Killed In Action, Henry James, US Marines —

Henry James served during the Civil War in the US Marines.  He was born in Newmarket in 1830, and enlisted at age 29 as a Private for 4 years  in US Marines at the Boston, Charlestown Navy Yard on 11 Oct 1859.  He lost his life in battle on 8 March 1862 aboard the USS Cumberland when it was attacked and destroyed during the Battle of Hampton Roads. He had two brothers,  Thomas and Emery, both working as laborers and living in Newmarket in the 1850s.

NEWPORT NEWS, By Lauren King. The Virginian-Pilot,  June 28, 2011

(photo: CSS Virginia, photo taken 1862)

A two-day research expedition began Monday to survey two sunken Civil War vessels in the James River.  The archaeological survey of the USS Cumberland and CSS Florida is being conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Navy, a news release from NOAA said. Researchers are using sonar technology to create three-dimensional maps of the two shipwrecks to analyze their current conditions and better understand the technological innovations of the time.

The Cumberland, a 1,726-ton wooden frigate, was lost on March 8, 1862, during the Battle of Hampton Roads, when the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia, formerly the USS Merrimack, rammed the Cumberland. It went down with more than 100 men. Nearby are the remains of the notorious Confederate commerce raider Florida. In late 1864, a Union warship seized the Florida at a harbor in Brazil and towed it to Hampton Roads, where it was rammed by a U.S. Navy troop ferry on Nov. 19, 1864, and sent to the bottom.

 (photo: book jacket cover of John Quarstein’s book CSS Virginia, sink before surrender)

 Both vessels are protected under the federal Sunken Military Craft Act of 2005, the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 and the Territorial Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which gives the U.S. government exclusive rights to its own property.

 The Cumberland was last surveyed in 2007. This is the first time the federal government is surveying the Florida.

 In the murky depths of the James River just off Newport News Point is a skeletal shape that looks something like a giant overturned horseshoe crab.  For decades watermen had snagged oyster tongs on a wooden structure and brought up the flotsam and jetsam of an ancient shipwreck. What no one seemed to suspect, until archaeologists confirmed its identity, is that the site bears witness to a deadly encounter that signaled the end of a long era in naval history.

 The USS Cumberland

The 1,726-ton wooden frigate  was built at the Boston Navy Yard in 1842 and began a long and distinguished career as a flagship in several stations around the globe.  The first was in the Mediterranean, then the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico. Among its officers was Commodore Matthew Perry.

 In 1855-56, Cumberland was converted to a sloop of war, allowing it to carry fewer but more powerful guns. These changes made the ship what Navy historians described as a “magnificent corvette and fast sailor.” The next two years were spent cruising the coast of Africa chasing down suspected slave ships.

 The Cumberland was at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth in early 1861 when Virginia joined the Confederacy and war broke out.   The warship took part in the successful Union assault at Hatteras Inlet later that year and joined the blockading squadron in Hampton Roads, capturing vessels carrying cotton, coal and military stores. Pretty successful for a wooden sailing ship, but its days were numbered.

(photo:  Sinking of the Cumberland, an engraving from Leslie’s Weekly showing the crew still fighting as the ship goes down. Courtesy of U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

 On March 8, 1862, the Cumberland was at anchor off Newport News when its former sister ship, the Merrimack, now converted to an ironclad and rechristened the Virginia, steamed into Hampton Roads, turned to port and went straight for the Cumberland. Shrugging off furious broadsides, the Virginia ran full speed at the Cumberland and buried its iron ram into the wooden ship’s starboard side.

 As the Virginia backed away, leaving the ram buried in the Cumberland, gunners decimated the wooden ship, leaving its decks awash in blood and gore. Even so, the wounded ship’s crew continued futilely firing on the iron adversary until its guns were under water.

Return fire from Cumberland and Congress bounced off the iron plates without penetrating. Virginia rammed Cumberland below the waterline and she sank rapidly, “gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water,” according to Buchanan.  She took 121 seamen down with her; those wounded brought the casualty total to nearly 150. 

Ramming Cumberland nearly resulted in the sinking of Virginia as well. Virginia’s bow ram got stuck in the enemy ship’s hull, and as Cumberland listed and began to go down, she almost pulled Virginia under with her.  At the time the vessels were locked, one of Cumberland’s anchors was hanging directly above the foredeck of Virginia. Had it come loose, the two ships might have gone down together. Virginia broke free, however, her ram breaking off as she backed away.

 “We delivered a parting fire, each man trying to save himself by jumping overboard,” Lt. George Morris, the acting commander, reported. But there were many wounded who could not be saved and were among 121 sailors who perished in the battle. One admiring opponent left a fitting epitaph:     “No ship was ever fought more gallantly.”  The Cumberland’s fate was to be the first victim of a new era of naval warfare, a clear demonstration of the superiority of steam-powered ironclad ships. That night the Union’s own  ironclad, the Monitorr, arrived and the following day engaged the CSS Virgina in a four-hour slugfest that ended in a draw.

 Before the battle, the Monitor’s crew saw what must have been a chilling memorial of the Cumberland, three masts, a tattered pennant still dangling from one of them, marking where the ship had gone down.   Almost immediately, Union salvage crews removed the ship’s guns and other valuable items. Other salvage efforts continued for several years until its location was all but forgotten until 1981 when divers rediscovered it.


 The notorious Confederate raider Florida, which spent two years wreaking havoc on Union merchant shipping was captured in late 1864 by a Union warship at a harbor in Brazil.  It was towed it to Hampton Roads where, mysteriously, it was rammed by a barge and sent to the bottom.

  (photo: from  Tallahassee Museum’s Ships, Sailors and Shipwrecks of Civil War, Confederate Ship  Florida)

 The Hampton Roads Naval Museum at Nauticus has several artifacts from the two ships, as well as sections of iron from both the Monitor and Virginia. Now, collaborating with the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Naval History and heritage Command, the museum is participating in a cutting-edge survey of the Cumberland and Florida.

 (photo: displayed  in the museum’s CSS Florida exhibit are three Bashley Britten shells that were used with the ship’s Blakely Rifles)