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The Virginia's great fight on water. From the Times-dispatch, December 23, 1906, and January 9, 1907.

Her last challenge and why she was destroyed.

Extracts from the account prepared and published by Mr. Joseph G. Fiveash, of Norfolk, Va., of the career of the Confederate gunboat Virginia, or Merrimac, the first iron-clad warship the world has ever known.

The operations of General Burnside in North Carolina, in the rear of Norfolk, and the transfer of General McClellan's army from the neighborhood of Washington to the Virginia Peninsula, between the York and James rivers, in the spring of 1862, caused the Confederate authorities to determine to evacuate Norfolk and vicinity to prevent the capture of the 15,000 troops in that department. As early as March 26th the commandant of the navy-yard was confidentially informed of the intended action, and ordered to quietly prepare to send valuable machinery to the interior of North Carolina. The peremptory order of General Joseph E. Johnston for the abandonment of the navy-yard was communicated to Capt. S. S. Lee by Secretary Mallory, in a letter dated Richmond, May 3, 1862. The work of evacuation was expected to be accomplished in two weeks. The citizens at first would not believe the reports of the intended abandonment of the department, but they were soon convinced of their truth. The work had been progressing several days when, on May 8th, an incident occurred that hastened matters and brought about results that were far-reaching in their importance. Captain James Byers, of the tug J. B. White, had been instructed to proceed to Sewell's Point early on the morning of the 8th, and tow to Norfolk a barge containing the most valuable gun at that place, an 1-inch Columbiad. He certainly made an early start, as the records show that he reached Old Point before eight o'clock. By this desertion General Wool learned that Norfolk was being evacuated, and shortly after 12 o'clock the same day a [317] squadron, composed of the ironclads Monitor and Naugatuck, gunboats Seminole and Dakotah and sloops-of-war Susquehanna and San Jacinto commenced to bombard the batteries at Sewell's Point, which were being dismantled.

The Virginia at that time was taking in stores at the navyyard, but as soon as the bombardment commenced she started for the Roads to give battle to the bombarding squadron. When she reached the neighborhood of Craney island, where there is a bend in the Elizabeth River, and came into view of the six vessels named, they all immediately returned to Old Point. She then proceeded to the neighborhood of the Rip-Raps and fired a shot to windward. This was her last challenge. Its historical accuracy can be verified by referring to a telegram of Commodore Goldsborough to President Lincoln, to abstracts from the logs of the Minnesota, Dakotah, Susquehanna, Naugatuck, St. Lawrence and San Jacinto, and to reports of Captain John P. Gillis, of the Seminole, and Lieutenant Constable, of the steamer E. A. Stevens. These reports are to be found on pages 330-1-2-3-4-5. The report, however, which contains the fullest information was that furnished by Commander W. N. W. Howlett, V. C. of H. B. M. S. Rinaldo, dated Fortress Monroe, May 10, 1862, and forwarded to the British government by Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Milne, K. C. B., on 24th of May 1862. This is an extract from it:

May the 8th, 1862. The same morning a Confederate tugboat arrived at Fortress Monroe from Norfolk, having deserted. She reported that the Confederates were prepaing to evacuate Norfolk, etc.

The torch applied.

Then follows a description of the movement of six vessels against Sewell's Point and the appearance of the Virginia in Hampton Roads, when they retired to Old Point.

As the Virginia alone came within the range of their guns and those at Fort Wool, or Rip-Raps, the Federals frigate Minnesota, accompanied by four large steamers, which are intended to act as rams, proceeded up the river (bay it should be) abreast of Old Point, and joined the rest of the squadron.

With the exception of a few shots fired from the Rip-Raps at [318] the Virginia, the Federals made no attempt to molest her, but, on the contrary, as she approached them they steamed away from her. They left off firing at Sewell's Point immediately on sighting her coming from Norfolk.

The Virginia having driven the Federal fleet away, returned and anchored under Sewell's Point, where she now remains.

The information conveyed by the captain of the tug J. B. Wite, relative to the evacuation of Norfolk, enabled General Wool to hasten it by landing a force on the Bay Shore, about ten miles distant from the city. This occurred on Saturday, the 10th of May, two days after the bombardment of Sewell's Point. The Virginia was then lying in the river near Craney Island, and Commodore Tatnall, in his report of the Virginia's destruction, made in Richmond on the 14th of May, states that he did not learn of the withdrawal of the troops and the destruction of the navy-yard until 7 o'clock in the evening (May 10th). He then recites how he lightened the Virginia for the purpose of taking her up the James River, and after she had been so lightened until she was vulnerable, he was informed by his lieutenant that the pilots reported that the vessel could not reach the desired point up the river on account of a west wind, which had prevailed for several days. He then determined to destroy her, which he did by causing her to be set on fire. His reports says: ‘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 for upwards of an hour, blew up a little before 5 o'clock on the morning of the 11th.’ This report can be found on pages 335-6-7. Thus ended the career of the Virginia, which had lasted but two months. Never at any time, until the last visit to Hampton Roads, may 8th, was she capable of doing what was first expected of her—that of passing Fort Monroe and the Rip-Raps—and when she reached her perfect condition the changes of her surroundings were such that she had no base of supplies and was confined to Hampton Roads.

Description of the ship.

A few years after the close of the war efforts were made [319] to induce Congress to pay prize money to Captain Worden and the crew of the Monitor for their services in destroying the Virginia. A bill was passed in one branch of the Forty-second Congress making such an appropriation, but it failed to secure action in the other house. Eight years later the claim was revived, the bill authorizing an appropriation of $200,000. The whole subject of the Virginia's operations in Hampton Roads was carefuly investigated by the Committee on Naval Affairs of the House, and on the 31st of May, 1864, Mr. Ballentine, for the committee, submitted a very exhaustive report, which was adopted, rejecting the claim. The committee, in submitting the result of their labors, concluded their report in the following language: ‘Holding to these views, we respectfully report adversely to the passage of the bill.’ This report can be found in the Congressional Record of May, 1884, and also in Volume XIII., Southern Historical Society Papers, published in 1885.

The Virginia was 262 feet 9 inches long and she drew 22 feet when ready for action. Her shield was 167 feet 7 inches in length, and was covered with two layers of iron that was rolled at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond. The plates were 8 inches wide, 2 inches thick, and about 20 feet long. Their capacity for resistence was tested by Lieutenant John M. Brooke, of the ordinance department at Richmond. The first layer ran fore and aft, and the top layer was placed up and down. The timber backing was 22 inches thick and the iron armor 4 inches. Her shutters were of hammered iron 4 inches thick, and her pilot-houses were of cast iron 12 inches thick, with 4 holes each for observation. They were placed at each end of her shield. The pitch of the gun deck was 7 feet, and the iron grating above, forming a deck, was 2 inches thick. There were three hatchways in the top of the grating, with pivot shutters. The casualties on the Virginia occurred in the first day's fight. There were none the second day. Her armor was not pierced at any time, and but six of her outer plates were cracked. None of the lower ones were injured. Two of her guns were broken at the muzzle the first day, and two men killed, the damage being done by shot coming in unprotected portholes. Her armor showed that more than a hundred shots [320] struck her. She carried two 7-inch rifled pivot guns, one at bow and the other aft, and eight 9-inch Dahlgren guns, four on each side. Two of the latter were disabled March 8th, and they were replaced by two 6-inch rifled guns.

The hopes that the Virginia inspired in the South and the fears that she excited in the North are now but a memory, and it really appears that after forty-four years have passed, the time has arrived when her true history should be known to all the people instead of to a portion only, as at present. The War Records, which have been so freely used in the preparation of this article, afford the material for such a history.

Mr. Fiveash says:

The work of transforming the Merrimac into an ironclad was all performed while the vessel was in the dry dock, and when the time came to let water into the dock and float her, by direction of the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Mallory, she was named Virginia.

On Saturday, March 8, 1862, under the command of Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, she started for Hampton Roads on her trial trip, and before night she had revolutionized naval warfare and ushered in the era of ironclads. Her passage through the harbor and down to the Roads was witnessed by thousands of citizens and soldiers, and when, after dark, she turned to the neighborhood of Sewell's Point and transferred to one of the small gunboats two of her crew who had been killed and three officers and five of the crew who had been wounded, the frigate Cumberland had been destroyed, the Congress had been set on fire after surrendering, the Minnesota had been injured and was aground, and the St. Lawrence and Roanoke had returned to the protection of the guns of Fortress Monroe. The terrible news had caused a panic throughout the North that was distressing, indeed; but while matters at that time appeared very critical, the official records show that the Virginia was not then capable of doing a fraction of the damage credited to her. She drew twenty-two feet of water. was incapable of going to sea in her then condition, and was lacking in protection for eight of her ten guns.


Second day's fight.

Relative to the first day's engagement, that of March 8th, there has been no dispute, but on the second day, March 9th, the failure of Lieutenant Jones to destroy the Minnesota after the Monitor retired to shallow water, when Lieutenant, Worden was incapacitated by a shot fired by the Virginia, enabled claims to be made for the Monitor, which are not sustained by official records. It is true that those who had become panic—stricken when the reverse of the 8th was flashed to them had good reason to rejoice that the Virginia had met the Monitor in conflict and that the Minnesota had not been destroyed by the former, as was expected would be the case at the close of the engagement of the 8th, but it does not justify claims that cannot be sustained by the records. The student of these records will find that very extravagant claims were made for the Monitor, and later on that such claims were not founded upon fact. Chief Engineer Stimers, of the Monitor, in a letter to Commodore Joseph Smith, under date of March 17th, page 27, says: ‘We fired nothing but solid cast-iron shot, and when we were directly abeam of her (Merrimac) and hit her our shot went right through her.’ Assistant Secretary of the Navy, G. V. Fox, in a telegram to Major-General George B. McClellan, at Fairfax Courthouse, dated Navy Department, March 13th, page 100, says:

“The Monitor is more than a match for the Merrimac, but she might be disabled in the next encounter. * * * The Monitor may, and I think will, destroy the Merrimac in the next fight, but this is hope, not certainty.” Despite these expressions, which are about the strongest that are to be found in the volume of records, the claim is here made that—

1. The monitor on the 9th of March, 1862, was the first to retire from the engagement with the Virginia.

2. That the Monitor and all of the vessels near Old Point and the Rip-Raps declined the Virginia's offer to battle on the 11th of April, 1862, when three transports were taken from under the guns of Fortress Monroe and towed to Norfolk.

3. That on the 8th of May, 1862, when the Monitor and five other vessels were bombarding Sewell's Point, just two [322] days before the evacuation of Norfolk, the entire squadron retired to Old Point as soon as the Virginia made her appearance near Craney Island.

Going it alone.

The Virginia on this last occasion was not accompanied by the small squadron that operated with her on the 8th and 9th of March, and on the 11th of April. She was alone, and had she been as vulnerable as Chief Engineer Stimer asserted, and as Assistant Secretary Fox hoped, surely there was no need for two iron-clads, two sloops-of-war and two gun-boats to retire to shelter as they did.

The report of the second day's engagement, March 9th, made by Lieutenant Catesby Jones to Captain Buchanan, is very brief. Captain Buchanan's report embraced the operations of both days, March 8th and 9th. It is dated Naval Hospital, March 27th, 1862, and was forwarded to Secretary Mallory, who turned it over to Jefferson Davis, and was by the latter submitted to the Confederate Congress on the 10th of April, 1862. The report of Lieutenant Jones was as follows. ‘At daylight on the 9th we saw that the Minnesota was still ashore, and that there was an iron battery near her. At 8 o'clock we ran down to engage them (having previously sent the killed and wounded out of the ship) firing at the Minnesota and occasionally at the iron battery. The pilots did not place us as near as they expected, the great length and draft of the ship rendered it exceedingly difficult to work her. We ran ashore about a mile from the frigate and were backing fifteen minutes before we got off. We continued to fire at the Minnesota and blew up a steamer alongside of her, and we also engaged the Monitor, sometimes at very close quarters. We once succeeded in running into her and twice silenced her fire. The pilots declaring that we could get no nearer the Minnesota, and believing her to be entirely disabled, and the Monitor having run into shoal water, which prevented our doing her any further injury we ceased firing at 12 o'clock and proceeded to Norfolk.’

Jones was Criticised unjustly.

Lieutenant Jones was subjected to criticism for failing to [323] destroy the Minnesota when he had that vessel so completely in his power, and the Confederate naval authorities appeared to be dissatisfied with his action. To justify himself he wrote to several of his brother officers on the Virginia, who had advised him to return to Norfolk when he did, and of the replies that he received, that of Lieutenant Hunter Davidson, dated October 25, 1862, was the most interesting, as it emphasized the fact that the Monitor retired to shoal water some time before the Virginia was headed for Norfolk. Lieutenant Jones, in his letter to Lieutenant Davidson, said: ‘The action lasted four hours. We had run into the Monitor, causing us to leak, and received a shot from her which came near disabling the machinery, but continued to fight her until she was driven into shoal water.’ The following is a portion of Lieutenant Davidson's letter: It can be found on pages 60 and 61:

The Monitor engaged so much of your attention you had little time to attack the Minnesota, as it was evident the former's object was to relieve the latter by drawing us off. Whilst this novel warfare was going on the Virginia was run aground by the pilots; and remained so for about three-quarters of an hour, I think.

It was during the grounding of the Virginia that the Monitor received her coup de grace and hauled off on the shoals out of reach of our guns and gave us the opportunity to fire about eleven shells from my big bow gun at the Minnesota, six of which, not exploding prematurely as the rest did, appeared to take effect, although we were a mile distant.* * * When the Virginia was floated again I was informed that the pilots declared that it was impossible for us to get nearer the Minnesota. This circumstance, together with the fact that our officers and men were completely broken down by two days and a night's continuous work with the heaviest rifled ordnance in the world, and that the ship was believed to be seriously injured by ramming and sinking the Cumberland, and that if she should run aground and remain so in attempting to reach the Minnesota, she would probably open forward, where her horn had split the stem, and become an easy prey to the enemy, and in consideration also that the Monitor was drawn off and sought safety in shoal water and that the Minnesota was [324] crippled beyond the hope of safety, induced you, by the advice of the lieutenants whom you consulted, to return to Norfolk. I still think, as I then thought, that it was the proper course for you to pursure, and that you had made the best fight of the two days engagement.

From the other side.

Lieutenant Greene, on March 12th, three days after the Sunday engagement between the ironclads, reported to Secretary Gideon Wells: “Captain Worden then sent for me and told me to take charge of the vessel. We continued the action until 12:15 P. M., when the Merrimac retreated to Sewell's Point and we went to the Minnesota and remained by her until she was afloat.” Evidently Lieutenant Greene, at the time this report was made, had been relieved of his command, as on page 92, in a report made to Secretary Wells by Captain John Marston, senior officer, dated March 1, 1862, this sentence occurs: ‘I also yesterday ordered Lieutenant Thomas O. Selfridge to command the Monitor, the appointment subject to the approval of Flag Officer L. M. Goldsborough.’ As the engagement occurred on the 9th it would appear from the above that a new commander for the Monitor was appointed the following day, the 10th.

That the evidence of Captain Van Brunt, of the Minnesota, does not support the statement of Lieutenant Greene, is shown by this extract: ‘As soon as she got off she stood down the bay, the little battery chasing her with all speed, when suddenly Merrimac turned around and ran full speed into her antagonist. For a moment I was anxious, but instantly I saw a shot plungs into the iron roof of the Merrimac, which surely must have damaged her. For some time after the rebels concentrated their whole battery upon the tower and pilot-house of the Monitor, and soon after the latter stood down for Fortress Monroe, and we thought it probable she had exhausted her supply of ammunition or sustained some injury. Soon after the Merrimac and the two other steamers headed for my ship, and I then felt to the fullest extent my condition.’

The language of Captain Van Brunt, although differently expressed, is in substance the same as that of Lieutenants [325] Catesby Jones and Hunter Davidson—that the Monitor retired from the engagement before the Virginia did.

The following items as to the anchor and beams of the first iron-clad, which revolutionized naval warfare, may be of interest to add:

Norfolk, Va., January 25.—As the result of her mud hook getting afoul of something in Hampton Roads yesterday a fishing schooner was the innocent cause of the discovery of the lost anchor and chain of the Confederate armor clad “Merrimac,” or “Virginia” .

The stock in the anchor is black walnut. Live Oak was generally used, but this material ran out during the war, and other kinds of wood had to be used. The stock is of two pieces, shaped in the centre to fit around the shank, between the shoulders, and the two pieces are held together by stout iron bands. The shank is fourteen feet long, and a foot thick. The stock is two feet through in the middle, and was originally fourteen feet long, but part of one of the arms is gone.

It is stated that the Jamestown Department of History and Education will endeavor to obtain the anchor for exhibition.

Some years ago the propeller shaft of the ‘Virginia’ was raised and placed in front of the Confederate Museum, which building was the residence of President Davis, the White House of the Confederacy, in Richmond.

This elicited the following, which appeared in the Portsmouth Virginia Star of June 27, 1907:

The finding of the anchor of the Merrimac a few days ago off Craney Island, and the interest that has been awakened in relics of the old ship thereby, makes doubly interesting the fact that in a house in Portsmouth are two of the great ship's beams of the first ironclad. They are still in a good state of preservation.

They have been in the possession of the family of Mr. Peter [326] Cosgrove of this city and he has had them for the past thirty-seven years.

Learning that there was a possibility of the restoration of the original form of the famous vessel, in the form of a model, Mr. Cosgrove addressed the following letter to Hon. H. L. Maynard, representative from this district, offering to donate one of the beams to the government. In part he writes:

My father got these beams thirty-seven years ago at Craney Island. With my two brothers brought the beams up to the old Cosgrove home in Park View, where they were landed.

These beams are now part of the foundation of the old house and are in an excellent state of preservation. I am prepared to furnish affidavits as to their genuineness, if the government desires them for use in its exhibit.

So far as The Star knows, Mr. Cosgrove is misinformed regarding the intention of the government or of the exposition to build a model of the Merrimac, but the fact remains that the original beams of the boat, together with the old anchor verified as having belonged to her, would make a most notable exhibition. Both relics will likely be devoted to this use.

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