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The Birth of the Ironclads!

         On the night of Saturday, April 20, 1861, the United States naval authorities evacuated the navy yard at Gosport, Va. This was one of the most extraordinary proceedings of the war. Whether the commandant of the yard was perplexed by the indecisive instructions of the authorities at Washington, or whether he was simply panic-stricken, remains a mystery to the present day. The large corvette Cumberland and the steamer Pawnee, both in commission, were there; and by keeping the latter in the lower harbor to prevent the Confederates from obstructing the channel, and the Cumberland with her broadsides sprung upon Norfolk and Portsmouth, both towns would have been overawed. The yard was under the heavy batteries of the Pennsylvania and the Merrimac, to say nothing of a force of marines. It was simply out of the power of the Confederates to capture the place. They had no heavy guns to mount in batteries, even if they could have erected them under the broadsides of the Cumberland. "The spirit of madness and folly prevailed; and I know of no better exhibition of it than the fact that while they [the United States forces] were trying to get out, our people were actually trying to keep them in by obstructing the channel! One would suppose that we would have been only too glad to see them depart. And no sooner had the United States given up this yard than they commenced making preparations to recapture it.
       Prof. J. K. Soley says:

"Though a few shops and houses were burnt, the work was done so hurriedly that the best part of the valuable material at the yard fell into the hands of the enemy. The dry-dock was not destroyed, as the fuse failed to ignite the powder; but whether from accident or from the work of other hands has never been discovered. The magazine, with great numbers of loaded shells, and 150 tons of powder, had already been seized. Two thousand guns of all descriptions were left practically uninjured, 300 of them being new Dahlgren guns of various calibers. Besides the guns, machinery, steel plates, castings, construction materials, and ordnance and equipment stores in vast quantities came into the possession of the Confederates; and severe as the loss of so much material would have been by itself to the Federal government, it was rendered tenfold greater by supplying the necessities of the enemy."

       The fuse referred to by Professor Soley was extinguished by Lieut. C. F. M. Spottswood, Confederate States navy, who was one of the first to enter the yard after its evacuation. The powder was seized and carried to Richmond by Lieutenants Pegram, Sinclair and C. Jones. The navy yard was immediately taken possession of by the Confederates. The following is a list of the guns in the yard, as given in the report of W. H. Peters to the governor of Virginia: One 11-inch columbiad, two 10-inch guns, fifty-two 9-inch guns, four 8-inch 90-cwt. guns, forty-seven 8-inch 63-cwt. guns, twenty-seven 8-inch 55-cwt. guns, one 8-inch 57-cwt. gun, four 64-pounders of 106 cwt., two hundred and twenty-five 32-pounders of 61 cwt., one hundred and seventy-three 32-pounders of 57 cwt., forty-four 32-pounders of 51 cwt., twenty-eight 32-pounders of 46 cwt., one hundred and sixteen 32-pounders of 33 cwt., forty-four 32-pounders of 27 cwt., two hundred and thirty-five 61-cwt. guns, old style, fifty 70-cwt. guns, old style, forty.four 40-cwt. guns, Shrubrick, sixty-three 42-pounder carronades, thirty-five 32-pounder carronades.
       Here we have 1,195 guns of large caliber! These guns furnished the batteries of the Confederate forts from Norfolk to New Orleans. They were to be found on all the rivers of the South; and without them it is difficult to see how the Confederates could have armed either their forts or ships.
       The vessels destroyed, or partially destroyed, were the Pennsylvania, three-decker; the Delaware, seventy-four; the Columbus, seventy-four; the frigates Merrimac, Columbia and Raritan; the sloops-of-war Germantown and Plymouth, and the brig Dolphin. The old frigate United States was left intact, and was afterward used by the Confederates as a receiving ship. The large steam frigate Merrimac was scuttled and sunk. She was set on fire and burned to her copper-line, and down through to her berth deck, which, with her spar and gun decks, was also burned. She was immediately raised, and the powder in her magazine (put up in air-tight copper tanks) was found to be in good condition. It was afterward used by her in her engagements in Hampton Roads.
       Steps were immediately taken by the Confederate authorities to convert the Merrimac into an ironclad. As early as May 8, 1861, Mr. Mallory, secretary of the navy, said in a letter to the naval committee: "I regard the possession of an iron-armored ship as a matter of the first necessity. Such a vessel at this time could traverse the entire coast of the United States, prevent all blockades, and encounter with a fair prospect of success their entire navy."
       Commander John M. Brooke devised a plan for the conversion of the Merrimac, and the work was immediately commenced under Naval Constructor John L. Porter and Chief Engineer W. P. Williamson, in their respective departments. "The ship was raised, and what had previously been her berth deck became her main gun deck. She was 275 feet long as she then floated, and over the central portion of the hull a house or shield about 160 feet long was built. This shield was of oak and pine wood, two feet thick. The sides and ends inclined, according to Lieut. Catesby Jones, 36 degrees; and the roof, which was fiat and perhaps 20 feet wide, was covered with iron gratings, leaving four hatchways. Upon this wooden shield were laid two courses of iron plates, each two inches thick; the first course horizontal, and the second perpendicular, making four inches of iron armor on two feet of wood backing. The iron was put on while the vessel was in dock; and it was supposed that she would float with her ends barely submerged. So great was her buoyancy, however, that it required some 800 tons of pig iron (according to Boatswain Hasker in his account of her) to bring her down to her proper depth. I know myself that a quantity of iron was put on, though I cannot say how much. Now as this iron was put on, the whole structure sunk; and when she was ready for battle, her ends, which extended some fifty feet forward and abaft the shield, were submerged to the depth of several inches and could not be seen .... The appearance of the Merrimac was that of the roof of a house. Saw off the top of a house at the eaves (supposing it to be an ordinary gable-end, shelving-side roof), pass a plane parallel to the first through the roof some feet beneath the ridge, incline the gable ends, put it in the water, and you have the Merrimac as she appeared. When she was not in action, her people stood on the top of this roof, which was, in fact, her spar deck. "Lieut. Catesby Jones says (Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XI).
       The prow was of cast iron, wedge-shaped, and weighed 1,500 pounds. It was about two feet under water, and projected two feet from the stem .... I may mention that it was so badly fastened that the best judges said it would certainly break off when used. It will be seen here. after that perhaps it was as well that it was not firmly fastened .... The rudder and propeller were unprotected. The battery consisted of ten guns; four single-handed Brooke rifles, and six 9-inch Dahlgren guns. Two of the rifles, bow and stern pivots, were 7-inch, of 14,500 pounds; the other two were 6.4-inch caliber, 32-pounder, of 9,000 pounds, one on each broadside. The 9-inch gun on each side nearest the furnaces was fitted for firing hot shot. A few 9-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 afterward failed several times, once while under fire, Commodore Tatnall commanded the Virginia [Merrimac] 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 succeeded in impressing the enemy that we were ready for active service.
       The chief engineer of the Merrimac, H. Ashton Ramsay, had been a shipmate of the author in the last cruise of that ship in the Pacific. He was then a passed assistant engineer. He knew the engines well, and it may be doubted if another man in the Confederate navy could have got as much out of them as he did. He deserved all the praise Admiral Buchanan afterward bestowed upon him. The Merrimac upon her first appearance in Hampton Roads drew about 21 feet. After she was docked on the 9th of March, and more iron put on, she drew about one foot more. She steamed about six knots an hour. After docking, this was somewhat reduced. Her complement was 320 officers and men. The Merrimac was named the Virginia by the Confederate authorities; but as she is rarely called by this official name, we shall continue to use the name which has become historical.
       Early in March, 1862, the Merrimac was commissioned as follows: Capt. Franklin Buchanan, flag-officer; First Lieut. Catesby Ap R. Jones; Lieuts. Charles C. Simms, Robert D. Minor (flag), Hunter Davidson, John Taylor Wood, J. R. Eggleston, Waller R. Butt; Midshipmen R. C. Foute, H. H. Marmaduke, H. B. Littlepage, W. J. Craig, J. C. Long, L. M. Rootes; Paymaster James A. Semple; Surg. Dinwiddie Phillips; Asst. Surg. Algernon S. Garnett; Capt. of Marines Reuben Thorn; Chief Engineer H. A. Ramsay; Asst. Engineers John W. Tyrian, Loudon Campbell, Benjamin Herring, C. A. Jack, R. Wright; Boatswain Charles H. Hasker; Gunner C. B. Oliver; Carpenter Hugh Lindsey; Arthur Sinclair, Jr.. captain's clerk; Lieut. Douglass Forrest, C. S. A., volunteer aide; Captain Kevil, commanding Norfolk United Artillery detachment; Sergeant Tabb, signal officer.
       Flag-Officer Buchanan's command included the Patrick Henry, Jamestown, Teaser (the James river squadron), Beaufort and Raleigh.
       The officers of the Patrick Henry were: Capt. John R. Tucker; First Lieut. James H. Rochelle; Lieuts. William Sharp, F. L. Hoge; Surg. John T. Mason; Paymaster Thomas R. Ware; Passed Asst.-Surg. Fred Garrettson; Acting Master Lewis Parrish; Lieut. of Marines R. H. Henderson; Midshipmen John Tyler Walker, A.M. Mason, M.P. Goodwyn.
       The officers of the Jamestown were: Capt. J. N. Barney; Lieuts. Samuel Barron, Bradford, Benthall; Surg. Randolph Mason; Chief Engineer Manning; Asst. Engineers Ahem and Gill; Lieut. of Marines J. R. T. Fendall; Midshipmen D. M. Lee, Daniel Trigg, Neal Sterling; Frank B. Dornin, captain's clerk.
       Officers of the Teaser: Capt. William A. Webb, Lieut. J. H. Rochelle. (The further names are not obtainable.)
       Officers of the Beaufort: Lieut. Comdg. William H. Parker; Midshipmen Charles Mallory, Virginius Newton, Ivy Foreman (volunteer aide); Chief Engineer Hanks; Pilots Gray and Hopkins (volunteer); Bain, captain's clerk.
       Officers of the Raleigh: Lieut. Comdg. J. W. Alexander: Lieutenant Tayloe (volunteer); Midshipmen J. Gardner and Hutter.
       The rapidity with which the Merrimac was converted into an ironclad reflects great credit upon Mr. Mallory, secretary of the navy; Commander John M. Brooke, her designer; J. L. Porter, the constructor; W. P. Williamson, engineer-in-chief; Commodore F. Forrest, commanding the Norfolk navy yard, and upon the Tredegar iron works at Richmond. The vessel was not constructed a day too soon, for the United States authorities were hurrying up the Monitor. Professor Soley says:

"It was a race of constructors; and in spite of the difficulties at the South, and the comparative facilities at the command of the department at Washington, the Confederates were the winners. The secret of their success lay in promptness of preparation. "

Source: "The Confederate Military History," Volume 12

This Page last updated 02/16/02



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