The following in an extract from a letter written at Fortress Monroe by one of the editors of the Baltimore American, a cool and practical observer and careful writer:
She approached the Cumberland at full speed, striking her on the port side near the bow, her stem knocking port No. 1 and the bridle port into one, whilst her ram cut into the Cumberland under water. Almost at the moment of collision the Merrimac discharged from her forward gun [an] 11-inch shell. This shell raked the whole gun deck, killing ten men at gun No. 1, among whom was Master Mate John Harrington, and cutting off both arms and both legs of Quarter-gunner Wood. The water rushed in from the hole made below, and in five minutes the ship began to sink by the head.
Shell and solid shot from the Cumberland were rained on the Merrimac as she passed ahead, but the most glanced harmlessly from the incline of her iron plated bomb roof, though some shots which struck her at a more favorable ranged caused splinters of iron to fly.
As the Merrimac rounded to and came upon she again raked the Cumberland with a heavy fire. At this fire 16 men at gun No. 10 were killed or wounded, and were all subsequently carried down in the sinking ship. Among those unfortunates whose names were remembered by my informant were two of the carpenter’s crew, named Wm. O’Brien and John Cameron.
Advancing with increased momentum, the Merrimac struck the Cumberland on the starboard side, smashing her upper works and cutting another hole below the water line.
The ship began to rapidly settle, and the scene became most horrible. The cock-pit was filled with wounded whom it was impossible to bring up. The forward magazine was under water, but powder was still supplied from the after magazine, and the firing kept steadily up by me who knew that the ship was sinking under them. They worked desperately and unremittingly, and amidst the din and horror of the conflict gave cheers for their flag and the Union which were joined by the wounded. The decks were very slippery with blood, and arms and legs, and chunks of flesh were strewed about. The Merrimac laid off at easy point blank range, discharging her broadsides alternately at the Cumberland and Congress. The water by this time had reached the after magazine of the Cumberland. The men, however, kept at work and several cases of powder were passed up and the guns kept in play. Several of the men in the after shell room lingered there too long in their eagerness to pass up shell and were drowned. The reader must bear in mind that these incidents of the fight which we briefly detail, occupied some time in transpiring, it being about one hour and a half from the first attack upon the Cumberland until she finally sunk.
The water had at this time reached the berth or main gun deck, and it was felt hopeless and useless to continue the fight longer. The word was given for each man to save himself, but after this order gun No. 7 was fired when the adjoining gun N. 6 was actually under water. – This last shot was fired by an active little fellow named Matthew Teney, whose courage had been conspicuous throughout the action. As his port was left open by the recoil of the gun, he jumped to scramble out, but the water rushed in with so much force that he was washed back and drowned.
When the order was given to cease firing, and to look out for their safety in the best way possible, numbers scampered through the port holes, whilst others reached the spar deck by the companion-ways. Some were incapable to get out either of these means, and were carried down by the rapidly sinking ship. Of those who reached the upper deck, some swam off to the tugs that came out from Newport News, some kept afloat by seizing floating fragments of the wreck, others escaped in the rigging and masts, and still others sank never to rise again.
The Cumberland sank in water nearly up to her cross trees, and lies with a heavy list to port. She went down with her flag still flying, and it still flies from the mast above the waters that overwhelmed her, a memento of the bravest, most daring, and yet most hopeless defence that has ever been made by any vessel belonging to any navy in the world.
– Published in The Burlington Weekly Hawk-Eye, Burlington, Iowa, Saturday, March 22, 1862, p. 4