Buchanan Takes Command

On or around 14 February the Merrimac was relaunched, and on 16 February 1862 the Navy officially acquired the Merrimac, which was duly, renamed the CSS Virginia. There was no ceremony, and one sailor recorded "only four marines and a corporal were on board at her launching." A week later Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan arrived in Norfolk to oversee the completion of the ironclad. "Old Buck" and his staff found her far from ready for action, particularly as the vessel was still short of crewmen. While the Executive Officer, Lieutenant Smith, supervised the last-minute preparations of the Virginia, Buchanan sent Lieutenant John Wood, the grandson of President Zachary Taylor, to ask the Army for help. Wood met General Magruder near Yorktown, and of the 200 men who volunteered, the naval officer selected 80 artillerymen or former seamen to serve on board the Virginia. Jones was a hard taskmaster, and he hounded the construction crew and dockyard staff, while complaining to Buchanan about "the want of skilled labor and

Fort Monroe

The USS Monitor as she looked when she was commissioned. Following the battle, improvements were made to her pilot house and to her smokestacks (funnels), which were too low to prevent seawater from pouring into the boilers. (Hensley)

lack of proper tools and appliances." Everything in the wartime Confederacy was in short, supply, and constant delays in the delivery of iron, coal, ammunition, powder, caulking, ropes, and lubricating oil kept Jones fully occupied. At one stage he even sent a naval party up the railroad track toward Petersburg to locate a missing shipment of iron.

While these preparations continued, Buchanan considered how best to use the ironclad. She drew 22ft of water, and the waters of the Elizabeth River and Hampton Roads were a maze of shallows and narrow channels. She was going to be difficult to turn, and given the constricted waters between Norfolk and Newport News Point, Buchanan was severely limited as to where he could steam. Even with a good local pilot, he would be unable to get close to either Fort Monroe or Newport News, and a large patch of shallows between Sewell's Point and Pig Point limited her area of operations even further. It was unlikely that the Virginia could sail far up the James River toward Richmond, but at least she could attack the larger vessels of the blockading squadron, forcing them to flee or run aground to avoid destruction.

On 4 March, Buchanan wrote to Mai lory from "aboard the C.S. Steam Frigate Virginia." He acknowledged receipt of his appointment as Flag Officer commanding "the Naval Defenses of the James River," and he reported that "today I hoisted my flag aboard this ship." He went on to outline his plan of operation. "On Thursday night the 6th instant, I contemplate leaving here to appear before the Enemy's Ships at Newport News. Should no accident occur to this ship, when I feel confident that the acts of the Virginia will give proof of the desire of her officers and crew to meet the views of the Department as far as practicable." Buchanan was referring to Mallory's stated aim to use the ironclad to break the Union blockade of the Chesapeake. He added: "From the best and most reliable information I can obtain from experienced pilots it will be impossible to ascend the Potomac in the Virginia with the present draft of water, nearly 22 feet." He was gently letting Mai lory know that his pipe dream of using the Virginia to bombard Washington was exactly that.

Buchanan wrote to Commander Tucker of the "James River Squadron," asking him to stand by to assist his attack. Jones counseled a delay. None of the gunport shutters had been fitted, and powder and shot had only just arrived. The attack was delayed for a day, allowing Jones to grease the casemate sides to "increase the tendency of projectiles to glance," and to rig temporary gunport shutters at the bow and stern. All the crew went on board on Thursday 6 March, and in Jones' words, "all preparations were made." Pilots were consulted, and a further postponement was recommended, as navigation of the Elizabeth River would be easier. The Virginia's sortie against the enemy fleet would take place at dawn on Saturday 8 March 1862.

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