CSS Virginia (nee USS Merrimack) Scuttled to Prevent Its Capture
"Destruction of the Rebel Monster 'Merrimac' off Craney Island, May 11th, 1862"
Colored lithograph by Currier & Ives (1862)
(Unless specified, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)
Today in Military History: May 11, 1862
Today' history lesson involves one of America' first ironclad vessels. It fought its one and only battle in March of 1862, and participated in the world' first battle of ironclad ships.
"U.S. Auxiliary Steam Frigate Merrimack" lithograph, drawing by G.G. Pook
(Photograph from Wikipedia, courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center)
Launched in June 1855, the USS Merrimack was one of a class of six screw frigates commissioned by the U.S. Navy. The ship, as were the other members of her class, was named for American rivers – the Merrimack River flows through New Hampshire into Massachusetts.
After its commissioning in 1856, it had an unremarkable four-year career, and was de-commissioned in February 1860. It was put into ordinary (essentially mothballed for repairs or refitting) at the Gosport Navy Yard (now Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, VA) and remained there until April of the next year. As the secession crisis burned hotter, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles sought to have the vessel prepared for re-commissioning to aid the U.S. Navy. However, events overtook the ship. On April 20, two days after Virginia approved articles of secession, orders were given to destroy the naval base rather than let it fall into Confederate hands. Many of the ships in the base were set on fire, hoping that would be sufficient to destroy the trapped vessels (the Confederates had sunk several lightships in the channel, blocking Merrimack' escape).
"'Merrimac' [sic]: Destroyed at the Burning of the Norfolk Navy Yard, April 19 [sic], 1861"
Halftone reproduction (1906) (Photo from Wikipedia, courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center)
However, the Merrimack was not completely destroyed; it merely burned to its waterline and sank in the shallow water. As soon as Confederate forces took over Gosport, a plan was hatched to convert the Merrimack into an ironclad vessel to break the Union blockadge. From May 1861 to early March 1862, the vessel was refitted and rebuilt. The ship' steam engines were salvaged, and much of the burnt areas above decks were cut away. A new upper deck was constructed, which included 24 inches of oak and pine boards, and two 2-inch thick iron plating. It even had an iron ram on its bow (shades of ancient Greece and Rome).The newly-reconstructed ship was re-christened the CSS Virginia on February 17, 1862.
Still more work was necessary on the Virginia, but in early March of 1862, it was ordered to attack the Union blockading squadron at Hampton Roads. Even as it was steaming to its first battle, there were laborers still on board, working frantically to finish outfitting the vessel.
"The Monitor and Merrimac [sic]: The First Fight Between Ironclads"
Chromolithograph by Louis Prang & Co., Boston (1886)
On March 8, 1862 the CSS Virginia attacked Union naval vessels, sinking two of them the first day. Returning the next day, the Confederates were confronted by the first Federal ironclad, the USS Monitor. The resulting 4-hour battle went down in world history as the first battle between two ironclad vessels. However, each ship' armor was nearly impenetrable. The Virginia sustained damage to its smokestack, lost two of its cutters (lifeboats), several of her iron plates were loosened, two of its main guns and two upper-deck anti-boarding howitzers were put out of action by the Union "cheesebox on a raft." Finally, around noon the Virginia withdrew from the fight, probably because low tide was approaching. The battle of Hampton Roads ended in a draw.
Over the next two months, the Virginia sailed out to challenge the Monitor to continue the fight. However, Union naval vessels refused to take on "the Rebel Monster" as it was dubbed. Its death knell was sounded on May 10, when Union troops occupied Norfolk, VA the ship' port. Virginia was not seaworthy enough to break the Union blockade, and its deep draft would not allow her to retreat further up the James River. The crew threw overboard much of the coal, and even some of the guns, but only succeeded in exposing some of the unarmored section of the vessel. Therefore, the decision was made to scuttle the ship a second time.
Early on the morning of May 11, the Virginia' armament was removed, and the ship was sailed out and grounded just off Craney Island. One of the ship' officers set powder trails to explode the magazine. Its 13-star Confederate flag still flying, the Virginia exploded and sank.
Footnote #1: Since its destruction, various small pieces of the Virginia have been recovered and made into various tokens, medals, watch fobs and other items. Other pieces of the Virginia reside at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News and at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, VA. At the latter, one Virginia' anchors has been on display on its front lawn.
Footnote #2: A classified advertisement appeared in the October 8, 1867 issue of the Norfolk Virginian newspaper. Some individual sought to sell to "a Museum, State Institute, or some great public resort" the 1,340 pound ram of the Virginia. The ad did not say if this was the original ram torn off when the Virginia rammed a Union vessel on March 8, 1862, or its replacement. The final disposition of this historic artifact is unknown.
Footnote #3: The Virginia' ensign – with three stars missing – was saved and now resides in the collection of the Chicago History Museum, formerly the Chicago Historical Society.