Merrimack Facts : A Civil War Ironclad

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USS Merrimack Facts
Rebuilt as CSS Virginia

Merrimack

 

Merrimack: A river formed by the junction of Permigewasset and Winnipesaukee Rivers at Franklin, N.H., flowing across northeastern Massachusetts before emptying in the Atlantic at Newburyport, Mass.

Merrimack II (aka CSS Virginia)

(ScFr: t. 3,200; l. 275'; b. 38'6"; dph. 27'6"; dr. 24'3"; s. 12 k.; a. 14 8", 2 10", 24 9")

The second Merrimack was launched by the Boston Navy Yard 15 June 1855; sponsored by Miss Mary E. Simmons; and commissioned 20 February 1856, Capt. Garrett J. Pendergrast in command.

USS Merrimack (1856-1861)
USS Merrimack.jpg
U.S. Naval Historical Center

Shakedown took the new screw frigate to the Caribbean and to western Europe. Merrimack visited Southhampton, Brest, Lisbon, and Toulon before returning to Boston and decommissioning 22 April 1857 for repairs. Recommissioning 1 September 1857, Merrimack got underway from Boston Harbor 17 October as flagship for the Pacific Squadron. She rounded Cape Horn and cruised the Pacific coast of South and Central America until heading for home 14 November 1859. Upon returning to Norfolk, she decommissioned 16 February 1860.

Merrimack was still in ordinary during the crisis preceding Lincoln’s inauguration. Soon after becoming Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles took action to prepare the frigate for sea, planning to move her to Philadelphia. The day before the firing on Fort Sumter, Welles directed that “great vigilance be exercised in guarding and protecting” Norfolk Navy Yard and her ships. On the afternoon of 17 April, the day Virginia seceded, Engineer in Chief B. F. Isherwood managed to get the frigate’s engines lit off; but the previous night secessionists had sunk lightboats in the channel between Craney Island and Sewell’s Point, blocking Merrimack. On the 20th, before evacuating the Navy Yard, the U.S. Navy burned Merrimack to the waterline and sank her to preclude capture.

The Confederates, in desperate need of ships, raised Merrimack and rebuilt her as an ironclad ram, according to a design prepared by Lt. J. M. Brooke, CSN. Commissioned as CSS Virginia 17 February 1862, the ironclad was the hope of the Confederacy to destroy the wooden ships in Hampton Roads and to end the Union blockade which had already seriously hurt the South.

Despite all‑out effort to complete her, Virginia still had workmen on board when she sailed out into Hampton Roads, 8 March 1862, tended by CSS Raleigh and Beaufort and accompanied by Patrick Henry, Jamestown, and Teaser. Flag Officer F. Buchanan, CSN, commanding Virginia, singled out as first victim sailing sloop Cumberland, anchored west of Newport News. In taking position, Virginia passed Congress and exchanged broadsides, suffering no injury while causing considerable damage. She crossed Cumberland’s bow, raking her with a lethal fire, before finishing off the wooden warship with a thrust of her iron ram. Gallantly fighting her guns as long as they were above water, Cumberland sank taking one‑third of her crew, 121 men, and part of Virginia’s ram down with her.

Virginia then turned her attention to Congress, which had grounded. Assisted by the lighter ships of the South’s James River Squadron, Virginia opened fire from a distance, forcing Congress to haul down her colors. As CSS Beaufort and Raleigh approached Congress to receive the surrender of her crew, Federal troops ashore, not understanding the situation, opened a withering fire and wounded Buchanan, who retaliated by ordering hot shot and incendiary shell to be pored into Congress. The latter, ablaze and unable to bring a single gun to bear, hauled down her flag for the last time. She continued to burn until exploding about midnight.

Virginia did not emerge unscathed. Her stack was riddled causing loss of power and she was initially underpowered. Two large guns were out of order, her armor loosened and her ram lost. Nevertheless, she went on to attack Minnesota, but shallow water prevented her getting close enough to do her former sister frigate serious damage. Virginia anchored that night at Sewell’s Point for repairs. Flag Officer Buchanan was taken ashore to the hospital and Lt. Catesby ap R. Jones, CSN, who had conned the ironclad after Buchanan had been wounded, assumed command.

On the following morning, Virginia returned to battle, but in the night Union ironclad Monitor had arrived in the nick of time to defend the fleet in Hampton Roads. The ensuing inconclusive battle, the first ever fought between powered ironclads, revolutionized naval warfare. As Virginia steamed into Hampton Roads toward grounded Minnesota, Monitor moved out of the steam‑frigate’s shadow to challenge the Confederate ironclad. Minnesota’s commander, Capt. G. J. Van Brunt, described the ensuing action. “Gun after gun was fired by the Monitor, which was returned with whole broadsides from the rebels with no more effect, apparently, than so many pebblestones thrown by a child. After a while they commenced maneuvering, and we could see the little battery point her bow for the rebels, with the intention, as I thought, of sending a shot through her bow porthole; then she would shoot by her and rake her through her stern. In the meantime the rebel was pouring broadside after broadside, but when they struck the bombproof tower the shot glanced off without producing any effect.”

Shortly before noon, a shot from Virginia struck Monitor’s pilothouse driving dust through the eyeslit through which Lieutenant Worden was conning the ship, and temporarily blinding him. Thinking that the pilothouse was seriously damaged, if not destroyed, Worden ordered the ship to sheer off to shallow water. At the same time Virginia headed back toward Sewell’s Point.

Installation of a new ram and other repairs and alterations kept Virginia in dry dock at Norfolk for almost a month. Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, CSN, appointed 25 March 1862 as Commander of Confederate Naval Forces, selected Virginia as his flagship.

Virginia returned to Hampton Roads 11 April; under her protection CSS Jamestown and CSS Raleigh captured three Union transports. Strategic considerations precluded a second Monitor‑Virginia duel. Monitor’s mission was to contain Virginia in support of General McClellan’s campaign on the peninsula, and Virginia safeguarded the important Norfolk area and the mouth of the James River. When forced to evacuate Norfolk, the Confederates tried to take Virginia up the James River, but her deep draft prevented it, so they destroyed her 11 May 1862.

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: 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: 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: 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.

 

Recommended Reading: A History of Ironclads: The Power of Iron over Wood. Description: This landmark book documents the dramatic history of Civil War ironclads and reveals how ironclad warships revolutionized naval warfare. Author John V. Quarstein explores in depth the impact of ironclads during the Civil War and their colossal effect on naval history. The Battle of Hampton Roads was one of history's greatest naval engagements. Over the course of two days in March 1862, this Civil War conflict decided the fate of all the world's navies. It was the first battle between ironclad warships, and the 25,000 sailors, soldiers and civilians who witnessed the battle vividly understood what history would soon confirm: wars waged on the seas would never be the same. Continued below…

About the Author: John V. Quarstein is an award-winning author and historian. He is director of the Virginia War Museum in Newport News and chief historical advisor for The Mariners' Museum's new USS Monitor Center (opened March 2007). Quarstein has authored eleven books and dozens of articles on American, military and Civil War history, and has appeared in documentaries for PBS, BBC, The History Channel and Discovery Channel.

 

Recommended Viewing: The First Ironclads - Into the Modern Era (DVD) (2008). Description: This is the story of the great vessels, the formidable warships, the epic ironclads (early battleships), that changed forever naval ship design as well as naval warfare: the Monitor, the Merrimack (later renamed the Virginia) and it presents a fascinating animated reconstruction of their epic battle during the American Civil War. Continued below...

The Battle of Hampton Roads, aka Duel of the Ironclads, which made the world's navies tremble as well as obsolete, is handsomely depicted in this video. The First Ironclads – Into the Modern Era is a welcome addition for the individual interested in the Civil War, U.S. Naval Warfare, and shipbuilding and design. It also includes footage from aboard the world's most devastating “sailing ironship” the HMS Warrior.

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