The Merrimac and Naval Warfare of the Civil War
It was built to do battle with the Union Navy.
The Confederates were the first to bring forth a warship of this kind.
The Union was in control of a navel yard named Gosport.
In April of 1862, the South started to advance on this navel base and the North had little choice but to flee.
While leaving they tried to destroy whatever they could in a desperate attempt to prevent the Confederacy from gaining more military power with Union supplies.
Unfortunately, for the North, they caused little damage to the base in the time that they had (Barthell, The Mystery of the Merrimack 106).
The Union tried to destroy one of their better ships, the U.S.S.
Merrimac, by setting it on fire.
They also drilled several holes in the bottom of the boat, to let water in and sink it.
The boat sank halfway.
The South did eventually gain control of the navel base.
With their very small navy they decided to experiment (Baxter 283).
They raised the half sunken ship.
With their new supplies they plated the ship in iron and put a large arsenal of guns on each side.
Five holes were drilled into the ship on both sides.
These holes were to allow powerful guns from inside to shoot at enemy ships.
Also a tall central chimney was built on top of the ship, where smoke from its coal-powered engines would go.
It took nine months of extensive remodeling to complete the transfer from the former Merrimac to the new Virginia.
The Confederates also spent time attaching a four-foot iron ram to the front of the ship.
This was to be used to ram and sink enemy ships that were either wood or lightly plated in iron.
An inventor named John Mercer Brooke made all the plans the Confederates followed in the construction of the Virginia.
Another fellow named John L.
Porter also assisted Mercer in the creating of the Virginia (Bearss, River of Lost Opportunities 16-17).
They christened this new ship the Virginia but the majority of people still referred to it as the Merrimac.
The new Confederate ship carried an arsenal of two 7-inch Brooke rifles, two similar 6-inch rifles, eight 9-inch Dahlgren guns, two 7-inch Dahlgren pivot guns, and two 12-pound howitzers.
This arsenal combined with the thick four-inch iron plating caused the ship to be quite heavy (Amandon, Rise of the Ironclads 45).
While the Merrimac was being built several spies working for the North caught word of the construction of the Southern ironclad.
To make things even the North decided to build their own ironclad.
Their creation would be given the name Monitor.
For ten months the Union and Confederate navies had been in a stalemate.
This took place at Hampton Roads, a channel in southeastern Virginia, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay.
Land forces on both sides of the river were also at a draw with the Union occupying the north side of the bay and the Confederacy taking up position on the south shore (Amadon, Rise of the Ironclads 46).
It took ten days to load the ship with all the necessary supplies.
The Virginia was launched on March 7th, 1863.
Soon after the Virginia’s launch, the crew noticed some problems with their new ship.
The newly christened Virginia was very slow, only five knots, it had a deep draft, and her handling was also slow.
The four-inch thick iron that weighed the ship down was the cause for the Virginia’s slow movement.
Despite all of these setbacks Captain Frank Buchanan, the commanding officer aboard the ship took the Virginia right into battle in an attempt to show his courage and fighting abilities (Baxter, The Introduction of the Ironclad Warship 283).
The Virginia would be up against five other ships, the Cumberland, the Congress, the St.
Lawrence, the Roanoke, and the Minnesota.
All five ships were part of the Union blockade to prevent the South from trading with European countries and two of these ship the Roanoke and the Minnesota were sister ships of the former Merrimac (Pratt 18-20).
All five ships would be either sunken or very badly damaged in a matter of hours and dozens of men were killed (Amadon 46).
During the fight, the Virginia decided to test out it’s new ram.
After hours of carefully getting into position it gradually closed the one-mile wide gap between itself and the Minnesota.
All went as planned but when orders were given to back out of the Minnesota the Virginia found itself stuck.
Eventually, the Confederate ship would gain its freedom from the Minnesota but the cost was losing its ram.
After receiving word that their ships were under attack the Union sent three other warships to the rescue.
Soon after seeing what the Virginia was capable of, the captains of these ships decided to turn in the other direction and get out of there.
Meanwhile, the Monitor was being sent down shore to enter the Potomac River and go upstream to protect Washington D.C.
After hearing of the Merrimac’s attack on their ships, the North sent the Monitor down to Hampton Roads to reinforce the blockade.
After a very successful day at sea the Virginia decided to retire for the day and finish off the Minnesota the following day.
The next day the Merrimac returned to finish off the job.
As she pulled up, crewmen aboard noticed something sitting in the water between the Minnesota and the Merrimac.
This very strange looking object was said to look like a shingle with a metal can on top.
At 8:06 A.M.
the Merrimac fired the first shot going right over the Monitor and into the Minnesota (Haykim 143).
The Minnesota responded by a full broadside.
Both ironclads had their own advantages and disadvantages.
The Merrimac could reload her guns much faster than the Monitor could but the Merrimac was also very slow (Anderson 76).
The Monitor had powerful engines for her size and was light so she was fast and easier to maneuver.
The Monitor also had its disadvantages.
Besides her slow reloading speed the voice tube in the ship was broken.
It was the tube that the pilot of a ship would speak into to communicate with the engine room to steer the ship.
Also the movable box on the top of the ship, called a turret, would not stop moving.
During that day all Union ships would be destroyed with the exception of the Monitor.
In the end neither ship caused any major damage to the other and the famous battle between the Merrimac and the Monitor ended in a drawl (Bearss, River of Lost Opportunities 16-17).
During the Virginia’s test run a gunshot wounded the leg of Captain Buchanan and caused him to step down from command.
His second in command Catesby R.
Jones would gain control of the Merrimac and take it into the famous battle with the Monitor (Haykim, A History of US Was, Terrible War 143).
This was the one and only time these ironclads would ever meet in battle.
People who had the chance to view the strange ironclads in battle started to gain a great interest in odd-looking warships.
In fact the Confederacy and the Union started to produce more of the heavily armored ships.
Some served for several years and some sank a short time after their initial launch (Haykim, A History of US Was, Terrible War 143).
As for the Merrimac, during one such battle with Union forces, severe damage was inflicted upon it.
On the tenth of May 1863, the Confederates decided to take their ship up the Potomac River to destroy Washington D.C.
Her pilots reported that she was not in any type of fighting condition.
Instead, commander Tatnall, the head officer ordered that the ship be run aground and set on fire.
On May 11th 1863 one of the barrels containing gunpowder caught on fire and exploded completely ruining the Merrimac.
Commander Tatnall was tried in court, and then court-martialed for destroying a valuable Confederate possession and the first real ironclad warship (Bearss, River of Lost Opportunities 16-17).
Though the Merrimac was slow and cumbersome it proved to be a mighty opponent to the Union’s Monitor.
This opened the door for a new generation of ships.
Ironclad ships forever changed the course of American Navel history.
Works Cited 1. Barthell, Edward East.
The Mystery of the Merrimack.
Muskegon, Michigan: Dana Printing Company, 1959.
2. Bearss, Ed.
River of Lost Opportunities.
Lynchburg, Virginia: H.E.
Howard, Inc., 1995.
3. Amandon, George F.
Rise of the Ironclads.
Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, 1988.
4. Anderson, Bern.
By Sea and by River; The Navel History of the Civil War.
New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, Inc, 1962.
5. Pratt, Fletcher.
The Monitor and the Merrimac.
New York: Random House, 1951.