from Confederate fire and reported the unit’s strength to the captain. Gould deemed it a sufficient number. The captain wanted to press forward immediately, fearing fire from both directions if they lingered in between the Confederate works and the next wave of Union attackers.

5th Vermont Infantry at the Breakthrough, map by author

Gould swiftly led the way to the imposing earthen wall, outpacing the rest Company H as he rushed through a gap in the tangled abatis and into the fortifications. The young captain received credit as the first soldier to scale the Confederate earthworks but suffered severely for that distinction. North Carolina infantrymen bayoneted him in the back and jaw, struck him on the head with the flat of a saber, and battered his body with their clubbed muskets. Gould battled back as best he could until Corporal Henry Recor pulled him back into the safety of the ditch.

Pratt meanwhile formed the rest of the company to attempt the desperate struggle up to the parapet. He did not see Gould enter the earthworks but soon received word that the captain was dead. Though Gould survived his wounds, he was in bad shape and stumbled back to the Union lines to seek reinforcements and medical care. For the rest of the day, Pratt would lead Company H. The lieutenant stated they entered the Confederate earthworks at 5:04 a.m., twenty-four minutes after the boom of a cannon from Fort Fisher signaled the beginning of the Union assault.

A Confederate artillery piece was poised just to the left of Pratt’s entry point and threatened to fire a devastating volley into the waves behind the 5th Vermont. Pratt rushed to the cannon and swung his sword toward the gunner before the Confederate could fire. The cannoneer dropped his lanyard and dove for safety underneath the gun carriage. Pratt sent him to the rear as a prisoner before leading his company further down the line.

Afterward, Captain Gould was properly recognized as the first to breach the earthworks and later received the Medal of Honor for that action. While responding to one inquiry about that decisive morning, Gould wrote: “It was reported to Lieutenant Pratt that I had been killed inside the works. Forming the men in the ditch, he led them into the work, and, after a short but desperate fight, captured the guns and a number of prisoners, and held the works until other troops arrived; but in the excitement of the battle and his anxiety to rejoin his command, Lieutenant Pratt left his guns and prisoners to the first comers, and, omitting to place guards upon or take receipts for his captures, did not receive the credit to which he was entitled.”

Glory could wait that morning. Bigger prizes lay ahead. By the end of the day the Vermonters had swept four miles of the Confederate line south to Hatcher’s Run and turned north to attack the artillery defending Robert E. Lee’s headquarters on Petersburg’s western outskirts. They settled in for the night around the smoldering ruins of the former Confederate headquarters at Edge Hill. “We were completely tired out,” Pratt wrote that night in his diary. There he learned of Sergeant Brownlee’s death and “went to sleep a crying.”

Detailed to the skirmish line the next morning, Pratt briefly entered Petersburg before joining in the race westward that led to Appomattox. The VI Corps fought again at Sailor’s Creek on April 6th but the Vermonters were not engaged. Assigned a rear place in Ulysses S. Grant’s mobile pursuit column, they had only reached Farmville by the time of Lee’s surrender.

On April 9th, Pratt was detailed to guard the town. He posted pickets along Main Street and in a church near the Ladies College. “All very quiet,” he wrote. Rumors trickled in of Lee’s surrender but Pratt’s attention was briefly drawn elsewhere. “We have to start and look at the Misses sitting in the window of the seminary. There is so many of them and they have the name of being so much secesh and we are so timid we do nothing but gaze. If I were not afraid of a flogging would go and tell them that Lee had surrendered.”

Official word of the surrender arrived the next day. Pratt collected his thoughts on his friends’ sacrifice and wrote his poignant diary entry. He remained in the army until mustering out as a captain on June 29, 1865. Immediately he sought to make up for the teenage years he had lost while in the army.

Four summers earlier he had joined the 5th Vermont as a fifteen year old on break from his studies at Brandon Seminary. The son of a modest laborer on a small farm, Pratt had attended public school and worked on his own to earn money to attend the seminary. He valued education, evidenced in his diary entry on April 10, 1865, and resumed studying upon his return to Vermont. Robert graduated the following year. His brother Sidney also served with the 5th Vermont until receiving a serious wound at the Wilderness. A doctor advised that Sidney move west after the war for health reasons and Robert joined him in relocating to Minnesota in November 1866.

Settling around Minneapolis, Robert worked at a lumber yard and eventually managed his own lumber hauling team. A bright entrepreneur, he eventually bought his own land to timber and managed a lucrative business. He married Irene Lamoreau on August 30, 1871, and the couple had seven children.

Robert Pratt (Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 25, 1908)

Pratt became involved in politics and served on the Minneapolis city council from 1884 to 1887 and was elected to the school board in 1888. Seven years later he was elected Minneapolis mayor and was reelected after two years to a second term. An admirer wrote, “It is doubtful if Minneapolis ever had a more popular and efficient chief executive.” Pratt died on August 8, 1908 and was buried in Lakewood Cemetery. In a resolution passed to honor their former colleague, the city council noted:

“As a citizen and official Mr. Pratt always evidenced great interest in educational matters, and it may truly be said that his greatest public service has been on the Board of Education… Mr. Pratt was a man of pure mind and he lived a clean and useful life. His long and useful service in this community has indelibly impressed itself upon the history of this city.”

Pratt fulfilled the life he dreamed of the day after Appomattox. Tragically, two of his close friends would not enjoy the same. Lee’s lines had been stretched to their limit by April 2, 1865, but breaking both them and the Confederate commander’s will to fight required sacrifice until the very end.

Read Along With Me: William Tecumseh Sherman’s Memoirs

A Series by Julie Mujic

Sherman book photo

Last weekend, I went to Half Price Books and came across this Penguin Classics edition of Sherman’s Memoirs for $7.99.

I was especially interested to discover that this version was edited and annotated by the late Michael Fellman, who wrote a book about Sherman, along with several other acclaimed works. Fellman also penned the Introduction for this volume of Sherman’s memoirs; I’ll be interested to read his perspective.

At some point during this journey through time with Sherman, I’ll travel down to Lancaster, Ohio, to visit the Sherman House Museum and check out his statue as well. I’ve heard through the local grapevine (I’m on the Board of Trustees for the Columbus Historical Society) that there were threats to the Sherman statue in Lancaster during last summer’s national controversy over Confederate monuments, so I’ll do a little digging into that situation as well.

I plan to read the Memoirs and write blog posts based on the following schedule:

Post 1: Introduction & Chapters 1-7

Post 2: Chapters 8-12

Post 3: Chapters 13-15

Post 4: Chapters 16-19

Post 5: Chapters 20-23

Post 6: Chapters 24-26

Post 7: Weekender trip to Lancaster

So, grab your copy at a local used book store, from your library, or online today, and read along with me! I’ll try my best to give dates as we go along. Right now, I expect to publish the first post by mid-April. I look forward to your comments, insights, and feedback in the coming weeks.

————

Julie Mujic, Ph.D. is a Scholar-in-Residence at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. She also owns Paramount Historical Consulting, LLC, and can be reached through www.juliemujic.com.

Artillery Sketches of Alfred Waud

Talk about being in the right place at the right time . . . our own Meg Groeling wrote a series of posts for ECW several years ago called “Drawing the War.” It featured the newspaper artists who were embedded with the various Civil War armies and sent sketches to the large newspapers of the day. The piece concerning Alfred Waud has gotten a lot of traffic.

However, the piece, with some rewriting, got a new life from The Artilleryman magazine. The spread is simply beautiful, with copious illustrations of Waud’s work pertaining to artillery. Editor Jack Melton headed up this effort. Check it out!

 

Watching the “Merrimac”

Artist rendering of the CSS Virginia

Artist rendering of the CSS Virginia

One of the joys of a historian is finding that perfect eye-witness account of momentous events, one that puts you alongside our ancestors and sees through their eyes. The following is just such a viewpoint.

“IN March, 1862, I was in command of a Confederate brigade and of a district on the south side of the James River, embracing all the river forts and batteries down to the mouth of Nansemond River,” wrote Brigadier General R. E. Colston. “About 1 p. m. on the 8th of March, a courier dashed up to my headquarters with this brief dispatch: ‘The Virginia is coming up the river.’ Mounting at once, it took me but a very short time to gallop twelve miles down to Ragged Island.”[1]

From the south shore of Hampton Roads, General Colston watched all day as the ironclad CSS Virginia (ex USS Merrimack, also spelled Merrimac) first rammed and sank the 30-gun sailing frigate USS Cumberland, and then destroyed the 50-gun sailing frigate USS Congress with hot shot and shell. This was a cataclysmic defeat for the U.S. Navy on the day before Virginia would engage in her epic battle with the USS Monitor.

I had hardly dismounted at the water’s edge when I descried the Merrimac approaching. The Congress was moored about a hundred yards below the land batteries, and the Cumberland a little above them. As soon as the Merrimac came within range, the batteries and war-vessels opened fire. She passed on up, exchanging broadsides with the Congress, and making straight for the Cumberland, at which she made a dash, firing her bow-guns as she struck the doomed vessel with her prow.

CSS Virginia vs CumberlandI could hardly believe my senses when I saw the masts of the Cumberland begin to sway wildly. After one or two lurches, her hull disappeared beneath the water, guns firing to the last moment. Most of her brave crew went down with their ship, but not with their colors, for the Union flag still floated defiantly from the masts, which projected obliquely for about half their length above the water after the vessel had settled unevenly upon the river-bottom. This first act of the drama was over in about thirty minutes, but it seemed to me only a moment.

The commander of the Congress recognized at once the impossibility of resisting the assault of the ram which had just sunk the Cumberland. With commendable promptness and presence of mind, he slipped his cables, and ran her aground upon the shallows, where the Merrimac, at that time drawing twenty-three feet of water, was unable to approach her, and could attack her with artillery alone.

But, although the Congress had more guns than the Merrimac, and was also supported by the land batteries, it was an unequal conflict, for the projectiles hurled at the Merrimac glanced harmlessly from her iron-covered roof, while her rifled guns raked the Congress from end to end.

A curious incident must be noted here. Great numbers of people from the neighborhood of Ragged Island, as well as soldiers from the nearest posts, had rushed to the shore to behold the spectacle. The cannonade was visibly raging with redoubled intensity; but, to our amazement, not a sound was heard by us from the commencement of the battle. A strong March wind was blowing direct from us toward Newport News.

Virginia vs CongressWe could see every flash of the guns and the clouds of white smoke, but not a single report was audible.

The Merrimac, taking no notice of the land batteries, concentrated her fire upon the ill-fated Congress.

The latter replied gallantly until her commander, Joseph B. Smith, was killed and her decks were reeking with slaughter. Then her colors were hauled down and white flags appeared at the gaff and mainmast. Meanwhile, the James River gun-boat flotilla had joined the Merrimac.

Through my field-glass I could see the crew of the Congress making their escape to the shore over the bow. Unable to secure her prize, the Merrimac set her on fire with hot shot, and turned to face new adversaries just appearing upon the scene of conflict.[2]

Virginia exchanged broadsides with other Union warships at long range throughout the afternoon but was unable to close with them in the shallow channel. As the tide receded and dusk descended, all contestants retired to their respective anchorages. Colston continues:

And now followed one of the grandest episodes of this splendid yet somber drama. The moon in her second quarter was just rising over the waters, but her silvery light was soon paled by the conflagration of the Congress, whose glare was reflected in the river.

The burning frigate four miles away seemed much nearer. As the flames crept up the rigging, every mast, spar, and rope glittered against the dark sky in dazzling lines of fire. The hull, aground upon the shoal, was plainly visible, and upon its black surface each port-hole seemed the mouth of a fiery furnace.

For hours the flames raged, with hardly a perceptible change in the wondrous picture. At irregular intervals, loaded guns and shells, exploding as the fire reached them, sent forth their deep reverberations.

The masts and rigging were still standing, apparently almost intact, when, about 2 o’clock in the morning, a monstrous sheaf of flame rose from the vessel to an immense height. A deep report announced the explosion of the ship’s powder-magazine.

Apparently all the force of the explosion had been upward. The rigging had vanished entirely, but the hull seemed hardly shattered; the only apparent change in it was that in two places two or three of the port-holes had been blown into one great gap. It continued to burn until the brightness of its blaze was effaced by the morning sun.[3]

The rest of the story will be told in the forthcoming book, With Mutual Fierceness: The Battle of Hampton Roads for the Emerging Civil War Series.

[1] Brigadier-General R. E. Colston, C. S. A., “Watching The ‘Merrimac,’” in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, vol. 1, 712.

[2] Ibid. 712-713.

[3] Ibid., 714.