EDITOR’S NOTE: In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, Waxahachie resident and amateur historian David Hudgins has written a series of columns of historical facts relating to the War Between the States.
• Second in a Series
The year was 1861 and the American Civil War had begun.
The Confederate States of America, under new President Jefferson Davis, was trying to put a new government together along with an army and navy. An army was formed without haste, but a navy was not as easy.
President Davis appointed Stephen R. Mallory of Key West, Fla., to establish a navy. Mallory knew he would never be able to match the number of ships that the Union had at its disposal. He and his team designed a new type of ship that the world had never seen. This new ironclad battleship would be known as the CSS Virginia.
When the state of Virginia voted to secede from the Union in 1861, the Federal government ordered the navy ship yard in Portsmouth, Va. to be destroyed.
There was a delay in execution of these orders and the Confederate forces were now close by. So the total destruction of the ship yard never happened.
Confederate forces moved into the ship yard and found 1,198 heavy guns unharmed and only slight damage to the building and docks.
The Confederates also found a ship in the harbor that the Union Army had tried to destroy by setting it on fire.
The ship was the 1856 USS Merrimack which had been in the navy yard for repairs. The fire destroyed the top deck but the hull and the steam engine were not destroyed.
Work started on May 18, 1861, to salvage the ship and by May 30 the Merrimack was in the shipyard dock.
When the Secretary of the Confederate Navy learned of this he put his team together to design the first ironclad.
Work started on June 11, 1861, to remove the burned sections from the hull and to lower the waterline to give it extra protection. The ship was given a large twin bladed screw propeller, powered by the salvaged steam engine. The name of the ship was changed to the CSS Virginia.
The CSS Virginia, also called a casement ironclad, was built to the following specifications. The ship was 275 feet in length with a beam of 51 feet 2 inches. The Virginia’s draft was 21 to 23 feet.
Propelled by four boiler steam engines, the ship sailed at 5 to 6 knots. When fully staffed, the Virginia had a crew of 320 men.
Two seven inch and two 6.4 inch Brooke rifles cannons were mounted. Also installed were six 9 inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannons and two 12 pound Howitzers.
The side armor was constructed with 25 inches of oak and/or pine side casements set at a 35 degree angle. Two 2 inch iron sheets were then placed over the wood.
The ship’s low draft gave it protection from other ships firing at its hull. However, due to this low draft it took 45 minutes to an hour to turn the ship around.
The 35 degree angle on the side casement caused cannon balls to deflect off due to the angle.
European ships had started to use iron platting to give some protection, but the degree of angle and total enclosure protecting the crew and propulsion system was a new improvement. The ship had two enclosed decks.
The lower deck was used for the steam engine, its coal supply, and storage for other supplies. The upper deck was used for the crew and the cannon placements.
At the front of the ship there was also an enclosed pilot house, rounded like a funnel, used to steer the ship. The rudder was operated by an iron steering chain covered with an iron chain cover to protect it from cannon shots.
All openings in the front, rear and sides for cannons also had a gun port shutter operated by a chain pulley. This innovation allowed the ship to be sealed tight when cannons were not in use.
The ship was outfitted with a bolt-on ram device to ram wooden hull ships. This new ironclad battleship would fly the Confederate thirteen stars and bars flag, not the battle flag.
The North had spies in the South and knew the South was building this new ironclad battleship and started to work on an ironclad of its own, to be named the USS Monitor. The South also had spies and was aware of the Monitor’s construction. Information had leaked out to Northern newspapers about the construction of the Virginia, but many Northern newspapers still referred to it as the Merrimack or as “the rebel monster.”
It was just a matter of time before the two ironclad ships met in battle.
David Hudgins is a member of the Ellis County Museum Board of Directors and co-founder of the Ellis County Veterans Appreciation Committee. He also serves as Chaplin of the O. M. Roberts Camp #178, Sons of Confederate Veterans. For more information, visit www.omroberts.com.