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Destruction of the CSS Virginia


Formerly known as the USS Merrimack, the ironclad CSS Virginia sought to free Hampton Roads and the lower Chesapeake Bay from Union domination in May of 1862.

On May 8th, the Monitor and other Federal ships fired on Confederate batteries at Sewell’s Point in an attempt to test their strength. They also hoped to provoke the Virginia far enough out for an ambush. But the Confederates were cautious.

Early in May, Confederate commanders evacuated Norfolk. The local leader of the Confederate Navy, Captain Josiah Tattnall learned this too late. This left him few options as far as the CSS Virginia’s future was concerned. He’d hoped to reduce her considerable draft by several feet, so she could steam from Norfolk up the James River and protect Richmond. But the ship couldn’t be lightened enough in the time available and would need to be destroyed to avoid capture.

150 years ago today, on May 11, 1862, the CSS Virginia ran aground near the Elizabeth River entrance. She was abandoned and set afire. Flames ultimately reached her gunpowder supplies and the ship exploded.

Tattnall later came under fire for his decision to destroy the ship. Before the Civil War started, the commodore was a career officer in the U. S. Navy serving in the War of 1812. Tattnall requested a court marital to clear his name. The court acquitted him of all wrong doing.

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  1. Very interesting. I remember the battle between the Monitor and Merrimack, but I don’t think I ever learned that CSS Virginia was the Merrimack. What a sad end for a great ship.

  2. Yeah, Ally, I was always a bit confused on that too, but you have to remember it was all the US Navy before the Civil War began.

  3. I’ve always been intrigued by the shape of the Monitor. It has to be the weirdest looking ship ever. I imagine it seeming like a dragon spitting fire…

  4. It is a weird looking ship, Paisley! And I couldn’t imagine having to be inside it.

  5. I had known about this ship as the Merrimack, but didn’t realize that the Confederates had also given it a designation – never heard of the CSS Virginia. Interesting post…

  6. Thanks, Lacy! I’d heard of the Monitor and the Merrimack, but also didn’t know the name of the Merrimack was changed to Virginia.

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