Transcribed from Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume I, edited by Robert Underwood Johnson and Clarence Clough Buel, New York, 1887, pp. 715-716.




Early in June, 1861, the Secretary of the Navy of the Confederate States asked me to design an iron-clad. The first idea presenting itself was a shield of timber, two feet thick, plated with three or more inches of iron, inclined to the horizontal plane at the least angle that would permit working the guns; this shield, its eaves submerged to the depth of two feet, to be supported by a hull of equal length. There was nothing novel in the use of inclined iron-plating. It was apparent that to support such a shield the ends of the vessel would be so full as to prevent the attainment of speed; and that in move end on even a small sea would prevent working the bow or stern gun. It then occurred to me that fineness of line, protection of hull, and buoyancy with light draught, could be obtained by extending the ends of the vessel under water beyond the shield, provided the shield were of sufficient length to give the requisite stability. Considering, then, the liability to the banking up of water over those submerged ends, I erected upon each a decked superstructure of ship-iron, carried up from the sides of the submerged parts to a height above water not greater than would permit free use of the guns, and of the usual form of hull above water. Water could be admitted or taken from them.

I submitted to the secretary outline drawings, --sheer, body and deck plans, with explanations,--and he approved and adopted this novel form. In reply to my suggestion that Naval-Constructor John L. Porter and Chief-Engineer William P. Williamson should be called to Richmond, that we might put the plan in execution, he replied that a practical mechanic would be sent from the Norfolk yard. This mechanic--a master ship-carpenter--came; but as he was lacking in confidence and energy, and was averse to performing unusual duty, he was permitted to return to the yard.

Messrs. Porter and Williamson were ordered to Richmond for consultation on the same general subject, and to aid in the work. They met the secretary and myself on the 23d of June, 1861. Mr. Porter brought and submitted to the secretary a model described by the latter in a report dated March 29th, 1862, to the congress of the Confederate States, as "a flat-bottomed light-draught propeller, casemated battery, with inclined iron sides and ends." The hull of this model did not extend beyond the shield. The secretary then called the attention of Messrs. Williamson and Porter to the plan proposed by me, which had been adopted by the department. The drawings were laid before them, the reasons for extending the hull under water beyond the shield were given, and both approved it. As the drawings were in pencil, the secretary directed me to make a clean drawing in ink of the plan, to be filed in the department. Messrs. Porter and Williamson were directed to ascertain if suitable engines and boilers could be obtained. Mr. Porter offered to make the clean drawing, as "being more familiar with that sort of work." Accepting the offer I went with Williamson to the Tredegar works, where we learned that there were no suitable engines in the South. Williamson then said he thought the engines of the Merrimac could be used, but that the vessel would necessarily draw as much water as the Merrimac, and it would not be worth while to build a new hull, as enough of the old hull remained to carry out the plan. Mr. Porter and I thought the draught too great, but that we could not do better. We so reported to the secretary, who concurred. That there might be official record of results of consultation, as there was of the original plan, he directed us to consider and report upon the best mode of making the Merrimac useful, which we did in accordance with the views above stated. Mr. Williamson and Mr. Porter returned to Norfolk, the former to adapt and repair the engines, the latter to cut the ship down, submerge her ends, etc. To me was assigned the preparation of armor, construction of guns, etc. On the 11th of July Mr. Porter submitted to the secretary drawings, based upon actual measurements of the ship and on the plan of submerged extended ends, which I had presented, and which had been unanimously approved. Having reference to this working plan and its details, the secretary issued the following order:

NAVY DEPARTMENT, RICHMOND, July 11, 1861. FLAG-OFFICER F. FORREST. SIR: You will proceed with all practicable dispatch to make the changes in the form of the Merrimac, and to build, equip, and fit her in all respects according to the design and plans of the constructor and engineer, Messrs. Porter and Williamson. . . . R. S. MALLORY, Secretary of the C. S. Navy.

This and a similar order were construed by Mr. Porter to credit him with the origin of the plan, and served as a basis to a published claim after the action in Hampton Roads, which led to a call by the Confederate House of Representatives, upon the Secretary of the Navy, for information as to the origin of the plan, and to the settlement of the question by a patent, No. 100, granted me by the Confederate States, 29th July, 1862. This patent is still in my possession.

LEXINGTON, VA., October, 1887.

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Transcription copyright 1998 by Mabry Tyson