The American Civil War At Sea Wiki


Built: Converted at Norfolk, Virginia

Commissioned: February 17, 1862

Service: Virginia Coastal Waters, 1862

Home Port: Norfolk, Virginia

Dimensions: 263' Length, 51' Beam, 22' Draft

Armor: 4" iron with wood backing.

Armament: 2x7" Brooke Rifles, 2x6.4" Brooke Rifles, 6x9" Smoothebores.

Engines: Single Screw

Speed: 5 Knots

Crew: 320

Fate: Burned to prevent capture.


With the secession of Virginia in 1861, the US Navy scrambled to evacuate its personnel and equipment from the now theoretically hostile environment of Virginia. One of the areas evacuated was Gosport Navy Yard, at Norfolk, with orders issued to the effect that any ships and equipment that could not be moved should be destroyed rather than being allowed to fall into rebel hands; the orders, however, were badly bungled. Most of the munitions meant to be spiked or destroyed were simply left to be used as necessary by the Confederate Navy, and one of the USN's most powerful ships, the modern steam frigate Merrimack, was left behind rather than evacuated. In a desperate bid to prevent the ship from falling into rebel hands, she was scuttled and burned. This too, however, was badly handled - the ship never actually sank, and the fire did not succeed in destroying her. Instead, it merely burned the ship down to the waterline, preserving her lower hull, machinery, and much of her original armament.

The Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Steven Mallory, seized on the opportunity to use the hull of the Merrimack for the first in what he planned as a series of ironclad warships that would, it was hoped, pose a serious challenge to the Union blockade, already beginning to fall into place at this stage of the war. The resulting vessel, CSS Virginia, essentially changed history. While she was neither the first ironclad to be constructed, nor even the first ironclad to be used by the Confederacy (see CSS Manassas) she was the first ironclad to be successfully used in combat against enemy warships, as well as one of the first two warships to engage in a battle between two ironclads (the other, of course, being USS Monitor.)

As a design, Virginia was one of the most powerful ironclads to be built during the American Civil War, as well as one of the largest. Her armament easily rivalled most contemporary warships of the time, and her presence immediately shifted the naval balance of power in coastal Virginia. Nevertheless, Virginia was far from perfect, being a prototype for the casemate style ironclad that would become standard for the Confederacy throughout the rest of the war. She had relatively low engine power, a consequence of the weight of her armor and her low presence in the water, and she turned, to quote one source, "like a bathtub." In addition, her draft was far too deep for practical purposes, and this eventually lead to her somewhat premature destruction, while she was not considered particularly seaworthy and was never risked in open seas.

It is worth nothing that many modern sources claim that reference to Virginia as "Merrimack" (or, with the common misspelling "Merrimac") is in fact an historically inaccurate means of referring to the ship. However, this is not entirely true. While she was officially called Virginia by the CSN, she was nevertheless referred to as Merrimack by officers and sailors on both sides of the Mason-Dixon, as well as Northern, Southern, and International Newspapers.

Virginia's career as a warship was relatively short. During the Battle of Hampton Roads in March, 1862, Virginia sailed out of Norfolk to attack the Atlantic Blockading Squadron. She sank or disabled three warships before retiring for the evening of the first day, before returning on the second day of the engagement to finish her work only to meet the recently arrived Union ironclad USS Monitor, beginning the first duel between ironclad warships in recorded history. The battle is chiefly significant for its novelty; the actual result was a draw, with neither ship able to significantly damage the other. While Virginia had an advantage in firepower, she turned poorly and was unable to consistantly score hits on Monitor, which slowly circled around her and peppered her with shot; unfortunately for Monitor, the shots failed to penetrate Virginia's armor or to do any significant damage to her. After several hours of pounding away at each other, the battle drew to a close when a shot from Virginia managed to carry away the top of Monitor's pilothouse and temporarily blind her captain, forcing that ship to retreat to shallow water and assess the situation. Unable to pursue into the shallows, Virginia reluctantly withdrew. Though the two taunted each other from long range for the next several weeks, neither actually convinced the other to engage again.

Virginia followed the engagement at Hampton Roads with other attempts to engage the Union blockade, but most of these failed. The Union warships were unwilling to be drawn into combat close to Norfolk, and Virginia lacked the seaworthiness to engage them in heavy seas. The end result of Virginia's efforts was to force the Union fleet to set its blockade further out to sea, but the ultimate goal of actually breaking the blockade was not achieved.

In May, 1862, Union forces advanced on Norfolk. While most of the Confederate personnel and equipment were quickly withdrawn (in comparison to the bungled operation by the USN the year before), Virginia's situation was a problem. Her draft was too deep to allow her to sail up the James and to join the rest of the James River Squadron, and it was not believed safe to attempt to make a run down the coast away from Virginia waters. After attempts to raise her in the water by reducing the amount of weight she carried, it was decided to scuttle and burn her rather than allow her to be captured by the Union. The fire set in her hull struck the powder magazine, and Virginia was destroyed in a spectacular explosion, only a few short months after her commissioning. The destruction was controversial at the time, and is occasionally questioned even in the present day.

We know little about Virginia's paint scheme, but a contemporary account says that all warships of the James River Squadron, of which Virginia was nominally a part, were supposed to have been painted black. There is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that she may actually have been painted this color, or perhaps a dark grey.