After the Battle of the Ironclads

The following is taken from Catesby ap Roger Jones's (Executive Officer of the CSS Virginia) publication for the Southern Historical Society, October, 1874. [Mabry]

See also Chief Engineer H. A. Ramsay's article.

Also see “The Fate of the CSS Virginia”.

For detail on the Battle of Drewry's Bluff, see Ed Bearss's River of Lost Opportunity.

Here are a number of photos of the Drewry's Bluff, along with other written material. (More) Note: During the Civil War, this place was known as Drury's Bluff. Before 1900, it became known as Drewry's Bluff. It was named after Augustus Harrison Drewry (or Drury?).

The ship was docked; a prow of steel and wrought iron put on, and a course of two-inch iron on the hull below the roof extending in length 180 feet. Want of time and material prevented its completion. The damage to the armor was repaired; wrought-iron port shutters were fitted, etc. The rifle guns were supplied with bolts of wrought and chilled iron. The ship was brought a foot[E1] deeper in the water, making her draft twenty-three feet.

Commodore Josiah Tatnall[E2] relieved Admiral Buchanan in command. On the 11th of April he took the Virginia down to Hampton Roads, expecting to have a desperate encounter with the Monitor. Greatly to our surprise, the Monitor refused to fight us. She closely hugged the shore under the guns of the fort, with her steam up. Hoping to provoke her to come out, the Jamestown[10] was sent in, and captured several prizes, but the Monitor would not budge. It was proposed to take the vessel to the York River, but it was decided in Richmond that she should stay near Norfolk for its protection.

Commodore Tatnall commanded the Virginia forty-five days, of which time there were only thirteen days she was not in dock or in the hands of the Navy Yard. Yet he succeeded in impressing the enemy that we were ready for active service. It was evident that the enemy very much over-rated our power and efficiency.[11] The South also had the same exaggerated idea of the vessel.

On the eighth of May a squadron, including the Monitor, bombarded our batteries at Sewell Point. We immediately left the yard for the Roads. As we drew near, the Monitor and her consorts ceased bombarding, and retreated under the guns of the fort, keeping beyond the range of our guns. Men-of-war from below the forts, and vessels expressly fitted for running us down, joined the other vessels between the forts. It looked as if the fleet was about to make a fierce onslaught upon us. But we were gain to be disappointed. The Monitor and the other vessels did not venture to meet us, although we advanced until projectiles from the Rip Raps fell more than half a mile beyond us. Our object, however, was accomplished; we had put an end to the bombardment, and we returned to our buoy.

Norfolk was evacuated on the 10th of May. In order that the ship might be carried up the James River, we commenced to lighten her, but ceased on the pilots saying that they could not take her up. Her shield was then out of water; we were not in fighting condition. We therefore ran her ashore in the bight of Craney Island, landed the crew and set the vessel on fire. The magazine exploded about half-past four on the morning of the 11th of May, 1862. The crew arrived at Drury's Bluff the next day, and assisted in defeating the Monitor, Galena and other vessels on the 15th of May.[E3]

Commander Tatnall was tried by court-martial for destroying the Virginia, an was "honorably acquitted" of all the charges. The court stated the facts and their motives for acquitting him. Some of them are as follows: "That after the evacuation of Norfolk, Westover on James River, became the most suitable place for her to occupy; that while in the act of lightening her for the purpose of taking her up to that point, the pilots for the first time declared their inability to take her up. * * * That when lightened she was made vulnerable to the attacks of the enemy. * * * The only alternative, in the opinion of the court, was to abandon and burn the ship then and there, which, in the judgment of the court, was deliberately and wisely done."

[10] French and English men-of-war were present. The latter cheered our gunboat as she passed with the prize.

[11] Some of the Northern papers estimated her to be equivalent to any army corps.

Transcription notes:

[E1] Mabry has "four feet", apparently incorrectly, while the United Service version has "a foot".

[E2] Correctly spelled as "Tattnall".

[E3] See the article in America's Civil War, Nov. 1997 and Jan. 2003. John F. Mackie, US Marine Corporal aboard the USS Galena; Charles Kenyon, a fireman aboard the USS Galena; and Jeremiah Regan, a Quartermaster aboard the USS Galena, were given a Medal of Honor for the battle at Drewry's Bluff, 15 May 1862.

General Josiah Gorges, CSA, wrote in his The Civil War Diary of General Josiah Gorges:

No one event of the war, not even the disaster of Fort Donelson, created such a profound sensation as the destruction of this noble ship [CSS Virginia]. It was intended to bring her up the James River as far as her draught would permit after the evacuation of Norfolk. For this purpose she was lightened by throwing her coal overboard; but after all had been taken out she could not pass the bar at the mouth of James River. She was now in a condition nearly defenceless. Her iron sheathing had come up to the water line, and even above it, and her fuel was gone; nothing was left but to blow her up, which was done with 36,000 pounds of powder on board. It was indeed a fearful blunder, and one which came very near being fatal to us. There was nothing now to prevent the gunboats from reaching Richmond. The battery at Drury's Bluff had but three guns mounted; the obstructions were wholly incomplete, and the enemy could have made their way right up to this city. Fortunately they waited until a week after her destruction before making the attempt. The obstructions were completed, and when they did make the attempt on the 17th of May they were signally defeated. It was the turning point in our fortunes.

CSS Virginia
Copyright 1996-2003 by Mabry Tyson