CSS Virginia

The decision to build an ironclad from the hulk of the burned-out steam frigate USS Merrimac was made by Stephen Mallory, the Confederate Secretary of the Navy. He realized that it was almost impossible for his Navy to break the Union blockade by conventional means, so he adopted a more radical approach, placing his faith in ironclads and rifled ordnance. The Merrimac had been burned and sunk when Union forces withdrew from Norfolk, but on inspection she was deemed to still be valuable. Although her upper works had been destroyed, her engines were salvageable, and her lower hull remained in good condition. The hulk was raised and brought into a dry dock in the Navy Yard for conversion. Mallory gathered a design team to work on the project. It consisted of leading naval constructor, John L. Porter, the ordnance expert John M. Brooke and naval engineer William P. Williamson - three of the best designers in the Confederacy. Given the lack of manufacturing capacity in the South, all three men realized that any attempt to produce a technically challenging design was beyond the abilities of Southern foundries. Following a series of meetings, Porter, Brooke and Williamson decided that the conversion of the burned-out hull of the Merrimac was far from ideal, as the vessel was cumbersome, and its engines were underpowered. Its principal advantage was that it allowed an ironclad to be built faster than if it were constructed from scratch. Mallory's directive to start work on the ironclad was issued on 11 June 1861, and she was commissioned into service just eight months later, on 17 February 1862. Given the limited industrial capacity of the Southern states, this represented an incredible accomplishment. The

Solid Propellant Guns

The CSS Virginia was not completed when she fought the USS Monitor. She carried the wrong ammunition, and the gun port shutters designed to protect her gun crews were still not fitted. (Hensley)

Css Virginia

The two 11 in. Dahlgren smoothbore guns carried in the USS Monitor weighed 15,7001b, and fired a 1651b solid cast-iron roundshot or a 1361b conical shell. While Dahlgren limited their propellant to 151b of powder, subsequent tests proved the barrels could withstand larger charges. (Author's Collection)

The two 11 in. Dahlgren smoothbore guns carried in the USS Monitor weighed 15,7001b, and fired a 1651b solid cast-iron roundshot or a 1361b conical shell. While Dahlgren limited their propellant to 151b of powder, subsequent tests proved the barrels could withstand larger charges. (Author's Collection)

Confederacy lacked sufficient engineering plants, skilled workers and raw materials, and Porter and his team continually modified their design to suit the manufacturing capacity available to them. The main elements required were wood, rolled iron sheet for the armor plating, a propulsion system, and reliable ordnance. Wood was in plentiful supply, although the ramshackle rail infrastructure made the transport of shipbuilding lumber and metal plates a continual problem. Porter relied on the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, to supply metal plates. Although the Richmond foundry was the largest ironworks in the Confederacy, it was small in comparison to its northern counterparts. The initial contract specified the use of lin. iron plates, but tests conducted by John M. Brooke at Jamestown proved that a series of one-inch layers would be inadequate protection for the ironclad. Ironically, this was precisely the form of plating fitted to the USS Monitor, but she relied on eight layers of lin. plate to protect her turret, twice the armor available to the Virginia's designers. The vessel was finally protected with two layers of 2in. iron plate, and the Tredegar Works had to alter their machinery so it could roll the thicker plate, which delayed production, but the thicker metal greatly improved the defensive qualities of the vessel. It was bolted to the wooden backing by applying an inner horizontal belt and an outer vertical one. As for a propulsion system, Williamson oversaw the stripping and refurbishment of the Merrimac's engines. Although underpowered, they were reliable, available, and could be fitted into the ironclad with minimal delay.

The basic design of the Confederate ironclad relied on a wooden casemate (shield) with rounded ends, erected on top of the existing hull. When coated with metal plate, this gave the warship the ungainly appearance of an upturned bath. The wood was approximately 2ft thick and the casemate sloped inward at a 35-degree angle, which Brooke determined was the best to deflect enemy shot. The armor extended from the top of the casemate down to the lower hull and beyond, ending Gin. below the waterline. The decision to extend the armor below the point where the casemate joined the hull (known as the "knuckle") added weight to the vessel, and sacrificed maneuverability for protection, but it made the vessel virtually impervious to enemy shot. The upper spar deck (or "hurricane deck") on top of the casemate was unarmored, and fitted with ventilation grilles. The lower hull itself was all but submerged, offering virtually no target to the enemy, although on the second day of the battle more of it was exposed than had been the previous day The ironclad had used up coal, and her bunkers were not replenished during the night of 8/9 March. Consequently, she rode higher in the water, exposing part of her lower hull below the protective "knuckle".

The ironclad's armament consisted of six 9in. Dahlgren smoothbore guns (part of the Merrimac s original armament) plus two new 6.4in. Brooke rifled guns mounted as broadside weapons on conventional carriages. All these pieces were mounted on conventional carriages, and fired out of broadside ports, In addition, two 7in. Brooke rifles on pivot mounts were fitted at the bow and stern, so they could fire ahead, astern or at an angle out of the corner of the casemate. In theory, the ironclad had the capability of all-round fire, although her real strength lay in the power of her broadside armament. An even more potent offensive weapon was the 1,5001b cast-iron ram fitted to the bow, three feet below the waterline.

Christened the CSS Virginia, she was commissioned days before the battle, but she was still unfinished when Admiral Buchanan decided to use her to attack the Union blockading fleet. Much internal work remained to be done, her gunport shutters had not been fitted, and she lacked sufficient stores to allow her to remain at sea for more than a day

Fort Mercer PlansIronclad Colors Csn James River Squadron
Lieutenant John Mercer Brooke, CSN was one of the most able ordnance designers in America. He worked with John Porter on the design of the Virginia, modifying her armament and armor to reflect the latest developments in artillery. (Hensley)

The CSS Patrick Henry was the flagship of the James River Squadron. On 8 March the well-proportioned sidewheel steamer ran past the Union batteries on Newport News under cover of fire from the Virginia. (Mariners)

or iwo. There were still problems with her rudder, and it was estimated the cumbersome vessel would take almost 30 minutes to complete a 180-degree turn. Despite her lack of speed, poor maneuverability and a large draught (23ft), she was a powerful warship. She was also more than a match for all the Union vessels in Hampton Roads combined, until the arrival of her ironclad rival in time for the second day of the battle.

CSS Virginia's Officers

Commanding Officer: Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan

Executive Officer: Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones

Chief Engineering Officer: Lieutenant Ramsay

Lieutenants (6), Midshipmen (7)

Captain of Marines: Lieutenant Thom

Surgeon: Dinwiddie Phillips

Paymaster: James Semple

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