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Saturday, January 7, 2012

Transformation into the CSS VIRGINIA – 150 Years Ago

by Marcus Robbins, NNSY Historian                                                         Blog #17. January 02, 2012.
I previously shared in Blog #14 the entire written contents of a report dated June 25th, 1861, that Constructor Porter, Engineer Williamson and Lieutenant Brooke prepared for Confederate Secretary Mallory. It provided an outline pertaining to their beliefs that the Merrimac could be salvaged, loaded with sufficient armament, make use of the existing engines and out-fitted with iron plating to cover the new shield.

With those assurances, Secretary Mallory went forth to the Confederate Congress on July 18th, 1861, and presented the estimated cost of $172,523 and asked Congress for the necessary appropriation.

The summer of 1861 finds Gosport at the center of the Confederate Navy, the central hub of activity.

Soon contracts are let to the various surrounding Portsmouth and Norfolk shipyards, foundries and machine shops to provide labor, tools and supplies in order to support the South's number one assignment, transforming the burnt hulk of the Merrimac into something never before seen in North America, an iron-clad vessel.

As so happened 28 years prior when the stone drydock made history with the first dry docking in North America in 1833 with DELAWARE, now again in 1861 Gosport is the central focus of attention. From the burnt hulk of MERRIMAC will rise a phoenix: the VIRGINIA is soon to be born and sail into the pages of naval warfare history forever.

The following various statements are gleaned from John W. H. Porter's History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published in 1892.
"The plans to be adopted in the arrangement of her shield for glancing shots, mounting guns, arranging the hull and plating," were not submitted simultaneously with the report, as it was necessary for Mr. Porter to return to the Gosport Navy Yard and make an accurate measurement of the vessel, so that he could calculate her displacement and prepare the plans. Engineer Williamson also went to the Navy Yard to superintend the preparation of the machinery, and Mr. Brooke remained in Richmond. Mr. Porter measured the vessel without assistance from anyone, except a laborer to hold the end of the tape line.

He therefore raised the line one foot at the stern and cut her down on a straight line running from a height of nineteen feet forward to twenty feet aft, so that when completed, she drew twenty-one feet forward to twenty-two feet aft. This additional displacement increased her buoyancy about two hundred tons and had to be overcome by pig iron or kentlege, which was placed on her deck ends in her spirit room to bring her eaves to the proper depth below the waterline."

Mr. Porter completed his drawings on the 10th of July, without having to consult anyone, took them to Richmond the next morning, and submitted them to Secretary Mallory, who immediately approved them, without re-convening the board or calling in the advise or opinion of anyone, and wrote in his own hand the following order, which he handed to Mr. Porter for delivery to Commodore Forrest, commanding the
Gosport Navy Yard:
Navy Department Richmond, Va., July 11th, 1861
Flag Officer F. Forrest:

Sir—You will proceed with all practical dispatch to make changes in the Merrimac, and to build, equip, and fit her in all respects, according to the designs and plans of the Constructor, and Engineer, Messrs. Porter and Williamson. As time is of the utmost importance in this matter, you will see that the work progresses without delay to completion.
S. R. MALLORY, Secretary Confederate States Navy.
Mr. Porter returned immediately to the Gosport Navy Yard, appointed Mr. James Meads Master ship carpenter, and commenced work on the vessel in the dry-dock. The burned part was cut away, and a deck built from one end to the other. Inside the shield the deck was covered with plank, on beams, but outside the shield, at both ends, it was built of solid timber, and covered over with iron one-inch thick. Figure 3 represents the shape of a cross section amidship.
VIRGINIA ~ cross section amidship showing gun and berth decks
(page 335 History of Norfolk County 1861-1865)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The ship had only two decks, gun and berth decks, and her boilers and engine remained in their original positions.

As the work progressed, Secretary Mallory became very urgent for its speedy conclusion, and on the 19th of August, a little more than a month after it was begun, he wrote the following order:
Flag Officer F. Forrest, Commanding Navy Yard, Gosport:

Sir.—The great importance of the service expected of the Merrimac, and the urgent necessity of her speedy completion, induces me to call upon you to push forward with the work with the utmost dispatch. Chief Engineer Williamson and Constructor Porter, severally in charge of the two branches of this great work, and for which they will be held personally responsible, will receive therefore every possible facility at the expense and delay of every other work on hand if necessary.

S. R. MALLORY, Secretary Confederate States Navy.
Thus the entire mission of Gosport centers on successful completion of the transformation of the former USS MERRIMAC into the CSS VIRGINIA. Time was marching on and specific people were to be held accountable. The North also had a contest of its own as they were constructing what was to become known as the USS MONITOR, the stress level must have been incredible as each side raced to put their creation into its element for the fight yet to come.

Next we shall discuss the shield construction, touching on dimensions and discussion of materials used along with viewing pictures of some surviving VIRGINIA iron artifacts because - "history matters".

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