CSS Virginia and the Battle of Hampton Roads

CSS Virginia

On March 8, 1862, the newly commissioned CSS Virginia was launched in Hampton Roads, Virginia.  Originally built as the frigate Merrimack by the U.S. Navy in 1856,  the Confederacy had the ship raised, armored, and relaunched as an ironclad ram.

From the Navy’s Dictionary of Naval Fighting Ships,

“Despite all-out effort to complete her, Virginia still had workmen on board when she sailed out into Hampton Roads, 8 March 1862, tended by CSS Raleigh and Beaufort, accompanied by Patrick, Jamestown, and Teaser. Flag Officer F. Buchanan, CSN, commanding Virginia, singled out as first victim the sailing sloop Cumberland, anchored west of Newport News, to test Virginia’s armor against a 70-pounder rifle. In taking position Virginia passed Congress and exchanged broadsides, suffering no injury while causing considerable. She crossed Cumberland’s bows, raking her with a lethal fire, finishing off the wooden warship with a thrust of her iron ram to conserve scarce gunpowder. Cumberland sank with colors flying, taking 121 men, one third of her crew, and part of Virginia’s ram down with her.

Sinking of the USS Cumberland

Virginia then turned her attention to Congress, which grounded while attempting to evade. Opening fire from a distance, assisted by the lighter ships of the James River Squadron, Virginia forced Congress to haul down her colors. As CSS Beaufort and Raleigh approached Congress to receive the surrender of her crew, Federal troops ashore, not understanding the situation, opened a withering fire and wounded Buchanan, who retaliated by ordering hot shot and incendiary shell to be poured into Congress. The latter, ablaze and unable to bring a single gun to bear, hauled down her flag for the last time. She continued to burn far into the night and exploded about midnight…

On the following morning Virginia returned to battle. In the night the Union ironclad Monitor, after a hazardous trip from New York had arrived in the nick of time to save the fleet in Hampton Roads. The ensuing inconclusive battle, the first ever fought between powered ironclads, revolutionized warfare at sea…”

Battle of Hampton Roads, Va. March, 1862

When the Confederate troops were forced to evacuate Norfolk in mid-1862, the CSS Virginia found herself without a home port.  Unwilling to allow the prized ironclad to fall into Yankee hands, Confederate forces were forced to destroy the ship off Craney Island, Va. in May, 1862.

Today, 148 years after her re-launch and the commencement of the Battle of Hampton Roads, may the memory of all her gallant crewmen be honored.

Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan, CSN

Commanding Officer Catesby ap Roger Jones, CSN

Published in: on March 8, 2010 at 4:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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