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CSS Virginia

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 . Virginia was one of the participants in the Battle of Hampton Roads, opposing the Union's 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 yard, the base 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 moved 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 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 design showed the ends of the ship as submerged and was selected, although detailed design work would be done 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 armament, 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 of iron armor and 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 the 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 iron plate, built up in two layers. The casemate was built up of of oak and pine in several layers, topped with two layers of iron plating oriented perpendicular to each other, and angled at 36 degrees from horizontal to deflect enemy ordnance strikes.

Virginias designers had heard of the North's plans to build an ironclad, and figuring her cannon would be unable to harm such a ship, they equipped their ironclad with a ram—at that time an anachronism on a 19th century warship.[4] Merrimacks steam engines, now part of Virginia, were in poor working order (the ship had been slated for an engine rebuild prior to the decision to abandon the Norfolk naval yard), and the salty Elizabeth River water and addition of tons of iron armor and ballast did not improve the situation. As completed, Virginia had a turning radius of about and required 45 minutes to complete a full circle, which was a major handicap in its 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 centerline. There were four gunports on each broadside. Their battery consisted of four muzzle-loading single-banded Brooke rifles and six smoothbore Dahlgren guns salvaged from the old Merrimack. Two of the rifles, the bow and stern pivot guns, were caliber and weighed each. They fired a shell. The other two were cannon of about ,[6] one on each broadside. The 9-inch Dahlgrens were mounted three to a side; each weighed approximately and could fire a shell up to a range of at an elevation of 15 .[7] The two amidship Dahlgrens nearest the boiler furnaces were fitted-out to fire heated shot. The Virginias 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 engaged, the all-wood and sail-powered USS Cumberland, was sunk after a furious cannon exchange, after which she was rammed in her forward starboard bow by Virginia. As Cumberland began to sink, Virginias 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 Virginias captain, Commodore Franklin Buchanan, gave the order to open fire with hot-shot on the surrendered Congress, setting her ablaze; the frigate burned for many hours, well 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 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, and a number of her armor plates had been loosened. Both of Virginias 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 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 Virginias 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 turret and forward pilothouse sitting above her deck, and thus was much harder to hit with Virginias 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.

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

Destruction of the CSS Virginia

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 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, Virginias 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 all of her guns 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 her magazine and she was destroyed by a great explosion. Her 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. Some of her crew went down with the ironclad, but many others were saved by lifeboats sent from Rhode Island.

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 Unions 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.
  • 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 Virginias 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.
  • Other pieces of Virginia did survive and are on display at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News and the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, where one of her anchors has resided on its front lawn for many years.
  • In 1907, an armor plate from the ship was melted down and used in the casting of the Pokahuntas Bell for the Jamestown Exposition.[12]
  • Starting around 1883, numerous souvenirs, made from recently salvaged iron and wood raised from Virginias sunken hulk, found a ready and willing market among eastern seaboard residents who remembered the historic first battle between ironclads. Various tokens, medals, medalets, sectional watch fobs, and other similar metal keepsakes are known to have been struck by private mints in limited quantities. Known examples still exist today, being held in both public and private collections, rarely coming up for public auction. Nine examples made from Virginias iron and copper can be found cataloged in great detail, with front and back photos, in David Schenkman's 1979 numismatic booklet listed in the Reference section (below).
  • The name of the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, built in Hampton Roads in the general vicinity of the famous engagement, with both Virginia and federal funds, also reflects the more recent version.

See also

  • Norfolk Naval Shipyard
  • USS Merrimack (1855)



  • Park, Carl D., Ironclad Down, USS Merrimack-CSS Virginia, From Construction to Destruction, Annapolis Maryland, U. S. Naval Institute Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1-59114-659-9.
  • Potter, E. B., editor, Sea Power: A Naval Tradition, 2nd Edition, Annapolis, Maryland, U. S. Naval Institute Press, 1981. ISBN 0-87021-607-4.
  • Quarstein, John V. (2000). C.S.S. Virginia, Mistress of Hampton Roads, self-published for the Virginia Civil War Battles and Leaders Series. ISBN 1-56190-118-0
  • Schenkman, David, (1979). Tokens & Medals Commemorating the Battle Between the Monitor and Merrimac (sic), Hampton, Virginia, 28-page booklet (the second in a series of Special Articles on the Numismatics of The Commonwealth of Virginia), Virginia Numismatic Association. No ISSN or ISBN.
  • Thomas, Campbell R., and Flanders, Alan B., Confederate Phoenix, The CSS Virginia, Burd Street Press, 2001. ISBN 978-1-57249-201-1.

Further reading

  • deKay, James, Monitor, Ballantine Books, New York, New York, 1997.
  • Besse, Sumner B., C. S. Ironclad Virginia and U. S. Ironclad Monitor, Newport News, Virginia, The Mariner's Museum, 1978. ISBN 0-917376-32-3.
  • Nelson, James L., The Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack. New York, NY, HarperCollins Publishers, 2004. ISBN 0-06-052403-0.
  • Smith, Gene A., Iron and Heavy Guns, Duel Between the Monitor and Merrimac (sic), Abilene, Texas, McWhiney Foundation Press, 1998. ISBN 1-86666-115-4 .

External links

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