CSS Virginia, ex-USS Merrimack, Actions and Activities in Civil War

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CSS Virginia (1862-1862), ex-USS Merrimack --
Miscellaneous Actions & Activities

In addition to her 8-9 March battles with Federal warships CumberlandCongress and Monitor, CSS Virginia took part in a few other actions during her brief career. Among these were two efforts to produce a rematch between the opposing ironclads, in the hope that a Confederate victory would free Hampton Roads and the lower Chesapeake Bay of Union domination, or that a triumph by the Union ship would open the James River as an avenue to attack Richmond, the Southern capital city.

The first of these attempts happened on 11 April 1862, when Confederate ships advanced into Hampton Roads. CSS Jamestown and CSS Raleigh steamed ahead and seized three exposed transports, while Virginia covered their movements. Since the Southern ironclad did not directly threaten the principal Union positions, USS Monitor refused the challenge and no general action ensued.

Just short of a month later, on 8 May, Monitor and other Federal ships shelled Confederate batteries at Sewell's Point to test their strength, and, hopefully, provoke Virginia to come out far enough to be ambushed. This time, the Confederates chose the path of caution.

However, by early May Southern commanders had decided to evacuate Norfolk. This was tardily reported to the local Confederate Navy leader, Captain Josiah Tattnall, leaving him with few options concerning Virginia's future. If her considerable draft could be reduced by several feet, she might be able to steam out of Norfolk and up the James far enough to help protect Richmond. If not, she would have to be destroyed to avoid capture. As it turned out, the ship could not be lightened enough in the short time available, and on 11 May, CSS Virginia was run aground near the entrance to the Elizabeth River, abandoned and set afire. She was destroyed when the flames reached her gunpowder supplies.

Damaged Dahlgren Gun from CSS Virginia
Damaged Dahlgren Gun from CSS Virginia.jpg
U.S. Naval Historical Center

(About) Photo of Damaged Dahlgren gun from CSS Virginia (ex-USS Merrimack). Photographed at the Washington Navy Yard, D.C., 27 April 1933. Several other guns, relics of the Civil War and earlier conflicts, are beyond. The gun is inscribed: "One of the Guns of the MERRIMAC in the action with the U.S. Frigates CUMBERLAND and CONGRESS March 8th 1862 when the chase was shot off". (See CSS Virginia destroys USS Cumberland and USS Congress.) The lower inscription reflects: "The mutilation of Trunnions &c shows the ineffectual attempts to destroy the Gun, when the U.S. abandoned the Norfolk Navy Yard, April 20th 1861". This gun, presumably one of Virginia's six IX-inch Dahlgren smoothbore guns, was on exhibit at Dahlgren, Virginia, in 1973. The Parrott gun (second from right in the row behind) is inscribed "Tug Teaser".

Reference: Department of the Navy, Naval History & Heritage Command, 805 Kidder Breese SE, Washington Navy Yard, Washington D.C., 20374-5060

Recommended Reading: Ironclad Down: USS Merrimack-CSS Virginia from Design to Destruction (Hardcover). Description: The result of more than fifteen years of research, Ironclad Down is a treasure trove of detailed information about one of history s most famous vessels. Describing the fascinating people--Stephen Russell Mallory, John Mercer Brooke, John Luke Porter, et al.--who conceived, designed and built one of the world's first ironclads as well as describing the ship itself, Carl Park offers both the most thoroughly detailed, in-depth analysis to date of the actual architecture of the Virginia and a fascinating, colorful chapter of Civil War history

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Recommended Reading: The Battle of Hampton Roads: New Perspectives on the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (Mariner's Museum). Description: On March 8 and 9, 1862, a sea battle off the Virginia coast changed naval warfare forever. It began when the Confederate States Navy’s CSS Virginia led a task force to break the Union blockade of Hampton Roads. The Virginia sank the USS Cumberland and forced the frigate Congress to surrender. Damaged by shore batteries, the Virginia retreated, returning the next day to find her way blocked by the newly arrived USS Monitor. The clash of ironclads was underway. Continued below…

After fighting for nine hours, both ships withdrew, neither seriously damaged, with both sides claiming victory. Although the battle may have been a draw and the Monitor sank in a storm later that year, this first encounter between powered, ironclad warships spelled the end of wooden warships—and the dawn of a new navy. This book takes a new look at this historic battle. The ten original essays, written by leading historians, explore every aspect of the battle—from the building of the warships and life aboard these “iron coffins” to tactics, strategy, and the debates about who really won the battle of Hampton Roads. Co-published with The Mariners’ Museum, home to the USS Monitor Center, this authoritative guide to the military, political, technological, and cultural dimensions of this historic battle also features a portfolio of classic lithographs, drawings, and paintings. Harold Holzer is one of the country’s leading experts on the Civil War
 

Recommended Reading: Reign of Iron: The Story of the First Battling Ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimack. From Publishers Weekly: The Monitor-Merrimack showdown may be one of the Civil War’s most overhyped chestnuts: the two ships were by no means the first ironclads, and their long awaited confrontation proved an anticlimactic draw, their cannon fire clanging harmlessly off each other’s hulls. Still, the author of this lively history manages to bring out the story’s dramatic elements. Nelson, author of the Revolution at Sea series of age-of-sail adventure novels, knows how to narrate a naval crisis. He gives a harrowing account of the Merrimack’s initial onslaught, in which it destroyed two wooden Union warships in a bloody and chaotic battle the day before the Monitor arrived, and of the Monitor’s nightmarish final hours as it foundered in a storm at sea. Continued below…

Equally arresting is his retelling of the feverish race between North and South to beat the other side to the punch with their respective wonder ships. He delves into every aspect of the ships’ innovative design and construction, and draws vivid portraits of the colorful characters who crafted them, especially the brilliant naval architect John Ericsson, one of that epic breed of engineer-entrepreneurs who defined the 19th century. The resulting blend of skillful storytelling and historical detail will please Civil War and naval engineering buffs alike.

 

Recommended Reading: Confederate Ironclad vs Union Ironclad: Hampton Roads 1862 (Duel). Description: The Ironclad was a revolutionary weapon of war. Although iron was used for protection in the Far East during the 16th century, it was the 19th century and the American Civil War that heralded the first modern armored self-propelled warships. With the parallel pressures of civil war and the industrial revolution, technology advanced at a breakneck speed. It was the South who first utilized ironclads as they attempted to protect their ports from the Northern blockade. Impressed with their superior resistance to fire and their ability to ram vulnerable wooden ships, the North began to develop its own rival fleet of ironclads. Eventually these two products of this first modern arms race dueled at the battle of Hampton Roads in a clash that would change the face of naval warfare. Continued below…

Fully illustrated with cutting-edge digital artwork, rare photographs and first-person perspective gun sight views, this book allows the reader to discover the revolutionary and radically different designs of the two rival Ironclads - the CSS Virginia and USS Monitor - through an analysis of each ship's weaponry, ammunition and steerage. Compare the contrasting training of the crews and re-live the horrors of the battle at sea in a war which split a nation, communities and even families. About the Author: Ron Field is Head of History at the Cotswold School in Bourton-on-the-Water. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship in 1982 and taught history at Piedmont High School in California from 1982 to 1983. He was associate editor of the Confederate Historical Society of Great Britain, from 1983 to 1992. He is an internationally acknowledged expert on US Civil War military history, and was elected a Fellow of the Company of Military Historians, based in Washington, DC, in 2005. The author lives in Cheltenham, UK.

 

Recommended Reading: Confederate Ironclad 1861-65 (New Vanguard). Description: The creation of a Confederate ironclad fleet was a miracle of ingenuity, improvisation and logistics. Surrounded by a superior enemy fleet, Confederate designers adapted existing vessels or created new ones from the keel up with the sole purpose of breaking the naval stranglehold on the nascent country. Her ironclads were built in remote cornfields, on small inland rivers or in naval yards within sight of the enemy. The result was an unorthodox but remarkable collection of vessels, which were able to contest the rivers and coastal waters of the South for five years. This title explains how these vessels worked, how they were constructed, how they were manned and how they fought.

 

Recommended Reading: Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armorclads. Description: William N. Still's book is rightfully referred to as the standard of Confederate Naval history. Accurate and objective accounts of the major and even minor engagements with Union forces are combined with extensive background information. This edition has an enlarged section of historical drawings and sketches. Mr. Still explains the political background that gave rise to the Confederate Ironclad program and his research is impeccable. An exhaustive literature listing rounds out this excellent book. While strictly scientific, the inclusion of historical eyewitness accounts and the always fluent style make this book a joy to read. This book is a great starting point.

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