Charles Heywood kept his cannon firing even as his ship sank.
Born in Waterville on Oct. 3, 1839, Heywood was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps at New York City on April 5, 1858. Thirty-five months later he reported aboard the USS Cumberland, a 24-gun sloop of war then assigned to the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Va.
Fearing the shipyard’s capture by Confederate militia, senior Navy officers ordered Gosport abandoned on April 20, 1861. After mining key installations with barrels of gunpowder, Heywood and his Marines lit the fuses and hastened aboard the USS Cumberland, already slipping seaward on the ebbing Elizabeth River.
The resulting explosions and fires caused significant damage, but Confederate engineers quickly repaired crucial machinery. They also raised the burned and scuttled USS Merrimac. Upon its hull arose an ironclad, the CSS Virginia. Measuring 263 feet in length and weighing 3,200 tons, the steam-engine ironclad mounted 10 massive cannons. The skipper was Capt. Franklin Buchanan.
He intended to sail into Hampton Roads and sink the Yankee warships stationed there. By the time Buchanan ordered his ship to sail on March 8, 1862, Heywood was a captain commanding the USS Cumberland’s Marine contingent.
Brilliant late-winter sunshine and warm air engulfed Hampton Roads as the CSS Virginia stood downriver that Saturday. Buchanan had already selected his first target. “I am going to ram the Cumberland,” which was equipped with “the new rifled guns, the only ones in their whole fleet we have cause to fear,” he told Chief Engineer H. Ashton Ramsay. “The moment we are out in the Roads, I’m going to make right for her and ram her.”
That morning, the USS Cumberland lay moored some 300 yards off Newport News on the north shore of Hampton Roads. Aboard the Cumberland, Cmdr. William Radford had gone ashore, leaving Lt. George Morris, the executive officer, in command.
At noon, sailors on watch aboard the Cumberland “discovered three vessels under steam, standing down the Elizabeth River toward Sewell’s Point,” Morris wrote on March 9. One ship belched black smoke; Morris, Heywood, and other USS Cumberland officers could see the smoke without using their spyglasses.
Buchanan’s underpowered ironclad steamed ponderously into Hampton Roads. After the CSS Virginia cleared Sewell’s Point about 1:30 p.m., Buchanan steered west to attack the USS Cumberland.
Aboard that ship, crewmen had already “double breeched the guns on the main deck, and cleared [the] ship for action,” Morris reported. He ordered the sloop pivoted on her anchor so that her starboard broadside would face the ironclad.
Assigned to his ship’s after gun division, Heywood stood with his gun crews and watched as the Virginia approached. At 2 p.m. aboard the ironclad, Lt. Charles Simms fired the bow pivot gun, a 7-inch Brooke rifle.
According to William C. Davis writing in “Duel Between the First Ironclads,” Simms’ cannon ball “screamed across the Roads and hit” the USS Cumberland “squarely, passing through the starboard-quarter rail” and hurling wood splinters into nearby Marines. After a Cumberland gun crew fired their ship’s forward 10-inch pivot gun and missed, Simms’ second shot exploded amidst that gun crew and killed all but two men.
“Our firing became at once very rapid from the few guns we could bring to bear” as the ironclad “approached slowly,” recalled Master Moses Stuyvesant, who commanded the sloop’s after gun division. Simms’ pivot gun pounded the Cumberland; as shell fragments and wood splinters struck down sailors and Marines alike, Heywood’s crews fired their cannons through the dense smoke.
At approximately 2:30 p.m., Cumberland pilot A.B. Smith thought the approaching ironclad resembled “a huge half-submerged crocodile” with its “iron ram projecting, straight forward.”
Steaming at 6 knots, the Virginia “stood on and struck us under the starboard fore channels” near the Cumberland’s bow, Morris reported. “She delivered her fire at the same time; the destruction was great. We returned the fire with solid shot with alacrity.”
The ironclad’s ram opened a hole about 7 feet across. Flooding with seawater, the USS Cumberland listed to starboard — and the ship’s weight bore the Virginia downward.
The ironclad was already reversing its engines as the tide pivoted the trapped Virginia alongside the sinking Cumberland. Then the ram broke off, freeing the ironclad from a potential watery grave. Buchanan backed his ship until it lay parallel to the Cumberland and only 20 feet away.
Cannons flashed and boomed for some 30 minutes as Heywood and his comrades heroically fought the Virginia amidst “a scene of carnage and destruction never to be recalled without horror,” Stuyvesant remembered. Blood and gore splattered across the main deck as Heywood shouted at sailors and Marines to drag wounded comrades to the ship’s port side.
Now the sea lapped at the Cumberland’s main deck as the bowsprit disappeared into Hampton Roads. Gun crews kept firing until their cannons submerged. Stationed near the stern, Heywood worked his guns even as another cannon broke loose and lurched across the deck to crush a sailor.
“At 3:35 [p.m.] the water had risen to the main hatchway, and the ship canted to port, and we delivered a parting fire, each man trying to save himself by jumping overboard,” Morris recalled. Acknowledging that severely wounded men taken below decks could only be left to drown, he credited specific officers for their coolness under fire.
“I can only say in conclusion that all did their duty and we sunk with the American flag at the [mast] peak,” Morris closed his report.
Even as the Cumberland’s deck sharply canted, Heywood remained with the aft guns. “The water began to swash over the upper deck, and still every unencumbered gun was hurling defiance at the foe,” wrote John S.C. Abbott in “The History of the Civil War in America, Vol. 1,” published in 1863.
“The ship careened upon one side. The last gunner [Heywood], knee-deep in water, pulled the trigger of the last gun,” Abbott wrote. Then “the majestic frigate, with all her dead and all her wounded, sank like lead.”
And Charles Heywood went overboard into Marine Corps lore.
His heroism went noticed. “I omitted to mention to you the gallant conduct of Lieutenant Charles Heywood … whose bravery upon the occasion of the fight with the Merrimack won my highest applause,” Morris wrote Navy Secretary Gideon Welles on April 12.
Heywood received a brevet promotion to major after the battle. Of the 46 Marines aboard the USS Cumberland, 14 died. Another 107 sailors were killed aboard the sloop on March 8.
The next day, the Monitor fought the Virginia in Hampton Roads in history’s first ironclad-to-ironclad sea battle. Most history books still call the Virginia the “Merrimac.”
Heywood would fight during another famous Civil War battle; he was commanding two gun crews aboard the USS Hartford at Mobile Bay, Ala. as Adm. David Farragut roared, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” on Aug. 5, 1864. Within an hour, Heywood and Farragut traded shot and shell with another Confederate ironclad, the CSS Tennessee — commanded by Adm. Franklin Buchanan.
This time Buchanan lost and Heywood won.
Named the ninth Marine Corps commandant on Jan. 30, 1891, Charles Heywood instituted important changes to the corps’ mission and strength. Promoted to major general a year before his 1903 retirement, he died at Washington, D.C., on Feb. 26, 1915. His wife, Caroline Bacon, outlived him by 12 years.
Heywood lies buried in Section 2, Lot 1115 at Arlington National Cemetery.