Converting The Merrimac

During his visit, Mallory examined the wreck of the Merrimac. Across Hampton Roads, Flag Officer Silas Stringham, commander of the newly formed North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, deemed the wreck "worthless" in a letter to the Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Mallory thought otherwise, and weeks after the fall of the Norfolk Navy Yard, he formed a design team, consisting of naval constructor John L. Porter, Lieutenant John M. Brooke and naval engineer William

The jetty immediately to the west of Newport News Point was covered by a series of emplacements, whose purpose was to defend Camp Butler behind them and to prevent Confederate vessels on the James River from reaching Norfolk. The two sailing warships Congress (left) and Cumberland (right) were anchored there for the same reason. (Hensley Collection)

P. Williamson. Mallory asked the men to sketch out plans for the conversion of the hulk into an armored warship, able to "prevent all blockade and encounter ... their entire navy." Ilis trio of designers was perfectly chosen. They inspected the Merrimac, ordered her salvage, and designed her rebirth as a revolutionary new warship. On 11 July they presented their proposals to Mallory, who was delighted and immediately gave the design his approval. He immediately wrote to Flag Officer French Forrest, the new Confederate commandant of the yard: 'You will proceed with all practical dispatch to make changes in the Merrimack and to build, equip and fit her in all respects ... you will see that work progresses without delay to completion." As the Battle of Bull Run ensured the survival of the Confederacy for another year, work began on the creation of the Confederate answer to the Union's naval blockade.

As early as 24 May the Merrimac was raised and hauled into Norfolk's dry dock. Mallory estimated that the work to convert the Merrimac would cost $172,523, a sizeable portion of his Department's allocated budget. He went ahead with the work without arguing for additional funding from the Confederate Congress, now housed in Richmond, Virginia. He understood that time was vital. Mallory commissioned the building of other casemate ironclads to protect the Mississippi River, but he realized the importance of the Merrimac project. The Union was also becoming uneasy, particularly when, on 17 October, Stringham's replacement Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough reported to Gideon Welles that: "I am now quite satisfied that ... she will, in all probability, prove to be exceedingly formidable." News of the project had already caused the Union Navy Department to launch their own ironclad program, but it was increasingly becoming clear that both navies were locked in a race. If the Confederates were first to commission their ironclad, they could decimate the Union blockading squadron lying off Hampton Roads. Goldsborough sent regular reports, reporting in mid-October that the Merrimac was, "still in the dry dock at Norfolk, and yet needs a goodly quantity of iron to complete her casing, all of which is furnished from Richmond. She has her old engines on board, and they have been made to work tolerably well." He expected her to be ready by the start of November. This was an estimate that failed to take the Confederacy's

The jetty immediately to the west of Newport News Point was covered by a series of emplacements, whose purpose was to defend Camp Butler behind them and to prevent Confederate vessels on the James River from reaching Norfolk. The two sailing warships Congress (left) and Cumberland (right) were anchored there for the same reason. (Hensley Collection)

ABOVE When the decision was made to abandon Norfolk Navy Yard, the USS Cumberland protected the base with her guns as Union sailors and soldiers destroyed ships that couldn't be removed to safety and ferried stores to Fort Monroe. (LoV)

RIGHT The destruction of the wooden steam frigate USS Merrimac at Washington Navy Yard, early in the morning of 19 April 1861. The vessel was burned to the waterline, but her lower hull and engines escaped serious damage, and were reused by the Confederate Navy. (Hensley)

industrial and transport problems into account. The Tredegar Iron Works was reportedly "pressed beyond endurance" to fulfill the demands of the Navy Department. When plate was ready, it was sent by train from Richmond to Portsmouth via Petersburg, although the Army had priority, and trains carrying iron plates were frequently shunted into sidings or re-routed to allow troop or munitions trains to pass. Another problem was the shortage of railroad flatcars that could carry the weight of the metal plates. According to their records, the Tredegar Iron Works supplied 725 tons of armored plates for use on the Merrimac, for a total cost of $123,615. The majority of these were 10ft long, 8in. wide

Dry Railroad Merrimac

The Norfolk Navy Yard was actually located in the southern suburb of Portsmouth known as Gosport. This photograph was taken after the virtual destruction of the base on 18-19 April 1861. The US Navy's failure to destroy the dry dock would have major repercussions. (LoV)

and 2in. thick, pre-drilled to allow them to be bolted to the wooden framework of the Merrimac\s casemate.

The sheer scale of the casemate was a challenge to Porter and his team of engineers. The structure was 172ft long, 30ft wide, and 7ft high. The rounded corners were a problem, as plate had to be curved, and the Tredegar works lacked the powerful hydraulic presses found in other yards. Work on these corners was, therefore, slow and laborious. Another problem was the production of a huge 1,5001b iron ram, which Porter wanted attached to the ironclad's bow, some 2ft below the waterline. The piece was duly produced, but neither Porter or the ironworkers knew how this ram would perform in combat. Ramming was a tactic used by galleys in the Mediterranean as late as the Renaissance, but the advent of reliable firepower at sea made the device redundant. Porter's "re-invention" of the ram demonstrated the extent to which he, Mallory, and other Confederate designers were leading a revolution in naval warfare.

The armament was supplied from two sources: the six 9in. Dahlgren's, which formed the bulk of the vessel's broadside armament, came from the stockpile of weapons captured when the Norfolk Navy Yard was captured. Some accounts claim they were the guns that were originally carried on the Merrimac, but there is no hard evidence to support this. Mallory was a strong advocate for the adoption of rilled ordnance. Under the guidance of Lieutenant Brooke, four rifled guns were cast at the Tredegar ironworks; two 6.4in. pieces, which would be fired as part of the main broadside, and two 7in. rifles, mounted at the bow and stern. The rifled guns were Brooke's own design, although they

The Norfolk Navy Yard was actually located in the southern suburb of Portsmouth known as Gosport. This photograph was taken after the virtual destruction of the base on 18-19 April 1861. The US Navy's failure to destroy the dry dock would have major repercussions. (LoV)

were for the most part improved versions of the Parrott guns used by the Union. The Confederates recognized the advantages of rifled guns, but although highly accurate, in practice their effectiveness was limited by problems with the supply of reliable projectiles and powder.

By the New Year of 1862, deserters reported to the Union that "the last of the iron plates for the Merrimac were put on". In fact, the ironclad was far from ready, as shortages of iron, guns, fittings, and almost all types of supplies delayed her construction. The ironclad was still weeks from completion, and although Flag Officer Buchanan arrived to oversee her completion, the ironclad was still short of a crew to man her.

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