(IrcRam: l. 275'; b. 38'6"; dr. 22'; s. 9 k.; cpl. 320; a. 2 7" r., 2 6" r., 6 9", 2 12-pdr. how.)
CSS Virginia was built at Boston Navy Yard as the frigate Merrimack, commissioned 20 February 1856, Capt. G. J. Pendergrast, USN, in command.
Departing Boston she cruised in West Indian and European waters in 1856-57. Following brief repairs she sailed in October 1857 as flagship of the Pacific Squadron, cruising the Pacific coasts of South and Central America until November 1859. Returning east she decommissioned at Norfolk 16 February 1860. On 20 April 1861 retiring Union forces burned Merrimack to the water line and sank her to preclude capture.
The Confederates, in desperate need of ships, raised Merrimack and rebuilt her as an ironclad ram, according to a design prepared by naval constructor Lt. J. M. Brooke, CSN. Commissioned on 17 February 1862, as CSS Virginia, the ironclad was the hope of the Confederacy to wreak havoc among the wooden ships in Hampton Roads and end the blockade's strangulation.
Despite all-out effort to complete her, Virginia still had workmen on board when she sailed out into Hampton Roads, 8 March 1862, tended by CSS Raleigh and Beaufort, accompanied by Patrick, Jamestown, and Teaser. Flag Officer F. Buchanan, CSN, commanding Virginia, singled out as first victim the sailing sloop Cumberland, anchored west of Newport News, to test Virginia's armor against a 70-pounder rifle. In taking position Virginia passed Congress and exchanged broadsides, suffering no injury while causing considerable. She crossed Cumberland's bows, raking her with a lethal fire, finishing off the wooden warship with a thrust of her iron ram to conserve scarce gunpowder. Cumberland sank with colors flying, taking 121 men, one third of her crew, and part of Virginia's ram down with her.
Virginia then turned her attention to Congress, which grounded while attempting to evade. Opening fire from a distance, assisted by the lighter ships of the James River Squadron, Virginia forced Congress to haul down her colors. As CSS Beaufort and Raleigh approached Congress to receive the surrender of her crew, Federal troops ashore, not understanding the situation, opened a withering fire and wounded Buchanan, who retaliated by ordering hot shot and incendiary shell to be poured into Congress. The latter, ablaze and unable to bring a single gun to bear, hauled down her flag for the last time. She continued to burn far into the night and exploded about midnight.
Virginia did not emerge unscathed. Her stack was riddled causing loss of power—and she was initially underpowered. Two large guns were out of order, her armor loosened and her ram lost. Nevertheless, she went on to attack Minnesota, but because of shallow water could not close the range to do that steam frigate serious damage. Virginia anchored that night at Sewell’s Point for repairs. Flag Officer Buchanan was taken ashore to the hospital and Lt. C. ap R. Jones, CSN, who had conned the ironclad after Buchanan had been wounded, assumed command.
On the following morning Virginia returned to battle. In the night the Union ironclad Monitor, after a hazardous trip from New York had arrived in the nick of time to save the fleet in Hampton Roads. The ensuing inconclusive battle, the first ever fought between powered ironclads, revolutionized warfare at sea.
Flag Officer J. Tattnall, CSN, was ordered on 25 March 1862 to command in Virginia waters with the ironclad as his flagship. She and USS Monitor continued to stalemate each other for the next several weeks. However, Merrimack continued a major threat to Union military operations acting as an important deterrent to the Union Army's advance. When forced to evacuate Norfolk, the Confederates tried to take Virginia up the James River but her draft prevented it. The crew ran her ashore near Craney Island, fired and destroyed her on 11 May 1862.
[Before Virginia II was built, CSS Richmond was constantly referred to by Union Officers in their dispatches as Virginia II, Virginia No. 2 or Merrimack No. 2 and sometimes Young Merrimack, New Merrimack or Young Virginia. The preceding Virginia (ex-Merrimack) henceforth became Virginia I.]
CSS Virginia (Ironclad Ram)