Transcribed from Confederate Veteran, VIII, 1900. Pp. 356-357.


Brilliant Career of the Merrimac.

By Comrade John F. Higgins, of Virginia.

Having been one of the Merrimac's men, I gladly give some reminiscences of her short but heroic and victorious career as a part of the very honorable history of the Confederate States navy during our late civil war.

The Merrimac, for that was her original name, was prior to the civil war one of the United States wooden frigates of war. When the Federals, in April, 1861, evacuated Norfolk and Portsmouth and the navy yard, they sank her. The Confederates, immediately occupying the place, raised her, and in the summer of 1861 put her into dry dock to be rebuilt as an ironclad.

The novel plans of her construction were suggested by Lieut. John M. Brooke, who had been in the old navy but had resigned and joined the Confederates. According to his plan the frigate was housed over and made into an ironclad floating battery, the sides of her and both ends too being inclined at such an angle as to make shot and shell striking her glance off into the air. The iron plating was two by four inches, and laid on to a thickness of eight inches upon a wooden deck twenty-four inches thick. She had also an iron-sheathed prow for ramming purposes. When going into action her iron-plated decks were coated with thick grease--slush. Her equipment consisted of ten guns, two of them--one fore and one aft--being seven-inch rifles. The rest were nine-inch Dahlgrens, two of them being hot shot guns.

It may be safely said that the plan of the Merrimac, a floating ironclad battery (as designed by Lieut. Brooke, of Virginia), marked a new era in the history of naval warfare. Wooden ships were put out of service from the day the Merrimac appeared.

After having been made ready for service it was christened Virginia (but has ever been known in naval annals as the Merrimac). She was placed under the charge of Com. Franklin Buchanan, Lieut. Catesby Jones being second in command.

On the 8th of March, 1862, she steamed out of Norfolk Harbor down the Elizabeth River, headed for Newport News. The intention was to attack the Federal fleet lying in the mouth of the James, off Newport News point.

The Merrimac opened fire with her starboard battery first on the Congress, compelling her to run ashore; then paying respects to the Cumberland with her bow guns she ran into her and sank her. All efforts were promptly made to save the Cumberland's men from drowning, but as the Federals on shore began to fire upon our boats, and our flag officer and others were wounded while engaged in this act of mercy, the Confederates were commanded aboard. The result was that a good many perished who might have been rescued.

The Merrimac now turned attention again to the Congress, and in her straits she ran up the white flag. Boats were ordered alongside to bring off prisoners, valuables, etc., but at this juncture the Minnesota came to her relief by opening fire upon us, and the Congress, changing her mind, suddenly hauled down the white flag and ran up again the stars and stripes, whereupon the Merrimac's two hot shot guns began to play upon her, and in a short while the Congress was afire. The Minnesota, having entered Hampton Roads by the North Channel, ran aground during the engagement; but the Merrimac, being a heavier draft vessel, did not venture into that channel. The St. Lawrence also appeared in that same channel and opened fire upon us, but soon had enough and withdrew. The Merrimac then trained her guns upon the shore batteries of Newport News, and with fine effect, for all of them were silenced. Our mode of attack was that known as "circle firing"--i.e. the Merrimac kept moving in a circle as she fired.

Com. Buchanan was a brave officer, and remained on the spar deck until he was shot down by a Minie ball from the shore. Lieut. Jones then took command.

When the night fell upon that Saturday a notable victory had been won by the Merrimac. She withdrew for the night under the batteries of Sewall's Point. The next morning, Sunday, the 9th, a strange-looking craft was discovered lying between us and the Minnesota, which proved to be Ericsson's Monitor--an ironclad built to float under water except the turret. The fight was begun by the Merrimac. She attempted to ram her enemy, but having injured her prow the day before in ramming the Cumberland, the Monitor was unhurt. In this engagement the Merrimac was under further disadvantage because her solid shot had been about exhausted the day before. One single vessel fighting so many others, and playing upon shore batteries as well, soon exhausted her ammunition. But notwithstanding this, she put her enemy, the Monitor, on the defensive, and in chasing her ran aground upon the Newport Middle Grounds. Pulling off and renewing the fight, it was kept up until her ammunition was about exhausted, when she withdrew and went into dry dock at the navy yard for repair of her prow. Thus ended the battle of the ironclads on the 9th of March, 1862, in Hampton Roads.

The Merrimac continued to be the terror of her foes. When on April 11 she came forth again, the Monitor prudently kept out of the way under the protection of the guns of Fortress Monroe. Com. Tatnall had now taken command of our gallant ship.

On the 8th of May the Monitor, having been reenforced by two other ironclads and other heavy ships, began to shell the batteries of the Confederates at Sewells Point; but when the Merrimac came out and made straight for the Monitor she and all the other vessels ceased firing and sought cover under the guns of Fortress Monroe.

For hours the Merrimac remained in Hampton Roads, defiantly sailing up and down; but her foe, although heavily reinforced, was unwilling to accept the challenge. Thus ended the short but ever-memorable fighting career of the Merrimac.

On the 12th of May, to the great grief of her crew, she was abandoned and blown up. The circumstances were these: On Saturday, the 11th, a gig was sent from the vessel to Norfolk to get news from Gen. Huger, who was in command of the city and vicinity. He had just evacuated the place, but from some cause had not informed the Merrimac. Barely escaping from the fire of the Federals, who had occupied the city and neighboring batteries on the Elizabeth River, the gig returned with the sad news to the vessel. Immediately a council of war was called on board. The chief pilot assured the council that if the ship were lightened as much as four feet he could take her up the James River, sixty miles, to Harrison's Bar. All the crew was called on deck, and the statement of the pilot repeated. All hands fell to lightening the ship, and they worked till a late hour at night, believing that their ship was destined to go up the James and continue in the service by protecting that approach to Richmond, the Confederate capital. But for some reason, instead of putting out for the James the vessel was turned about and headed up the Elizabeth to Craney Island Bight, where she was run ashore. By order all boats were called away, and preparations made to abandon the vessel. Com. Tatnall was the first to leave the ship and reach the land. Nothing was now to be done by the crew but to get to shore. The last boat to leave the Merrimac was ordered to blow her up. It was a bitter hour for the men.

Left by Com. Tatnall, the brave Lieut. Jones took command of the crew and marched them to Suffolk. When they reached the turnpike road leading from the city to Suffolk, Lieut. Jones halted and addressed a few encouraging words to his men. He then said that if any one had a family or friend in Norfolk or Portsmouth he would not blame him for returning home, "but be men," said he, meaning by the words, "be true to the South." Only two men stepped out of ranks, and the crew resumed their march to Suffolk.

The good and elegant ladies of this town, having heard of the evacuation of Norfolk and the blowing up of the Merrimac, prepared for us bountiful tables on both sides of the street, and dispensed gracious and patriotic hospitality to the tired and hungry men, accompanied with words of cheer for their hearts, made sad by the loss of their gallant vessel.

It would be interesting to follow the Merrimac's noble crew still farther, for it is by no means to be supposed that they closed up their heroic career when their beloved ship went down; on the contrary, they continued in various branches of the service, and were always at the post of duty and danger.


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Transcription copyright 1997 by Martha H. Tyson and Mabry Tyson