The destruction of the "Virginia."
letter from Commodore Tatnall
The following is a copy of a letter addressed by Commodore Tatnall
to Secretary Mallory
Richmond, Va., May 14, 1862.
In detailing to you the circumstances which caused the destruction of the C. S. steamer ‘ "Virginia
,"’ and her movements a few days previous to that event, I begin with your telegraphic dispatches to me of the 4th and 5th insts, directing me to take such a position in the James river
as would entirely prevent the enemy's descending it.
, 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
"’ and ‘"Sewell's Point
"’ and their guns to the enemy.
I informed him that, as the order was imperative, I must execute it, but suggested that he should telegraph you and state the consequences.
He did so, and, on the 6th inst., 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 7th instant Commodore Hollins
with orders from you to consult 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 8th, 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
, 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
, 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 gunshot, the enemy ceased firing and retailed 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 mornings near Sewell's Point
, and I returned to Norfolk
to hold the conference referred to.
It was held on the 9th, and the officers present were Col. Anderson
.--of the army, selected by Gen. Huger
, who was too unwell to attend himself, and, of the navy, myself, Commodores Hollins
, and Captains Sterrett
, Commander Richard L. Jones
, and Lieutenants Ap
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 this 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 dispatched 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 the Bay
shore, and were marching rapidly on Norfolk
, that the Sewell
's Point Battery was abandoned, and our troops were retreating.
I then dispatched 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 information 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 7th, in my cabin, in the presence of Commodore 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 and well, 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 a 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 discussion opinion.
The ship was accordingly put on shore as near the maintain, in the vicinity of Craney Island
, as possible, and the crew landed.
She was then fired and after burning fiercely fore and after upwards of an hour, blew up a little before five on the morning of the 11th.
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 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 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 340 brave and skillful 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 with out it.