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The Battle of Hampton Roads was one of the most important naval battles in the American Civil War. It was fought over two days, 8-9 March 1862, in Hampton Roads, Virginia. During the CW150 Legacy Project we uncovered a letter from a Union soldier who was at the battle and wrote home about what he had witnessed. The letter was written on 15 March 1862 by John “Johnnie” Torrance while he served with the 2nd New York Infantry Regiment, Company H and was stationed at Camp Butler, Newport News, Virginia.

In the letter written to “Libbie,” Torrance describes the naval battle he witnessed stating “I suppose you have heard of [it] before this time. I though[t] you would have saw something about it in the paper.” Torrance mostly describes the first day of the battle – detailing the attack by the CSS Virginia and CSS Patrick Henry and CSS Jamestown on the USS Cumberlandand USS Congress. The Virginia rammed the Cumberland causing it to sink and taking nearly 150 lives. The captain of the Congress ran his ship aground in shallow waters and after some combat the ship surrendered. While the crew was being ferried off the ship a Union battery on the north shore opened fire on the Virginia. In response the Virginia fired with hot shot (cannonballs heated red-hot) and the Congress caught fire. Near midnight the flames reached the ship’s magazine and the ship exploded and sank. Torrance didn’t go into as much detail about the battle between the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor but he did say that they “had a terribal [terrible] hard fight. the rebel then ran away she is hurt some. she has not come out since.”

Several other items relating to the Battle of Hampton Roads were discovered including some brightly covered envelopes detailing the battle, as well as a carte-de-visite of John Ericsson (1803-1889) the designer of the USS Monitor.

The collection of eight letters from John Torrance is all available online at the James I. Robertson Jr. Civil War Sesquicentennial Legacy Collection. The letters have all been transcribed on the Library of Virginia’s Making History Transcribe section and are available alongside the digital letters.

Next Wednesday at noon and again at 5:30 pm, James I. “Bud” Robertson, Jr., Alumni Distinguished Professor in History emeritus at Virginia Tech, will be speaking about the selections he chose to include in Civil War Echoes and why the Civil War 150 Legacy Project collection is so important. Published as the final project of the Virginia Sesquicentennial of the American Civil War Commission, Civil War Echoes captures the thoughts and feelings of men and women who lived and fought in Virginia during the Civil War using excerpts from letters, diaries, and other documents brought to life through the Commission-sponsored Civil War 150 Legacy Project. Copies of Civil War Echoes will be available for purchase in the Virginia Shop at the Library, or by phone at 804-692-3524 or online at for $19.95.

-Renee Savits, State Records Archivist

Renee Savits

State Records Archivist

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