Marcus W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
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Blog #13. August 15, 2011.

The South's Grand Gift, the Merrimac – 150 Years Ago

In my last blog I provided a complete listing of the ships destroyed at Gosport in the early morning hours of April 21, 1861. Every published report after that event continued to be concerned about the fate of one particular ship now lying on the muddy bottom of the Elizabeth River, being the ex-USS MERRIMAC.

As recorded by the proceedings of the 37th Congress, 2nd Session special report that examined THE SURRENDER AND DESTRUCTION OF THE NAVY YARDS, ECT., published in 1862, the USS MERRIMAC was considered the most important ship at Gosport as the following portion of testimony given by Henry A. Wise, Lieutenant U.S. Navy indicates:

Question. "What was the character and value of the "Merrimack?"
Answer. "She was the most valuable ship in the navy; she was worth, I think, twelve hundred thousand dollars when fully equipped."

Question. "What was her value compared with that of the "Cumberland?".
Answer. "She was worth nearly three times as much."

Question. "Under the circumstances then existing at the yard, if only one of two vessels could be saved, would the throwing of officers and men on board the "Merrimack" and taking her out in preference to the "Cumberland" have evinced proper military sagacity and foresight?"
Answer. "Yes sir; she was worth all the ships there together."

It should be also noted that Lieutenant Wise in his answer to the interrogatories gave testimony of his first going on several ships including Merrimack and laying the trains of combustibles, then later when the signal was given, going in his boat from ship to ship as he touched off the trains, to which he comments about Merrimack …"that I scarcely had time to get away from her." Lieutenant Wise is among the last Federals to walk her decks forever.

To answer why the USS MERRIMAC was considered so worthy, one must roll back the clock a little over five years to the time of her being ready for her element. I hold in my hand the front leaf of a Boston Weekly - BALLOU'S PICTORIAL of January 26,1856 that celebrates – THE STEAM FRIGATE MERRIMAC.

Ballou's Pictorial, Boston, Saturday, January 26, 1856
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins

With much pride the article points out the following fact that she is the first of her class of steam frigates ordered to be built by Congress.

"Her model is a beautiful one, and reflects the highest credit on the ability of Mr. Lenthall, the chief of the bureau of construction and Mr. Delano, naval constructor of the Charlestown navy-yard and Mr. Melvin Simmons, master carpenter, the practical carrying out of the naval architect's design is to be credited. These gentlemen may well be proud in their share of this floating leviathan, for she is four thousand tons burthen. The huge cannon, which show their grim muzzles through the port-holes, were cast at Alger's foundry, South Boston. She is a propeller, pierced for seventy guns, but will only carry fifty at present. We regard the steam frigate Merrimac as a complete success, and cannot but rejoice at this commencement of a steam navy worthy of the name."

The article continues and points out several key points that apply even to today's 2011 Navy, reading on:

"We are well aware that a steam navy is costly; but yet we believe there can be no better investment of the public money. It is absolutely necessary to keep pace with other nations in our provisions for defence. To be completely prepared, armed at all points, is the surest way of preventing aggression, and we all know how much cheaper prevention is than cure. A squadron of sailing vessels can be soon equipped, and in case of war, our mercantile marine might be largely drawn upon for the exigencies of the government. But a steam navy cannot be created on the spur of the moment. Notwithstanding the zeal and industry displayed in building the Merrimac, we have seen that sixteen months were required to complete her, and this dispatch is cited as extraordinary. Our government has done wisely in not waiting for the emergency, to commence the good work."

At Gosport, the flag on the staff in Trophy Park has changed from that of the Union to the state of Virginia in the spring of 1861 and by the summer of 1861 the flag of the Confederacy waves. The USS MERRIMAC first built under the stars and stripes would now forever carry a southern banner as the CSS VIRGINIA.

After just over a month on the bottom of the Elizabeth River, the ship begins the first step in a transformation that would forever change naval warfare forever. "She had been raised by the Baker Wrecking Company on 30th of May 1861 and Mr. Porter, as Constructor at the Yard, had her put in the dry-dock and made a thorough examination of her".

Mr. Porter then sets into motion the beginnings of a radical transformation of this muddy burnt hulk, into the CSS VIRGINIA. Gosport again finds itself at the forefront of naval technology because - "history matters".

Blog#14. August 21, 2011.

Gosport's Drydock & Planning of CSS Virginia – 150 Years Ago

Along the southern branch of the Elizabeth River our stone dock still remains in service today, a testament to its excellent construction that began in 1827. As I wrote in earlier blogs, Gosport had one of a kind ship building and repair facilities, facilities worth fighting for. Gosport's industrial base was the best in the nation. Without a single shot being fired, the Confederates find themselves with an instant naval establishment in summer of 1861.

Gosport's much under-stated value to the fledgling Southern Navy was the capacity to work on a ship in drydock. Our stone dock gained fame with the first ever dry-docking in the northern hemisphere by receiving the 74 gun Ship of the Line DELAWARE on June 17, 1833, but conditions are so radically different in June of 1861. A short 28 years later, the muddy burnt hulk of ex-MERRIMAC begins a re-birth into what eventually shall become the CSS VIRGINIA in this same stone dock.

The dock remains in service today looking much like the photos shown below that were taken in the early 1930's, over 75 years ago. More importantly for the South, this dock looked the same 150 years ago.


Drydock 1 Headwall circa 1930's
(Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Collection)

Drydock 1 Length (showing ship keel blocking)
circa 1930's (Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Collection)

The following information is from John W. H. Porter's History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published in 1892.

Mr. Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate States Navy, called the attention of the House Committee on Naval Affairs to the subject of iron-clads before the seat of government was removed from Montgomery to Richmond.

On the 22d of June, 1861, Naval Constructor Porter received orders to report to the Navy Department at Richmond. The orders did not state the object for which he was to report but he took advantage of the occasion to carry his model to Richmond for the purpose of submitting it to the Secretary. The Secretary immediately ordered a board consisting of Mr. Porter, Chief Engineer Williamson and Lieutenant Brooke to consider it. Messers. Williamson and Brooke were at that time in Richmond.

RICHMOND VIRGINIA., June 25th, 1861

Sir – In obedience to your order we have carefully examined and considered the various plans and propositions for constructing a shoot proof steam battery, and respectfully report that, in our opinion, the steam frigate Merrimac, which is in such condition from the effects of fire as to be useless for any other purpose without incurring a heavy expense in her rebuilding, can be made an efficient vessel of that character, mounting ten heavy guns; two pivot guns, and eight broadside guns of her original battery, and for further consideration we, that we cannot procure a suitable engine and boilers for any other vessel without building them, which would occupy too much time, it would appear that this is our only chance to get a suitable vessel in a short time. The bottom of the hull, boilers and heavy costly parts of the engine, being little injured, reduce the cost of construction to about one-third the amount which would be required to construct such a vessel anew. We cannot, without further examination, make an accurate estimate of the cost of the projected work, but think it will be about one hundred and ten thousand dollars, the most of which will be for labor, the materials being nearly all on hand in the yard, except the iron plating to cover the shield. The plan to be adopted in the arrangement of her shield for glancing shots, mounting guns, arranging the hull and plating, to be in accordance with the plans submitted for approval of the department.

[Signed] Wm. P. Williamson,
Chief Engineer.
John M. Brooke,
John L. Porter,
Naval Constructor.

Gosport's drydock was about to become the heart of the Confederate Navy's industrial machine and the task of transformation now rested with the Naval Constructor, Portsmouth's own, John L. Porter, because - "history matters".

Blog#15. September 3, 2011.

Naval Constructor, John L. Porter – 150 Years Ago

Portsmouth's lifeblood has revolved around its location along the Elizabeth River here in eastern Virginia; thus ship building and ship repair is interwoven into the very fabric of this community. Gosport's success as the premier shipyard of the United States as the calendar turned into mid-1861 owed credit not only to its unencumbered location in which shipbuilding materials could get to the yard efficiently, by sea, road or rail but by the abundance of a large local skilled labor workforce.

The Gosport shipyard could accomplish the most difficult tasks of supporting the young United States Navy.

In overview, one needs to also appreciate that modern technology supporting the most advanced tasks of today's shipbuilding and repair did not exist 150 years ago. Today tasks are calculated by computer and fabricated by robot-like machinery with such quickness, programmed by people who may have never stepped foot upon a ship, but this was not always the case. Consider that in the days of sail and steam everything was drafted longhand with exacting mathematical calculation and practical naval architectural knowledge by the very most experienced master shipbuilder. Afterward, these rigorous ship building tasks were then commissioned to be preformed by the yard's labor and craftsmen along Gosport's waterfront.

In summary, for a successful project one needed an experienced master shipbuilder. In the summer of 1861 for the South that person came in the form of a local Portsmouth born son, John L. Porter, Naval Constructor.

Who exactly was John Luke Porter? The Naval Historical Center provides this brief summary:

John L. Porter, whose father was a shipwright at Portsmouth, Virginia, was born in 1813. He became a Navy civilian employee during the 1840s and a Naval Constructor in 1859. After resigning from the U.S. Navy in May 1861, he began working for the Confederate Navy at the Gosport (Norfolk) Navy Yard, at Portsmouth. He played an important role in the conversion of the scuttled and burned steam frigate Merrimack to an ironclad, which became CSS Virginia when commissioned in February 1862.

After the Confederates abandoned the Norfolk area in May 1862, Porter became a Naval Constructor at Richmond and later at Wilmington, North Carolina. He was promoted to Chief Naval Constructor in January 1864 and served in that capacity to the end of the Civil War, designing many of the South's domestically-built warships. Following the conflict, Porter worked in civilian shipbuilding, industry and ferry operations. He died on 14 December 1893.

This page features our only pictures of Chief Naval Constructor John L. Porter, CSN.

John L. Porter Oil Painting
Courtesy of Portsmouth Naval Museum
(Photo by Marcus W. Robbins)

Naval History & Heritage Command

The Naval Historical Center article references a half-tone line image from 1907; thus no real photos may be in existence of John L. Porter. The Portsmouth Naval Museum located in Portsmouth Virginia has within their collection an undated vintage oil painting by Doris Porter McLean that depicts this same image, in color.

An insight to how busy John L. Porter was at Gosport is found within his testimony recorded in the Official Records from the Confederate Congressional Investigation of the Navy Department. A portion of Tuesday, March 3, 1863 details the following:

"We were altering the Merrimack and were fitting out a number of gunboats out of steamers that were brought for the North Carolina service. We were building other ironclad vessels and three wooden gunboats. Two of the wooden boats are in the river and one we burned at the evacuation of Norfolk. We were doing a great deal of work for the defenses around Norfolk in the way of arms, as a matter of convenience for the batteries, fortifications, etc.

"My duties have been various. I had charge of the operations at the Norfolk Navy Yard up to the time of the evacuation. I made all the drawings, nearly, for the gunboats that have been built in different places. Since the evacuation I have been on duty here at Richmond, carrying on in the yard at Rocketts. I also made a great many plans for the Secretary of the Navy".

I invite you to stroll outside of the museum at the foot of High Street then find within a short distance of the Elizabeth River, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources roadside marker erected in 1997. This large metal plaque gives honor to Portsmouth's own, John L. Porter (19 September 1813 ~ 14 December 1893).

If one looks beyond the roadside marker, you view along the Elizabeth River shoreline the gray hull of a modern United States warship undergoing repairs. From this same vantage point almost 150 years ago you would have been able to see Mr. Porter's creation, the Confederate States Ship CSS VIRGINIA sailing down river about to make naval history in March of 1862 because - "history matters".

John L. Porter Historic Marker
High Street, Portsmouth Virginia
(Photo by Marcus W. Robbins)

Blog #16. October 26, 2011.

Credits for Conversion of the CSS VIRGINIA – 150 Years Ago

Without money nothing is accomplished and so was the case for the Confederate Navy. Secretary Mallory on the 18th of July, 1861, submitted a report to the Confederate Congress in which he said, "The cost of this work is estimated by the constructor and engineer in charge at $172,523, and as time is of the first consequence in this enterprise, I have not hesitated to commence the work, and to ask Congress for the necessary appropriation."

Thus a shipbuilding program had begun for the South at Gosport but with certain problems as John V. Quarstein points out in his book C.S.S. Virginia Mistress of Hampton Roads the following:

Despite shrewd success, Mallory did err with his shipbuilding program; he delegated responsibilities among several individuals. French Forrest, who did not really approve of the project, retained administrative control as yard commandant. Chief Engineer William Williamson was given the task of machinery revitalization, and Naval Constructor John L. Porter was charged with supervising the actual construction. John Mercer Brooke, a favorite of Mallory, managed the armor and armament for the ironclad as well as acting as the inspecting agent for the entire project. Friction arose immediately between Brooke and Porter since much of the project overlapped. The acrimony began with the fact that both men claimed the vessel's design as their own and continued with Brooke's modifications throughout the project. Nevertheless, the Confederacy had its first ironclad under construction by July in its finest shipyard.

The following various statements are gleaned from John W. H. Porter's History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published in 1892.

Porter put forth a design per his model of June 1861 to extend the shield and submerged her eaves and ends two feet all around, and would have extended her shield the entire length had she not been too sharp at the bow and the stern, and therefore he stopped it where the vessel became too narrow to admit its being built any further.

Mr. John L. Porter's Model June 1861
(page 347 History of Norfolk County 1861-1865)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Subsequent to the publication of the report of Secretary Mallory Lieutenant Brooke applied to the Confederate Patent Office and obtained a patent for "an iron-clad with submerged ends, projecting beyond her shield", and it was claimed for him that this is evidence that he was the author of which the Virginia was built into an iron-clad.

The Merrimac was not selected as the result of any plan, but simply because she had an engine in her which could be utilized where it was, and the Confederates lacked the facilities for building a new engine for a new boat. The burned portion as cut away and the weight of her armor, armament, &c., submerged the remainder so that only her shield was out of the water. It is not probable that Constructor Porter would have built a new vessel with her ends extending out under water beyond the shield. He converted the Merrimac into an iron-clad after that style through necessity, and not from choice.

The converting of the vessel into an iron-clad consisted in putting the shot proof shield on her. That is all of an iron-clad nature there was about her, all there was of a plan. All the rest of was the result of accident, and not design, and if anyone is entitled to the credit of submerging her ends beyond her shield, it was Commodore Paulding of the United States Navy, who ordered Gosport to be burned, in consequence of which the Merrimac was burned to the water's edge.

(page 351 History of Norfolk County 1861-1865)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Without any photographs of VIRGINIA, we are only left to the personal viewpoints of those with power and access to producing a sketch or the written word of the era. Remember also that there are very few scant surviving documents. The Porter vs. Brooke claims of the early 1860's being what they were continued on for decades as their own individual campaigns of pride seeking credit for design. It should be noted despite of all of this fuss no Confederate iron-clads were subsequently built with submerged projecting ends.

As time went on an article published in the Century Magazine of March 1885 further opened the rift. The story by John Taylor Wood who served on VIRGINIA gave new life to the controversy. The Porter camp claimed not only did the article provided an inaccurate description of the ship but that it also seemed to accept Lieutenant Jones' account to the vulnerability of the vessel at the waterline and the unprotected condition concerning the rudder and propeller.

Even extending into the 1891-92 time frames, there was still newly written correspondence supporting Porter's claim for sole design of the shield for Merrimac. It should be noted that by the time of Porter's death in Portsmouth, Virginia, 1893, it would be fair to believe he must have thought about his place in history daily.

Getting beyond the issue of "credit" for who designed VIRGINIA or its specific configuration, one must look upon the entire canvas of materials left and understand that the written word that we have today is from individuals that participated in the unprecedented historical events at Gosport in 1861 and 1862 leading up to the Battle of Hampton Roads. They have left us "their" side of the story; we can't change what they wrote and hope modern authors stay true to the known facts and keep their spin to themselves.

Next we shall explore the physical transformation of VIRGINIA in the drydock because - "history matters".

Blog #17. October 28, 2011.

Transformation into the CSS VIRGINIA – 150 Years Ago

I previously shared in Blog #14 the entire written contents of a report dated June 25th, 1861, that Constructor Porter, Engineer Williamson and Lieutenant Brooke prepared for Confederate Secretary Mallory. It provided an outline pertaining to their beliefs that the Merrimac could be salvaged, loaded with sufficient armament, make use of the existing engines and out-fitted with iron plating to cover the new shield.

With those assurances, Secretary Mallory went forth to the Confederate Congress on July 18th, 1861, and presented the estimated cost of $172,523 and asked Congress for the necessary appropriation.

The summer of 1861 finds Gosport at the center of the Confederate Navy, the central hub of activity.

Soon contracts are let to the various surrounding Portsmouth and Norfolk shipyards, foundries and machine shops to provide labor, tools and supplies in order to support the South's number one assignment, transforming the burnt hulk of the Merrimac into something never before seen in North America, an iron-clad vessel.

As so happened 28 years prior when the stone drydock made history with the first dry docking in North America in 1833 with DELAWARE, now again in 1861 Gosport is the central focus of attention. From the burnt hulk of MERRIMAC will rise a phoenix: the VIRGINIA is soon to be born and sail into the pages of naval warfare history forever.

The following various statements are gleaned from John W. H. Porter's History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published in 1892.

"The plans to be adopted in the arrangement of her shield for glancing shots, mounting guns, arranging the hull and plating," were not submitted simultaneously with the report, as it was necessary for Mr. Porter to return to the Gosport Navy Yard and make an accurate measurement of the vessel, so that he could calculate her displacement and prepare the plans. Engineer Williamson also went to the Navy Yard to superintend the preparation of the machinery, and Mr. Brooke remained in Richmond. Mr. Porter measured the vessel without assistance from anyone, except a laborer to hold the end of the tape line.

He therefore raised the line one foot at the stern and cut her down on a straight line running from a height of nineteen feet forward to twenty feet aft, so that when completed, she drew twenty-one feet forward to twenty-two feet aft. This additional displacement increased her buoyancy about two hundred tons and had to be overcome by pig iron or kentlege, which was placed on her deck ends in her spirit room to bring her eaves to the proper depth below the waterline.

Mr. Porter completed his drawings on the 10th of July, without having to consult anyone, took them to Richmond the next morning, and submitted them to Secretary Mallory, who immediately approved them, without re-convening the board or calling in the advise or opinion of anyone, and wrote in his own hand the following order, which he handed to Mr. Porter for delivery to Commodore Forrest, commanding the Gosport Navy Yard:

Navy Department Richmond, Va., July 11th, 1861
Flag Officer F. Forrest:

Sir—You will proceed with all practical dispatch to make changes in the Merrimac, and to build, equip, and fit her in all respects, according to the designs and plans of the Constructor, and Engineer, Messrs. Porter and Williamson. As time is of the utmost importance in this matter, you will see that the work progresses without delay to completion.

S. R. MALLORY, Secretary Confederate States Navy.

Mr. Porter returned immediately to the Gosport Navy Yard, appointed Mr. James Meads Master ship carpenter, and commenced work on the vessel in the dry-dock. The burned part was cut away, and a deck built from one end to the other. Inside the shield the deck was covered with plank, on beams, but outside the shield, at both ends, it was built of solid timber, and covered over with iron one-inch thick. Figure 3 represents the shape of a cross section amidship.

VIRGINIA ~ cross section amidship showing gun and berth decks
(page 335 History of Norfolk County 1861-1865)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbin

The ship had only two decks, gun and berth decks, and her boilers and engine remained in their original positions.

As the work progressed, Secretary Mallory became very urgent for its speedy conclusion, and on the 19th of August, a little more than a month after it was begun, he wrote the following order:

Flag Officer F. Forrest, Commanding Navy Yard, Gosport:

Sir.—The great importance of the service expected of the Merrimac, and the urgent necessity of her speedy completion, induces me to call upon you to push forward with the work with the utmost dispatch. Chief Engineer Williamson and Constructor Porter, severally in charge of the two branches of this great work, and for which they will be held personally responsible, will receive therefore every possible facility at the expense and delay of every other work on hand if necessary.

S. R. MALLORY, Secretary Confederate States Navy.

Thus the entire mission of Gosport centers on successful completion of the transformation of the former USS MERRIMAC into the CSS VIRGINIA. Time was marching on and specific people were to be held accountable. The North also had a contest of its own as they were constructing what was to become known as the USS MONITOR, the stress level must have been incredible as each side raced to put their creation into its element for the fight yet to come.

Next we shall discuss the shield construction, touching on dimensions and discussion of materials used along with viewing pictures of some surviving VIRGINIA iron artifacts because - "history matters".

Blog #18. March 4, 2012.

BATTLE OF IRONCLADS, March 8 & 9, 1862 – 150 Years Ago

As the spring of March 1862 approached, the nation had been at civil war within itself for almost a year. No place held more strategic importance in eastern Virginia’s theater of war than the harbor known as Hampton Roads.

This vast natural deep water harbor receives the rivers Nansemond, James and Elizabeth before exiting into the Chesapeake Bay and afforded miles of shoreline for each side to establish defenses. Both the Northern Federal and Southern Confederate forces realized that control of this waterway would be vital to their individual cause.

The Federal forces occupied Newport News Point with a heavily reinforced Camp Butler, the man-made Rip Rap island found at the channel entrance otherwise known as Fort Wool which gave the Union forces a great forward observation point. Most importantly, Fortress Monroe functioned as a secure base for both land and sea operations.

On the southern shores of the Hampton Roads harbor, the Confederate forces established reinforcements at Pig Point, Craney Island and Sewell’s Point. Also they held control of their grand prize of the war that was abandoned by the Union burning of April 1861, found by sailing 10 miles down the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth: the Gosport Navy Yard.

Sides had been drawn, the center harbor cleared and in a matter of time the contestants would appear to do battle.

The South, lacking material resources and a robust industrial base, had raised and converted the burnt hulk of the steam frigate USS Merrimac. Torched and sunk by the Union abandonment at Gosport, the new ironclad Confederate States Ship, CSS Virginia, was commissioned in about nine months, yet it was still incomplete at time of sailing. Although not ideal, the South was forced to use what it could. To support the goal of survival by holding both Norfolk and Portsmouth (and ultimately Richmond), the South needed control of Hampton Roads and to break the Union blockade.

Virginia drew a great depth of water which would restrict operations and also required much room to turn and maneuver by the very size of the hull. Given marginal performance of the steam engines, Virginia made up for any shortcomings by way of firepower between two seven-inch Brooke rifled guns, six nine-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and two 6.4-inch Brooke rifled pivot guns. It sailed with a casemate of two alternating layers of bolted two- inch iron bars over a 24-inch wooden backing all configured at a 35-degree angle in order to best deflect shot. Virginia also had an iron ram mounted to the bow, a feature that would be soon tested with much sucess against wood.

On the morning of March 8, 1862, Virginia slipped away from Gosport and sailed into history. Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan commanded his flagship against the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron consisting of the USS Roanoke, USS Minnesota, USS Congress and USS Cumberland which had escaped certain destruction the year prior by being towed away from Gosport as the inferno began under the Union match.

With certain direct maneuver, Buchanan set his target upon Cumberland with a goal of sinking by a massive broadside hit of the ram. It has been said that the resulting impact was wide enough to let in a horse and a cart. Still yet, Cumberland and Virginia exchanged fire as she sank, her flag still flying with honor.

The Sinking of USS Cumberland

Next, Virginia turned attention back to Congress which up to this point had only received some passing shots and continued to pour shot upon the ship until the white flag was raised. Virginia ceased fire so the smaller vessels of the Confederate James River fleet could approach Congress to remove the surviving officers as prisoners before burning the ship. The Newport News shore batteries would have nothing to do with the surrender and began to fire a hail of bullets from the shore. It was at this time that Commander Buchanan was hit by rifle shot in the leg and was taken out of action. Buchanan’s last order was to heat shells and send hot shot into Congress until the ship was burned. Shortly after midnight the Congress exploded and ceased to exist as the ruins slipped into the deep.

Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, Virginia’s Executive Officer now found himself in command. With falling tide, proper attention could not be made to the USS Minnesota so Jones took up anchor under the guns of Sewell’s Point for the night. March 8, 1862, is recognized as the demise for the age of sail and wooden vessels against an ironclad; the Union fleet suffered terrible losses.

On the morning of March 9, 1862, naval warfare would be changed forever for it would now be ironclad against ironclad on the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads.

As the fog burnt away on Sunday morning, something strange was seen alongside of the Minnesota. Described as a cheese box on a raft, it was the USS Monitor, the invention of Swedish designer, John Ericsson. The ship had made the voyage from the Brooklyn Navy Yard leaving Thursday at 11 a.m. and entered into Hampton Roads at 9 p.m. Saturday evening in time to witness Congress on fire.

Monitor was an experimental first-of-its-kind vessel, featuring a round rotating turret that was covered by eight inches of rolled iron plate. Inside the turret were two 11-inch Dahlgren cannon that could be trained in any direction by rotation of the turret. Given the shallow draft required and it being somewhat shorter in length, Monitor had greater maneuverability than Virginia in Hampton Roads.

Lieutenant Worden was Commander of the Monitor from her commissioning till the time of his wounding as the result of a direct hit while he was peering out the observation slit in the pilot house near the close of the battle that Sunday afternoon.

USS Monitor Commander Lt. Worden

Much has been written pertaining to the first ever battle between two ironclad vessels, but in summary after four hours it was a tactical draw, a stalemate. There was no loss of life or damage to either ship and although worse for the battle, the Minnesota was saved and the Federal blockade remained. Each side claimed its own victory.

Today we can observe actual various artifacts from the ships involved in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Various relics from the CSS Virginia, USS Monitor, USS Congress and USS Cumberland are on display at various local museums and parks in eastern Virginia.

32 pounder 6” solid shot from the Hampton Roads harbor,
circa 1862 (author’s collection)

Rifle minié balls from the Hampton Roads harbor,
circa 1862 (author’s collection)

Catesby ap C. Jones shown here visiting Mariners Museum is
great-grandson of Catesby R. Jones, Commander of CSS Virginia
that fought USS Monitor (photo by William E. Lockridge)

One only needs to travel on either of the two bridge tunnel complexes that cross the Hampton Roads harbor and consider that they act as a natural picture frame showcasing where naval history was made 150 years ago upon these waters because - "history matters".

Blog #19. April 22, 2012.

On Location ~ The Battle of Hampton Roads – Today & 150 Years Ago

Milestone dates spur celebrations, and if ever there was a milestone in our current lifetime it is the celebration of an event that changed naval warfare forever 150 years ago this month. On March 8th & 9th, 1862, both the Southern and Northern Navies had their novel ironclad creations enter into the large body of water known as Hampton Roads in eastern Virginia. What would happen over that weekend in a matter of hours on each day is now known as The Battle of Hampton Roads, an event that I covered in-depth with my last "History Matters".

It was this specific event that put an end to the wooden ship and sailcloth vessels in favor of creations driven by steam and surrounded by thick iron. At the same time cannon and projectiles had reached such an advanced stage from just a few years prior that the killing effect proved lethal upon wood, yet again here in Hampton Roads that calm Sunday morning verified iron had come of age by lending complete protection to the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor from each other.

For those of us fortunate to call southeastern Virginia home or a place that we work daily, it is witness to a great many naval "firsts". For this edition of "History Matters" I wanted to reach out to my world-wide readers who may never have a chance to actually visit where this actual event took place. On the morning of March 8, 2012, I visited along the shorelines of both Newport News and Hampton to pause, reflect and now share some images with you.

Looking east towards Fortress Monroe.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
Foot Wool (Rip Raps) near Fortress Monroe.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

As shown in the above two pictures the combination of Fortress Monroe and Fort Wool (Rip Raps) to the east proved effective to reinforce the Federal blockade and to keep the CSS Virginia contained to the Norfolk side of the harbor, well almost. On the morning of March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia finally came out commanded by Franklin Buchanan and assisted by Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones of the Confederate States Navy to begin breaking the blockade; thus destroying both USS Cumberland and USS Congress off of Newport News Point to the west.

Marker at Newport News observation area.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)
Marker at Hampton observation area.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Today from the Newport News shoreline looking back at the I-664 modern bridge tunnel complex one would have for sure seen the CSS Virginia take on both the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress as the age of wooden war vessels ended on March 8, 1862, yet the Virginia needed to stay in the deeper water of the channel.

Looking west towards I-664 Bridge Tunnel.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Looking southwest at Middle Ground Lighthouse.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins

The second day battle of Hampton Roads actually begins on the night of the 8th with the arrival of the USS Monitor commanded by John L. Worden and assisted by Lieutenant Dana Greene. Upon their arrival the USS Congress is still ablaze and shortly thereafter its magazines explode and the ship slips beneath the waves. The USS Monitor now takes on the mission to protect the USS Minnesota awaiting the return of the CSS Virginia. By sunset of March 9, 1862, the Battle of Hampton Roads was fought to a tactical draw. Each side was able to claim victory for their own cause and the stalemate resumed till early May of 1862. These ships never directly engaged each other again and within the same year each ceased to exist.

Marker at Newport News observation area.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Marker at Newport News observation area.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Much has been written on the Battle of Hampton Roads but it is summarized quite nicely on the marker found at the Newport News observation point. Naval warfare was changed forever in this harbor. It is so very important to visit and explore historical events that took place in your own backyard because - "history matters".

Blog #20. April 22, 2012.

The 3rd Burn of Gosport – 150 Years Ago

Setting the match to a waterfront industrial facility is a very efficient way to cease its productive war capacity. The shipyard at Gosport along the shore of the Elizabeth River has suffered three separate fires: first by the British on May 15, 1779, then by the Union forces on April 21, 1861, and finally by the Confederate forces on May 10, 1862.

War is like a chess match with tactical moves made by both sides and the end game vision of capture and victory. Once again as the premiere industrial ship building and repair facility of the south, Gosport and the Confederates are victims of a slow deliberate vice-like grip by the North, a hundred and fifty years ago.

In the weeks after the Battle of Hampton Roads during of March 1862, the Confederate forces continued to make the Gosport Navy Yard the heart of their industrial war machine. There was certain feeling of pride and victory in the streets of both Norfolk and Portsmouth. The craftsmen at Gosport worked upon CSS VIRGINIA in the drydock, then re-floated it stronger than ever. Several attempts of engagement were made over the next few weeks but the USS MONITOR kept a respectful distance, always staying close under the protective guns of Fortress Monroe.

As late April 1862 turned into May, the Confederate command soon realized that Norfolk would not be able to be saved as Burnside approached from the southern Outer Banks and McClellan occupied the northern side of the harbor. Railroad and river routes were being squeezed that connected both Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Gosport stood as the South's principle workshop for ship building and supporting the war effort by its foundry and valuable machinery. The loss of such an industrial base would surely hamper the southern cause.

Under direction by a visit to Gosport in early May, 1862, Secretary Mallory of the Confederate States Navy arrived in Portsmouth and informed Captain S.S. Lee, commanding the Navy Yard from March 24, 1862, that it was the intention of the Government to abandon the city.

Steps were being taken to remove all rolling stock, munitions and other items of military value. Preparations were made also to evacuate and render useless the Navy Yard. Vessels were sent to Richmond under cover of the darkness on the following nights and what could not be towed was destroyed at the pier side.

Options were weighed for saving the VIRGINIA including the unsuccessful effort to lighten her and sail up the James River to protect Richmond. The doomed VIRGINIA also was destroyed off of Craney Island. Covered with tar, oil, fat and grease the crew was sent ashore before the ship was set afire, exploded then ceased to exist.

On Saturday morning May 10, 1862, General John E. Wool under the direction of President Lincoln's visit to the Rip Raps from the prior day, landed 6,000 troops for a march upon Norfolk, landing at what today is Ocean View beach. Norfolk's Mayor William W. Lamb went out to the outer northern limits of the city for what would become the peaceful surrender of Norfolk without a shot being fired.

In the end, all of the Confederate defenses that were erected around the harbor with much care and labor supporting heavy guns were abandoned without a struggle and in such haste that no effort was made to remove the guns.

As the Federal forces occupied Norfolk and Mayor Lamb stalled for as long as he could, the Confederates were setting fire to the Gosport Navy Yard for a third time in its history and the second time within 13 months. Destruction again was wrought upon the finest shipbuilding facility in the country, this time by the retreating Southern forces. The drydock was mined again but without total damage. Gosport's fine buildings were torched and remaining ships and machinery were destroyed.

A first hand account letter survives written by a Union solider on May 15, 1862, from within the walls of Gosport and he states:

"I was saying that the Sucesh had not destroyed anything but I was mistaken for I never saw such destruction of property as there is here at the Navy Yard and all the machinery is burned. There were some of the largest and nicest brick buildings I ever saw. Uncle Sams property is burnt. Most of the private property is saved, most all the folks are here yet. There is still some fire here yet."

At the Norfolk Naval Shipyard today, some of these very buildings provide service to the Navy, continuing as a testament to the strength of which they were built some 175 years ago. If one knows where to look, the buildings still show the effects of both war and fire. Gosport has always been known as having facilities worth fighting for, because - "history matters".

Looking from north of the drydock, ex-Building 18 in the view, circa 1864 photo. Union capture of cannon, circa 1862 along western boundary wall.
Looking North, May 1862
Fire showing circa 1832 structure that remains today.
Horseshoe recovered from Civil War era stables
beside south-western boundary wall.
Drydock, Machine Shop and Foundry, May 1862.
Rotten Row, off of the drydock
showing burnt ruins of DELAWARE & COLUMBUS

Blog #21. November 1, 2012.

History of the Nation's Oldest Continuous Operating Naval Shipyard

Gosport Shipyard established in Colonial Virginia then operated under British Flag:
Andrew Sprowle & Co., Proprietors, 1 November 1767
Andrew Sprowle, British Navy Agent, 1775

Confiscated in American Revolution by the Commonwealth; operated by the Navy of Virginia under the Virginia flag; burned 11 May 1779, in British invasion:
Superintendents, 1776-1782, not known
Shipyard inactive, 1783-1793

Loaned to the United States under Act of Congress, 27 March 1794; operated under the Secretary of War and flag of the United States.

United States Navy Department created, 30 April 1798; Shipyard designated Gosport Navy Yard.

Gosport Navy Yard site purchased from the State of Virginia by the United States, 15 June 1801.

Gosport Navy Yard evacuated and burned by U. S. N., 20 April 1861; immediately occupied and operated by Virginia State Navy under the Virginia state flag.

Gosport Navy Yard transferred to, and operated by, Confederate States Navy, 1 July 1861, under flag of the Confederate States.

Gosport Navy Yard evacuated and burned by C. S. N., 10 May 1862; reoccupied and operated by U. S. N. under the flag of the United States and designated U. S. Navy Yard, Norfolk, Virginia.

Designated: Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia; 13 February 1929.

Designated: Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, Virginia; 1 December 1945.

Today, November 1, 2012 marks our official 245th birthday as a shipyard.

Over that time we continue to answer the call to serve our country. In evidence of the shipyard motto, "Any Ship, Anytime, Anywhere," NNSY's work is certainly not limited to its Portsmouth waterfront. On any given day, upwards of 3,000 NNSY employees can be performing maintenance on ships as close as Norfolk Naval Station, and as far away as Japan. We exist to serve the fleet where ever they maybe found.

Over these 245 years we may have operated under different flags and different names but always, we have excelled in being a leader by providing the Navy a long line of "first this" and "first that"; historic naval accomplishments. In my next post we shall examine some of those "first accomplishments" because - "history matters".


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