The following manuscript was written by Catesby ap Roger Jones in 1874 (per his wife to W.S. Mabry). This version was transcribed from W.S. Mabry, A Brief Sketch of the Career of Catesby ap Roger Jones, 1912, by Martha H. Tyson. . 

The text was compared to the version (entitled "Services of the Virginia (Merrimac)") in The United Service, Volume VIII, L.R. Hamersly & Co., Philadelphia, 1883, which indicates it is a reprint of the article from the Southern Historical Society Papers.

Note: The names "Ramsay", Tattnall", and "Drewry's Bluff" are apparently misspelled in the copy in Mabry as "Ramsey", "Tatnall", and "Drury's Bluff". The misspellings are preserved. It is not clear whether the footnotes are Jones's or are by the editors of the Southern Historical Society Papers.


`THE "VIRGINIA,"
THE FIRST CONFEDERATE IRONCLAD, FORMERLY THE UNITED
STATES STEAM FRIGATE "MERRIMAC"

A Narrative of her Services by Catesby ap R. Jones, Her
Executive and Ordnance Officer and Commander,
in Her Fight With the "Monitor."

 

                                             NEW YORK, October 8th, 1874.
     DEAR SIR: In accordance with the request of the Southern Historical
Society, I transit herewith a narrative of the first Confederate
ironclad, the Virginia (formerly the United States steam frigate
Merrimac), including in it her contest with the Monitor.
                                              Yours very truly,
                                                     CATESBY AP R. JONES
Col. G. W. MUNFORD,  Richmond, Va.

When on April 21st, 1861, the Virginians took possession of the abandoned navy yard at Norfolk, they found that the Merrimac had been burnt and sunk. She was raised; and on June 23rd following, the Hon. S. R. Mallory, Confederate Secretary of the Navy, ordered that she should be converted into an ironclad, on the plan proposed by Lieutenant Jno. M. Brooke, C. S. Navy.[E1]

The hull was 275[E2] feet long. About 160 feet of the central portion was covered by a roof of wood and iron, inclining about 36 degrees. The wood was two feet thick; it consisted of oak plank 4 inches by 12 inches, laid up and down next the iron, and two courses of pine, one longitudinal of eight inches thickness, the other twelve inches thick.

The intervening space on top was closed by permanent gratings of two-inch square iron two and one-half inches apart, leaving opening for four hatches, one near each end, and one forward and one abaft the smoke-stack. The roof did not project beyond the hull. There was no knuckle as in the Atlantic,[E3] Tennessee and our other ironclads of later and improved construction. The ends of the shield were rounded.

The armor was four inches thick. It was fastened to its wooden backing by one and three-eighths inch bolts, countersunk and secured by iron nuts and washers. The plates were eight inches wide. Those first made were one inch thick, which was as thick as we could then punch cold iron. We succeeded soon in punching two inches, and the remaining plates, more than two-thirds, were two inches thick. They were rolled and punched at the Tredegar Works, Richmond. The outside course was up and down, the next longitudinal. Joints were broken where there were more than two courses.

The hull, extending two feet below the roof, was plated with one inch iron; it was intended that it should have had three inches.

The prow was of cast iron, wedged shaped[E4], and weighed 1500 pounds. It was about two feet under water, and projected two feet from the steam; it was not well fastened.

The rudder and propeller were unprotected.

The battery consisted of ten guns, four single-banded Brooke rifles and six nine-inch Dahlgren's shell guns. Two of the rifles, bow and stern pivots, were seven-inch, of 14,500 pounds; the other two were 6.4 inch (32 pound calibre) of 9000 pounds, one on each broadside. The nine-inch gun on each side nearest the furnaces was fitted for firing hot shot. A few nine-inch shot with extra windage were cast for hot shot. No other solid shot were on board during the fight.

The engines were the same the vessel had whilst in the United States Navy. They were radically defective, and had been condemned by the United States Government. Some changes had been made, notwithstanding which the engineers reported they were unreliable. They performed very well during the fight, but afterwards failed several times, once whilst under fire.

There were many vexatious delays attending the fitting and equipment of the ship. Most of them arose from the want of skilled labor and lack of proper tools and appliances. Transporting the iron from Richmond also caused much delay; the railroads were taxed to supply the army.

The crew, three hundred and twenty in number, were obtained with great difficulty. With few exceptions they were volunteers from the army; most of them were landsmen. Their deficiencies were as much as possible overcome by the zeal and intelligence of the officers; a list of them is appended. In the fight one of the nine-inch guns was manned by a detachment of the Norfolk United Artillery.

The vessel was by the Confederates called Virginia. She was put in commission during the last week of February, but continued crowded with mechanics until the eve of the fight. She was badly ventilated, very uncomfortable, and very unhealthy. There was an average of fifty or sixty at the hospital, in addition to the sick list on board.

The flag officer, Franklin Buchanan, was detained in Richmond in charge of an important bureau, from which he was only relieved a few days before the fight. There was no captain; the ship was commissioned and equipped by the executive and ordnance officer, Catesby ap R. Jones[E5], who had reported for duty in November. He had by special order selected her battery, and was also made responsible for its efficiency.

A trial was determined upon, although the vessel was in an incomplete condition. The lower part of the shield forward was only immersed a few inches, instead of two feet as was intended; and there was but one inch of iron on the hull. The port shutters, etc., were unfinished.

The Virginia was unseaworthy, her engines were unreliable, and her draft, over twenty-two feet, prevented her from going to Washington. Her field of operation was therefore restricted to the bay and its immediate vicinity. There was no regular concerted movement with the army.[1]

The frigates Congress and Cumberland temptingly invited an attack. It was fixed for Thursday night, March 6th, 1862; the pilots, of whom there were five, having been previously consulted. The sides were slushed, supposing that it would increase the tendency of the projectiles to glance. All preparations were made, including lights at obstructions. After dark the pilots declared that they could not pilot the ship during the night. They had a high sense of their responsibility. In justice to them it should be stated that it was not easy to pilot a vessel of our great draft under favorable circumstances, and that the difficulties were much increased by the absence of lights, buoys, etc., to which they had been accustomed.

The attack was postponed to Saturday, March 8th, 1862. The weather was favorable. We left the Navy Yard at 11 A. M., against the last half of the flood tide, steamed down the river past our batteries, through the obstructions, across Hampton Roads, to the mouth of James River, where off Newport News lay at anchor the frigates Cumberland and Congress, protected by strong batteries and gunboats. The action commenced about 3 P. M. by our firing the bow gun[2] at the Cumberland, less than a mile distant. A powerful fire was immediately concentrated upon us from all the batteries afloat and ashore. The frigates Minnesota, Roanoke and St. Lawrence, with other vessels, were seen coming from Old Point. We fired at the Congress on passing, but continued to head directly for the Cumberland, which vessel we had determined to run into, and in less than fifteen minutes from the firing of the first gun we rammed her just forward of the starboard fore-chains. There were heavy spars about her bows, probably to ward off torpedoes, through which we had to break before reaching the side of the ship. The noise of crashing timbers were distinctly heard above the din of battle. There was no sign of the hole above water. It must have been large, as the ship soon commenced to careen. The shock to us on striking was slight. We immediately backed the engines. The blow was not repeated. We here lost the prow, and had the stem slightly twisted. The Cumberland[3] fought her guns gallantly as long as they were above water. She went down bravely, with her colors flying. She went down bravely, with her colors flying. One of her shells struck the sill[E8] of the bow-port and exploded; the fragments killed two and wounded a number. Our after nine-inch gun was loaded and ready for firing, when its muzzle was struck by a shell, which broke it off and fired the gun. Another gun also had its muzzle shot off; it was broken so short that at each subsequent discharge its port was set on fire. The damage to the armor was slight. Their fire appeared to have been aimed at our ports. Had it been concentrated at the water-line we would have been seriously hurt, if not sunk. Owing to the ebb tide and our great draft we could not close with the Congress without first going up stream and then turning, which was a tedious operation, besides subjecting us twice to the full fire of the batteries, some of which we silenced.

We were accompanied from the yard by the gunboats Beaufort, Lieutenant-Commander W. H. Parker, and Raleigh, Lieutenant-Commander J. W. Alexander. As soon as the firing was heard up James River, the Patrick Henry, Commander John R. Tucker, Jamestown, Lieutenant-Commander J. N. Barney, and the gunboat Teaser, Lieutenant-Commander W. A. Webb, under command of Captain John R. Tucker, stood down the river, joining us about four o'clock. All these vessels were gallantly fought and handled, and rendered valuable and effective service.

The prisoners from the Congress state that when on [board[E9]] that ship it was seen that we were standing up the river, that three cheers were given under the impression that we had quit the fight. They were soon undeceived. When they saw us heading down stream, fearing the fate of the Cumberland, they slipped their cables, made sail, and ran ashore bows on. We took a position off her quarter, about two cables' length distant, and opened a deliberate fire. Very few of her guns bore on us, and they were soon disabled. The other batteries continued to play on us, as did the Minnesota, then aground about one and one-half miles off. The St. Lawrence also opened on us shortly afterwards[E10]. There was great havoc on board the Congress. She was several times on fire. Her gallant commander, Lieutenant Joseph B. Smith, was struck in the breast by the fragment of a shell and instantly killed.[4] The carnage was frightful. Nothing remained but to strike their colors, which they did. They hoisted the white flag, half-masted, at the main and at the spanker gaff. The Beaufort and the Raleigh were ordered to burn her. They went alongside and received[E11] several of her officers and some twenty of her men at prisoners. The officers urgently asked permission to assist their wounded out of the ship. It was granted. They did not return. A sharp fire of musketry from the shore killed some of the prisoners and forced the tugs to leave. A boat was sent from the Virginia to burn her, covered by the Teaser. A fire was opened on them from the shore, and also from the Congress, with both of her white flags flying, wounding Lieutenant Minor and others. We replied to this outrage upon the usages of civilized warfare by reopening on the Congress with hot shot and incendiary shell. Her crew escaped by boats, as did that of the Cumberland. Canister and grape would have prevented it; but in neither case was any attempt made to stop them, though it has been otherwise stated, possibly from our firing on the shore or at the Congress.

We remained near the Congress to prevent her recapture. Had she been retaken, it might have been said that the flag officer permitted it, knowing that his brother[5] was an officer of that vessel.

The Patrick Henry received a shot from the shore in one of her boilers and had to be towed out of the fight; she, however, soon returned and was again hotly engaged.[E13]

A distant and unsatisfactory fire was at times had at the Minnesota. The gunboats also engaged her. We fired canister and grape occasionally in reply to musketry from the shore, which had become annoying.

About this time the flag-officer was badly wounded by a rifle ball, and had to be carried below. His bold bearing[E14] and intrepid conduct won the admiration of all on board. The executive and ordnance officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap R. Jones, succeeded to the command.

The action continued until dusk, when we were forced to seek an anchorage. The Congress was riddled and on fire. A transport steamer was blown up. A schooner was sunk and another captured. We had to leave without [making[E15]] a serious attack on the Minnesota, though we fired on her as we passed on the other side of the Middle Ground, and also at the St. Lawrence.[6] The latter [frigate[E16]] fired at us by broadside, not a bad plan for small calibres against ironclads, if concentrated. It was too dark to aim well. We anchored off our batteries at Sewell Point. The squadron followed.

The Congress[7] continued to burn; "she illuminated the heavens, and varied the scene by the firing of her own guns and the flight of her balls through the air," until shortly after midnight, "when her magazine exploded, and a column of burning matter appeared high in the air, to be followed by the stillness of death" (extract from report of General Mansfield, U. S. A.) One of the pilots chanced, about 11 P. M., to be looking in the direction of the Congress when there passed a strange-looking craft, brought out in bold relief by the brilliant light of the burning ship, which he at once proclaimed to be the Ericsson. We were therefore not surprised in the morning to see the Monitor at anchor near the Minnesota. The latter ship was still aground. Some delay occurred from sending our wounded out of the ship; we had but one serviceable boat left. Admiral Buchanan was landed at Sewell Point.

At 8 A. M. we got under way, as did the Patrick Henry, Jamestown and Teaser. We stood towards the Minnesota and opened fire on her. The pilots were to have placed us half a mile from her, but we were not at any time nearer than a mile. The Monitor[8] commenced firing when about a third of a mile distant. We soon approached, and were often within a ship's length; once while passing we fired a broadside at her only a few yards distant. She and her turret seemed to be under perfect control. Her light draft enabled her to move about us at pleasure. She once took a position for a short time where we could not bring a gun to bear on her. Another of her movements caused us great anxiety; she made for our rudder and propeller, both of which could have been easily disabled. We could only see her guns when they were discharged; immediately afterward the turret revolved rapidly, and the guns were not again seen until they were again fired. We wondered how proper aim could be taken in the [very[E17]] short time the guns were in sight. The Virginia, however, was a large target, and generally so near that the Monitor's shot did not often miss. It did not appear to us that our shell had any effect upon the Monitor. We had no solid shot. Musketry was fired at the lookout holes. In spite of all the care of our pilots we ran ashore, where we remained over fifteen minutes. The Patrick Henry and Jamestown, with great risk to themselves, started to our assistance. The Monitor and Minnesota were in full play on us. A small rifle gun on board of the Minnesota, or on the steamer alongside of her, was fired with remarkable precision.

When we saw that our fire made no impression on the Monitor, we determined to run into her if possible. We found it a very difficult feat to do. Our great length and draft, in a comparatively narrow channel, with but little water to spare, made us sluggish in our movements, and hard to steer and turn. When the opportunity presented all steam was put on; there was not, however, sufficient time to gather full headway before striking. The blow was given with the broad wooden stem, the iron prow being lost the day before. The Monitor received the blow in such a manner as to weaken its effect, and the damage was to her trifling. Shortly after an alarming leak in the bows was reported. It, however, did not long continue.

Whilst contending with the Monitor, we received the fire of the Minnesota,[9] which we never failed to return whenever our guns could be brought to bear. We set her on fire and did her serious injury, though much less than we then supposed. Generally the distance was too great for effective firing. We exploded the boiler of[E19] a steamer alongside of her.

The fighting had continued for over three hours. To us the Monitor appeared unharmed. We were therefore surprised to see her run off into shoal water where our great draft would not permit us to follow, and where our shell could not reach her. The loss of our prow and anchor, and consumption of coal, water, etc., had lightened us so that the lower part of the forward [end of the[E20]] shield was awash.

We for some time awaited the return of the Monitor to the Roads. After consultation it was decided that we should proceed to the Navy Yard, in order that the vessel should be brought down into the water and completed. The pilot[s[E21]] said that if we did not then leave that we could not pass the bar until noon of the next day. We therefore at 12 M. quit the Roads and stood for Norfolk. Had there been any sign of the Monitor's willingness to renew the contest we would have remained to fight her. We left her in the shoal water to which she had withdrawn, and which she had not left until after we had crossed the bar on our way to Norfolk.

The official says" "Our loss is two killed and nineteen wounded. The stem is twisted and the ship leaks; we have lost the prow, starboard anchor and all the boats; the armor is somewhat damaged, the steampipe and smokestack both riddled, the muzzle of two of the guns shot away; the colors were hoisted to the smoke-stack, and several times cut down from it." None were killed or wounded in the fight with the Monitor. The only damage she did was to the armor. She fired forty-one shots. We were able to receive most of them obliquely. The effect of a shot, striking obliquely on the shield was to break all the iron, and sometimes to displace several feet of the outside course; the wooden backing would not be broken through. When a shot struck directly at right angles, the wood would also be broken through, but not displaced. Generally the shot were much scattered; in three instances two or more struck near the same place, in each [case[E22]] causing more of the iron to be displaced, and the wood to bulge inside. A few struck near the water-line. The shield was never pierced, though it was evident that two shots striking in the same place would have made a large hole through armor, wooden backing and everything[E23].

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 four feet [a foot[E24]] deeper in the water, making her draft twenty-three feet.

Commodore Josiah Tatnall 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.

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."

List of Officers of the C. S. Ironclad "Virginia," March 8, 1862.

Flag Officer, Franklin Buchanan. Lieutenants, Catesby ap R. Jones, executive and ordnance officer; Charles C. Simms; R. D. Minor (flag); Hunter Davidson; J. Taylor Wood; J. R. Eggleston; Walter Butt. Midshipmen, Foute, Marmeduke, Littlepage, Craig, Long and Rootes. Paymaster, James Semple. Surgeon, Dinwiddie Phillips. Assistant Surgeon, Algernon S. Garnett. Captain of Marines, Reuben Thom. Engineers, H. A. Ramsey, acting chief; assistants, Tyan, Campbell, Herring, Jack and White. Boatswain, Hasker. Gunner, Oliver. Carpenter, Lindsey. Clerk, Arthur Sinclair, Jr. Volunteer Aide, Lieutenant Douglas Forrest, C. S. A.; Captain Kevil, commanding detachment of Norfolk United Artillery. Signal Corps, Sergeant Tabb.


[1] There was however, an informal understanding between General Magruder, who commanded the Confederate forces on the Peninsula, and the executive officer, to the effect that General Magruder should be kept advised by us, in order that his command might be concentrated near Hampton when our attack should be made. The movement was prevented in consequence of a large portion of the command having been detached [E6] before the fight.

[2] It killed and wounded ten men at the after pivot gun of the Cumberland. The second shot from the same gun killed and wounded twelve men at her forward pivot gun. Lieutenant Charles C. Simms pointed and fired the gun.[E7]

[3] She was a sailing frigate of 1,716 tons, mounting two ten-inch pivots and twenty-two nine-inch guns. Her crew numbered 376; her loss in killed and wounded was 121.

[4] His sword was sent by flag of truce to his father, Admiral Joseph Smith.

[5] One of the sad attendants of civil war--divided families--was here illustrated. The flag-officer's brother was paymaster of the Congress. The first and second lieutenants had each a brother in the United States army. The father of the fourth lieutenant was also in the United States army. The father of one of the midshipmen was in the United States navy.[E12]

[6] A sailing frigate of fifty guns and 1,726 tons.

[7] A sailing frigate of 1,867 tons, mounting 50 guns. She had a crew of 434 of whom 120 killed and missing.

[8] She was 173 feet long and 41 feet wide. She had a revolving circular iron turret eight inches thick, nine feet high and twenty feet inside diameter, in which were two eleven-inch guns. Her draft was ten feet.

[9] She was a screw steam frigate of 3,200 tons, mounting forty-three guns of eight[, 9-[E18]] and ten-inch calibre. She fired 145 ten-inch, 349 nine-inch, and 35 eight-inch shot and shell, and 5,567 pounds of powder. Her draft was about the same as the Virginia.

[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] The United Service version has "John M. Brooke, Confederate States Navy", the Mabry version has "Jno. M. Brooke, C. S. Navy".

[E2] The United Service version usually spells out numbers while the the Mabry version usually had digits. Other minor differences include differences in hyphenation, occasional spelling differences (plurals vs singulars, "draught" vs "draft", "afterwards" vs "afterward"), and minor word differences ("fired at" vs "fired on", "fight" vs "fighting", "in" for "into", "enabled" for "able").

The following names are different in the United Service version vs the Mabry version: "Drewry's Bluff" vs "Drury's Bluff", "Marmaduke" vs "Marmeduke", "Roots" vs "Rootes", "Tynan" vs "Tyan"

[E3] "Atlanta" in the United Service version.

[E4] "wedge-shape" in the United Service version.

[E5] "Catesby ap R. Jones" was not in the United Service version.

[E6] "just" is inserted here in the United Service version.

[E7] Footnotes 2 and 3 (as numbered here) are swapped in the United Service version.

[E8] "still" in the United Service version.

[E9] "board" in the United Service version, omitted in the Mabry version.

[E10] "after" in the United Service version, "afterwards" in the Mabry version.

[E11] "secured" in the United Service version, "received" in the Mabry version.

[E12] Mabry marked this footnote but omitted the text for it. The text here is taken from the United Service version.

[E13] This paragraph was missing in the United Service version.

[E14] "daring" in the United Service version, "bearing" in the Mabry version.

[E15] "making" is inserted here in the United Service version.

[E16] "frigate" is inserted here in the United Service version.

[E17] "very" is inserted here in the United Service version.

[E18] "8-" is inserted here in the United Service version.

[E19] "We blew up a steamer" in the United Service version, "We exploded the boiler of a steamer" in the Mabry version.

[E20] "end of the" is inserted here in the United Service version.

[E21] The United Service version uses the plural form while the Mabry version uses the singular.

[E22] "case" is inserted here in the United Service version.

[E23] The United Service version has "through everything", the Mabry version has "through armor, wooden backing and everything."

[E24] Mabry has "four feet", apparently incorrectly, while the United Service version has "a foot".


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Transcription copyright 1994-1997 by Martha H. Tyson