CSS Virginia

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CSS Virginia
CSS Virginia
Career 50px
Ordered: 1861
Laid down: 1862 (overlay USS Merrimack)
Launched: 8 March 1862
Commissioned: 1862
Fate: scuttled by crew, 11 May 1862
General characteristics
Type: Ironclad Ram
Displacement: approx. 4500[1] tons
Length: 275 ft (84 m)
Beam: 38.6 ft (11.8 m)
Draft: 22 ft (6.7 m)
Speed: 9 knots (17 km/h)
Complement: 320 officers and men
Armament: 2×7 inch (178 mm) rifles
2×6 inch (152 mm) rifles
6×9 inch (229 mm) Dahlgren smoothbores
2×12-pounder (5 kg) howitzers
Armor: Double iron plating; 2 inch (51 mm) thick

CSS Virginia was a steam-powered ironclad warship of the Confederate States Navy during the American Civil War, built as floating battery using the remains of the scuttled USS Merrimack in 1862.[2]

She was one of the participants in the Battle of Hampton Roads in March 1862 opposite the USS Monitor. The battle is chiefly significant in naval history as the first battle between two ironclads.

Ironclads were only a recent innovation, starting with the 1854 steam-powered ironclad battery Lave, which was designed for coastal warfare and had a speed of 4 knots (7.4 km/h), with a crew of 282 men. Throughout the war, the Confederacy built many ironclad steam-powered batteries, and like the CSS Virginia, they were not designed to be ocean cruisers. Due to the success of the CSS Virginia, the CS Navy tried to procure turreted ironclad cruisers, but only succeeded in procuring one ironclad frigate, the CSS Stonewall, which arrived too late to make an impact in the war.

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 Shipyard (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. The steam frigate USS Merrimack sank before she completely burned. When the Confederate government took possession of the yard, the hulk of the Merrimack was raised and moved pierside to clear the main channel of the Elizabeth River of the obstruction. About two months later, Confederate Navy Lieutenants John Brooke and John Porter surveyed the hull and found the running gear satisfactory to base conversion of the hull to an ironclad ram.

File:Mariners Museum 2007 015a.jpg
Cut away view showing the 4 inches (10 cm) of iron armor and 24 inches (61 cm) of wood backing it.

Rebuilt under the supervision of Captain French Forrest, the new ship was named Virginia. The burned hull timbers were cut down to the waterline, and a new deck and armored casemate (fortress) were added. The deck was 4-inch (10 cm) thick iron. The casemate was built up of 24 inches (61 cm) of oak and pine in several layers, topped with two 2-inch (5 cm) layers of iron plating oriented perpendicular to each other, and angled to deflect shot hits. The battery consisted of four single-banded Brooke rifles and six 9-inch (23 cm) Dahlgren smoothbore shell guns. Two of the rifles, bow and stern pivots, were 7-inch (18 cm), of 14,500 pounds; the other two were 6.4-inch (16 cm) (32 pound calibre) of 9000 pounds, one on each broadside. The 9-inch (23 cm) gun on each side nearest the furnaces was fitted for firing hot shot. A few 9-inch (23 cm) shot with extra windage (slightly smaller diameter) were cast for hot shot. No other solid shot were on board during the fight. As Virginia’s designers had heard of plans by the North to build an ironclad, and figuring her guns would be unable to harm such a ship, they equipped her with a ram— at that time an anachronism in a warship[3]. Merrimack's engines, now part of Virginia, had not been in good working order, and the salty Elizabeth River water and addition of tons of iron armor and ballast did not improve the situation.

The commanding officer, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, arrived to take command only a few days before sailing. The ship was placed in commission and equipped by the executive officer, Catesby ap R. Jones.

Battle of Hampton Roads

Painting depicting the Battle of Hampton Roads

The Battle of Hampton Roads began on 8 March 1862 when Virginia sortied. Despite an all-out effort to complete her, the ship still had workmen on board when she sailed. Supported by Raleigh and Beaufort, and accompanied by Patrick Henry, Jamestown, and Teaser, Virginia took on the blockading fleet.

The first ship engaged, USS Cumberland, was sunk after being rammed. However, in sinking, Cumberland broke off Virginia's ram. Seeing what happened to Cumberland, the captain of USS Congress ordered his ship grounded in shallow water. Congress and Virginia traded fire for an hour, after which the badly-damaged Congress surrendered. While the surviving crewmen of Congress were being ferried off the ship, a Union battery on the north shore opened fire on Virginia. In retaliation, the captain of Virginia ordered to fire upon the surrendered Congress with red-hot shot, to set her ablaze.

Virginia did not emerge from the battle unscathed. Shot from Cumberland, Congress, and the shore-based Union troops had riddled her smokestack, reducing her already low speed. Two of her guns were out of order, and a number of armor plates had been loosened. Even so, her captain attacked USS Minnesota, which had run aground on a sandbank trying to escape Virginia. However, because of her deep draft, Virginia was unable to do significant damage. It being late in the day, Virginia left with the expectation of returning the next day and completing the destruction of the Union blockaders.

Later that night, USS Monitor arrived at Union-held Fort Monroe, rushed to Hampton Roads in hopes of protecting the Union force and preventing Virginia from threatening Union cities.

The next day, on 9 March 1862, the world's first battle between ironclads took place. The smaller, nimbler Monitor was able to outmaneuver Virginia, but neither ship proved able to do significant damage, despite numerous hits. Monitor was much closer to the water, and thus much harder to hit by the Virginia's guns, but vulnerable to ramming and boarding. Finally, Monitor retreated. This was because the captain of the Monitor was hit by gunpowder in his eyes while looking through the pilothouse's peepholes, which caused Monitor to haul off. The Monitor had retreated off into the shoals and remained there, and so the battle was a draw. The captain of Virginia, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, CSN received the advice from his pilots to take the midnight high tide to depart back over the bar toward the CS Navy base at Norfolk until noon of the next day. Lieutenant Jones wanted, instead, to re-attack, but to "turn the ship and fight the starboard gun, was impossible, for heading up stream on a strong flood-tide, she would have been wholly unmanageable." 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." So to prevent getting stuck, Lieutenant Jones called off the battle and moved back toward harbor.[4]

In the following nine weeks, the crew of the Virginia were unsuccessful in their attempts to lure the Monitor out of the shallows. The Virginia made several sorties back over to Hampton Roads hoping to draw Monitor into battle. Monitor, however, was under orders not to engage. Eventually the Confederate Navy sent Lieutenant Joseph Nicholson Barney in command of the CSS Jamestown, along with the Virginia and five other ships in full view of the Union squadron, enticing them to fight. 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 US Navy into a fight, as they were towed back to Norfolk, with the help of the CSS Raleigh.

File:Destruction of Merrimac, May 11, 1862.png
Destruction of the rebel monster Merrimac off Craney Island, May 11, 1862, by Currier and Ives

Neither ironclad was ever to fight again. On 10 May 1862, advancing Union troops occupied Norfolk. Virginia was unable to retreat further up the James River due to her deep draft, and since she was a steam-powered battery and not a cruiser, she was not seaworthy enough to enter the ocean. Without a home port, Virginia was ordered blown up to keep her from being captured. This task fell to Lieutenant Jones, the last man to leave CSS Virginia after all of her guns had been safely removed and carried to the CS Marine Corps base and fortifications at Drewy's Bluff to fight again. Early on the morning of 11 May 1862, off Craney Island, fire reached her magazine and she was destroyed by a great explosion.

Later that same year, despite the fact that the Monitor was essentially an armored raft designed for riverine warfare, the US Navy attempted to tow it out into the Atlantic Ocean and past the ship graveyard of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where the Monitor sank and was added to the collection.

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, and then eastward across northeastern Massachusetts before emptying in the Atlantic at Newburyport, Massachusetts.

The Confederacy bestowed the name Virginia on her when she was raised, restored, and outfitted as an ironclad warship, but the Union preferred to call the Confederate ironclad warship by either its earlier 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 Union version. In the aftermath of the battle, the names Virginia and Merrimack were used equally by both sides, as attested by the newspapers and correspondence of the day. Some Navy reports and pre-1900 historians misspelled the name as "Merrimac," which is actually an unrelated ship.[5] Hence "the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac". Both spellings are still in use in the Hampton Roads area.

Memorial, heritage

  • It is said the most popular exhibit at Jamestown Exposition held in 1907 at Sewell's Point was the "Battle of the Merrimac and Monitor," a diorama that was in a special building.[citation needed]
  • The small community in Montgomery County, Virginia near where the coal burned by the Confederate ironclad was mined is now known as Merrimac, Virginia.
  • 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 verbatim "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 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 afixed to the bow of Virginia when she was later scuttled to avoid capture. This tantilizing ad begs the questions: What happened to her iron ram after the ad's appearance? And does that ram still survive today, somewhere?
  • 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 anchors has resided on its front lawn for many years.
  • A gun recovered from the wreckage of the Virginia rests in Fredericksburg, VA next to the old city hall, now a museum.
    • In 1907, an armor plate from the ship was melted down and used in the casting of the Pokahuntas Bell for the Jamestown Exposition.[6]
    • Starting in roughly 1883, numerous souvenirs, made from recently salvaged iron and wood raised from Virginia's 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 Virginia's iron and copper can be found catalogued 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.
    • Should periodic modern efforts to recover more of the Confederate vessel from the depths of Hampton Roads prove successful, it is unclear what name will be applied to the remains.

    CSS Virginia's battle ensigns & other naval flags

    See also: Flags of the Confederate States of America

    The practice of using primary and secondary naval flags after the British tradition was common practice for the Confederacy, linked as she was by both heritage and economy to the British Isles. The fledgling Confederate Navy therefore adopted and used ensigns, jacks, small boat ensigns, commissioning pennants, designating and signal flags aboard its warships during the Civil War.

    The stars and bars

    File:CSA FLAG 4.3.1861-21.5.1861.svg
    Typical First National Flag (Stars and Bars) 7-star battle ensign design. (4 May 1861 - 21 May 1861)
    On 4 March 1861, the committee of the first Provisional Congress of the Confederate States of America established the general requirements for the First National Flag of the Confederacy. Many designs were submitted by the public, but the new flag's approved design came from Marion, Alabama, Prussian artist Nicola Marschall, who had married into a Montgomery, Alabama family. The new Confederate flag was loosely adapted from his homeland's Austrian flag (with a dark blue canton added), quickly becoming known in the South as the Stars and Bars. Its hoist-to-fly (width-to-height) proportion was later established by the committee with the 2:3 ratio. The flag's dark blue canton would have a 1:1 (square) ratio and contain seven white, 5-pointed stars placed in a circular layout. The flag's three horizontal stripes would be red over white over red and were to be of equal height. The newly adopted Star and Bars made its first public appearance outside the Ben Johnson House in Bardstown, Kentucky. It was then raised over the dome of the first Confederate capitol in Montgomery, Alabama where it flew until 26 May 1863 when it was replaced with the new Second National Flag design.

    (Detailed descriptions of CSS Virginia 's two surviving 7-star and 11-star battle ensigns and one 7-star small boat flag will follow here at a later time.)

    Jacks and commissioning pennants

    File:Jack of the CSA Navy 1861 1863.svg
    The First Confederate Navy Jack, 1861-1863

    Virginia's original seven-star naval jack (illustration, right) would have flown forward of her battle ensign at prescribed times. It could have flown at two possible locations on the ironclad: atop a tall, portable jackstaff located behind the bow's v-shaped cutwater or atop the tall flagstaff directly behind the conical-shaped pilot house on the casemate's upper deck (historic accounts vary). Her original jack would have duplicated the circular seven-star arrangement seen on the square canton of Virginia's original battle ensign. (That 7-star ensign still survives today and is located in the flag collection of the Museum of the Confederacy). Her later 11-star naval jack would have also flown atop the ironclad's jackstaff, matching the circular star arrangement of Virginia's 11-star battle ensign. (That 11-star battle ensign also survives, less four of its stars, and today resides in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society).

    All pre-1863 Confederate jacks were of a rectangular shape, rather than square, because the Confederate Navy emulated the overall designs being used by their U. S. Navy counterparts. There is one piece of evidence—the still surviving seven-star naval jack of the captured ironclad CSS Atlanta—that strongly suggests all early Confederate jacks were not a medium blue color but actually a dark blue, matching the color of the ensigns' cantons. Whatever shade of blue, later versions of Virginia's jack would have contained, like her ensign, 9, 11 and 13 white, 5-pointed stars, as additional Southern states seceded and joined the Confederacy during 1861.

    Virginia's pre-1863 commissioning pennant would have closely followed the designs being used by the U. S. Navy. It would have been long and narrow and likely one of five approved sizes, being anywhere from 25 feet (7.6 m) to 70 feet (21 m) in their overall lengths. Several surviving drawings from the era show a much shortened pennant flying forward from Virginia's upper casemate flag staff. Because the ironclad was a new type of steam powered warship, without the usual tall masts, it is possible her pennant would have been much shorter, perhaps no longer than the maximum height of the ironclad's upper casemate flag staffs. The pennant's medium or possibly dark blue canton (hoist) could have been up to one-quarter of its overall fly (length). It would have carried from 7 to 13 white, 5-pointed white stars as the number of states in the Confederacy grew. The star pattern could have been staggered up and down or laid out in a single, horizonital row across the blue canton (historic accounts and drawings of pennants vary). The remaining portion of the long, narrow streamer would have been divided equally with two stripes, red-over-white (some accounts say white-over-red), with both stripes terminating in twin-forked points. A slightly modified third pennant variant with three long, horizontal red-over-white-over-red stripes, terminating in twin-forked points, was also used by the Confederate Navy before 1863.

    See also



    • deKay, James, Monitor, Ballantine Books, New York, New York, 1997.
    • Besse, Sumner B., C. S. Iroclad Virginia and U. S. Ironclad Monitor, Newport News, Virginia, The Mariner's Museum, 1978. ISBN 0-917376-32-3.
    • Madaus, H. Michael, Rebel Flags Afloat: A Survey of the Surviving Flags of the Confederate States Navy, Revenue Service, and Merchant Marine, Winchester, MA, Flag Research Center, 1986. ISSN 0015-3370. (An 80-page special edition of "The Flag Bulletin, #115" covering all known surviving Confederate naval flags.)
    • Military Heritage feature on the Merrimack (CSS Virginia), USS Monitor, and the Battle at Hampton Roads (Keith Milton, Military Heritage, December 2001, Volume 3, No. 3, pp. 38 to 45 and p. 97).
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • Preston, Antony and Batchelor, John, Battleships: 1856—1919, London, Phoebus Publishing Co., 1977. No ISBN.
    • Schenkman, David, 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, 1979. No ISSN or ISBN.
    • Smith, Gene A., Iron and Heavy Guns, Duel Between the Monitor and Merrimac (sic), Abeline, Texas, McWhiney Foundation Press, 1998. ISBN 1-866661-15-4.
    • Thomas, Campbell R., and Flanders, Alan B., Confederate Phoenix, The CSS Virginia, Burd Street Press, 2001. ISBN 978-1572492011.

    External links

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    Coordinates: 36°54′25″N 76°20′37″W / 36.90694°N 76.34361°W / 36.90694; -76.34361

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