Some of the large guns the Confederates used at Hatteras and Port Royal, as well as later about New Orleans, Port Hudson, and Vicksburg, were secured from the Norfolk Navy yard. The loss of this yard in the latter part of April, 1861, was the greatest disaster sustained by the navy during the war. It was caused, not by an overwhelming fortune of hostile arms, but by the prevalent policy of inaction, and by panic. The administration, the Navy Department, and several of the senior officers of the army and navy, all shared in the blame.
The situation in Virginia previous to the firing on Sumter had been extremely delicate; as the State wavered in her choice of sides, friends of the Confederacy who were closely watching the Norfolk Navy yard found it easy to dissuade the administration from taking any measures to protect the government property there, arguing that this would indicate distrust and thus alienate the State.
General Scott, the head of the army, a Virginian, and conservative by reason of age (he was nearly seventy-five years old), did not favor sending troops to Norfolk. And when Commodore C. S. McCauley, commandant of the yard (sixty-eight years old), was instructed on April 10 that "great vigilance should be exercised in guarding and protecting the public interests and property," he did nothing. He was misled by Southern advisers, and seemed p256 to lack all power of action; so far as is known, he made not even a plan in defense of the yard.
A week before Virginia passed the ordinance of secession (April 17), the Department had become apprehensive and had sent confidential orders for the removal of the Merrimac and other ships at the Norfolk Yard. On April 12 Engineer-in‑Chief Isherwood was sent from Washington expressly to take out the Merrimac. He found her engines in bad condition; but putting a large force of men to work on Monday morning, the day after his arrival, and employing shifts so as to push the work day and night, he reported Wednesday afternoon that everything was in readiness for firing. On Thursday morning he had steam up, and waited only for the commandant's order to cast loose and take the Merrimac, with the Germantown in tow, to a place of safety. But the commandant hesitated, and hesitation at this critical moment was fatal. Finally, when Isherwood reminded him of the peremptory orders given by the Department for sending the ship out, McCauley said that he had decided to retain her, and directed that the fires be drawn.
The patriotism of Commodore McCauley was never seriously doubted. But he was quite unequal to the emergency. Distressed and anxious, he was led by some of his officers who shortly entered the Confederate service to believe that moving the Merrimac would incite to violence the mob collecting outside the yard. Although he had a force which, with the guns of the ships, could have resisted several regiments of militia without artillery, he was persuaded that the security of the yard depended on avoiding a rupture. He was also induced to believe that some obstructions the Confederates had placed in the channel, really insignificant, would prevent the Merrimac's passing.
When Engineer-in‑Chief Isherwood and Commander p257 Alden (who was to have been captain of the Merrimac) found they could do nothing, they departed for Washington and made their report.1 Immediately Commodore Hiram Paulding, in the Pawnee, and a detachment of 500 men were dispatched to relieve McCauley and save the ships. But it was too late.
The greater part of McCauley's officers had resigned or dissented. Mechanics and watchmen had joined the secessionists outside, who were collecting in scattered groups. The unfortunate commandant, dejected by this, and dismayed by the reports that State troops were arriving from Richmond and Petersburg, decided to destroy all the ships in the yard except the Cumberland. Accordingly, on Saturday, April 20, he scuttled the Merrimac, Germantown, Plymouth, and Dolphin.
At the very hour when the destruction began, Commodore Paulding, who had progressed as far as Fortress Monroe, was embarking a regiment of Massachusetts volunteers. They were only •twelve miles away, and were coming as fast as the Pawnee could bring them to save the ships.
On Paulding's arrival Commodore McCauley's courage revived, and he was in favor of remaining and defending the yard. There is little doubt that it might have been held for some weeks even without the reinforcements already on their way. Commodore Paulding had all together 1000 effective men under his command. Though not much reliance could be placed on the strength of the walls enclosing the yard, the guns of the receiving-ship Pennsylvania, the Cumberland, and the Pawnee commanded the entire yard, and could have set fire to Norfolk and Portsmouth. On the other hand, the Confederates had only a few companies of soldiers and no heavy guns.
p258 Whatever Commodore Paulding's possibilities may have been, he was just as plainly a victim of panic as Commodore McCauley had been before him. Within an hour after his arrival, Paulding decided to abandon the yard. On reaching this decision he immediately began making preparations. One hundred men were to render useless the guns in the yard by knocking off the trunnions with sledges; they pounded well, but accomplished nothing. Other men were set to work rolling cannon and shells into the river. Still others were to prepare the ships and buildings for firing. The Cumberland, the only ship to be saved, was towed a short distance out by the Pawnee, and at four or five in the morning, a rocket from the Pawnee gave signal that the fires were to be ignited.
But even the work of destruction suffered from panic, and evidently had been poorly planned. The moment the National forces had withdrawn, the crowds outside the yard rushed in. Extinguishing a slow fuse attached to a mine designed to destroy the drydock, they saved it intact. At the same time others checked the flames in the buildings (only a few of which had been really set on fire), and secured most of the valuable shops uninjured. As but very few of the cannon were destroyed, the Confederates gained nearly 3000 pieces of ordnance of all kinds, 300 of them Dahlgren guns of the latest type.2
The events at the Pensacola Navy yard furnish a companion piece of that story just narrated. On January 12 preceding, Captain James Armstrong, in command, had weakly surrendered to the State militia of Florida.a p259 Had it not been for the guns captured at Pensacola and Norfolk, according to the belief expressed later by Admiral Porter, the Confederates could not have armed their fortifications until they had built gun factories of their own, or imported cannon from Europe; that is, not until nearly a year after the beginning of hostilities.
The Union lost at Norfolk the steam frigate Merrimac, 40 guns, the sloop of war Germantown, 22, the sloop of war Plymouth, 22, the brig Dolphin, 4, all of which were practically ready for sea; also, the older ships, still possessing some usefulness, Pennsylvania, United States, Columbus, Delaware, Raritan, and Columbia; and, last an unfinished ship-of‑the‑line, the New York. But "great as was . . . the loss of our ships, it was much less than the loss of our guns."3
The Civil War marks the end of the old in the ships and guns of our navy, and the beginning of the new. Since the events following the loss of the Norfolk Navy yard instituted this revolution, it is worth while here to pause and note certain changes that had taken place in the half century preceding.
Smooth-bore guns, firing solid shot, had increased from the earlier 18‑ and 24‑pounders to 32's. The "Columbiads" used in the War of 1812 and in the Civil War were guns of this type, though previous to the later war the model had been changed by lengthening the bore and increasing the weight of metal so as to adapt it for a heavier charge. As it was discovered that the improved guns frequently did not possess the requisite strength, they were degraded to the rank of shell-guns, and fired with diminished charges of powder.
p260 The "Dahlgren" gun, designed by Admiral Dahlgren in the '50's, was regarded as the most advanced type of smooth-bore at the time of the Civil War. This was of large calibre and made of cast-iron. Its special feature was the "curve of pressures," making it heavy at the breech and light at the muzzle. It meant a great gain in power with a minimum of weight, and thus was especially adapted for naval use.
All smooth-bore ordnance was muzzle-loading. These pieces fired round shot, canister, common shells, and shrapnel shell. The first rifled guns were also muzzle-loaders; and it was not until 1875‑80 that breech-loading rifles were generally accepted.
Experiments in rifled cannon began in Russia about 1836. In the Crimean War these guns did not prove very successful, but by the beginning of the Civil War they were regarded no longer as experiments. The moment armor was introduced on ships they became a necessity. Rifled cannon had the advantage of greater penetrating power, greater range, and increased accuracy.
The "Parrott" rifle gun was probably the best of the large ordnance that found extensive use in the war. This was a cast-iron rifled tube, strengthened by a coiled wrought-iron hoop shrunk on the breech. The Parrott guns were 100-, 200-, and 300‑pounders.
In the construction of ships there had been but one important innovation since the War of 1812, and that was caused by the introduction of steam as the propelling power. Ships were still built on the general lines of frigates and sloops of war, and were fully rigged, for it was supposed that warships would ordinarily use steam only as auxiliary power. There were some side-wheelers, but ships of the latest approved type built in the United States, such as the Merrimac and the Hartford, had screw propellers, which evidently would be much less vulnerable p261 in battle. Such vessels were capable of making, under steam alone, from eight to twelve knots. The first steam man-of‑war ever launched was the U. S. S. Fulton, 1814, and the first screw warship, the U. S. S. Princeton, 1843. In thus leading the navies of the world, the United States Navy, insignificant as it was in number of ships, won distinction.
By the introduction of steam as the motive power, ships not only gained in speed, but could be maneuvered regardless of the wind. In consequence, they were much better able to attack or pass forts commanding harbors and rivers. Further, they were adapted for a new mode of attacking other vessels, that is, by ramming. This method of fighting was virtually a return to the tactics of the Greek and Roman galleys, and it proved very effective in the confined space of rivers and narrow bays.
The Confederate Navy Department early recognized that, having no ships, shipbuilders, or seamen, they could not hope to battle successfully with the National Navy except by some new and quite superior kind of fighting machine. They began studying the torpedo and the iron-clad, the principles of both of which were well known in navy circles.
The ironclad, of which alone we shall speak in this chapter, had its beginning in the Crimean War, in which it was used by the French. On October 17, 1855, three so‑called floating batteries, the Lave, Tonnante, and Dévastation, their hulls of timber covered with •four inches of iron armor, advanced to the attack of Kinburn and delivered a very destructive fire, which, with that of the ships-of‑the‑line, frigates, and mortar boats, compelled the Russian forts to surrender after three hours' resistance. The significant feature of the engagement was that although the floating batteries took a position only a few hundred yards distant from the forts, and received a p262 terrific bombardment in return, they suffered practically no injury. This set progressive naval construction to thinking; France shortly planned in her navy various changes which Great Britain viewed with apprehension.
On the 23d of June, 1861, Mr. Mallory, the Confederate Secretary of the Navy, met a board consisting of Chief Engineer William P. Williamson, Lieutenant John M. Brooke, and Naval Constructor John L. Porter, to make plans for an ironclad. Since the Confederates had failed in their attempt to purchase one, they were obliged to rely on their own resources. Mr. Porter, who had submitted the plans for an ironclad to the U. S. Navy Department as early as 1846, brought to the conference a model of a boat of shallow draft, its upper works entirely inclosed by a shield with armored sloping sides. But the building of such a vessel would require twelve months, and presented many difficulties, for the South had practically no facilities for making engines, and almost no machinists. Aid was found in the Norfolk Navy yard.
When Commodore Paulding was leaving the yard, he set fire to the abandoned ships; but as the Merrimac had already been scuttled, the flames destroyed only her upper works, and, stopping with the berth deck, left her engines and boilers practically uninjured. To save time, and to take advantage of the machinery of the Merrimac, the board, meeting at Richmond, adapted its plan to this vessel, which already had been raised and placed in drydock.
The South showed splendid energy in the reconstruction of the Merrimac, as most of the world have continued to call her, rather than the Virginia, as she was renamed by the Confederates. Officers and constructors p263 did their utmost to hasten the work; even the blacksmiths, machinists, and bolt drivers caught the spirit, and signed a voluntary agreement to work until eight o'clock every evening without extra pay.
The Merrimac was originally a screw frigate, of 3500 tons burden. Her hull, •263 feet long, was covered amidships with a shield of •178 feet; the sides of which slanted at an angle of 35°, and rose, when she was trimmed for battle, •seven feet above the water. The shield was made of rafters of yellow pine, •fourteen inches thick; on this was a course of •four-inch pine planks running fore and aft, and on this another of four-inch oak planks placed up and down. Superposed on the wood was a layer of rolled iron bars, •eight inches wide and •two inches thick, running fore and aft, and on these another layer of similar size, up and down. The whole was bolted through and through. Thus the vessel had an armor which, measured perpendicularly to the slanting sides, was •four inches of iron supported by •twenty‑two inches of wood, but which horizontally gave a thickness very much greater. The knuckle, where the armor joined the hull, and the two ends of the vessel beyond the armor, were submerged to a depth of •two feet, rendering those parts invulnerable. The rudder and propeller were protected by a heavy solid deck or fan tail.4 The top of the shield was protected from a plunging fire by an iron grating in which p264 the bars were •two inches wide and thick, separated by meshes two inches square.
The armament of the Merrimac consisted of ten guns; of the eight, comprising her broadsides, six were smooth-bore 9‑inch Dahlgrens, part of her original battery, and two were 6.4‑inch rifle guns; there were also two 7‑inch rifle guns on pivot, one at each end. The rifle guns were made at the Tredegar Iron Works, Richmond, where the armor plate was rolled, the work being under the supervision of Lieutenant Brooke. The Merrimac was further armed with a cast-iron beak, wedge shaped, weighing •1500 pounds.
The Virginia, or, as we shall call her, the Merrimac, moved slowly down Elizabeth River, at the same time making ready for battle about midday, March 8, 1862, the very earliest moment she was available. Many of the workmen were still on her and hurried to give the finishing touches as she drew out of the navy yard. The engineer was running cautiously, for the shaft had scarcely been given a turn previous to this day. The officers moved among their men, and sought to give them some acquaintance with their duties. The crew surely needed instruction, for it was made up largely of volunteers from the army. No wonder many of the people of Norfolk, as they cheered the Merrimac, supposed that she was going merely on a trial trip.
It was above twelve o'clock when Lieutenant George U. Morris, of the Cumberland, 24 guns, discovered three vessels under steam standing down Elizabeth River towards Sewell's Point. The sense of peace and security then prevailing on the Union side was indicated by the sailors' washing, which decorated the rigging, and hung p265 limp in the breathless air. The captain of the Cumberland, Commander William Radford, was absent, having been ordered to the Roanoke as member of a court of inquiry. The Congress, 50 guns, was •a quarter of a mile distant from the Cumberland; both were near Newport News, while the remaining ships of the fleet, the Roanoke, Minnesota, and St. Lawrence, were anchored off Fort Monroe, •eight miles distant.
The Cumberland and the Congress, though suddenly p266 awakened from their repose, had ample time to clear for action and to study the strange foe5 approaching. The Merrimac was deliberate in her movements; her engines, condemned as worn out and useless a year before, when the yard was in the possession of the Government, had since not been improved by fire and water. At their best they could not drive her five . The great bulk of the Merrimac, and her draft, made her difficult to maneuver. She drew •twenty‑one feet forward and •twenty‑two feet aft, and many times in the battle of this day and the day following her keel dragged in the mud. It took over half an hour to wind her.
The commanding officer of the Merrimac was Captain Franklin Buchanan, who had been forty‑six years in the United States Navy, and who was in command of the Washington Navy yard at the outbreak of hostilities. By one of the accidents not infrequent in this war, his favorite brother was purser on the Congress, which the Confederate ram was about to engage.
When the Merrimac had passed the Confederate batteries at Sewell's Point, where she was heartily cheered by the troops that lined the shores, she was seen to take the South Channel and head for Newport News. The two National ships lying there at ancient opened fire on her when she was •three-quarters of a mile distant, the Cumberland first with her heavy pivot guns. The shore batteries at Newport News also brought their guns into action.
Many of the shot struck the Merrimac, but bounded off without effect. Of this hostile demonstration the strange monster took no notice, but in silence, and with an awful deliberation, continued to advance. Finally, when within close range, Lieutenant Charles Simms carefully aimed p267 her forward pivot, and the shell, going true to its mark, swept away practically the entire crew of the after pivot‑gun of the Cumberland.6 Passing near the Congress, the Merrimac gave the old frigate a destructive broadside with her starboard battery, and received a heavy fire in return though with no effect. Without stopping to repeat the fire, the ironclad then headed direct for the Cumberland, and rammed her under the starboard forechannels.
The beak of the Merrimac was under water, but when it pierced the side of the Cumberland the smashing of timbers could be heard above the roar of cannon. The shock was scarcely felt on the Merrimac, but Cumberland had received a fatal wound. The tide began to swing the Merrimac around, and as she was disengaging herself and backing clear, the ram broke off short. The hole made in the Cumberland was large enough to admit a man.
Just previous to the moment of impact, the forward pivot‑gun of the Merrimac had again been fired, a second time doing terrible execution. On the other hand, as one of the Merrimac's crew in his excitement and enthusiasm imprudently leaped into the porthole to sponge out his gun, he was immediately shot through the head by a musket ball.
Although the Cumberland had been rammed, her men, controlled by splendid discipline, did not flinch because of the hopelessness of the contest or the carnage on their decks, and, reforming the gun‑crews, continued the fight. Their shot did not penetrate the ironclad, yet they were not altogether wasted. For when the ships, close alongside, chanced to fire at the same moment, the shot shattered the muzzles of two guns of the Merrimac and rendered them useless. Fragments of guns and shells killed one man on the Merrimac, while "sixteen more were p268 scorched with powder or scratched with minor particles of the debris." (Surgeon Phillips, of the Merrimac.)
The Merrimac, on disentangling herself, laboriously proceeded to turn, that she might engage the Congress. Meanwhile the crew of the Cumberland, under Lieutenant Morris, heroically held to the fight. As she began to settle, the men were driven from the lower decks, but fought with the guns on the spar deck. Nor did they leave them so long as the guns were above water, that is, not until forty-five minutes after the ship had been rammed. As the Union vessel careened and went down, some of the wounded were saved by being placed on racks or mess-chests, but the loss was large. Out of a complement of 376 officers and men, only 255 responded to muster the following day; nearly all of the others had been killed or drowned.
The Cumberland partly regained an upright position on sinking in the shallow water; her mastheads were not submerged, and the American flag still flew. Thus Commander Radford, who had come from Fortress Monroe on horseback, and who reached his ship only in time to witness her end, had the consolation of seeing the colors still flying.7
Meanwhile Captain Buchanan, who, on leaving the Cumberland, had headed up the James, put his helm hard-a‑starboard, and as he was coming about, Colonel J. T. Wood, in charge of the after pivot, put three raking shells into the Congress. Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, p269 commanding the Congress, attempted to save his ship by setting jib and topsails, and, with the assistance of the tug Zouave, running under the protection of the shore batteries. But the Congress soon grounded in shoal water, out of reach of the Merrimac's prow, but not of her guns. Of the events that followed, Lieutenant Pendergrast, the executive officer, says in his official report:
"At 3.30 the Merrimac took a position astern of us, at a distance of about 150 yards, and raked us fore and aft with shells, while one of the smaller steamers kept up a fire on our starboard quarter.
"In the meantime, the Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson [Jamestown], rebel steamers, approached us from up the James River, firing with precision and doing us great damage.
"Our two stern guns were now our only means of defense. These were soon disabled, one being dismounted and the other having its muzzle knocked away. The men were swept away from them with great rapidity and slaughter by the terrible fire of the enemy.
"At about 4.30 I learned of the death of Lieutenant Smith, which happened about ten minutes previous. Seeing that our men were being killed without the prospect of any relief from the Minnesota, which vessel had run ashore in attempting to get up to us from Hampton Roads, not being able to bring a single gun to bear upon the enemy, and the ship being on fire in several places, . . . we deemed it proper to haul down our colors without any further loss of life on our part.
"We were soon boarded by an officer from the Merrimac, who said that he would take charge of the ship. He left shortly afterwards, and a small tug came alongside, whose captain demanded that we should surrender and get out of the ship, as he intended to burn her immediately.
"A sharp fire with muskets and artillery was maintained p270 from our troops ashore upon the tug, having the effect of driving her off. The Merrimac again opened on us, although we had a white flag at the peak to show that we were out of action."9
The Confederates thought that fire directed against them came in part from the ship, and were highly indignant. Captain Buchanan, who was naturally excitable, snatched a carbine from one of his men, and, exposing nearly his whole body above the shield of the Merrimac, began firing. His anger and recklessness, however, met with a heavy penalty. His thigh bone was broken by a musket ball from the shore, and he was obliged to yield the command to his lieutenant, Catesby ap R. Jones. The Confederate steamers, although driven away from the Congress by the rifle guns on shore, set the Union ship on fire by red‑hot shot. She burned until past midnight, when the flames reached the magazine and blew her up.
At the beginning of the battle, the Minnesota, the Roanoke, and the St. Lawrence, leaving Fortress Monroe, had attempted to move up the Roads and take part in the action. But by the middle of the afternoon the tide was ebbing, and, as they drew considerable water, all three grounded; the Minnesota, which had gone farthest of the three, succeeded in getting within •a mile and a half of Newport News, and witnessed the Cumberland sink and the Congress surrender, without any power on her part to aid. However, if the Minnesota could not rush forward and grapple with the Merrimac, no more could the Merrimac cross the shoal water and engage the Minnesota, and to this the Minnesota owed her salvation.
The fire of the Merrimac was not very accurate, and at the distance of •a mile her gunners succeeded in putting only one shell through their enemy's bow. But the Jamestown p271 and the Patrick Henry, taking positions on the Minnesota's port bow and stern, with their rifle guns did considerable damage until the Union vessel, bringing a heavy gun to bear, forced them to withdraw.
About this time the St. Lawrence succeeded in reaching a position near the Minnesota before grounding again, where she fired several broadsides at the Merrimac. Hostilities ceased about 6.30, when the pilot of the Merrimac declared that the tide would leave her aground if she continued longer in her present position. The Confederate vessels then steamed back to Sewell's Point, where they anchored for the night.
The South had won a decided victory. The conflict, according to the Confederate historian Scharf, was "twenty-seven guns [the combined batteries of the Merrimac and the small steamers] against an armament of over 300 guns, of which 100 could be brought into action at every moment, and on every point." The Merrimac had moved about at will in the destruction of the Union ships, checked only by the shallow water of the Roads and her own awkwardness. The heavy guns of the Union ships and shore batteries had swept her decks, carrying away davits, anchors, and flagstaffs. Her smokestack and steam-pipe were riddled; her beak was broken off and prow twisted; the muzzles of two guns had been shattered. But as her armor had been scarcely so much as dented, the injuries were insignificant, and the Confederates awaited only daylight to complete the work of destruction.
Reports of the victory of the Merrimac were soon spreading in all directions. No wonder that the South became ecstatic and that the North was filled with the gravest apprehension. When the news reached Washington next morning (Sunday), a Cabinet meeting was immediately called. As the members assembled it was evident that they were suffering from the general alarm. In the p272 deliberation that followed, excited fears were expressed that the blockade might now be broken, and the Richmond campaign thwarted; and, who could tell, even New York might soon be laid under contribution, and Washington burned!10
For where were the helpless ships of the Union to find succor? Without seeking on their part, however, help came in a strange, most unseamanlike craft, the Monitor, which arrived in Hampton Roads that evening at nine o'clock.
1 To be found in the Naval War Records, IV, 280.
2 These are the figures given by Commodore Paulding in his report to the Department of April 23, 1861; Commodore McCauley's estimate is about the same; other estimates vary greatly, but all are less; Scharf in his history states, "There were 1198 guns of all kinds captured with the yard, of which fifty‑two were 9‑inch Dahlgren guns."
3 Porter, Naval History of the Civil War, p33.
4 There is considerable variance in the descriptions of the Merrimac, even in statements made by officers who served on her; e.g., some give the slant of her shield as 45°, affirming that her decks were merely awash when in battle, instead of submerged, and that her rudder and propeller were unprotected, etc. In this account, the authors have relied chiefly on statements by Naval Constructor J. L. Porter, Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, I, 716, and by John W. H. Porter, A Record of Events in Norfolk County, pp327‑366.
5 Stiles, in his Military Essays and Recollections, says the Merrimac looked "like a house submerged to the eaves, borne onward by a flood."
6 Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, I, 698.
7 Radford's and Morris's reports will be found in the Naval War Records, VII, 20 ff.
8 Built at Portsmouth, N. H., in 1841, and connected only in name with the old Congress, one of the six frigates forming the first permanent navy of the United States.
9 Naval War Records, VII, 23.
10 Nicolay and Hay, Abraham Lincoln, V, 226.
a A full account of the surrender is given by E. C. Bearss, "Civil War Operations in and around Pensacola" (FHQ 36:125‑165).
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A Short History
of the U. S. Navy
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 31 Oct 13