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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
UNITED STATES STEAM FRIGATE MERRIMAC