Following the historic clash between the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) on March 9th, 1862, Virginia returned to port in Norfolk, Virginia for repairs and refitting. Besides repairing battle damage, the vessel was given a heavier ram, and 100 tons more ballast which increased the ship’s draft to 23 feet.
The Virginia left Norfolk and steamed into Hampton Roads on April 11th, prepared to fight the Monitor once again. The Union ironclad was under orders to defend the wooden warships of the fleet and not to take the offensive against Virginia unless the Confederate ship attacked. Since the Monitor was under the protection of Federal shore based artillery, the Virginia did not attempt to engage. Other forays into Hampton Roads over the next month ended with the same result.
Meanwhile, Major General George McClellan launched his Peninsula Campaign. As McClellan slowly pushed the Confederates back on the peninsula between the York and James Rivers, the Confederate base at Norfolk became vulnerable as Union forces also held much of the North Carolina coast south of Norfolk. On May 9th, Confederate forces abandoned Norfolk , leaving the Virginia without a home port.
There were few options available to the Virginia. The ship could not operate in the open sea, so relocation to another seaport was out of the question. The ship’s commander, Commodore Josiah Tattnall, decided to take the vessel up the James River where it could serve in the defenses of Richmond against McClellan’s attack. The ship was lightened to attain a shallower draft so it could move up river, but it was not enough. Portions of the ship below the iron plating were exposed, and Virginia would be subject to Union artillery bombardment as she moved up river.
With Union Army troops closing in, and escape a near impossibility, Tattnall decided his only course of action was to destroy the vessel so it would not fall into Union hands. On May 11th, the Virginia was set on fire near Craney Island, a few miles outside of Norfolk. When the flames reached the ship’s magazine, the vessel exploded.
Predictably, Tattnall came under fire from various quarters for destroying the vessel. The commodore, who had been a career officer in the U.S. Navy going back to the War of 1812 before he joined the Confederacy, asked for a court martial to clear his name. The court agreed with Tattnall’s course of action, and he was acquitted of wrong doing.
By Sea And By River (Da Capo Paperback)
by Bern Anderson. Reprint. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Da Capo Press, 1989.
“The First Fight of Iron Clads” by John Taylor Wood. In Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, Volume 1. Reprint. Secaucus, New Jersey: Castle, 1990.