In 1861, the steam frigate USS Merrimac was one of the most powerful warships in the US Navy. She was one of a series of six 40-gun steam frigates ordered in 1854, and from her launch in Boston the following year she was regarded as the pride of the fleet. She served in the West Indies and the Pacific before being sent to Norfolk Navy Yard in February 1860 for a major refit. Norfolk Navy Yard was considered the "premier yard" in the country. It covered 108 acres in the Gosport suburb of Portsmouth, across the Elizabeth River from Norfolk itself, and combined being a major shipbuilding yard with service as the Navy's primary ordnance and munitions depot. It boasted a large granite dry dock, machine shops, a foundry, and three shipbuilding slips. Work continued in the yard in early 1861 even though war seemed imminent, as the base commandant was reluctant to begin any evacuation, which might provoke Virginia to secede.
When Virginia withdrew from the Union on 17 April 1861 (five days after the bombardment of Fort Sumter), the base commander finally made plans to evacuate Norfolk and to destroy the facilities. He achieved little, partly as he was hindered by Southern sympathizers amongst his staff and civilian workforce, most of whom refused to carry
The lighthouse on Old Point Comfort, with Fort Monroe behind it, viewed from the south. The jetty in the foreground was a hive of activity on 8 March, when the ironclad Virginia made her sortie into Hampton Roads, and the small vessels there fled behind the Point. (Casemate)
OPPOSITE TOP This emplacement to the northeast of Fort Monroe was sited to cover the passage between Fort Monroe and Fort Wool. Its primary function was to block the Virginia's access to Chesapeake Bay. The 15in. Rodman smoothbore pictured here was nicknamed the "Lincoln Gun". (Casemate)
BUILDING THE CSS VIRGINIA, EARLY FEBRUARY, 1862. The CSS Virginia was converted from the burned-out remains of the wooden steam frigate USS Merrimac, with much of the work being carried out in the surviving dry dock in Norfolk Navy Yard. The scene is based on an engraving of the conversion process, which was later rendered as a painting. It depicts the final stages of the process, as the last iron plates are being bolted to the forward part of the Virginia's casemate. This work was still being completed when the ship was commissioned into the Confederate Navy on 17 February, 1862. In the foreground, Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan is shown discussing the work with his second-in-command, Lieutenant Thomas Catesby ap Jones, while a junior Confederate naval officer waits behind Jones for his instructions. On the right of the scene the two figures shown in earnest discussion are John L. Porter, the Confederate Naval Constructor, and Commander John M. Brooke, CSN, the ordnance expert whose guns formed the vessel's main armament. (Adam Hook)
out his orders. On 20 April the commandant of the yard, Commodore Charles S. McCauley ordered the base destroyed and the Merrimac taken into the Elizabeth River, set on fire and scuttled, as he lacked the manpower to tow her to safety. Ironically a rescue party and a tug arrived from Fort Monroe to tow her away, but it was Loo late. If they had arrived earlier, the Battle of Hampton Roads would never have taken place. Of the 12 warships at the yard, only the sailing sloop USS Cumberland was towed to the safety of Fort Monroe, on the far side of Hampton Roads. Late the following evening the yard was abandoned, and the local Confederate militia marched in to claim their prize. Although an attempt had been made to destroy the dry dock, it was still serviceable, as were many of the shipyard facilities. Even more impressive was the haul of some 1,200 pieces of naval ordnance, including 300 modern Dahlgren smoothbores, 50 of them being his latest llin. smoothbores. Within days, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory visited the site, and work began hauling many of the guns away to arm coastal defenses in the Carolinas, Louisiana, and Georgia. Other pieces were hauled into place overlooking Hampton Roads to protect Norfolk itself. Two weeks later, scouting vessels dispatched from the north shore of Hampton Roads were turned back by fire from batteries on Sewell's Point and Pig Point. As trains brought up Confederate reinforcements from Richmond, General Wool at Fort Monroe deemed the Norfolk area too strong to be recaptured without a major and costly assault. Norfolk was safely in Confederate hands.
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