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Services of the Virginia (Merrimack)

By Captain Catesby Ap. R. Jones, CSN
From: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XI, Richmond, Va., January to December, 1883. Pages 65-74 

[The following deeply interesting narrative of the gallant and accomplished executive officer of the Virginia was prepared for our Society not long before his lamented death. It will be found to dispose of most conclusively the claim of the Monitor for prize money.]

When on April 21st, 1861, Virginia took possession of the abandoned navy-yard at Norfolk, they found that the Merrimack had been burnt and sunk. She was raised; and on June 23d following, the Hon. S. R. Mallory, Confederate Secretary of the Navy, ordered that she should be converted into an iron-clad, on the plan proposed by Lieutenant John M. Brooke, C. S. Navy.

The hull was 275 feet long. About 160 feet of the central portion was covered by a roof of wood and iron, inclining about thirty-six degrees. The wood was two feet thick; it consisted of oak plank four inches by twelve inches, laid up and down next the iron, and two courses of pine; one longitudinal of eight inches thickness, the other twelve inches thick.

The intervening space on top was closed by permanent gratings of two-inch square iron two and one-half inches apart, leaving openings for four hatches, one near each end, and one forward and one abaft the smoke-stack. The roof did not project beyond the hull. There was no knuckle as in the Atlanta, Tennessee and our other ironclads of later and improved construction. The ends of the shield were rounded.

The armor was four inches thick. It was fastened to its wooden backing by one and three-eights inch bolts, countersunk and secured by iron nuts and washers. The plates were eight inches wide.  Those first made were one inch thick, which was as thick as we could then punch could iron. We succeeded soon in punching two inches, and the remaining plates, more than two-thirds, were two inches thick. They were rolled and punched at the Tredegar Works, Richmond. The outside course was up and down, the next longitudinal. Joints were broken where there were more than two courses.

The hull, extending two feet below the roof, was planted with one-inch iron; it was intended that it should have been three inches.

The prow was of cast iron, wedge-shape, and weight 1,500 pounds.

It was about two feet under water, and projected two feet from the stem, it was not well fastened.

The rudder and propeller were unprotected.

The battery consisted of ten guns, four single-banded Brooke rifles and six nine-inch Dahlgren's shell guns. Two of the rifles, bow and stern pivots, were seven-inch, of 14,500 pounds; the other two were 6 4-inch (32 pounds calibre) of 9,000 pounds, one on each broadside. The nine-inch gun on each side nearest the furnaces was fitted for firing hotshot. A few nine-inch shot with extra windage were cast for hot shot. No other solid shot were on board during the fight.

The engines were the same the vessel had whilst in the United States Navy. They were radically defective, and had been condemned by the United States Government. Some changes had been made, notwithstanding which the engineers reported that they were unreliable. They performed very well during the fight, but afterwards failed several times, once whilst under fire.

There were many vexations delays attending the fitting and equipment of the ship. Most of them arose from the want of skilled labor and lack of proper tools and appliances. Transporting the iron from Richmond also caused much delay; the railroads were taxed to supply the army.

The crew, 320 in number, were obtained with great difficulty. With few exception they were volunteers from the army; most of them were landsmen. Their deficiencies were as much as possible overcome by the zeal and intelligence of the officers; a list of them is appended. In the fight one of the nine-inch guns was manned by a detachment of the Norfolk United Artillery.

The vessel was by the Confederate called Virginia. She was put in commission during the last week of February, but continued crowed with mechanics until eve of the fight. She was badly ventilated, very uncomfortable, and very unhealthy. There was an average of fifty or sixty at the hospital, in addition to the sick-list on board.

The Flag-Officer, Franklin Buchanan, was detained in Richmond in charge of an important bureau, from which he was only relieved a few days before the fight. There was no captain' the ship was commissioned and equipped by the Executive and Ordnance Officer, who had reported for duty in November. He had by special order selected her battery, and was also made responsible for its efficiency.

A trial was determined upon, although the vessel was in an incomplete condition. The lower part of the shield forward was only immersed a few inches, instead of two feet as was intended; and there was but one inch of iron on the hull. The port shutters, &c., were unfinished.

The Virginia was unseaworthy, her engines were unreliable, and her draft, over twenty-two feet, prevent her from going to Washington. Her field of operation was therefore restricted to the bay and its immediate vicinity; there was no regular concerned movement with the army.(1)

The frigates Congress and Cumberland temptingly invited an attack. It was fixed for Thursday night, March 6th, 1862 ; the pilots, of whom were there were five having been previously consulted. The sides were slushed, supposing that it would increase the tendency of the projectiles to glance. All preparation were made, including lights at obstructions. After dark the pilots declared that they could not pilot the ship during the night. They had a high sense of their responsibility. In justice to them it should be stated than it was not easy to pilot a vessel of our great draft under favorable circumstances, and that the difficulties were much increased by the absence of lights, buoys, &c., to which they had been accustomed.

The attack was postponed to Saturday, March 8th. The weather was favorable. We left the navy yard at 11 A. M., against the last half of the flood tide, steamed down the river past our batteries through the obstructions, across Hampton Roads, to the mouth of James river, where off Newport News lay at anchor the frigates Cumberland and Congress, protected by strong batteries and gunboats. The action commenced about 3 P. M. by our firing the bow-gun (2) at the Cumberland, less than a mile distant. A powerful fire was immediately concentrated upon us from all the batteries afloat and ashore. The frigates Minnesota, Roanoke and St. Lawrence with other vessels, were seen coming from Old Point. We fired at the Congress on passing, but continued to head directly for the Cumberland, which vessel we had determined to run into, and in less than fifteen minutes from the firing of the first gun we rammed her just forward of  the starboard fore chains. There were heavy spars about her bows, probably to ward off torpedoes, through which we had to break before reaching the side of the ship. The noise of the crashing timbers was distinctly heard above the din of battle. There was not sing of the hole above water. It must have been large, as the ship soon commenced to careen. The shock to us on striking was slight. We immediately backed the engines. The blow was not repeated. We here lost the prow, and had the stem slightly twisted. The Cumberland (3) fought her guns gallantly as long as they were above water.

She went down bravely, with her colors flying. One of the shells struck the still of the bow-port and exploded; the fragments killed two and wounded a number. Our after nine-inch gun was loaded and ready for firing, when its muzzle was struck by a shell, which broke it off and fired the gun. Another gun also had its muzzle shot off; it was broken so short that at each subsequent discharge its port was set no fire. The damage to the armor was slight. Their fire appeared to have been aimed at our ports. Had it been concentrated at the water-line we could have been seriously hurt, if not sunk. Owing to the ebb tide our great draft we could not close with the Congress without first going up steam and then turning, which was a tedious operation, besides subjecting us twice to the full fire of the batteries, some of which we silenced.

We were accompanied from the yard by the gunboats Beaufort, Lieutenant-Commander

W. H. Parker, and Raleigh, Lieutenant-Commander J. W. Alexander. As soon as the firing was heard up James river, the Patrick Henry, Commander John R. Tucker, Jamestown, Lieutenant Commander J. N. Barney, and the gunboat Teaser, Lieutenant-Commander

W. A. Webb, under command of Captain John R. Tucker, stood down the river, joining us about o'clock. All these vessels were gallantly fought and handled, and rendered valuable and executive service.

The prisoners from the Congress stated that when on board that ship it was seen that we were standing up the river, that three cheers were given under the impression that we had quit the fight. They were soon undeceived. When they saw us heading down stream, fearing the fate of the Cumberland, they slipped their cables, made sail, and ran ashore bows on. We took a position off her quarter, about two cables' length distant, and opened a deliberate fire. Very few of her guns bore on us, and they were soon disabled. The other batteries continued to play on us, as did the Minnesota, then aground about one and one-half miles off. The St. Lawrence also opened on us shortly after. There was great havoc on board the Congress. She was several times on fire. Her gallant commander, Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith,(4) was struck in the breast by the fragment of a shell and instantly killed. The carnage was frightful. Nothing remained but to strike their colors, which they did. They hoisted the white flag, half-mated, at the main and at the spanker gaff. The Beaufort and Raleigh were ordered to burn her. They went alongside and secured several of here officers and some twenty of her men as prisoners. The officers urgently asked permission to assist their wounded out of the ship. It was granted. They did not return. A sharp fire the tugs to leave. A boat was sent from the Virginia to burn her, covered by the Teaser. A fire was opened on them from the shore, wounding Lieutenant Minor and others. We replied to this outrage with hot shot and incendiary shell. Her crew escaped by boats, as did that of the Cumberland. Canister and grape would have prevented it; but in neither case was any attempt made to stop them, though it has been otherwise stated, possibly from our firing on the  shore or at the Congress.

We remained near the Congress to prevent her recapture. Had she been retaken, it might have been said that the Flag-Officer permitted it, knowing that his brother (5) was an officer of that vessel.

A distant and unsatisfactory fire was at times had at the Minnesota. The gunboats also engaged her. We fired canister and grape occasionally in reply to musketry from the shore, which had become annoying.

About this time the Flag Officer was badly wounded by a rifle ball, and had to be carried below. His bold daring and intrepid conduct, won the admiration of all on board. The Executive and Ordnance officer, Lieutenant Catesby Ap R. Jones, succeeded to the command.

The action continued until dusk, when we were forced to seek an anchorage. The Congress was riddled and on fire. A transport steamer was blown up. A schooner was sunk and another captured.

We had to leave without making a serious attack on the Minnesota, Ground, and also at the St. Lawrence.(6) The latter frigate fired at us by broadsides, not a bad plan for small calibers against iron-clads, if concentrated. It was too dark to aim well. We anchored off our batteries at Sewell Point. The squadron followed.

The Congress (7) continued to burn; "she illuminated the heavens, and varied the scene by the firing of her own guns and the flight of balls through the air," until shortly after midnight, "when her magazine exploded, and a column of burning matter appeared high in the air, to be followed by the stillness of death," [extract from report of General Mansfield, U. S. A.] One of the pilots chanced about 11 P. M., to be looking in the direction of the Congress, when there passed a strange looking craft, brought out in bold relief by the brilliant light of the burning ship, which he at once proclaimed to be the Ericsson. We were therefore not surprised in the morning to see the Monitor at anchor near the Minnesota. The latter ship was still aground. Some delay occurred from sending our wounded out of the ship; we had but one serviceable boat left. Admiral Buchanan was landed at Sewell Point.

At eight A. M. we got under way, as did the Patrick Henry, Jamestown and Teaser. We stood towards the Minnesota and opened fire on her. The pilots were to have placed us half-a-mile from her, but we were not at any time nearer than a mile. The Monitor (8) commenced firing when about a third of a mile distant. We son approached, and were often within a ship's length; once while passing we fired a broadside at her only a few yards distant. She and her turret appeared to be under perfect control. He light draft enabled her to more about us at pleasure. She once took position for a short time where we could not bring a gun to bear on her. Another of her movements caused us great anxiety; she made for our rudder and propeller, both if which could have been easily disabled. We could only see her guns when they were discharged; immediately afterward the turret revolved rapidly, and the guns were not again seen until they were again fired. We wounded how proper aim could be taken in the very time the guns were in sight. The Virginia, however, was a large target and generally so near that the Monitor's shot did not often miss. It did not appear to us that our shell had any effect upon the Monitor. We had no solid shot.

Musketry was fired at the look-out holes. In spite of all the care of our pilots we ran ashore, were we remained over fifteen minutes. The Patrick Henry and Jamestown, with great risk to themselves, started to our assistance. The Monitor and Minnesota were in full play on us. A small rifle-gun on board the Minnesota, or on the steamer alongside of her, was fired with remarkable precision.

When we saw that our fire made no impression on the Monitor, we determined to run into her if possible. We found it a very difficult feat to do. Our great length and draft, in a comparatively narrow channel, with but little water to spare, made us sluggish in our movements, and hard to steer and turn. When the opportunity presented all steam was put on; there was not, however, sufficient time to gather full headway before striking. The blow was given with the board wooden stem, the iron prow having been lost the day before. The Monitor received the blow in such a manner as to weaken its effect, and the damage was to her trifling. Shortly after an alarming leak in the bows was reported. It, however, did not long continue.

Whilst contending with the Monitor, we received the fire of the Minnesota,(9) which we never failed to return whenever our guns could be brought to bear. We set her on fire and did her serious injury, though much less than we then supposed. Generally the distance was too great for effective firing. We blew up a steamer alongside of her.

The fight had continued over three hours. To us the Monitor appeared unharmed. We were therefore surprised to see her run off into shoal water where our great draft would not permit us to follows and where our shell could not reach her. The loss of our prow and anchor, and consumption of coal, water, &c., had lightened us so that the lower part of the forward end of the shield was awash.

We for some time awaited the return of the Monitor to the Roads. After consultation it was decided that we should proceed to the navy yard, in order that the vessel should be brought down in the water and completed. The pilots said if we did not then leave that we could not pass the bar until noon of the next day. We therefore at 12 M. quit the Roads and stood for Norfolk. Had there been any sign of the Monitor's willingness to renew the contest we would have remained to fight her. We left her in the shoal water to which she had withdrawn, and which she did not leave until after we had crossed the bar on our way to Norfolk.

The official report says: "Our loss in two killed and nineteen wounded. The stem is twisted and the ship leaks; we have lost the prow, starboard anchor, and all the boats; the armor is somewhat damaged, the steam-pipe and smoke-stack both riddled, the muzzles of two of the guns shot away. It was not easy to keep a flag flying;  the flagstaffs were repeatedly shot away; the colors were hoisted to killed or wounded in the fight with the Monitor. The only damage she did was to the armor. She fired forty-one shots. We were enabled to receive most of them obliquely. The effect of a shot striking obliquely on the shield was to break all the iron, and sometimes to displace several feet of the outside course; the wooden backing would not be broken through. When a shot struck directly at right angles, the wood would also be broken through, but not displaced. Generally the shot were much scattered; in three instances two or more struck near the same place, in each causing more of the iron to the displaced, and the would to bulge inside. A few  struck near the water-line. The shield was never pierced; through it was evident that two shots striking in the same place would have made a large hole through everything.

The ship was docked; a prow of steel and wrought iron up on, and a course of two-inch iron on the hull the roof extending in length 180 feet. Want of time and material prevented its completion. The damage to the armor was repaired; wrought-iron port shutters were fitted, &c. The rifle guns were supplied with bolts of wrought and children iron. The ship was brought a foot deeper in the water, making her draft 23 feet.

Commodore Josiah Tatnall relieved Admiral Buchanan in command. On the 11th of April he took the Virginia down to Hampton Roads, expecting to have a desperate encounter with the Monitor. Greatly to our surprise, the Monitor refused to fight us. She closely hugged the shore under the guns of the fort, with her steam up. Hoping to provoke her to come out, the Jamestown (10) was sent in, and captured several prizes, but the Monitor would not budge. It was proposed to take the vessel to York river, but it was decided in Richmond that she should remain near Norfolk for its protection.

Commodore Tatnall commander the Virginia forty-five days, of which time  there were only thirteen days that she was not in dock or in the hands of the navy-yard. Yet he succeed in impressing the enemy that we were ready for active service. It was evident that the enemy very much overrated (11) our power and efficiency. The South also had the same exaggerated idea of the vessel.

On the 8th of May a squadron, including the Monitor, bombarded our batteries at Sewell Point. We immediately left the yard for the Roads. As we drew near, the Monitor and her consorts ceased bombarding, and retreated under the guns of the forts, keeping beyond the range of our guns. Men-of-war from below the forts, and vessels expressly fitted for running us down, joined the other vessels between the forts. It looked as if the fleet was about to make a fierce onslaught upon us. But we were again to be disappointed. The Monitor and the other vessels did not venture to meet us, although we advanced until projectiles from the Rip Raps fell more than half a mile beyond us. Our objects, however, was accomplished; we had put an end the bombardment, and we returned to our buoy.

Norfolk was evacuated on the 10th of May. In order that the ship might be carried up the James river, we commenced to lighten her, but ceased on the pilots they could not take her up. Her shield was then our of water; we were not in fighting condition. We therefore ran her ashore in the bight of Craney Island, landed the crew, and set the vessel on fire. The magazine exploded about half-past four on the morning of the 11th of May, 1862. The crew arrived at Drewry's Bluff the next day, and assisted in defeating the Monitor, Galea, and other vessels on the 15th of May.

Commodore Tantall was tried by court-marshal for destroying the Virginia, and was "honorably acquitted" of all the charges. The court stated the facts, and their motives for acquitting him. Some of them are as follows: "That after the evacuation of Norfolk, West-over on James river became the most suitable position for her to occupy; that while in the act of lightening her for the purpose of taking her up to that point, the pilots for the first time declared their inability to take her up... That when lightened she was made vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy... The only alternative, in the opinion of the court, was to abandon and burn the ship them and there, which, in the judgment of the court, was deliberately and wisely done."


Flag-Officer-Franklin Buchanan. Lieutenants-Catesby Ap. R. Jones, Executive and Ordnance officer; Charles C. Simms, R. D. Minor (flag), Hunter Davidson, J. Taylor Wood, J. R.. Eggleston, Walter Butt. Midshipmen-Foute, Marmaduke, Littlepage, Craig, Long, and Roots. Paymaster-James Semple. Surgeon-Dinwiddie Phillips. Assistant-Surgeon-Algernon S. Garnett. Captain of Marines-Reuben Thom. Engineers-H. A. Ramsey, Acting Chief; Assistants-Tynan, Campbell, Herring, Jack and White. Boatswain-Hasker. Gun-ner-Oliver. Carpenter-Lindsey. Clerk 


(1) There was, however, an informal understanding between General Magruder, who commanded the Confederate forces on the Peninsula, and the Executive, to the effect that General Magruder should be kept advised by us, in order that his command might be concentrated near Hampton when our attack be made. The movement was prevented in consequence of a large portion of the command having been detachment just before the fight. 

(2) It killed and wounded ten men at the after pivot gun of the Cumberland. The second shot from the same gun killed and wounded twelve men at her forward pivot gun. Lieutenant Charles C. Simms pointed and fired the gun.

(3) She was a sailing of 1,726 tons, mounting two ten-inch pivots and twenty-two nine-inch guns. Her crew numbered 376; her loss in killed and wounded was 121. 

(4) His sword was sent by flag of  truce to his father, Admiral Joseph Smith. 

(5) One of the sad attendants of civil war-divided families-was here illustrated. The Flag-Officer's brother was Paymaster of the Congress. The First and Second Lieutenants had each a brother in the United States army. The father of the Fourth Lieutenant was also in the United States army. The father of the Midshipmen was in the United States navy.

(6) A sailing frigate of fifty guns and 1,726 tons.

(7) A sailing frigate of 1,867 tons, mounting fifty guns. She had a crew of 434, of whom there were 120 killed and missing. 

(8) She was 173 feet long and 41 feet wide. She had a revolving circular iron turret eight thick, nine feet high and twenty feet inside diameter, in which were two eleven-inch guns. Her draft was ten feet.

(9) She was a screw frigate of 3,200 tons, mounting forty-three guns of eight, nine and ten-inch calbre. She fired 145 ten-inch, 349 nine-inch, and 35 eight-inch and shell, and 5,567 pounds of powder. Her draft was about the same as the Virginia

(10) French and English men-of-war were present. The latter cheered our gunboat as she passed with the prizes.

(11) Some of the Northern papers estimated her to be equivalent to an army corps. 

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