CSS Virginia (USS Merrimack) Casemate Screw Ironclad Ram Warship
The CSS Virginia brought forth a new way of waging war on the high seas - the age of the ironclad.
Authored By JR Potts, AUS 173d AB; Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com
CSS Virginia was a 4,500-ton steam screw propelled ironclad ram warship of 12 guns. She was rebuilt in 1862 by the Confederate States Navy from the scuttled hulk of the USS Merrimack during the "War Between the States" - the American Civil War. She proved quite a handful to Union Forces but was eventually set ablaze by her Southern owners when her home port was captured by Northern troops.
The USS Merrimack
The Merrimack herself was a wooden frigate steam warship fitted with three masts, each rigged for sailing. She was some 275-feet long and her beam measured in at 38 feet, 6 inches. It was expected by the US Navy that sail would be the primary means of propelling the Merrimack and her steam engines would provide the necessary power when the winds would not cooperate. In 1855, the Merrimack was launched with 40 new 8- and 10-inch caliber cannons to help keep her viable in the age of steam ships. The secondary propulsion system, the steam plant, was designed by West Point graduate Robert Parrott, who happened to be the administrator of the West Point foundry. The two boilers were designed by Daniel B. Martin, an engineer-in-chief, of the burgeoning United States Navy. The engine had many initial problems - the boilers would overheat and the steam values were not wholly reliable - causing many shutdowns and forcing the crew to rely on the sail to propel the ship. The ships trim was affected when sail was used instead of steam and the unused propeller caused unnecessary drag. The solution became a brass devise called a "banjo" that allowed the propeller to be lifted out of the water, thusly reducing drag when the sails were unfurled.
North Versus South
On April 12th, 1861, the American Civil War started when Southern forces fired upon Fort Sumter in South Carolina. On April 14th, after shelling by a much superior force, Fort Sumter finally surrendered to the Confederates. However, Southerners were short of virtually every type of military war material when compared to the Union forces they would be facing. To make matters worse, some 70% of all factories were in North territory, especially those marked to produce war materials.
Eight days later, a military strike by the rebels was made against the Gosport Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia (now the Norfolk Naval Shipyard). Gosport was then the largest Union military port on the East Coast of America and was a treasure trove of materials that the hard pressed South so desperately needed to continue their planned offensives. More than 3,000 cannon of mixed calibers and a stone dry dock awaited the victor.
The USS Cumberland received unclear orders from Washington to move out of Gosport harbor and take USS Merrimack north to protected waters. The orders also indicated that the port should be torched to prevent Federal ships and equipment from falling into the hands of the Virginia militia. The Commonwealth of Virginia moved quickly to take the port. Federal troops started retreating and burning ships as they went. Among the lot was the Merrimack. However, she was to sink before being completely burned beyond usefulness. The plans to destroy the yard had failed by the time the Confederate government took possession - all this without firing a single shot on their part.
The South knew they could not compete with the North in terms of quantity of surface vessels currently blockading her territory. The blockade ran from Hampton Roads in Virginia, around Florida to Texas, and into the Gulf of Mexico. Stephen Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate Navy, was aware of the need for new navy ironclads to counter the wooden wall of ships posed by the Federal Navy. The three best designers in the Confederacy were John Porter - a naval ship builder - John Brooke, an ordinance expert - and William Williamson - a naval engineer. Each man reviewed the remains of the hulk that was the Merrimack.
Rebirth of the Merrimack
After many meetings on the vessel, it was agreed to that she was underpowered for the required task and her distinct shape made her quite the cumbersome vessel. However, the three experts knew the South had limited manufacturing capabilities and Southern foundries were not technically up speed on developing an all-new modern ironclad design. Based on the Porter Report, the Merrimack hull was selected to be rebuilt as a modernized ironclad with the Confederate government agreeing to fund the project with $172,523. This hefty sum was a sizeable portion of the entire budget of the Confederate Navy. The reborn vessel would be christened the "CSS Virgina" in honor of her new owners.
The CSS Virginia
The South started work on the Virginia on June 11th, 1861, and she launched some eight months later on February 17th, 1862. The Confederate Navy assigned Captain French Forrest to oversee the construction of the new ship. The basic design of ironclads produced by the South relied on a wooden casemate with rounded ends erected on top of an existing hull. After covering the casement with iron plate, it gave the vessel the appearance of an upturned bath tub. Moving the iron plate from Richmond to the Gosport Shipyard to construct the Virginia proved an impossibility due to the North's naval blockade. 725 tons of rolled iron plates, each 10 feet long, 8 inches wide and 2 inches thick were constructed shipped to the yard via rail.
The burned hull timbers were cut down to the waterline, and a new deck and armored casemate was added. Like the mythical phoenix, Virginia would rise from the ashes. The wooden deck was replaced by 4-inch (102mm) thick iron plates. The casemate was built with 24-inch oak and pine set in multiple layers covered over by a 2x2 inch (51mm) layer of iron plating. The plating was set perpendicular to each other in an effort to affect ballistics of an incoming cannon ball - the angled surface promoted deflection. The new battery used in the Virginia consisted of 6x9-inch (229mm) Dahlgren smoothbore shell guns. 2x7-inch (178mm) rifles were mounted on bow and stern pivots, each weighting in at 14,500 pounds. The 2x6.4-inch (32-lb caliber) weighted 9,000 pounds each and were positioned along the port and starboard sides for firing broadside vollies. The 2x12-pounder (5kg) guns were placed on each side nearest the furnaces. The Virginia's designers added a 2 foot long iron ram to the bow that weighted 1,500 lbs and was 2-feet below the surface of the water - a throwback to the art of ancient warfare before there were cannons. The general thought behind this practice during the construction of the Virginia was that if she were to go head-to-head with another ironclad, her cannon might prove ineffective. As a secondary measure, the crew could count on the ram hidden below the water line to become the deciding factor in a close-in fight.
Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan had assisted in the creation of the US Naval Academy and resigned from the US Navy when he thought his home state Maryland was going to secede from the Union. Maryland stayed in the Union but Buchanan had offered his services to the Confederacy. After helping to create the southern navy, he was promoted to Admiral of the Virginian Naval forces. Buchanan decided to take the CSS Virginia as his flag ship. Even before the Virginia was completed a plan was devised to move her out of dock to attack the U.S. Navy ships blockading the port at Hampton Roads. Interior finishing work was not completed like gun ports shutters had not been fitted while shipboard stores were limited to just two days. The rudder needed still needed work and Buchanan felt it would take at least 30 minutes for his vessel to make a 180-degree turn. The engine proved childishly finicky and ventilation inside the crew compartment was poor - at times the temperature inside the craft reached an uncomfortable 90 F degrees. However, she was a powerful warship through and through - a new breed unto herself - and seen by the South to match up well against the Union ships at Hampton Roads.
The Battle day one: Saturday March 08, 1862
On March 4th, 1862, Buchanan considered how best to use his Virginia. She drew 22 feet and the waters of the Elizabeth River and Hampton Roads were a maze of shallows and narrow channels. Virginia needed a wide turning radius and the Union land fortifications had shallow waters close to the forts of Newport News and Fort Monroe, making bombardment risky and running aground probable. However, Virginia still could steam in much of Hampton Roads Bay to challenge the Union ships in the blockade. Executive Officer Lt. Jones requested to delay the sailing a day or two so he could have the casements greased and the stores and powder stored properly as they had only recently arrived. Admiral Buchanan agreed and the Elizabeth River pilot was notified that the sortie to Hampton Roads would be made on Saturday, March 8th, 1862. After a slow start that morning, CSS Virginia moved from away from her dock side by 11:00AM
As the Virginia steamed down the river with two tugs in tow - CSS Raleigh and CSS Beaufort - the surrounding inhabitants saw her smoke rising from the Elizabeth River. This was essentially her maiden voyage and her guns had never even been fired. Much of her crew felt the sortie would be an utter failure. Her tugs would not take part in the battle directly but could be called to assist the Virginia if need be.
Virginia was ten miles from the dock at Gosport to Hampton Roads, Virginia. She made 5 knots but with the river current with her, she steamed at 7 knots - the fastest speed she would ever make during her tenure. To the casual observer, the Virginia seemingly glided effortlessly and noiselessly along the glassy surface of the river but, on board, her steering was acting erratically, keeping Chief Engineering Officer Lt. Ramsay busy. Buchanan's mind was on the USS Cumberland, only recently bestowed with new and powerful rifled guns - though in fact she had only been given one. Buchanan's decision was to immediately head for the USS Cumberland off Newport News and ram her. During the 90-minute voyage, thousands lined the river bank in support of her actions and cheered the Virginia crew. Onboard, Admiral Buchanan understood the importance of the battle if Virginia could break the blockade. Such an action could bring along the material and political support of England or France on the side of the Confederacy in the war.
Saturday was wash day in the Union Navy and laundry hung along all over the ship's rigging. The Union blockade had 60 Union ships total of all types at Hampton Roads that morning - ferries, supply ships, repair ships, tugs, transports, tenders with five vessels being sailing warships alongside a few gun boats. As Virginia left the river and entered the bay, she steamed towards the 44-gun frigate USS Congress and the 24-gun Sloop-of-War, the USS Cumberland. Buchanan gave the order to beat to quarters and prepare for action. When Virginia appeared off Sewell Point, the Union Navy was caught off-guard and, at 12:45PM, USS Cumberland officer Lt Tom Selfridge spotted a large object in the distance belching smoke. The word was signaled that it seemed the Merrimack had reappeared as the Union Navy did not yet know the vessel's name had been changed to the Virginia. Buchanan was on the upper deck and could see the Union ships were making steam and sail due to her presence - the USS Minnesota made steam and the USS Congress and USS Cumberland raised sail and made ready for battle while the Virginia steamed ever closer.
At 2:00PM, the Congress was 500 yards away and the gunners could see the Virginia's gun ports and opened fire with solid shot. The volley bounced off of the Virginia without any substantial damage to the structure or injury to the crew. At about 2:20pm, Virginia opened fire with her forward gun on the USS Congress and killed or wounded at least a dozen Union sailors. Soon the frigate herself fired a full 20-gun broadside against the Virginia. Cumberland Captain Smith watched the action and recorded his volley to have "bounced off the ironclad like rubber balls". Virginia replied with a broadside of her own around 300 yards out from the Congress. The shells killed or wounded most of the gun crew with shot and wood splinters making the gun deck a slaughterhouse of sorts. The paymaster onboard the Congress was the brother of Admiral Buchanan and neither was aware the other was in the battle. All onboard felt the Virginia would give the Congress another broadside but she continued past without additional firing. The Congress was burning but the crew was fighting the fires and Captain Smith felt his ship might sink so he had the tug Zouave come along side to provide aid. She ran aground in 17 feet of water watching the Virginia approach the Cumberland.
Around 3:00PM, the Virginia was on a ramming course for Cumberland's amidships. Cumberland opened fire with a broadside of 9-inch smoothbore shot at the Virginia who herself returned fire with her bow guns and acted her stern battery towards the Northern shore batteries on Newport News Point. The cannon of the Cumberland and the shelling from Newport News rained heavy fire on the Virginia but caused minimal damage to her davits and rails. The firefight lasted about twenty minutes and the shore battery could see their solid shot ricochet off of the Virginia's casement. Buchanan was able to rake the Cumberland with accurate fire as she swung on her chain trying a turn to present a new broadside. Onboard Cumberland, the carnage, blood and body parts were everywhere with more casualties caused from large splinters. Buchanan ordered Lt. Ramsay to disengage the engine and subsequently commanded all to "Hang On!" as the Virginia pierced the Cumberland with her 1,500lb bow ram. Though the ram was now buried deep inside the sloop, the Cumberland continued to fire on the Virginia. The wounded men below decks knew they were trapped as the Virginia backed out. The ram had broken off inside of the sloop and water began to rush inwards, drowning the fallen wounded. Buchanan gave the order to ram her again to make the hole even larger. As Virginia pulled out of the Cumberland for the second time, Cumberland fired broadside-after-broadside into the Virginia, destroying two of the her smoothbore cannons and killing three of the gun crew while wounding twelve. As the smoke cleared, the crew of the Cumberland saw their shells had done little direct structural damage the Virginia - their realization was such that they became one of the first sailors to know that wood could not stand against iron from this moment onwards.
Onboard the Cumberland, the order was given to abandon ship - every man for himself - their duty was officially over. Lt. Selfridge was the last to go over the side and the sloop sank quickly with her masts above water and her "Stars and Stripes" still aloft and blowing in the wind at 3:30pm. To continue the battle, Virginia had to complete a 180-degree turn to now face the Union fleet. This turn alone took about 30 minutes. During that time, her crews continued to fire at the Union shore, destroying General Mansfield's headquarters and dock installations. The focus of all union ships and shore batteries was now squarely directed on the Virginia, allowing the James River squadron to steam past the federal guns at Newport News.
The USS Minnesota ran aground trying to aid the Cumberland and placing herself in jeopardy. Virginia, having now completed her turn, approached Congress and, at around 4:00PM, fired a broadside into her stern. Onboard, Congress Captain Smith was killed by a large wood splinter to his head and men lay dying all over the ship. After continuous firing, the Congress surrendered around 5:00pm, hoisting up the white flag. Virginia ceased fire and had tugs come along side to take the crew as prisoners and burn the ship where it rested.
Onshore, General Mansfield did not honor the surrender of USS Congress and gave orders to fire on the Confederate tugs. The tugs withdrew under the ensuing heavy fire, leaving the wounded crew onboard the Congress. Buchanan had witnessed the shore opening fire and ordered Virginia to again fire on the Congress with hot shot to set her ablaze. Watching the action, Buchanan was struck by a musket ball in the groin and was taken to safety below deck - Lt. Jones took over his command. It could be seen that the Congress was now completely ablaze - fire and men were jumping overboard while many wounded were left onboard to die. Paymaster Buchanan was unhurt and swam to shore.
Virginia moved towards the grounded USS Minnesota and the USS St. Lawrence. Virginia fired at both ships and damaged the St. Lawrence at a distance of 900 yards. As darkness closed in and with the tide going out, Virginia was forced to disengage from the battle and return to the mouth of the Elisabeth River to anchor there for the night. On this day, the Virginia was the most powerful warship in the world and proved the day of wooded sailing warships was over - for the moment, the Southern Confederacy ruled the sea.
The Battle day two: Sunday March 09, 1862
Early Sunday morning, acting Captain Lt. Jones inspected Virginia before steaming into the bay against the USS Minnesota. He counted about 100 cannon ball hits to the Virginia caseworks, the railing, sanctions and davits - a small crane had been shot away - the smoke stack was almost severed from the superstructure and she lay leaking from the bow where the ram had been dislodged during her actions with the Cumberland. After the crew had breakfast (which included two shots of whiskey) the Virginia made steam to get underway once more. As dawn broke, both sides scanned the shores looking for the other. In the distance sat the USS Minnesota still aground but beside her was a flat, shingled-shape with a cheese box on top, sans a smoke stack and no visible guns nor sails. Lt. Jones surmised that this must be the USS Monitor - the United States Navy's first commissioned ironclad warship. At 8:00AM, crowds had gathered onshore to witness the day's battle. Captain Van Brunt aboard the Minnesota and saw the Virginia approaching, ordering his crew to battle stations. A mile from the Minnesota, Virginia began firing - though both sides lay claim to have fired first. Just then, the USS Monitor steamed out to meet the CSS Virginia. The clash of the titans was about to begin - the first sea battle between ironclads.
The Virginia had some problems as she entered battle against another ironclad. Firstly, she had chosen to leave behind the majority of her cast iron solid shot because the canister shot, hot shot and exploding shells were the best choice for attacking wooden ships. Secondly, two of her 9-inch smoothbore cannons had been damaged the day before, reducing her overall firepower to an extent. Observers looking at the two ironclads felt the Virginia was the more powerful of the two based on size with the Monitor being the smaller. The two combatants moved to within 100 yards and opened fire. Lt. Jones ordered concentration fire on the Monitor's turret feeling that damage might stop the mechanism from revolving. The Virginia and Monitor fired volley after volley at one another - the smoke was thick making vision poor.
The men on the Minnesota could hear the cannon and see the flashes, knowing full well their fate if the Monitor was sunk. Below decks on the Virginia, the engine crew was as busy as the gun crew above it was; men shoveled coal into the sixteen furnaces that belched heat, smoke, and steam - all this helping to increasing the onboard temperature upwards of 140-degrees. The Virginia continued having trouble turning and the Monitor, at times, seemed the more agile breed, able to maneuver and fire off shots against the Virginia's blind spots. However, both the ships turning in such close quarters with the fog of war added in forced collisions with one another at least five times. Virginia's Brooke rifles fired conical shells weighing 68lbs and put 4-inch dents in the Monitor without having caused much damage to the iron plates. Master Stodder, a crewman on the Monitor operating the turret, leaned against the inside when a shell hit, knocking him off of his feet and supplying a dastardly concussion just from the vibration. After two hours, both ships knew they were not damaging one another. There was little in the way of proper referencing through the smoke other than targeting one another's muzzle flashes.
Ultimately, the Monitor ran out of ammunition on the gun deck and was forced to replenish from storage below decks. Captain Worden disengaged from the Virginia so the crew could go on deck to bring up the powder and shot. The Virginia saw this and started maneuvering towards the USS Minnesota and - once she was two miles away - the pilot ran her aground fearing the Frigate's guns. The Monitor had replenished her ammunition and was chasing Virginia to place itself between her and the Minnesota or to ram her screw. Monitor got below Virginia's guns and fired point blank into her while Virginia tried to free herself from the sand bank. When she did ultimately slip off the bank, Virginia rammed the Monitor and spun the vessel around. The tide was going out and Virginia could not get close to the USS Minnesota any longer so she turned towards Sewell's Point and safety. The Monitor listed back towards the Minnesota and crews from both sides were naturally hailed as heroes.
In four hours of stalemate battle, the Monitor was hit 23 times and the Virginia 20 times. The Confederacy felt they had won the battle with two Northern warships destroyed and two others damaged plus hundreds of Northern sailors killed and wounded. Virginia had only three killed and fifteen wounded. The North felt they had won the battle, however. The Southern population and press railed against the North's claim and Washington sent orders to the Monitor to stay away from the Virginia. The Confederacy felt they controlled more of Hampton Roads than they had before the arrival of the Virginia.
Improvements were therefore made the Virginia, stem to stern, including new iron bolts to hold the plates in place, as well as a new improved ram and the gun ports were finally attached. Her new commander, Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, was assigned to the vessel and, on April 11th, 1862, Virginia steamed down the Elizabeth River to attack Union troop transports at Hampton Roads. When she appeared, the transports ran for cover and the Monitor began to steam up the Chesapeake. This was a ruse to lure Virginia in after the Monitor and surround her in deep water to ultimately bombard her to infinity. Virginia did not take the bait but instead successfully took on three transports and steamed back up the Elizabeth.
The Final Voyage
On May 3rd, 1862, President Lincoln watched the Union fleet move in to fire on the Southern fort at Sewell's Point. Soon after the shelling started, the Virginia steamed out of the Elizabeth River and the Union fleet retreated along with the Monitor. The Union forces had another card up their sleeve by attacking Norfolk with overwhelming force and to threaten Richmond. The Confederate Army had retreated and Northern troops surrounded Sewell Point and were on both sides of the Elizabeth River - CSS Virginia had just lost her base. Virginia then moved up the James River towards Richmond to attack the Northern fleet; however she started to drag bottom due to her deep draft. Lt. Jones had to lighten the ship to keep her off the bottom so iron plate was removed, now making her ever susceptible to Union cannon fire. The decision was made to destroy her so she would not be captured by Union forces. Cannons were removed and the vessel was set on fire. Once her magazine caught, she exploded into history. Her crew made it to shore and felt that their land forces let them down by retreating from the area around Hampton Roads.
Virginia Leaves a World Changed
The fighting legacy of the CSS Virginia was effectively over. In the process, the Virginia and the Monitor had made and all of the navies of the world instantly obsolete. Gone were the days of wooden ships fitted with their fragile sails. Fighting men would now have to find a new home in their iron floating tubs known as ironclads. Needless to say, the actions of these two ships resulted in both the North and South committing to the building of more ironclads.