Once the Confederacy lost Norfolk and the vital Gosport Navy Yard, the mighty ironclad C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac) was left without a port. Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, commanding the Confederate naval squadron on the James River, initially tried to withdraw the Virginia to Harrison’s Landing, 35 miles upriver. The ship’s 22-1/2-foot draft needed to be lowered to 18 feet, but once that was done, river pilots told Tattnall that the winds were keeping high tide too low for the Virginia to clear the shoals.
Tattnall met with his officers to weigh their options. It was agreed that the Virginia could not stay at Norfolk because the Federals would capture her, she could not go upriver over the shoals, and she could not go downriver into Chesapeake Bay because she could not run past the Federal blockading fleet. Their only viable option was to destroy her.
The crew of the Virginia towed the vessel to Craney Island, near the mouth of the Elizabeth River, and set her on fire. The flames burned for about an hour before they reached the 16-ton powder keg on board. The ship exploded at 4:58 a.m. After destroying the Virginia, her crew marched up the south side of the James to Suffolk, took a train to Richmond, and joined the garrison at Fort Darling on Drewry’s Bluff. Their next assignment would be to guard against a potential Federal naval advance up the James.
Federal crewmen aboard the U.S.S. Dakota, two and a half miles away, could see the massive explosion. An officer informed Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron from his flagship, the U.S.S. Minnesota. Goldsborough, who had planned to pit the ironclad U.S.S. Monitor against the Virginia once more, ordered his squadron to advance upriver and “reduce all of the works of the enemy as they go along.” From there, they were to “get up to Richmond, all with the least possible delay, and shell the city to a surrender.”
Commander John Rodgers headed the squadron, which included the ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and Galena. They began steaming up the James in hopes of forcing Richmond’s surrender in the same way that Admiral David G. Farragut had taken New Orleans in April. The Federals secured Sewell’s Point and Craney Island en route. But the Confederates at Fort Darling, eight miles in front of the Confederate capital, stood in their way.
President Abraham Lincoln was told the good news that the Virginia had been destroyed as he returned to Washington from Fort Monroe. He telegraphed Major General Henry W. Halleck in Mississippi: “Norfolk in our possession. Merrimac blown up, & Monitor & other boats going up James River to Richmond. Be very sure to sustain no reverse in your Department.”
Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, learned of the Virginia’s demise from West Point. He concurred with Goldsborough’s order to move the naval fleet up the James to Richmond. McClellan had previously told Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton that if the Virginia was destroyed, he would be free to move his army’s supply base to the James River. He now told Stanton that transferring his base would make his move up the Virginia Peninsula “much more decisive.”
A Confederate court of inquiry later found that the Virginia’s destruction had been unnecessary. Tattnall argued that he and his crew had desperately tried to lighten the ship before finally ordering the explosion. He demanded a court-martial to refute the court’s findings. Confederate officials ultimately granted Tattnall’s request and exonerated him of any wrongdoing.
The fall of Norfolk had been imminent for several weeks, leading many southerners to question why Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory did not take greater precautions to ensure the Virginia’s security. Others argued that Mallory should have at least sided with Tattnall and waived the court-martial.
The Confederacy suffered an irreparable loss with the Virginia’s destruction. This ensured that the Federal blockade would not only be maintained, but it would be gradually strengthened as the war went on.
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