Doc. 12.-the destruction of the Merrimac.
Official report of Commodore Tatnall.
Richmond May 14, 1862.sir: In detailing to you the circumstances which caused the destruction of the confederate States steamer Virginia, and her movements a few days previous to that event, I begin with your telegraphic despatches to me of the fourth and fifth instant, directing me to take such a position in the James River as would entirely prevent the enemy's ascending it. Gen. Huger, commanding at Norfolk, on learning that I had received this order, called on me and declared that its execution would oblige him to abandon immediately his forts on Craney Island, at Sewell's Point, and their guns to the enemy. I informed him that, as the order was imperative, I must execute it, but stated that he should telegraph you and state the consequences. He did so, and on the sixth instant you telegraphed me to endeavor to afford protection to Norfolk as well as the James River, which replaced me in my original position. I then arranged with the General that he should notify me when his preparations for the evacuation of Norfolk were sufficiently advanced to enable me to act independently. On the seventh instant Corn. Hollins reached Norfolk, with orders from you to communicate with me and such officers as I might select in regard to the best disposition to be made of the Virginia, under the present aspect of things. We had arranged the conference for the next day, the eighth; but, on that day, before the hour appointed, the enemy attacked the Sewell's Point battery; and I left immediately with the Virginia to defend it. We found six of the enemy's vessels, including the iron-clad steamers Monitor and Naugatuck, shelling the battery. We passed the battery, and stood directly for the enemy, for the purpose of engaging him, and I thought an action certain, particularly as the Minnesota and Vanderbilt, which were anchored below Fortress Monroe, got under way and stood up to that point apparently with the intention of joining their squadron in the Roads. Before, however, we got within gun-shot, the enemy ceased firing, and retired with all speed under the protection of the guns of the fortress, followed by the Virginia, until the shells from the Rip Raps passed over her. The Virginia was then placed at her moorings near Sewell's Point, and I returned to Norfolk to hold the conference referred to. It was held on the ninth, and the officers pressent were, Col. Anderson and Capt.----, of the army, selected by Gen. Huger, who was too unwell to attend himself; and of the navy, myself, Corn. Hollins, and Capts. Sterrett and Lee, Commander Richard L. Jones, and Lieuts. Ap Catesby Jones and J. Pembroke Jones. The opinion was unanimous that the Virginia was then employed to the best advantage, and that she should continue, for the present, to protect Norfolk, and thus afford time to remove the public property. On the next day, at ten o'clock A. M., we observed from the Virginia that the flag was not flying on the Sewell's Point battery, and that it appeared to have been abandoned: I despatched Lieut. J. P. Jones, the Flag-Lieutenant, to Craney Island, where the confederate flag was still flying, and he there learned that a large force of the enemy had landed on Bay Shore, and were marching rapidly on Norfolk; that Sewell's Point battery was abandoned, and our troops were retreating. I then despatched the same officer to Norfolk, to confer with Gen. Huger and Capt. Lee. He found the navy-yard in flames, and that all its officers had left by railroad. On reaching Norfolk he found that Gen. Huger and all the other officers of the army had also left, that the enemy were within half a mile of the city, and that the Mayor was treating for its surrender. On returning to the ship, he found that Craney Island and all the other batteries on the river had been abandoned. It was now seven o'clock in the evening, and this unexpected confirmation rendered prompt measures necessary for the safety of the Virginia. The pilots had assured me that they could take the ship, with a draft of eighteen feet, to within forty miles of Richmond. This the chief pilot, Mr. Parrish, and his chief assistant, Mr. Wright, had asserted again and again; and on the afternoon of the seventh, in my cabin, in the presence of Com. Hollins and Capt. Sterrett, in reply to a question of mine, they both emphatically declared their ability to do so. Confiding in these assurances, and, after consulting  with the first and flag-lieutenants, and learning that the officers generally thought it the most judicious course, I determined to lighten the ship at once, and run up the river for the protection of Richmond. All hands having been called on deck, I stated to them the condition of things, and my hope that, by getting up the river before the enemy could be made aware of our designs, we might capture his vessels which had ascended it, and render efficient aid in the defence of Richmond; but that to effect this would require all their energy in lightening the ship. They replied with three cheers, and went to work at once. The pilots were on deck and heard this address to the crew. Being quite unwell, I had retired to bed. Between one and two o'clock in the morning the first lieutenant reported to me that, after the crew had worked for five or six hours, and lifted the ship so as to render her unfit for action, the pilots had declared their inability to carry eighteen feet above the Jamestown Flats, up to which point the shore on each side was occupied by the enemy. On demanding from the chief pilot, Mr. Parrish, an explanation of this palpable deception, he replied that eighteen feet could be carried after the prevalence of easterly winds, and that the wind for the last two days had been westerly. I had no time to lose. The ship was not in condition for battle, even with an enemy of equal force, and their force was overwhelming. I therefore determined, with the concurrence of the first and flag-lieutenants, to save the crew for future service by landing them at Craney Island, the only road for retreat open to us, and to destroy the ship, to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy. I may add that, although not formally consulted, the course was approved by every commissioned officer in the ship. There is no dissenting opinion. The ship was accordingly put on shore as near the mainland in the vicinity of Craney Island as possible, and the crew landed. She was then fired, and after burning fiercely fore and aft for upward of an hour, blew up a little before five on the morning of the eleventh. We marched for Suffolk, twenty-two miles, and reached it in the evening, and from thence came by railroad to this city. It will be asked what motives the pilots. could have had .to deceive me. The only imaginable one is that they wished to avoid going into battle. Had the ship not have been lifted so as to render her unfit for action, a desperate contest must have ensued with a force against us too great to justify much hope of success, and as battle is not their occupation, they adopted this deceitful course to avoid it. I cannot imagine another motive, for I had seen no reason to distrust their good faith to the Confederacy. My acknowledgments are due to the First Lieutenant, Ap Catesby Jones, for his untiring exertions and for the aid he rendered me in all things. The details for firing for the ship and landing the crew were left to him, and everything was conducted with the most perfect order. To the other officers of the ship, generally, I am also thankful for the great zeal they displayed throughout. The Virginia no longer exists, but three hundred brave and skilful officers and seamen are saved to the Confederacy. I presume that a Court of Inquiry will be ordered to examine into all the circumstances I have narrated, and I earnestly solicit it. Public opinion will never be put right without it. I am, sir, with great respect, your ob't servant,
Findings of the Court of Inquiry.
C. S. Navy Department, Richmond, June 11.The Court of Inquiry convoked by the order of this Department of the twentieth ultimo, whereof French Forrest, Captain in the navy of the confederate States, is president, and which court convened at the city of Richmond on the twenty-second day of May, 1862, to investigate and “inquire into the destruction of the steamer Virginia, and report the same, together with their opinion as to the necessity of destroying her, and particularly whether any, and what disposition could have been made of the vessel,” have found as follows: The court, having heard the statement read submitted by Flag-Officer Tatnall, was cleared for deliberation, and, after mature consideration, adopted the following report: The court, after a full and careful examination and investigation of the evidence connected with the destruction by fire of the confederate States Steamer Virginia, on the morning of May eleventh, 1862, near Craney Island, respectfully report that it was effected by the order and under the supervision of Flag-Officer Tatnall, after her draft had been reduced to twenty feet six inches, and on the representations of the pilots that in consequence of recent prevalent westerly winds, she could not be taken with a draft of eighteen feet as high as Westover, near Harrison's Bar, in James River, (whither he designed to take her,) which they previously stated they could do. 1. The destruction of the Virginia was, in the opinion of the court, unnecessary at the time and place it was effected. 2. It being clearly in evidence that Norfolk being evacuated, and Flag-Officer Tatnall having been instructed to prevent the enemy from ascending James River, the Virginia, with very little more, if any, lessening of draft, after lightening her to twenty feet six inches aft, with her iron sheathing still extending three feet under water, could have been taken up to Hog Island in James River, (where the channel is narrow,) and could then have prevented the larger vessels and transports of the enemy from ascending. The court is of opinion that such disposition ought to have been made of her, and if it should be ascertained that her provisions could have been replenished  when those on hand were exhausted, then the proper time would have arrived to take into consideration the expediency or practicability of striking a last blow at the enemy or destroying her. In conclusion, the court is of opinion that the evacuation of Norfolk, the destruction of the Navy-Yard and other public property, added to the hasty retreat of the military under General Huger, leaving the batteries unmanned and unprotected, no doubt conspired to produce in the minds of the officers of the Virginia the necessity of her destruction at the time, as, in their opinion, the only means left of preventing her from falling into the hands of the enemy; and seems to have precluded the consideration of the possibility of getting her up James River to the point or points indicated. The Court of Inquiry, of which Captain F. Forrest is president, is hereby dissolved.
S. R. Mallory, Secretary of the Navy.