May 11, 1862 (Sunday)
Well before dawn, the southeastern sky over Norfolk, Virginia burned a brilliant orange as Rebels set flames to ships, supplies and anything that would slow their flight to Richmond.1 The Federals had, the previous day, taken Norfolk, rendering the Naval Yard untenable. Many ships were sunk in the James River as obstacles to keep the Union fleet from steaming towards Richmond, but the dreaded CSS Virginia, once known as the USS Merrimack, was to be saved.
Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, Confederate Naval Commander at Norfolk, had ordered that the Virginia‘s draft be lightened from twenty-one to eighteen feet so she could make it over the shallows. Her home now in flames, she was to dock at Harrison’s Landing, thirty-five miles away. His crew had been removing coal, armaments, and anything not absolutely essential for her survival.2
Tattnall felt sick. The strongholds all around him were coming down. The batteries, once believed so strong, were simply abandoned. The Naval Yard, one of the first Union instillations captured in Virginia, was in ruins. General McClellan and his Union Army of the Potomac were moving (albeit slowly) towards Richmond, and the Federal fleet seemed poised to run there as well. Now, only the homeless CSS Virginia stood in their way. But even she would have to retreat, at least for a little while.
In the middle of the night, Tattnall was stirred awake with some bad news. The Virginia had been lightened to the needed eighteen feet, but it was not enough. In lightening her, the crew had made her unable to defend herself against the Federal troops lining each side of the James.
Tattnall flew into a rage, corning the pilot who discovered this ridiculous notion. The Flag Officer “demanded an explanation for this palpable deception.” The pilot tried to explain that the eighteen feet rule only applied when the winds were easterly, but for the past two days, the winds had been westerly. When the winds were westerly, Tattnall must have thought, the pilot did not know a hawk from a handsaw.3
Losing no time, and disallowing his rage to endanger his crew, he determined to burn his dreaded CSS Virginia, rather than allow her to fall back into Union hands. As the commissioned officers gathered, they agreed to a man that the firing was necessary.
She was then pulled to the shore of Craney Island. After the men filed onto land, she was set ablaze. Through the first slivers of dawn, she burned for over an hour, the conflagration vanishing the ironclad, until the flames reached her magazine.4
Aboard the USS Dakota, two and a half miles away from Craney Island, the sailors witnessed the fire and saw the explosion just before 5am.5 One of the Dakota‘s officers made his way to Flag Officer Louis Goldsborough’s flagship, the USS Minnesota, to inform him that the fearsome ship that kept him for so long from a sound sleep was no more. He had been prepared for a rematch between the Monitor and the Virginia, for another bloody fight between the two, now famous, ironclads, who had pounded each other to a draw two months before. But it was not to be.
Goldsborough immediately ordered several ships, including the Monitor, up the James River. He also had a smaller tugboat steam to Sewell’s Point, recently a Confederate battery, to suss out what exactly was going on. When the ship landed and found the battery abandoned, they hoisted a United States flag over it. The same was repeated at Craney Island, but only after hauling down two enemy flags.
Flag Officer Goldsborough hardly contented himself with the capture of Norfolk and a couple of Rebel batteries. Of the several ships ordered forward, he specifically ordered the Monitor and the E.A. Stevens (earlier known as the USRC Nagatuck) to run up the James and “reduce all of the works of the enemy as they go along.” But even that wasn’t enough. With the Rebel works along the James all but nullified, Goldsborough saw no real reason why the two ironclads couldn’t “get up to Richmond, all with the least possible delay, and shell the city to a surrender.”6
Only one real obstacle remained between the Union Navy and the Confederate capital: Fort Darling. More commonly remembered at Drewry’s Bluff, this Rebel redoubt, eight miles from Richmond, loomed ninety feet above the river. It was held in a sharp bend and, though not fully completed, dominated the waterway.
To finish the fort, the crew from the destroyed Virginia would man the guns, many of which had been saved from their scuttled ship. When fully outfitted, Drewry’s Bluff would bring eight large guns to bear upon her adversaries. The enemy would come, but when they did, the men of Drewry’s Bluff would be waiting.7
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p334. There were several reports of two fires prior to the firing of the Virginia. [↩]
- The Southern Rebellion, Vol. 2 by William August Crafts, S. Walker, 1870. [↩]
- Get it? [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 7 p336-337. Tattnall’s Report. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p334. [↩]
- Official Naval Records, Series 1, Vol. 7, p342-343. Goldsborough’s Report. [↩]
- The Peninsula Campaign by Kevin Dougherty, University Press of Mississippi, 2005. [↩]