Sunday, 14 April 1861. The U.S. Navy’s engineer-in- chief, 38-year old Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, arrived at Portsmouth, Virginia, as talk of secession hung over the Tidewater region. First seeking Robert Danby, the Gosport Navy Yard’s chief engineer, a Delaware native with whom he had corresponded as to the state of affairs there, Isherwood then called upon Captain Charles S. McCauley, the yard commandant. Isherwood presented his orders to prepare the inactive steam frigate Merrimack to be moved to Philadelphia. McCauley told Isherwood to take whatever measures he deemed appropriate for expediting the work.
Isherwood found the Merrimack’s engines in what he called a “wretched” state—but not irreparable for temporary duty. He thereupon directed the foremen of the boilermakers and machinists to employ as many men as could work, and begin the next morning. Starting as scheduled they toiled “day and night without an hour’s intermission” in three eight-hour shifts, with Isherwood and Danby alternating 12-hour watches to supervise.
While others loaded coal and engineering supplies, Isherwood engaged 44 firemen and coal-heavers to serve as the engineering division for the voyage to Philadelphia. By the end of the afternoon watch on Wednesday, the impossible had been done: The Merrimack was ready for steam. The two engineers headed to the commandant’s office to report. That same day, the Virginia State Convention passed an ordinance of secession.
Seven years earlier, on 6 April 1854, Congress had authorized six steam frigates. On 11 July 1854, workmen at the Boston Navy Yard laid the keel for the Merrimack, the first of them. Her hull was designed by John Lenthall, and her machinery was designed and built by R. P. Parrott, Cold Spring, New York. The Merrimack—the second ship of that name in the U.S. Navy—took shape in the ensuing months.
An estimated 20,000 people thronged every vantage point from sail- and rowboats to housetops, the decks of nearby ships, and wharves, to catch a glimpse of the Merrimack’s launching on 14 June 1855. A scribe for Ballou’s Pictorial described her entry into the water as “light and graceful as a swan,” adding that her “exquisite symmetry and beautiful proportions rendered it difficult to realize her size . . . till the eye made a comparison with adjacent craft.”
Commissioned at Boston on 20 February 1856, Captain Garrett J. Pendergrast in command, the Merrimack voyaged to Europe, “exciting everywhere the admiration of naval experts,” wrote historian Frank M. Bennett, “for she was said to have been the most beautiful of all the ships in her class.” Her two engines drove a single bronze screw 17 feet, 4 inches, in diameter, propelling the Merrimack at a maximum speed of 12 knots. The screw could be hoisted up to reduce drag and allow the ship to take advantage of her 48,757 square feet of canvas. Her smokestack could be lowered telescopically for aesthetic reasons when she lay in port.
Placed out of commission at the Boston Navy Yard on 22 April 1857, she was recommissioned on 1 September that year under Commander Robert B. Hitchcock. Named flagship of the Pacific Squadron on 17 October, she sailed on that date to begin a two-year deployment.
Critics had looked askance at the Merrimack’s heavy shell guns being mounted on Marsilly two-truck carriages, believing them to be “deficient in transportability.” Hitchcock’s sailors proved the criticism unfounded. During one particular gunnery exercise, a gun crew took just 1 minute, 23 seconds, to shift one of the VIII-inch Dahlgren guns—weighing 7,000 pounds—from one side of the ship to the other. A 9,000-pound IX-inch Dahlgren took just 22 seconds longer.
Decommissioned at Gosport on 16 February 1860 after returning from the Pacific, the Merrimack lay inactive—her engines being overhauled—into the following spring. It was on Wednesday, 10 April 1861, that Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, noting the “peculiar condition of the country,” had instructed McCauley to have her readied to proceed to “Philadelphia or to any other yard” should the situation warrant, but cautioned the commandant to avoid causing “needless alarm” by those preparations.
The very next day Welles ordered McCauley “to have the Merrimack prepared in as short as possible [time] for temporary service,” adding that a draft of 200 sailors had been ordered transferred from the New York Navy Yard to Gosport to make up the frigate’s crew.
On 12 April, Welles urged McCauley to have the Merrimack removed to Philadelphia “with the utmost dispatch” and informed him that Engineer-in-Chief Isherwood had been ordered to expedite the work. “You will have his suggestions carried out for that end,” Welles concluded, “and carried promptly in effect.” Welles’ orders to Isherwood were sent the same day. The engineer had arrived that Sunday; his crash program to ready the ship was done by Wednesday.
Isherwood had kept the commandant informed of progress, enabling McCauley to write to Welles on 16 April that the Merrimack “may now be taken and used for temporary service as soon as the necessary equipments can be put on board. All that is required . . . will probably be completed by tomorrow evening.”
After Isherwood reported at 1600 on the 17th that the ship was “ready for steam,” the engineer-in-chief asked “if I should fire up [the engines] at once?” McCauley replied there was no need to do so that afternoon. “The next morning,” he temporized, “would be time enough.” Isherwood returned to the Merrimack. Soon after the stroke of midnight—“the next morning,” just as McCauley had specified—Isherwood had his men light the fires.
At 0900 on the 18th, Isherwood hurried to the commandant’s office. With Danby on board with the engineers, firemen, and coal-heavers, the Merrimack lay with “steam up and engines working at the wharf.” All Isherwood needed was McCauley’s order “to cast loose and go.”
The old commandant, however, told the engineer he had “not yet decided to send the vessel [out]” and would inform him of his decision in a few hours. Isherwood argued, to no avail. The second meeting, that afternoon, proved even more frustrating: A thunderstruck Isherwood heard McCauley order him to “draw the fires” and stop the engines. Again he argued in vain.
Returning to the Merrimack, “with great sorrow and chagrin” he dismissed his men and readied to leave Portsmouth. That required stealth, however: His work at the shipyard had been no secret in those anxious days, and he had been warned of a plot to seize him and hold him prisoner. With an old friend’s help he was spirited in a closed carriage to the waterfront, whence he escaped in a Baltimore-bound steamer, locked in his cabin until safely into Chesapeake Bay.
On Sunday, 21 April, forces under Flag Officer Hiram Paulding set the Merrimack and several other ships afire to deny them to Confederate forces, also destroying buildings at the Gosport Navy Yard. The Merrimack burned to the water’s edge.
Under the Confederacy, she took on another life, however, being rebuilt as an ironclad and renamed Virginia. Then, just 13 months later she was blown up—this time to prevent her from falling back into the hands of the Navy that originally had built her. It was an oddly tragic fate for a ship once regarded as “the most beautiful of all the ships in her cllass.”