Proving the Power of Iron Over Wood

By John V. Quarstein

The morning after the blaze, the Virginians entered Gosport Navy Yard to discover destruction everywhere. Nevertheless, among the rubble, scuttled ships, and charred buildings, the Confederacy was able to find the wherewithal to create a challenge to the U.S. Navy. The Federals had left with such great haste that their destructive work was far from complete. More than five warehouses filled with naval supplies survived the flames. The Federals also abandoned a tremendous array of ordnance, including 1,085 heavy cannon and more than 250,000 pounds of powder. Numerous facilities, including the foundry, machine shop, granite drydock, and several workshops remained untouched by the blaze. More important, the retreating Federals failed to destroy the infrastructure that would enable the Confederacy to construct vessels to counter the Federal blockade. The Richmond Daily Enquirer gloated over the abundance of equipment and supplies, claiming that “we have material enough to build a navy of iron-plated ships.”

Flag Officer French Forrest assumed command of the yard on 22 April. Only a few years younger than McCauley, Forrest was known as a “blusterer of the real old-tar school.” He energetically set himself to the immense task of reorganizing Gosport. It was quickly discovered that several ships were not total losses; the sloops Germantown and Plymouth , as well as the Merrimack , all appeared to be salvageable. The Merrimack was raised and placed in drydock, but the question remained what to do with the burned and blackened hulk.

The Confederacy’s ‘Iron-Armored Ship’

Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory understood that the nascent country required a new type of warship to challenge the Union Navy. On 10 May 1861 he told the Confederate Congress: “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.”

To achieve his goal, Mallory decided the best option was to convert the Merrimack into an ironclad. He assigned the project to C.S. Navy Lieutenant John M. Brooke, Naval Constructor John L. Porter, and Chief Engineer William P. Williamson. Brooke’s conversion concept featured a sloped casemate with the ship’s ends submerged. Because marine engines could not be quickly constructed in the South, Williamson advised reusing the Merrimack ’s condemned engines. Porter agreed that Brooke’s concept could be applied to the Merrimack ’s hull, and he developed plans and set to work reconfiguring the frigate as an ironclad.

The new ship would have a total length of just over 262 feet and a draft of 22 feet. Porter supervised the removal of all the Merrimack ’s remaining upper works and then cut the ship on a straight line from bow to stern at the berth-deck level. Soon the main gun deck was laid and the casemate began to take shape. This structure would be the ironclad’s most distinctive feature, beginning 28 feet from her bow and extending aft 172 feet. The fantail continued another 56 feet. The casemate sides were sloped at a 36-degree angle to deflect shot, but the acute slope allowed only 7 feet of headroom and a beam of 30 feet. The roof was grated to provide ventilation to the gun deck; 2-inch iron bars supported rafters of yellow pine and white oak. Three hatches provided access to the 14-foot-wide hurricane deck, and the front of the casemate featured a conical iron pilothouse.

The sides of the casemate consisted of a 4-inch-thick layer of oak laid horizontally, an 8-inch vertical layer of yellow pine, and a 12-inch horizontal layer of white pine, all bolted together. The structure was then sheathed with two layers of iron plates, 2 inches thick by 6 inches wide, the first laid horizontally and the second vertically. The juncture of the casemate and the hull was an obvious weak point, so Porter devised a displacement that would submerge the knuckle two feet below the waterline. To help protect the ship’s hull, a course of one-inch-thick iron plate extended to a depth of three feet around the vessel and the casemate eaves were extended two feet.

While the ship was being reconfigured, Brooke was working with Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond on the production of rifled cannon as part of his effort to arm the Merrimack . He developed powerful weapons that featured one or more wrought-iron bands welded around the breech to resist the greater pressure of firing rifled projectiles. Brooke also invented explosive shells and, more important, an elongated, armor-piercing wrought-iron bolt for both the 7-inch and 6.4-inch versions of his rifled cannon.

Because Mallory wanted the Merrimack armed with the finest possible heavy cannon, Brooke proposed that she carry a broadside battery of six IX-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and two 6.4-inch rifles. Two of the Dahlgrens were hot-shot guns, and a special furnace was installed in the engine room to prepare shot for these weapons during combat. A 7-inch Brooke rifle rested on a pivot mount at each end of the casemate, where the structure was pierced by three gun ports. In addition to this armament, a 1,500-pound cast-iron ram was attached to the ship’s bow.

Commissioning, Crew, and Commander

The Confederates were in a rush to finish the ship; news of the construction of several Union ironclads meant that the South might lose its armored advantage if their vessel was not quickly put into action. The project encountered daily delays, particularly in iron production, but the reconfigured ship finally was launched on 17 February 1862 and commissioned as the CSS Virginia . She appeared to be a powerful warship; however, there were several defects. Her ram was poorly mounted, and Porter had miscalculated the vessel’s displacement, which resulted in her riding too high in the water. Ballast was added to lower her. Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, the Virginia ’s executive officer, was still displeased and believed that the ironclad’s hull required additional protection. (The “ap” in Jones’ name is a Welsh patronymic meaning “son of.”)

Jones also needed to recruit a crew. He was able to assemble an excellent group of officers, including Lieutenants Robert Dabney Minor, Hunter Davidson, John Taylor Wood, and H. Ashton Ramsay, but most of the available seamen in the South had joined the Confederate Army. Jones assigned the recruitment of sailors to Wood, who was a grandson of former President Zachary Taylor and nephew by marriage to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. His social and political connections helped him glean men from local Confederate units. The ship’s complement of 350 men was not filled until 6 March, when 39 men of the United Artillery Company (Co. E., 41st Virginia Infantry), commanded by Captain Thomas Kevill, volunteered for service.

To command the Virginia and the other warships of the James River Squadron, Mallory selected Franklin Buchanan, a 46-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Naval Academy’s first superintendent. The Maryland native was an excellent choice, “hailed with great satisfaction” by the ironclad’s crew. “A typical product of the old-time quarter deck,” John Randolph Eggleston, one of the Virginia ’s lieutenants, wrote of Buchanan. He was “as indomitably courageous as Nelson and as arbitrary.”

Workmen were still completing the conversion when Buchanan arrived at Gosport Navy Yard on 24 February. That day Mallory, who expected great things of both Buchanan and the ironclad, wrote the commander that the “Virginia is a novelty in naval construction, is untried and her power unknown. . . . Her powers as a ram are regarded as formidable, and it is hoped that you may be able to test them. Like a bayonet charge of infantry, this mode of attack, while most distinctive, will commend itself to you in this present scarcity of ammunition.” The Confederate Navy secretary also suggested that if the ironclad could “pass Old Point [near the mouth of Hampton Roads] and make a dashing cruise on the Potomac as far as Washington, its effect upon the public mind would be important to our cause.”

Such a bold move could bring victory at a time when the Confederacy was reeling from defeats in Tennessee and along the Carolina sounds. Mallory was convinced “that the opportunity and the means for striking a blow for our Navy are now for the first time presented.” The secretary concluded his letter by stating that “Action, prompt and successful action—now would be of serious importance to our cause.”

Mallory’s instructions were not lost on Franklin Buchanan, who on 4 March reported that his flagship, the Virginia , was ready for combat. He selected Newport News Point as his target, but his hopes for a joint army-navy attack were dashed by the unwillingness of Major General John Bankhead Magruder, commander of the Confederate Army of the Peninsula, to cooperate. Undaunted, Buchanan still intended to take his ironclad into action as quickly as possible. A gale forced him to call off attacks on 6 and 7 March, as the Virginia needed calm waters in which to operate.

Day of Destiny

On 8 March the weather cleared, and Buchanan prepared the Virginia for action. Her casemate was coated with tallow (ship’s grease), which Jones thought would increase the tendency of projectiles to deflect off the structure. Buchanan had his flag officer pendant hoisted, and at 1100 the Virginia steamed away from the quay. As she made her way down the Elizabeth River, accompanied by her gunboat consorts Beaufort and Raleigh , both sides of the riverbank were “thronged with people.” The Virginia ’s surgeon, Dinwiddie Phillips, commented, “most of them, perhaps, [were] attracted by our novel appearance, and desirous of witnessing our movements through the water.” He added that “Few, if any entertained an exalted idea of our efficiency, and many predicted a total failure.”

Meanwhile, the Virginia ’s crew became aware of problems with the ship. “From the start we saw that she was slow, not over five knots,” Lieutenant Wood later commented. “She steered so badly that, with her great length it took thirty to forty minutes to turn. . . . She was as unmanageable as a water-logged vessel.”

As the ironclad entered Hampton Roads, the Federal fleet, including five major warships—the sloop Cumberland (24 guns) and frigates Congress (52), Minnesota (47), Roanoke (42), and St. Lawrence (50)—were visible in the distance arrayed between Newport News Point and Fort Monroe. Undaunted by such a force, Buchanan informed his crew: “Sailors in a few minutes you will have the long awaited opportunity to show your devotion to your country and our cause. Remember that you are about to strike for your country and your homes, your wives, and your children. The Confederacy expects everyman to do his duty, beat to quarters.”

Midshipman Hardin Littlepage recalled Buchanan reminding everyone that “many Confederates had complained that they were not taken near enough to the enemy and [he] assured us that there should be no complaint this time, for he intended to head directly for the Cumberland .” Buchanan concluded his exhortations with the admonition: “Those ships must be taken. . . . Go to your guns.”

Even though the Federals knew about the Confederate ironclad project, they were surprised by the Virginia ’s appearance. As the ship cleared the Elizabeth River, a crewman on board the Congress , anchored near the Cumberland off Newport News Point, noted, “I believe that thing is a-comin’ down at last.” To the Union sailors, the Virginia looked like “the roof of a very big barn belching forth as from a chimney on fire.”

Steaming across Hampton Roads, the ironclad headed for the Cumberland . As she passed the Congress , the Virginia delivered a devastating starboard broadside of shell and hot shot into the frigate. She then slammed into the Cumberland ’s starboard quarter, losing her ram in the process but leaving an enormous hole in the sloop’s side. Shot and shell from Union warships and shore batteries harmlessly bounced off the Virginia ’s casemate while she exchanged broadsides with the sinking Cumberland . As the Virginia steamed upriver for deeper water to execute a turn, she destroyed two Union transports moored along a wharf.

After making the long, slow turn, the ironclad pulled to within several hundred yards of the Congress , which had grounded, and shelled the frigate into submission. But when Union gunners and troops ashore kept up their fire, Buchanan, who sustained a bullet wound, ordered hot shot fired into the Congress , which was soon in flames. Continuing eastward, the ironclad fired into the grounded Minnesota and St. Lawrence before anchoring off Sewell’s Point for the night.

The Virginia had inflicted a staggering defeat on the U.S. Navy. Besides the destroyed Cumberland and Congress , Union losses that day included a steam frigate damaged, a sailing frigate slightly damaged, a tug sunk, another tug damaged, two transports destroyed, a transport captured, and 247 men killed.

Crossing Hampton Roads the next morning to finish off the Minnesota , the Virginia encountered the Monitor , which she battled to a draw. Armed with no solid projectiles except hot shot, the Confederate ironclad was unable damage her opponent except for a shell that struck the Monitor ’s pilothouse.

Robert Minor, who was wounded in the first day’s fighting, wrote: “It was a great victory. . . . The IRON and the HEAVY GUNS did the work.” However, Catesby Jones viewed the two-day battle as only a partial success. He noted that the “destruction of those wooden vessels was a matter of course especially so, being at anchor, but in not capturing the ironclad, I feel as if we had done nothing.”

Brief, Influential Post-Battle Career

The Virginia ’s actions on 8 and 9 March vindicated Mallory’s faith in the Confederate ironclad, and the secretary believed that the ship had won “the most remarkable victory which naval annals record.” While Mallory hoped that the Virginia could strike Northern ports such as New York, Buchanan, who was promoted to rear admiral, thought that the ironclad was unseaworthy, “by no means invulnerable,” and should be used only to defend Norfolk.

Following the 9 March engagement, the undefeated Virginia ’s mere presence accomplished that task. Moreover it disrupted Union Major General George B. McClellan’s plans for his Army of the Potomac to march on Richmond by way of the Virginia Peninsula. The senior U.S. Navy officer on the scene, Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, was fixated on the Virginia and rumored to be suffering from “ram fever” or “ Merrimac on the brain.” Consequently, he declared the James River closed to Union naval operations and refused to attack the Confederate water batteries on the other side of the peninsula at Yorktown and Gloucester Point. His duty, Goldsborough believed, was to focus on keeping the Virginia in check. Therefore, instead of naval forces outflanking the Confederate defensive line across the lower peninsula, McClellan was forced to besiege it. That delayed the Union march on Richmond by a month, giving Confederates time to redeploy troops to defend their capital.

After the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Virginia ’s damage was repaired. Because Buchanan’s wound was slow to heal, Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall replaced him as commander of the James River Squadron. The 67-year-old officer had served in the U.S. Navy from 1812 until February 1861. Lieutenant William Parker of the gunboat Beaufort described him as the “beau ideal of a naval officer” and possessing “all the traits found in heroic characters.” Yearning to battle the Monitor , he steamed the Virginia into the Roads on 11 April, but no engagement ensued.

An opportunity for another ironclad battle arose on 8 May when the Monitor shelled Sewell’s Point. But when the Virginia emerged from the Elizabeth River ready for combat, the Monitor retreated.

Time was running out for the Virginia . Confederate forces abandoned their lower peninsula defenses on 3 May, leaving Norfolk isolated. During a visit to Fort Monroe to push for a Union advance up the James, President Abraham Lincoln orchestrated the capture of Norfolk on 10 May. The Virginia was left without a port and, because of her great draft, the warship could not be effectively lightened to enable her to steam to Richmond. Consequently, she was run aground off Craney Island and scuttled. Tattnall sadly telegraphed Mallory, “The Virginia no longer exists.” Lamenting the ship’s loss, crew member Richard Curtis reflected that it was “a sad finish to such a bright beginning.”

The CSS Virginia was without question the most successful Confederate ironclad. She won the race, albeit for just one day, for naval supremacy in Hampton Roads, thereby becoming the first armored warship in modern history to sink another warship. The Virginia ’s brief career ended ingloriously, yet the Confederate ship achieved everlasting fame for her role as one of “the founders,” as Franklin Buchanan wrote, “of iron-clad warfare at sea.” Indeed, the Virginia and her antagonist, the Monitor , ushered in a new age of naval design when they fought in Hampton Roads. Although the brilliant Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson’s Monitor is generally credited as being the ship design of the future, the Virginia ’s ramming of the Cumberland and total destruction of the Congress proved the power of iron over wood.


John Mercer Brooke, “The Virginia or Merrimac : Her Real Projector,” Southern Historical Society Papers , vol. 19 (January 1891), pp. 3–34.

John R. Eggleston, “Captain Eggleston’s Narrative of the Battle of the Merrimac ,” Southern Historical Society Papers , vol. 41 (September 1916), pp. 166–78.

William Norris, “The Story of the Confederate States’ Ship Virginia (Once Merrimac ): Her Victory over the Monitor; Born March 7th, Died May 10th 1862” (Baltimore: John B. Piet, 1879).

William Parker, Recollections of a Naval Officer, 1841–1865 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1883).

Dinwiddie Brazier Phillips, “The Career of the Iron-clad Virginia (formerly the Merrimac ), Confederate States Navy, March–May 1862,” Collections of the Virginia Historical Society (Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1887).

John V. Quarstein, A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron over Wood (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2006).

John V. Quarstein, CSS Virginia : Sink Before Surrender (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2012).

John V. Quarstein, “Sink Before Surrender: The Story of the CSS Virginia ,” The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (New York: Fordam University Press, 2006).

John Taylor Wood, “The First Fight of the Ironclads: March 9, 1862,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War , vol. 1 (New York: Century, 1887), pp. 692–711.

You Say Merrimack , I Say Virginia

By John V. Quarstein

Like so many Civil War engagements, the Hampton Roads naval clash has several names, including the Battle of the Ironclads, the Battle of the Monitor and Merrimac , and the Battle of Hampton Roads. Similarly, the name of the Confederate ironclad that fought in that battle is variously known as the Merrimac , Merrimack , and Virginia . Which is her proper name?

In her original incarnation, the ship was the Merrimack . An American Indian word meaning “swift water,” Merrimack is the name of a 110-mile river that begins in New Hampshire. On 25 September 1854, John Lenthall, chief of the U.S. Bureau of Naval Construction, selected it as the name for the steam-powered, 40-gun screw frigate being built at Charlestown Navy Yard. The ship was the first of a class of five frigates built during the 1850s each named for an American river: Roanoke , Wabash , Colorado , Minnesota , and Merrimack .

One misconception about the Merrimack is the proper spelling of her name. It should end with the “k,” not with just the “c.” All of the frigate’s plans are marked with the “k” spelling. Furthermore, President Franklin Pierce, a native of Concord, New Hampshire—the seat of Merrimack County and located on the Merrimack River—signed the act approving the appropriation and ship names.

But while New Hampshire residents included the “k,” those in Massachusetts, which the river flows through on its way to the Atlantic, didn’t. That circumstance and the fact that it’s easier to spell the name without the “k” is perhaps why many Civil War contemporaries used Merrimac .

Once the Confederates raised the Merrimack ’s burned hull, they reconfigured her into an ironclad that they christened the CSS Virginia on 17 February 1862. After that date, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory and Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, the ship’s commander, both referred to the ironclad as the Virginia in all their correspondence. But even the ironclad’s executive officer and second commander, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, and her chief engineer, H. Ashton Ramsay, called the vessel the Merrimac . U.S. Navy veterans, both had served in the frigate prior to the war, which may explain their continued use of that name. Southern newspapers usually referred to the ship by her rechristened name, but Northern newspapers constantly used Merrimac .

Confederate signal officer Colonel William Norris, an eyewitness to the Battle of Hampton Roads, perhaps most eloquently expressed why the ironclad should always be called the Virginia :

And Virginia was her name, not Merrimac , which has a nasal twang equally abhorrent to sentiment and to melody, and meanly compares with the sonorous sweetness of Virginia. She fought under Confederate colors, and her fame belongs to all of us: but there was a peculiar fitness in the name we gave her. In Virginia, of Virginia iron and wood, and by Virginians she was built, and in Virginia’s waters, now made classic by her exploits, she made a record which shall live forever.



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