The CSS Virginia

USS MerrimackThe USS Merrimack The Confederate Naval Department was created by the Provisional Congress of the Confederate States on February 20, 1861. Two and a half months later, on May 5, the former United States Senator from Florida Stephen R. Mallory was confirmed as the Confederate Secretary of the Navy. Mallory faced a daunting task. His new navy, which only existed in a theoretical sense, was responsible for defending 3,500 miles of Southern coastline. Mallory also had to devise a means of breaking the Union blockade of Southern ports, and create a fleet of ships capable of threatening United States maritime commerce on the high seas.

Stephen R MalloryTo accomplish this mission, Mallory had a fleet of ten vessels made up of captured or abandoned United States naval vessels, Revenue cutters and other miscellaneous ships.Stephen R Mallory The creation of the Confederate Navy came at a high point in the development of naval architecture and gunnery. The 1850s had seen the rapid development of steam-powered, screw-propelled iron ships developments that gave the Confederacy the technological potential to build the most modern naval fleet in the world. Stephen Mallory was well aware of the recent advances in warship design. After his election to the Senate in 1851, he had served as a member of the Committee on Naval Affairs, and since 1855, he had been its chairman. Mallory had overseen much of the work that had expanded and modernized the United States Navy and had monitored the advances made by European navies. Unfortunately, Mallory realized that the new Confederate nation lacked the materials, money, facilities, and time to build such a navy from scratch.

Mallory recommended to the congress that agents be sent to Europe to purchase ships and supplies for the new Confederate Navy. He also recommended that the navy develop a fleet of ironclad vessels to break the Union blockade. On May 10, 1861, the Confederate Congress appropriated $2 million to purchase ironclads in Europe. With considerable confidence, Mallory dispatched Lieutenant James North to France with orders to buy the French ironclad Gloire, or, if that proved impossible, to contract for the construction of similar ships. Though Lieutenant North did travel to France, he failed to purchase any ships. Mallory then realized that if the South was to have an ironclad, she would have to build one herself.

Remodeling The Merrimack Remodeling The Merrimack

In the summer of 1861, Mallory met with Lieutenant John Brooke in Richmond, Virginia. A career naval officer in the United States Navy prior to the secession of Virginia, Brooke was now in the Confederate service. Mallory asked Brooke to begin working on a plan outlining the feasibility of constructing an ironclad warship. Brooke quickly drafted a design for a seagoing ironclad battery featuring a raised, armored casemate mounting guns in conventional broadside configuration. The casemate was to be mounted upon a ship's hull with an extended deck on the bow and stern Mallory quickly approved Brooke's design and appointed a naval constructor to oversee its construction. John L. Porter, the naval constructor assigned to the newly captured Gosport Navy Yard, was assigned to the job, and was summoned to Richmond finalize the design.

In late June of 1861, Williamson and Brooke went to the Gosport Yard to search for engines that would be adequate to drive the ironclad. Finding no engines available, Brooke suggested salvaging the machinery from the wreck of the USS Merrimack. Though the former U.S. frigate had been partially burned and sunk by the U.S. Navy, her lower hull and power plant had been salvaged by the Confederates. After conferring further with Porter, Williamson suggested that it might be possible to use both the hull and engines of the Merrimack in building the new ship. Porter agreed that converting the wrecked Union frigate to an ironclad was feasible, and brought the suggestion to Mallory, who approved the conversion. In July 1861, the Confederate Congress appropriated the expenditure of $170,000 to begin the conversion.

John BrookeJohn Brooke Porter, Williams, and Brooke shared the responsibility of completing the conversion. Porter oversaw the actual construction in Gosport, while Williamson overhauled the Merrimack's engines and power systems. Brooke remained in Richmond to oversee the acquisition of armor plate and guns. While the work of cutting away portions of the Merrimack's charred timbers and the construction of a shield deck over the hull moved rapidly in Gosport, the work of obtaining armor plate was more problematic. Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, agreed to provide the iron plate from its roller mills.

Between July and October 1861, Tredegar devoted nearly its entire operation to turning out the 1,000 tons of iron plate needed to cover the ship's casemate.

John L. PorterJohn L. Porter However, the already inadequate Southern railroad system became hopelessly overburdened by the Confederacy's need to mobilize its forces, making the timely delivery of plate to Gosport impossible. Some iron plate shipped from Richmond to Norfolk by rail never arrived at its destination. Other shipments had to be sent on long, circuitous routes leading west out of Richmond to Burkeville, Virginia, then back southeast to Petersburg, Virginia, on southward to Weldon, North Carolina, and finally on to Norfolk, a route that doubled the distance. Problems in obtaining armor plate were multiplied when test firings of guns against the armor layered at a thickness of 3 inches indicated that an additional inch of plate would have to be added to the casemate. Due to these delays, the last of the armor plate was not affixed to the casemate until January 27, 1862. Nevertheless, when the finished ironclad was floated it was discovered that a mistake in calculating the ship's displacement had been made and that she floated too high in the water. The unarmored bow and stern as well as the lower portion of the casemate were all exposed to view. Several thousand tons of pig iron had to be added to the ship as ballast to sink the unprotected hull below the water line.

After nine months of construction, the completed Confederate ironclad, christened the CSS Virginia, was a formidable warship. Her overall length was 270 feet. The entire hull was designed to be submerged below the water line, while the armored casemate remained visible. The armored casemate was protected by 24 inches of oak and pine clad on the outside with 4 inches of iron plate. Her armament was made up of ten guns: three 9-inch smooth-bore Dahlgrens and one 6-inch rifle lined each of her broadsides, and a single pivot-mounted 7-inch Brooke rifle was set in the stern and bow gun ports.

CSS Virginia Plans

CSS Virginia PlansThe Virginia was also fitted with a 1,500-pound iron ram affixed to her bow, enabling her to crush the hulls of opposing ships. Fitting out the Virginia proved time-consuming as well. Shells for her guns were ordered again from Tredegar; powder which was not available at Gosport was supplied by the army, and coal was collected from various points in Hampton Roads. The mustering of a crew was also a problem, for experienced sailors were difficult to find. Because of the massive build-up of the Confederate army in the opening months of the war, nearly all the available seamen were already serving in the land forces.

Catesby apR JonesCatesby AP Jones Several hundred volunteers were recruited from General John B. Magruder's command from the Confederate defensive lines on the Peninsula, and the remaining members of the crew were recruited from commands as far away as Petersburg. Placed in immediate command of the Virginia was Captain Franklin Buchanan. Buchanan's second in command was Lieutenant Catesby AP. Jones, who was now serving aboard the ship for the second time, having been an officer aboard the USS Merrimack while in the United States Navy before the war.

Though the Virginia at the time of her launching was undoubtedly the most formidable ship in Hampton Roads, her design and construction had flaws that would inhibit her effectiveness as a warship. Foremost in her deficiencies was her steam power plant. The Virginia was powered by the engines that had been salvaged from the Merrimack.

Franklin BuchananFranklin Buchanan These engines had been condemned by the U.S. Navy in 1860, and the submersion of the engines in the Elizabeth River for several weeks had not improved them. The added weight of the Virginia's armor and ballast put increased strain on the engines, and reduced the ship's speed to not much more than six miles per hour. Her steering was also extremely sluggish: she required nearly 40 minutes to execute a full turn. The Virginia's slow handling was particularly problematic since her guns were mounted in stationary broadsides: this meant that it was necessary to maneuver the ship to bring her guns to bear on a target.

Nevertheless, for all her design flaws, the Virginia served as the prototype for nearly all 22 Confederate ironclads built during the war. But unlike that of her opponent, the Monitor, the Virginia's design did not leave a lasting legacy in naval architecture.

We're in a race to conserve history! Follow along as artifacts are uncovered and more facts are learned about the Monitor and the men who served aboard!

From the heart breaking accounts of life aboard the ironclads to thrilling descriptions of the battles recounted by those who witnessed them you're sure to learn something new!