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Monday, November 14, 2011

History Matters: Credits for Conversion of the CSS VIRGINIA – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #16 (written October 26, 2011)

   Without money nothing is accomplished and so was the case for the Confederate Navy. Secretary Mallory on the 18th of July, 1861, submitted a report to the Confederate Congress in which he said, "The cost of this work is estimated by the constructor and engineer in charge at $172,523, and as time is of the first consequence in this enterprise, I have not hesitated to commence the work, and to ask Congress for the necessary appropriation."

   Thus a shipbuilding program had begun for the South at Gosport but with certain problems as John V. Quarstein points out in his book C.S.S. Virginia Mistress of Hampton Roads the following:

"Despite shrewd success, Mallory did err with his shipbuilding program; he delegated responsibilities among several individuals. French Forrest, who did not really approve of the project, retained administrative control as yard commandant. Chief Engineer William Williamson was given the task of machinery revitalization, and Naval Constructor John L. Porter was charged with supervising the actual construction. John Mercer Brooke, a favorite of Mallory, managed the armor and armament for the ironclad as well as acting as the inspecting agent for the entire project. Friction arose immediately between Brooke and Porter since much of the project overlapped. The acrimony began with the fact that both men claimed the vessel's design as their own and continued with Brooke's modifications throughout the project. Nevertheless, the Confederacy had its first ironclad under construction by July in its finest shipyard."

Mr. John L. Porter's Model June 1861
(page 347 History of Norfolk County 1861-1865)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

   The following various statements are gleaned from John W. H. Porter's History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published in 1892.
Porter put forth a design per his model of June 1861 to extend the shield and submerged her eaves and ends two feet all around, and would have extended her shield the entire length had she not been too sharp at the bow and the stern, and therefore he stopped it where the vessel became too narrow to admit its being built any further.

   Subsequent to the publication of the report of Secretary Mallory Lieutenant Brooke applied to the Confederate Patent Office and obtained a patent for "an iron-clad with submerged ends, projecting beyond her shield", and it was claimed for him that this is evidence that he was the author of which the Virginia was built into an iron-clad.
(page 351 History of Norfolk County 1861-1865)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

   The Merrimac was not selected as the result of any plan, but simply because she had an engine in her which could be utilized where it was, and the Confederates lacked the facilities for building a new engine for a new boat. The burned portion as cut away and the weight of her armor, armament, and submerged the remainder so that only her shield was out of the water. It is not probable that Constructor Porter would have built a new vessel with her ends extending out under water beyond the shield. He converted the Merrimac into an iron-clad after that style through necessity, and not from choice.

   The converting of the vessel into an iron-clad consisted in putting the shot proof shield on her. That is all of an iron-clad nature there was about her, all there was of a plan. All the rest of was the result of accident, and not design, and if anyone is entitled to the credit of submerging her ends beyond her shield, it was Commodore Paulding of the United States Navy, who ordered Gosport to be burned, in consequence of which the Merrimac was burned to the water's edge.

   Without any photographs of VIRGINIA, we are only left to the personal viewpoints of those with power and access to producing a sketch or the written word of the era. Remember also that there are very few scant surviving documents. The Porter vs. Brooke claims of the early 1860's being what they were continued on for decades as their own individual campaigns of pride seeking credit for design. It should be noted despite of all of this fuss no Confederate iron-clads were subsequently built with submerged projecting ends.

   As time went on an article published in the Century Magazine of March 1885 further opened the rift. The story by John Taylor Wood who served on VIRGINIA gave new life to the controversy. The Porter camp claimed not only did the article provided an inaccurate description of the ship but that it also seemed to accept Lieutenant Jones' account to the vulnerability of the vessel at the waterline and the unprotected condition concerning the rudder and propeller.

   Even extending into the 1891-92 time frames, there was still newly written correspondence supporting Porter's claim for sole design of the shield for Merrimac. It should be noted that by the time of Porter's death in Portsmouth, Virginia, 1893, it would be fair to believe he must have thought about his place in history daily.

   Getting beyond the issue of "credit" for who designed VIRGINIA or its specific configuration, one must look upon the entire canvas of materials left and understand that the written word that we have today is from individuals that participated in the unprecedented historical events at Gosport in 1861 and 1862 leading up to the Battle of Hampton Roads. They have left us "their" side of the story; we can't change what they wrote and hope modern authors stay true to the known facts and keep their spin to themselves.

   Next we shall explore the physical transformation of VIRGINIA in the drydock because - "history matters".

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