The Virginia, or Merrimac: her real projector.In the Richmond Dispatch of March 29th appeared an article, written by Mr J. W. H. Porter, under the supervision of Constructor John L. Porter, purporting to be a ‘correct version of the converting of the Merrimac into an iron-clad.’ Mr Porter says:
In your issue of Sunday last, in the communication of Mr. Virginius Newton, headed “The Merrimac's men” , there appears the following:The following dispassionate statement of Colonel Brooke of the facts connected with the conversion of the Merrimac is conclusive: In October, 1887, I was requested by the editor of the Century to prepare a note stating what my relations were to the construction of the Merrimac. This note, containing the only public reference to Mr. Porter or his claim that I have ever made, will be found in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Vol. I, p. 715; and on the following page a similar note by Constructor John L. Porter as to his relations. To these notes the attention of the reader is invited. But as the  book is not always accessible, and such versions of occurrences of the war as this of Mr. Porter sometimes find their way into crude histories of the day, I deem it proper to present the subject from another point of view, with evidence.. Early in June, 1861, Mr. Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate States Navy, asked me to design an iron-clad. The first idea presenting itself was a shield of timber two feet thick, plated with three inches of iron, inclined to the horizontal plane at the least angle that would permit working the guns. This shield to be supported by a hull of equal length. But it was apparent, on inspection, that to support the massive shield the ends of the vessel would be so full and bluff as to prevent the attainment of speed. It then occurred to me that fineness of line, buoyancy, and protection of hull could be obtained by extending the ends of the vessel under water beyond the shield. To prevent the banking up of water on these submerged ends I erected upon them a superstructure of shipiron, corresponding in form with the hull below, but not higher than would permit the free use of bow and stern guns; these superstructures to be decked. Of this design I submitted outline drawings—body, sheer, and deck-plans—to Mr. Mallory, who approved and adopted them. I then asked that Chief Engineer Williamson and Constructor Porter should be sent for from the Norfolk navy-yard to put the plan in execution. This the Secretary declined doing, but ordered a practical mechanic to be sent up from the Norfolk yard. The mechanic came, aided in the statement of timber, etc., but was unable to make the working drawings, and was permitted to return to the yard. Constructor Porter and Chief Engineer Williamson were then ordered to report. They came, and we met in consultation with the Secretary. Mr. Porter brought and presented for consideration a model of an iron-clad of the same form as that which I had rejected for reasons above stated. When we had examined the model, the Secretary said he wished to show Messrs. Porter and Williamson a plan proposed by Lieutenant Brooke. The plan was then placed before them, and the reasons for extending the ends of the hull beyond the shield and under water were stated, and they approved the plan. It had been, as stated above, previously adopted by the Department. Mr. Mallory then directed Messrs. Williamson and Porter to ascertain if suitable engines and boilers could be had. To me he said: ‘Make a clean drawing in ink of your plan, to be filed in the department.’ As I placed the paper on the table and was about to begin,  Mr. Porter said to me: ‘You had better let me do that. I am more familiar than you are with that sort of work.’ Accepting his offer I went with Williamson to the Tredegar Works, where we learned that no suitable engines could be had. Williamson then said that the engines of the Merrimac could, he thought, be put in working condition, but that the vessel would necessarily have as great a draught as the Merrimac, and that it would be useless to build a new hull, as the lower part of the old one had not been destroyed, and the plan could be applied to her. In view of these facts, Constructor Porter, who also knew what the condition of the vessel was, agreed with us that the plan could be carried out on her. We all thought the draught too great, but we could not do better. We reported verbally to the Secretary; the subject was discussed, and his opinion coincided with ours. He then, in order that a record might be preserved, directed us to make a written report in accordance with the results of the discussion. As the plan proposed by me had been adopted, I thought it but proper that I should leave the wording of the report to Messrs. Williamson and Porter. I noticed that in designating the plan to be adopted the expression used was ‘the plan submitted for the approval of the Department.’ Which plan was not stated. I now pass to a later period. The action in Hampton Roads had been fought. Among the gallant officers of the Virginia, whose names are now historic, was Lieutenant Robt. D. Minor—a very pink of honor. He had been associated with me in ordnance work, and was fully informed as to the facts in this matter. From him I received the following letter. It has never been published and will, I think, be read with interest:Upon this hulk, according to plans furnished by Lieutenant John M. Brooke of the Confederate States Navy (though the merit of the design is also claimed for Naval Constructor John L. Porter), was built a house or shield, &c.This does a grave injustice to a gallant old Confederate and Virginian, who sacrificed his all upon the altar of his country; and had Mr. Newton known fully the facts it is believed that he would have published his article with the names above reversed.
In justice to Constructor Porter, and in order that his claim and the grounds upon which it is based may be fully set forth, his published letters, with their true dates of publication, are now presented, with such other matter, arranged in order of sequence, as may be necessary to the preservation of historical accuracy and the development of the process by which he arrived at the conclusion that he was ‘not only the constructor but the originator of the plan of the Virginia.’ In the Charleston Mercury of March 19, 1862, the following extract from a private letter written by Constructor Porter was published: ‘I received but little encouragement from any one while the Virginia was progressing. Hundreds, I may say thousands, asserted she would never float. Some said she would turn bottom side up; others said the crew would suffocate; and the most wise said the concussion and report from the guns would deafen the men. Some said she would not steer; and public opinion generally about here said she would never come out of the dock. You have no idea what I have suffered in mind since I commenced her, but I knew what I was about, and I persevered. Some of her inboard arrangements are of the most intricate character, and have caused me many sleepless nights in making them, but all have turned out right, and thanks  are due to a kind Providence whose blessings on my efforts I have many times invoked. I must say I was astonished at the success of the Virginia. She destroyed the Cumberland in fifteen minutes, and in thirty more the Congress was captured. The Minnesota would have shared the same fate, but she got aground, and the Virginia could not get at her.’ In the Whig of March 22, appeared the following letter:
‘Justice’ was in error in using the word ‘board.’ As will be seen, in the Secretary's report to the House of Representatives of the Confederate States, ‘The Department ordered Chief Engineer Williamson and Constructor Porter from the navy yard at Norfolk to Richmond for consultation on the same subject generally [Lieutenant Brooke's design, approved by the Department], and to aid in the work.’ The Secretary himself took part in the consultations, and directed us to put in writing the conclusions arrived at. Had we constituted a board it would so have appeared on the face of the report. Constructor Porter adopted the word ‘board’ in his reply to ‘Justice,’ and thereafter used it as the best suited to his purpose. A reply elicited by this article appeared in the Examiner of April 3d:
On the 3d of April, I wrote a private letter to Mr. Porter which, so far as I know, has never been published.
The faulty arrangement of the wheel-ropes was brought to my notice by Lieutenant Jones. A similar arrangement was the immediate cause of the loss of the iron-clad Tennessee. On the 4th of April Secretary Mallory's report to the House of Representatives appeared in the Examiner.
The following is the report upon the Merrimac:
On the 11th of April the Examiner published Mr. Porter's reply to the Secretary's report.
No such plans were submitted to the board.Mr. Porter may have supposed that the direction of the Secretary to consider and report upon the best mode of making the Merrimac useful was equivalent to appointing us members of a board, and as the plan had already been submitted, he could say that it had not  been presented to the board. Yet Mr. Porter signed the report, stating that we had carefully considered various plans. There were but two plans presented—mine, illustrated by outline drawings; and Mr. Porter's, illustrated by his model.
The Secretary presented us no plans from this source.
I stated in my last communication that Lieutenant Brooke failed to produce anything after a week's trial; and I am still of that opinion, so far as anything tangible is concerned.Constructor Porter was at the Norfolk navy-yard, and could have no personal knowledge of what occurred in Richmond. His expressed opinion is based upon the fact that the master-carpenter had returned to the yard without completing any plan, ‘as the vessel shows, and himself being sent for immediately.’ The expression ‘as the vessel shows,’ meaning, like the Virginia, implies that the master-carpenter had in mind some plan not embracing her novel and characteristic feature. He was fully informed as to this feature and had been strictly enjoined not to divulge it. Constructor Porter seems to have discovered, in this connection, the ambiguity of the unqualified phrase, ‘submerged ends of the vessel and eaves of the shield’ when he presented his model; for he subsequently wrote: ‘How could I disapprove of my own model, which had submerged ends two feet?’ And again: ‘The report seems to have lost sight of the fact that the eaves and ends of my model were submerged two feet–precisely like the present Virginia.’
If it is intended to convey the idea that we were to examine any plan of Lieutenant Brooke's, I never so understood it; neither did we act in accordance with any such idea, as our report will show.Neither Mr. Porter nor Mr. Williamson was sent for to examine Lieutenant Brooke's plan. It had been approved by the Department, but the Secretary preferred to send for some other person than Constructor Porter to put it in execution. The one who came from the Norfolk navy-yard was a subordinate in the Department of which Constructor Porter was the head. ‘The report next refers to my model, which I carried up with me, the shield and plan of which is carried out on the Virginia; but the report seems to have lost sight of the fact that the eaves and ends of my model were submerged two feet—precisely like the present Virginia.’  The plan of Mr. Porter's model could not have been carried out on the Merrimac, except by extending the shield to cover her ends.
The report next states that Mr. Porter approved of the plan of submerged ends, and made a clean drawing of Lieutenant Brooke's plan, which that officer then filed with the Department.Note the reply. ‘How could I disapprove of my own model which had submerged ends two feet.’ Here Mr. Porter does not deny that he made a clean drawing of Lieutenant Brooke's plan. He virtually admits that he made the drawing, and that it had submerged ends. In what sense were the ends of his model submerged when compared with the extended submerged ends of Lieutenant Brooke's plan? ‘And the only drawing I ever made of the Virginia was made in my office in this navy-yard, and which I presented to the Department on the 11th day of July. * * * This drawing and plan I considered my own, and not Lieutenant Brooke's plan. So soon as I presented this plan the Secretary wrote the following order, when everything was fresh in his mind concerning the whole matter.’ The ‘drawing’ or ‘plan’ presented by Mr. Porter was simply a working plan, giving, from actual measurement in feet and inches, the relative dimensions of the various parts of the structure, in conformity with the design adopted by the Department. The order has no reference to the origin of the design. Chief Engineer Williamson's plans are embraced in the order. As well might he have claimed by this order to be the originator of the design of the engines. The Secretary says: ‘Mr. Porter cut the ship down, submerged her ends, performed all the duties of constructor, and originated all the interior arrangements by which space has been economized.’ The Secretary has nowhere said that Mr. Porter originated the design or plan applied to the Merrimac. The concluding part of this report says:
“The novel plan of submerging the ends of the ship and the eaves of the casemate, however, is the peculiar and distinctive feature of the Virginia.” This may be all true, but it is just what my model calls for. The submerged ends of the ship, the Secretary refers to as novel, were ends extending beyond the shield under water to obtain speed, buoyancy and protection by submergence.
And if Lieutenant Brooke presented rough drawings to the Department carrying out the same views, it may be called a singular coincidence.This singular coincidence becomes significant, but less singular, when considered in connection with the return of the ship-carpenter to the yard, prior to the construction of Mr. Porter's model. Mr. Porter then describes his model correctly: ‘Submerged all 'round two feet—sides and ends’—and then proceeds to say, ‘and the line on which I cut the ship down was just in accordance with this.’ But this was the characteristic or novel feature of Lieutenant Brooke's plan, which the constructor had been ordered to put in execution. Mr. Porter ignores the existence of the original plan, and overlooks the fact that the extension of the submerged ends in that plan was not made to suit the shield, but to obtain buoyancy, speed and protection. It was not necessary to submerge the ends of the vessel in order to submerge the eaves of the shield.
But if Lieutenant Brooke's ideas, which were submitted to the Secretary in his rough drawings, had been carried out, low enough to build tanks on to regulate the draft of the vessel, she would have been cut much lower than my plan.Constructor Porter knew that the depth of submergence was two feet, and that to use the superstructures as tanks to regulate the draft was merely incidental; they were to be filled with water at fighting draft and emptied, if necessary, to diminish it. Extracts from these three letters of Mr. Porter will be found in J. Thomas Scharf's History of the Confederate States Navy, published in 1887, pp. 146-151. The last in order is the extract from a private letter, given above, which, Mr. Scharf says, was published in the Charleston Mercury of April 8th, 1862. Knowing that this extract, the first publication connecting Mr. Porter's name with the Merrimac, had appeared at an earlier date, I wrote to Colonel Joseph Yates, whom I had known as one of the  gallant defenders of Charleston, and an accomplished artillerist, requesting him to ascertain the date of publication. He replied as follows:
The order of date of publication of the three extracts from Mr. Porter's letters is reversed in Scharf's history. My note-book, kept at that time, contains, under date of March 20th, 1862, this remark: ‘Several papers have published articles from the Norfolk Day-Book, giving the credit of the plan of the Merrimac to John L. Porter.’ The extraordinary character of this extract fixed it in my memory as the first in which Mr. Porter was brought before the public. It attracted attention, and the statement of ‘Justice’ appeared. Mr. J. W. H. Porter's ‘Correct Version of the Converting of the Merrimac into an Iron clad’ is, in the main, a repetition of what was published in 1862, with some variations and additions. Mr. J. W. H. Porter says: ‘Lieutenant John M. Brooke, of the navy, was considering the question of an iron-clad. He was in a position where he could command the ear of Secretary Mallory, of the Confederate Navy, and at his request Mr. Joseph Pierce, then master ship-carpenter at the navy-yard here and a skilled mechanic, was sent to the Capital to assist him, but nothing came of the conference, and he reported that Lieutenant Brooke had no matured plan; that he had no practical ideas, and did not know what he wanted. Seeing the failure of Lieutenant Brooke's scheme, Constructor Porter then had another model made like the one he made at Pittsburg in 1847.’ [Italics mine.]  Mr. Porter is mistaken as to the ship-carpenter. Mr. Joseph Pearce (Mr. Porter spells it Pierce) was a constructor competent to perform the work, but whose services were not available at that time. Mr. J. W. H. Porter's loquacious ship-carpenter had been warned not to give information to any one as to the plan which had been adopted. On reporting to Constructor Porter he probably thought that he fulfilled his instructions in using the language attributed to him by Mr. Porter. He gave no information as to the extension of the submerged ends of the ship beyond the shield to obtain speed, buoyancy and invulnerability, the only novel feature of the plan—the peculiar and distinctive feature of the Virginia. His position was a trying one, and fully accounts for the extraordinary statements he is said to have made. Naturally, Constructor Porter was much surprised when, on presenting his model, the approved plan was laid before him. I have every reason to believe the statement, now made for the first time, that ‘seeing,’ as he thought, ‘the failure of Lieutenant Brooke's scheme, Constructor John L. Porter then had a model made, took it to Richmond personally, and submitted it to Secretary Mallory.’ As to its being like the one he made at Pittsburg in 1847, I can but say that the only reference to that model I have seen is in Constructor Porter's note of his relations to the conversion of the Merrimac into an iron-clad, in Battles and Leaders of the Civil War. Mr. Porter says: ‘After she had fought her fight and proved her metal, then for the first time, to the knowledge of anybody, Lieutenant Brooke put in an appearance as a claimant for the credit of having projected her, and a communication appeared in the Richmond Examiner claiming it for him.’ I made no claim, nor did I ask any one to make it for me. No notice was taken of Mr. Porter's publications by the Secretary or myself. I may here recall the fact before mentioned, that in Scharf's History of the Confederate States Navy, the true order of date of these publications has been reversed. Of the three the last is put first, and the first last. Mr. J. W. H. Porter continues: ‘And later still, when the real facts of the matter had faded  from his memory, Secretary Mallory was, we believe, persuaded to give credence to his claim.’ The absurdity of this suggestion must be apparent to any man who thinks. Mr. Mallory, who was for many years chairman of the Naval Committee of the United States Senate, was in his prime. His knowledge of naval matters, including construction, was broad and accurate. He was deeply interested; was responsible for the adoption of the plan, and would be the last to forget its origin. Mr. Porter further says:
Mr. Brooke, I believe, took out a patent for an iron-clad with slanting roof and submerged ends like the Merrimac. As neither the Secretary nor myself had noticed Constructor Porter's published claims, I thought it advisable to bring the subject before the examiners of the Patent Office while it was before the public. I therefore applied for a patent, and in order that there should be no ground for dispute as to the correspondence of my specific claim with the original plan, I presented tracings of the identical drawing which Constructor Porter made of my plan, as stated by the Secretary in his report to the House of Representatives of the Confederate States. They were filed May 2, 1862, in the Patent Office. The drawings accompanying this article are from the patent, reduced to one-fifth of the original scale.