After the fall of Norfolk, the Virginia found herself without a home. Her commanding officer, Josiah Tattnall was thus faced with a dilemma. If he attempted to attack the Union fleet, he had some hope of destroying several vessels before being sunk, or worse, captured. He rejected this plan because of the risk of being taken.
Making a run for the open waters of the Bay was impossible because the only channel deep enough for his vessel’s deep draft ran directly between the massive guns of Fortress Monroe and the Rip Raps (now Fort Wool). Though an ironclad, the Virginia could not withstand that withering fire. Some officers reportedly suggested that they abandon her to the enemy, wait for the celebration they knew would come, and sink the ram with the carousing Union sailors on board.
However, the only viable option was to lighten the vessel’s load enough to allow her to pass over the James River bar and thus allow her to steam to Richmond for that city’s defense. Accordingly, all available material was taken off the ship, with the crew working well into the night throwing everything they could overboard. They had succeeded in gaining three feet of draft when the wind abruptly changed around midnight. The Virginia’s pilots opined that the westerly wind would drive the tide out more significantly and the vessel could never get past the bar.
Only one course of action remained. Just as she had been destroyed to keep her from enemy hands a little over a year before, now the vessel faced destruction by her own men once again. At 2 a.m. the call was given for the Virginia crew to “splice the main brace” by drinking a double ration of grog. Then Tattnall ordered the vessel run aground at Craney Island and the men told to evacuate. A small detachment rigged the vessel to explode, and set her ablaze.
Richard Curtis, who had manned one of the Virginia’s guns recalled, “[t]hus the finest fighting ship that ever floated on American waters at that time came to an untimely end at the hands of her friends, with no enemy within 8 or 10 miles of her–a sad finish for such a bright beginning.”
Engineer of the CSS Virginia, Ashton Ramsay, recalled that, “still unconquered we hauled down our drooping colors, their laurels all fresh and green, with mingled pride and grief, gave her to the flames, and set the imminent fires roaring against the shuttled guns. The slow match, the magazine, and that last, deep, low, sullen, mournful boom told our people, now far away on the march, that their gallant ship was no more. Thus perished the Virginia,”
Early in the morning of May 11, 1862, Monitor fireman George Geer recalled that “a very large Explosion took place and nothing could be seen of the Merimack [sic] after it.” The Monitor boys had been robbed of their chance to destroy the Confederate ironclad.
The Monitor steamed up the Elizabeth River towards Norfolk later in the morning. On the way the Monitor crew got their first glimpse of what was left of the Virginia. Several collected souvenirs to send home. Arriving in Portsmouth, they tied up at the Virginia’s old moorings in Gosport, under the curious and quietly hostile eyes of the locals. Lincoln and his retinue steamed past the Monitor, the President doffing his signature hat to the crew and bowing in thanks for their part in the action. After a brief conference, Goldsborough ordered Jeffers back to Hampton Roads and then on to Richmond the next day.
Several of the Virginia‘s boys were headed that way as well…