Thursday, September 22, 2022

Correcting the Record: USS Cumberland Lost 123 Sailors at the Battle of Hampton Roads

By Hunt Lewis
HRNM Volunteer
USS Cumberland rammed by CSS Virginia (Library of Congress)

When USS Cumberland was rammed and sunk by CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack) on March 8, 1862, approximately a third of the crew were lost. Lost also were all personnel records. All that was known was the number of officers and men aboard at the start of the battle.

The ship’s commanding officer, Commander William Radford, had to report circumstances of the loss of his ship and number of Sailors killed or drowned. Lacking an accurate muster roll on which names could be called out, and a count made of those who made no response, Commander Radford did the next best thing. He mustered and took a count of the survivors and subtracted that count from the number of men attached to the ship at the beginning of the battle.

Final page of the muster roll, indicating the number of killed and drowned aboard USS Cumberland on March 8, 1862 (Library of Congress)

The muster consisted of 255 handwritten names on six pages. On the last page is the annotation:

            "Officers and men when action commenced          376
                do              do                  do          over               255
                                                       killed or drowned        121

              This is a large number and I am hoping more men will be found.
                                                        (signed) Wm. Radford,

The 121 fatalities has been reported in official records for 160 years, but this muster roll of survivors contains an error. On the first page of the muster, two officers were listed as having died in the battle, but when we counted up every name on the muster roll, we found that Radford accidentally counted the two men as survivors. Chaplain John Lenhart was listed as drowned and Master’s Mate John Harrington shown as killed. Because these two men were killed but accidentally counted among the survivors, the correct count of survivors should have been 253 rather than 255. Thus, the number of Sailors killed when USS Cumberland sank on March 8, 1862, stands at 123. With that conclusion, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum will begin using the corrected number of 123 in all future historical documents and exhibits. 

First page of the muster roll, listing the officers. When we added up the number of Sailors listed in this entire muster roll, we realized Commander Radford had accidentally counted Lenhart and Harrington as among the living. (Library of Congress)

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