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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

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

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #14 (written August 21, 2011)

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. 

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.

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, is 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.

Wm. P. Williamson, Cheif Engineer
John M. Brooke, Lieutenant
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".

Drydock 1 Length (looking east, showing ship keel blocking) circa 1930's
Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Room

Drydock 1 Headwall circa 1930's
Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Room

Friday, August 19, 2011

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

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #13 (written August 15, 2011)

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 upon 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.  As I write this I am looking at the front leaf of a Boston Weekly - BALLOU'S PICTORIAL (see below) of January 26,1856 that celebrates – THE STEAM FRIGATE MERRIMAC.

With much pride the article points out the following fact, 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 the 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".

Ballou's Pictorial, Boston, Saturday, January 26, 1856