Military Wiki
CSS Virginia
CSS Virginia
CSS Virginia
Career (Confederate States of America)
Ordered: July 11, 1861
Completed: March 7, 1862
Commissioned: February 17, 1862
Fate: scuttled May 11, 1862
General characteristics
Type: Casemate ironclad
Displacement: about 4,000 long tons (4,100 t)
Length: 275 ft (83.8 m)
Beam: 51 ft 2 in (15.6 m)
Draft: 21 ft (6.4 m)
Installed power: 1,200 ihp (890 kW)
Propulsion: 1 shaft
2 Horizontal back-acting steam engines
4 boilers
Speed: 5–6 knots (9.3–11.1 km/h; 5.8–6.9 mph)
Complement: about 320 officers and men
Armament: 2 × 7-inch (178 mm) Brooke rifles
2 × 6.4-inch (160 mm) Brooke rifles
6 × 9-inch (229 mm) Dahlgren smoothbores
2 × 12-pounder (5 kg) howitzers
Armor: Belt: 1–3 in (25–76 mm)
Deck: 1 in (25 mm)
Casemate: 4 in (102 mm)

CSS Virginia was the first steam-powered ironclad warship of the Confederate States Navy, built during the first year of the American Civil War; she was constructed as a casemate ironclad using the raised and cut down original lower hull and steam engines of the scuttled USS Merrimack. Virginia was one of the participants in the Battle of Hampton Roads, opposing the Union's USS Monitor in March 1862. The battle is chiefly significant in naval history as the first battle between ironclads.

USS Merrimack becomes CSS Virginia

When the Commonwealth of Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, one of the important federal military bases threatened was Gosport Navy Yard (now Norfolk Naval Shipyard) in Portsmouth, Virginia. Accordingly, the order was sent to destroy the base rather than allow it to fall into Confederate hands. Unfortunately for the Union, the execution of these orders was bungled on April 20. The steam frigate USS Merrimack sank in shallow water before she completely burned. When the Confederate government took possession of the fully provisioned yard, the base's new commander, Flag Officer French Forrest, contracted on May 18 to salvage the wreck of the Merrimack. This was completed by May 30, and she was towed into the shipyard's only graving dock, where the burned structures were removed.[1]

The wreck was surveyed and her lower hull and machinery were discovered to be undamaged, so she was selected for conversion into an ironclad by Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Navy, as she was the only large ship with intact engines available to the Confederacy in the Chesapeake Bay area. Preliminary sketch designs were submitted by Lieutenants John Mercer Brooke and John L. Porter, each of whom envisaged the ship as a casemate ironclad. Brooke's general design showed the bow and stern portions submerged, and his design was the one finally selected; the detailed design work would be completed by Porter, as he was a trained naval constructor. Porter had overall responsibility for the conversion,[2] but Brooke was responsible for her iron plate and heavy ordnance, while William P. Williamson, Chief Engineer of the Navy, was responsible for the ship's machinery.[3]

Reconstruction as an ironclad

Cut away view showing the 4 inches (102 mm) of iron armor and 24 inches (610 mm) of wood backing it

The hull's burned timbers were cut down past the vessel's original waterline, with just enough clearance to accommodate her large twin-bladed screw propeller; a new fantail and armored casemate were built atop a new main deck, and a v-shaped cutwater was added to her bow, which attached to the armored casemate. This forward and aft main deck and fantail were designed to stay submerged and were covered in 4-inch-thick (10 cm) iron plate, built up in two layers. The casemate was built up of 24 inches (61 cm) of oak and pine in several layers, topped with two 2-inch (51 mm) layers of iron plating oriented perpendicular to each other, and angled at 36 degrees from horizontal to deflect enemy fired projectiles.

From reports in Northern newspapers, Virginia's designers were aware of the Union plans to build an ironclad and assumed their similar ordinance would be unable to do much serious harm to such an armored ship. So the decision was made to equip their ironclad with a ram, an anachronism on a 19th century warship.[4] Merrimack's steam engines, now part of Virginia, were in poor working order; they had been slated for replacement when the decision was made to abandon the Norfolk naval yard. The salty Elizabeth River water and the addition of tons of iron armor and pig iron ballast (added to the hull's unused spaces to submerge her eves) only added to her engines' propulsion problems. As completed, Virginia had a turning radius of about 1 mile (1.6 km) and required 45 minutes to complete a full circle, which would later prove to be a major handicap in battle with the far more nimble Monitor.[5]

The ironclad's casemate had 14 gun ports, three each in the bow and stern, one firing directly along the ship's centerline, the two others angled at 45° from the center line; these six bow and stern gun ports had exterior iron shutters installed to project their cannon. There were four gun ports on each broadside; their protective iron shutters remained uninstalled during both days of the Battle of Hampton Roads. Virginia's battery consisted of four muzzle-loading single-banded Brooke rifles and six smoothbore 9-inch (229 mm) Dahlgren guns salvaged from the old Merrimack. Two of the rifles, the bow and stern pivot guns, were 7-inch (178 mm) caliber and weighed 14,500 pounds (6,600 kg) each. They fired a 104-pound (47 kg) shell. The other two were 6.4-inch (163 mm) cannon of about 9,100 pounds (4,100 kg),[6] one on each broadside. The 9-inch Dahlgrens were mounted three to a side; each weighed approximately 9,200 pounds (4,200 kg) and could fire a 72.5-pound (32.9 kg) shell up to a range of 3,357 yards (3,070 m) at an elevation of 15°.[7] The two amidship Dahlgrens nearest the boiler furnaces were fitted-out to fire heated shot. On her upper casemate deck were two anti-boarding 12-pounder Howitzers.

The Virginia's commanding officer, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, arrived to take command only a few days before her first sortie; the ironclad was placed in commission and equipped by her executive officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones.

Battle of Hampton Roads

Chromolithograph depicting the Battle of Hampton Roads

The Battle of Hampton Roads began on March 8, 1862, when Virginia engaged the blockading Union fleet. Despite an all-out effort to complete her, the new ironclad still had workmen on board when she sailed into Hampton Roads with her flotilla of five support ships Raleigh and Beaufort, Patrick Henry, Jamestown, and Teaser.

The first Union ship to be engaged by the Virginia was the all-wood, sail-powered USS Cumberland, which was first crippled during a furious cannon exchange, and then rammed in her forward starboard bow by Virginia. As Cumberland began to sink, Virginia's iron ram was broken off, causing a bow leak. Seeing what had happened to Cumberland, the captain of USS Congress ordered his frigate into shallower water, where she soon grounded. Congress and Virginia traded cannon fire for an hour, after which the badly-damaged Congress finally surrendered. While the surviving crewmen of Congress were being ferried off the ship, a Union battery on the north shore opened fire on Virginia. Outraged at such a breach of war protocol, in retaliation Virginia's captain, Commodore Franklin Buchanan gave the order to fire on the already surrendered Congress with hot-shot. Congress, set ablaze by the retaliatory shelling, burned for many hours into the night, a symbol of Confederate naval power and a costly wake-up call for the all-wood Union blockading squadron.

Virginia did not emerge from the battle unscathed, however: Her bow was leaking from the loss of her ram; shot from Cumberland, Congress, and the shore-based Union batteries had riddled her smokestack, reducing her already slow speed; two of her heavy cannon were put out of commission by shell hits; a number of her armor plates had been loosened; both of Virginia's 22-foot (6.7 m) cutters had been shot away, as had both of her upper deck anti-boarding Howitzers and most of the deck stanchions and railings. Even so, the now injured Buchanan ordered an attack on USS Minnesota, which had run aground on a sandbar trying to escape Virginia. However, because of the ironclad's 22-foot (6.7 m) draft, she was unable to get close enough to the grounded frigate to do any significant damage. It being late in the day, Virginia retired from the conflict with the expectation of returning the next day and completing the destruction of the remaining Union blockaders.

Later that night, USS Monitor arrived at Union-held Fort Monroe. She had been rushed to Hampton Roads, still not quite complete, all the way from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in hopes of defending the force of wooden ships and preventing "the rebel monster" from further threatening the Union's blockading fleet and nearby cities, like Washington, D.C. While being towed south, she almost foundered twice in heavy storms on the way to Hampton Roads. She still had workmen aboard when she arrived by the bright firelight from the still-burning triumph of Virginia's first day of handiwork.

The next day, on March 9, 1862, the world's first battle between ironclads took place. The smaller, nimbler, and faster Monitor was able to outmaneuver the larger, slower Virginia, but neither ship proved able to do any severe damage to the other, despite numerous shell hits by both combatants, many fired at virtually point-blank range. Monitor had a much lower freeboard and only its single, rotating, two-cannon gun turret and forward pilothouse sitting above her deck, and thus was much harder to hit with Virginia's heavy cannon. After hours of shell exchanges, Monitor finally retreated into shallower water after a direct shell hit to her armored pilothouse forced her away from the conflict to assess the damage. The captain of the Monitor, Lieutenant John L. Worden, had taken a direct gunpowder explosion to his face and eyes, blinding him, while looking through the pilothouse's narrow, horizontal viewing slits. The Monitor remained in the shallows, but it already being late in the day Virginia steamed for her home port, the battle ending in a draw without a clear victor: The captain of Virginia that day, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, received advice from his pilots to depart over the sandbar toward Norfolk until the next day. Lieutenant Jones wanted to continue the fight, but the pilots emphasized that the Virginia had "nearly three miles to run to the bar" and that she could not remain and "take the ground on a falling tide." To prevent running aground, Lieutenant Jones reluctantly moved the ironclad back toward port.[8] The Virginia retired to the Gosport Naval Yard at Portsmouth, Virginia, and remained in drydock for repairs until April 4, 1862.

In the following month, the crew of the Virginia were unsuccessful in their attempts to break the Union blockade. The blockade had been bolstered by the hastily ram-fitted SS Vanderbilt,[9] and SS Illinois as well as the SS Arago and USS Minnesota, which had been repaired. The Virginia made several sorties back over to Hampton Roads hoping to draw Monitor into battle. Monitor, however, was under strict orders not to re-engage; the two combatants would never battle again.

On April 11, the Confederate Navy sent Lieutenant Joseph Nicholson Barney in command of the side-paddle CSS Jamestown, along with the Virginia and five other ships in full view of the Union squadron, enticing them to fight.[10] When it became clear that the US Navy ships were unwilling to fight, the CS Navy squadron moved in and captured three merchant ships, the brigs Marcus and Sabout and the schooner Catherine T. Dix. Their flags were then hoisted "Union-side down" to further taunt the Union Navy into a fight, as they were towed back to Norfolk, with the help of the CSS Raleigh.

By late April the new Union ironclads USRC E. A. Stevens and USS Galena had also joined the blockade. On May 8, 1862, Virginia and the James River Squadron ventured out when the Union ships began shelling the Confederate fortifications near Norfolk; but the Union ships retired under the shore batteries on the north side of the James River and on Rip Raps island.

See also: Blockade runners of the American Civil War

Destruction of the CSS Virginia

Print: Destruction of the rebel vessel "Merrimac" off Crany Island; published by Currier and Ives

Destruction of the rebel vessel Merrimac off Craney Island, May 11, 1862, by Currier and Ives

On May 10, 1862, advancing Union troops occupied Norfolk. Since Virginia was a steam-powered battery and not an ocean-going cruiser, she was not seaworthy enough to enter the Atlantic, even if she were able to pass the Union blockade. Virginia was also unable to retreat further up the James River due to her deep 22-foot (6.7 m) draft. In an attempt to reduce her draft, supplies and coal were dumped overboard, even though this exposed the ironclad's unarmored lower hull, but was still not enough to reduce her draft. Without a home port and no place to go, Virginia's new captain, flag officer Josiah Tattnall, reluctantly ordered her destruction in order to keep her from being captured. This task fell to Lieutenant Jones, the last man to leave Virginia after her cannon had been safely removed and carried to the Confederate Marine Corps base and fortifications at Drewry's Bluff. Early on the morning of May 11, 1862, off Craney Island, fire and powder trails reached the ironclad's magazine and she was destroyed by a great explosion. Virginia's thirteen-star Stars and Bars battle ensign was saved from destruction and today resides in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society, minus three of its original stars.

Monitor was lost on December 31 of the same year, when the vessel was swamped by high waves in a violent storm while under tow by the tug USS Rhode Island off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Sixteen of her 62 member crew were either lost overboard or went down with the ironclad, while many others were saved by lifeboats sent from Rhode Island. Subsequently, in August 1973, the wreckage of the Monitor was located on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean about 16 nautical miles (30 km; 18 mi) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, with the remains of two of her crew retrieved and were buried on March 8, 2013 at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Historical names: Merrimack, Virginia, Merrimac

The name of the warship which served the Confederacy in the Battle of Hampton Roads has become a source of confusion, which continues to the present day.

When she was first commissioned into the United States Navy in 1856, her name was Merrimack, with the K; the name derived from the Merrimack River near where she was built. She was the second ship of the U. S. Navy to be named for the Merrimack River, which is formed by the junction of the Pemigewasset and Winnipesaukee rivers at Franklin, New Hampshire. The Merrimack flows south across New Hampshire, then eastward across northeastern Massachusetts before finally emptying in the Atlantic at Newburyport, Massachusetts.

The Confederacy bestowed the name Virginia on her when commissioned, following her raising, restoration, and outfitting as an ironclad warship. But the Union continued to refer to the Confederate ironclad by either its original name, Merrimack, or by the nickname "The Rebel Monster;" perhaps because the Union won the Civil War, the history of the United States generally records the Union's version of events. In the aftermath of the Battle of Hampton Roads, the names Virginia and Merrimack were used interchangeably by both sides, as attested to by various newspapers and correspondence of the day. Navy reports and pre-1900 historians frequently misspelled the name as "Merrimac", which is actually an unrelated ship.[11] Hence "the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac". Both spellings are still in use in the Hampton Roads area.

Memorial, heritage

  • Reports at the time said the most popular exhibit at the Jamestown Exposition held in 1907 at Sewell's Point was the "Battle of the Merrimac and Monitor," a large diorama that was housed in a special building.[citation needed]
  • The small community in Montgomery County, Virginia, near where the coal burned by the Confederate ironclad was mined, is now known as Merrimac.
  • The October 8, 1867, issue of the Norfolk Virginian newspaper carried a prominent classified advertisement in the paper's "Private Sales" section for the salvaged iron ram of the CSS Virginia. The ad states:

"A RELIC OF WAR FOR SALE: The undersigned has had several offers for the IRON PROW! of the first iron-clad ever built, the celebrated Ram and Iron Clad Virginia, formerly the Merrimac. This immense RELIC WEIGHS 1,340 POUNDS, wrought iron, and as a sovereign of the war, and an object of interest as a revolution in naval warefare, would suit a Museum, State Institute, or some great public resort. Those desiring to purchase will please address D. A. UNDERDOWN, Wrecker, care of Virginian Office, Norfolk, Va."

It is unclear from the above whether this was the first iron ram that broke off and lodged in the starboard bow of the sinking USS Cumberland, during the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, or was the second iron ram affixed to Virginia's bow at the time she was run aground and destroyed to avoid capture by Union forces; no further mention has been found concerning the final disposition of this historic artifact.

Anchor of the CSS Virginia at the Museum of the Confederacy