Thursday, March 8, 2012

USS Cumberland-Defeated, but Not Conquered

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads. It began with the attack by the ironclad CSS Virginia on the sail sloop-of-war USS Cumberland at 1 p.m. With no means of getting out of the way because the winds were calm, Virginia rammed Cumberland. Commodore Franklin Buchanan demanded that Cumberland's acting commanding officer, Lieutenant George U. Morris, surrender his ship. After consulting with another officer (Acting Master William P. Randall), Morris gave his legendary response: "Damn you, I will never strike." By 3:30 p.m., the fighting was over and the sloop-of-war sank. Her flag continued to fly at the highest mast.

Morris, the younger son of the War of 1812 hero Commodore Charles Morris, never received the coveted "Thanks of Congress" resolution or the Medal of Honor for his act. In letters to his fiancé, Morris admitted he had trouble coping with the loss. While serving on blockade duty off the coast of Florida in 1864, he wrote, "Sometimes I think of those one hundred twenty men now lying so quietly at the bottom of the James River. I think of my friends there. I find as if with my own hand I could be with them."

However, Morris' defiance received an honor equal to any formal award. The act was remembered by Union and Confederate sources as the ship that refused to surrender. "No ship fought more gallantly," one Confederate historian wrote. Literary giants such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Longfellow, and Herman Melville all wrote essays in Cumberland's honor.

Buchanan is to have said to his crew before attacking the U.S. Naval squadron, "sink before surrender." Little did he know, it was his first opponent who had to make that choice. "Don't Give Up the Ship" is an expression uttered by Captain James Lawrence during the 1813 Chesapeake-Shannon battle and informally still used by the U.S. Navy today. Morris and his company upheld that saying and the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

One hundred and twenty-one of Cumberland's sailors and officers died that day. Some rest peacefully with their brother sailors from USS Congress at the cemetery behind Portsmouth Naval Medical Center. But most are still with their ship in Hampton Roads. If you are ever out on your boat in Hampton Roads near Newport News, be sure to stand up, look towards shore, and salute their bravery.

(Learn more about USS Cumberland, her history, and artifacts at the museum's USS Cumberland Center)

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