“A magnificent ship for her period,” the noted naval strategist and historian Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan would write of the Congress, some years after serving on board the frigate in the Civil War. “The adjective is not too strong,” he continued. “Her spars, both masts and yards, lofty and yet square, were as true to proportion, for perfection of appearance, as was her hull.”
The last such ship designed and built by the U.S. Navy, the Congress took shape at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Navy Yard, was launched in August 1841 and commissioned in May 1842. She participated with distinction in the Mexican War and served on the Mediterranean and Brazil stations as flagship, her active hours punctuated by periods “in ordinary”—temporarily decommissioned for repairs or alterations. Designated a “frigate, first class,” she was commissioned with a main battery of eight 8-inch smoothbores and 42 32-pounders, 50 guns in all. Mahan wrote that the tiers of guns on each broadside suggested “two strong rows of solid teeth, ready for instant use. Nothing could be more splendidly martial.”
“Our orders home [dated 9 April 1861],” Mahan wrote at the war’s outset, “and tidings of the attack on Fort Sumter” reached the ship on 15 June, and the Congress, Captain Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding, left the Brazil Squadron and began the homeward voyage soon thereafter. She reached Boston on 22 August and was ordered on 9 September to proceed to Hampton Roads to join the Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Reaching her destination a little less than a fortnight later, on 21 September, she was assigned a station off Newport News and the mouth of the James River. There, Captain Goldsborough, promoted to flag rank, relieved Flag Officer Silas H. Stringham as commander of the Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and Commander William Smith became commanding officer of the Congress. (The Atlantic Blockading Squadron was split into two commands—North and South—in late October.)
Learning of preparations being made for the ironclad CSS Virginia (ex-Merrimack) to attack Union forces in Hampton Roads, Goldsborough mused on 17 October 1861 that “unless her stability be compromised by her heavy top works of wood and iron and her weight of batteries, [the Virginia] will, in all probability, prove to be exceedingly formidable.” Additionally, Goldsborough warned his commanders to be watchful for “torpedoes” (mines).
Delayed by bad weather at the outset, Smith put his men to work to prepare for what the enemy had in store. “Buoys all around the ship, spars . . . in angular form reach from flying jib booms, lashed, hung by tackles from head booms and fore channels, passing the last so as to [deflect] passing objects . . .” constituted the Congress’ protection against “fire craft, torpedoes, or infernal machines.” Dealing with the Virginia, however, was altogether different. “I have not yet devised any plan to defend us against the Merrimack,” Smith wryly informed Goldsborough on 4 November, “unless it be with hard knocks.”
Within a fortnight, rumors of an imminent Confederate attack on the Congress and the sloop Cumberland prompted Smith to address his ship’s inadequate armament in a report to Goldsborough on 18 November. “I am told,” Smith wrote, “that there is an 80-pounder rifle . . . on board a storeship off Fort Monroe. Could we get it?” He suggested mounting the gun on the Congress’ forecastle “by cutting away the rail over the forward gun and bill ports, which I do not think would be an injury to the ship.” With the ship’s present armament, “should the enemy’s steamers stand off at long shot, we should only be a good target for them, as none of our guns could throw a shot at them.”
The Congress settled into a routine of watchful waiting that autumn. Lieutenant William Sharp, C.S. Navy, a prisoner quartered temporarily on board (and a former U.S. Naval Academy classmate of Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, one of the Congress’ officers) observed that “batteries are primed [at sunset], guns cast loose and ranged obliquely; regular sea watches kept; no hammocks allowed on gun deck, or lights above water; stream anchor at port quarter, hawsers bent and others on deck . . . . Crew well drilled, furnished with Sharps and Minié rifles, and all modern appliances,” and a boat howitzer sat ready for action on the quarterdeck. With the gun-deck cabin having been removed, two 32-pounders protruded from ports at the stern.
The Congress’ crew, however, the well-drilled veterans who had sailed in the ship during her deployment on the Brazil Station, faced the end of their enlistment early in 1862. Desiring to keep his old ship “as fully manned as possible,” Goldsborough proposed sending a goodly draft of men (35 short of the Congress’ allowance at that point) transferred from the Cumberland, the Brasiliera, the Brandywine, the Young Rover, and the Minnesota. Additionally, he prevailed on Brigadier General John E. Wool, commanding the Department of Virginia from Fort Monroe, to provide a company of Soldiers to help man the guns. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles endorsed the proposal, promising “additional men . . . as early as possible.”
The old crew was paid off and departed on 13 January 1862. That left Smith with those few hands who had joined the crew in August and the newly arrived contingent promised by Goldsborough—or most of it, at least. Smith still needed 40 seamen, 41 ordinary seamen, 17 landsmen, 24 boys, one carpenter’s mate, a cooper, two nurses, and 11 musicians or ordinary seamen, a total of 137 hands. With the 267 men he had on board, the requested addition to his complement would bring the ship’s company to 404. Wool had provided 82 non-commissioned officers and privates—a “temporary arrangement,” Smith wrote, noting that “they may be taken away from us any day.”
Secretary Welles found it “impossible” to provide the men Smith thought necessary in the latter’s personal entreaty of 21 January, observing in a 31 January letter to Captain John Marston, the senior officer in Hampton Roads, that “men do not enlist as fast as required.” After pondering whether the Congress was capable of defending herself at her present location, however, Welles already had decided by 24 January that if Goldsborough could spare the Congress, she could be withdrawn from Newport News and sent elsewhere. The threat posed by the Confederate ironclad, however, overshadowed such a plan. “As long as the Merrimack is held as a rod over us,” Marston wrote, “I would by no means recommend that [the Congress] should leave this place.”
When the St. Lawrence arrived on station at Newport News, the Congress’ departure date for Philadelphia was nigh—but she never left those waters. Commander Smith, already detached in order to proceed to another duty station, had turned the ship over to Lieutenant Smith. But Commander Smith remained on board as a volunteer, and so was present when she finally encountered the Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads on 8 March 1862. Set afire by the shot and shell poured into her with “terrific effect” by the Virginia, and having no operable guns that could be brought to bear on the enemy, the Congress surrendered after the death of Lieutenant Smith, and burned into the night. Her magazines exploded early in the midwatch on 9 March.
What remained of the Congress was raised, and the “wrought iron, lead, junk, anchor, chain, iron tanks, copper, composition metal, castings, etc.” were sold in September 1865. Subsequent salvage operations recovered 33 of her guns in December 1868.
The Congress had been, as naval architect and historian Howard I. Chapelle wrote in 1949, “a very fine frigate” and a “fast sailer.” But her fiery demise in Hampton Roads had sounded the death knell for the sailing man-of-war. One might find in the words of Mahan, however, a more nostalgic epitaph: “The ship and crew are of the best.”