Stories from the Shipyard: Civil War Ships in the Yard

By Michael Manning

What is the best known warship designed and built in the Charlestown Navy Yard?  You’d say, well, the USS Constitution, of course.  However, you’d be off by approximately 700 yards.  The USS Constitution was built in Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in Boston’s North End, located at the present site of the United States Coast Guard facility on Commercial Street.

USS Monitor (foreground) versus CSS Virginia (background)

Most naval historians agree that a number of famous warships were designed and built in the Charlestown Navy Yard.  One of the better known vessels: the USS Merrimack.  The Merrimack, named after the river, was one of six hybrid-powered frigates ordered in 1854 by the US Navy.  She was launched in 1855 after 14 months of construction at what was then known as the Boston Navy Yard (in Charlestown).  As hybrid-powered vessels, this class of frigates had both sails and a steam-powered engine-driven propeller.  Depending on wind conditions, she could furl her sails, fire up the coal-fired steam engine, and quickly make way.  After commissioning and multiple shakedown cruises, the USS Merrimack was stationed at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Virginia.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, the Merrimack was in danger of being captured by Confederate forces.  The Confederates had sunk smaller vessels in the channel – sealing the frigate’s only escape route to the open Atlantic.  The Union Navy decided to set her alight to prevent her from falling into Confederate hands.  On the afternoon of April 20, 1861, three days after  Virginia seceded from the Union, the Merrimack was burned to the waterline and scuttled. She sank to the bottom of the Elizabeth River.

At the outset of the war, the Confederacy faced a dire shortage of warships.  After an underwater visual inspection of the Merrimack, a decision was made to begin a salvage operation.  Confederate engineers raised her up and rebuilt her as an “ironclad.”  Following the examples of ironclads built by the British and French navies, the Merrimack was transformed into a steam-powered vessel (with all masts and sails removed), clad with four inches of angled armored plating on her hull.  The unrecognizable Merrimack was renamed CSS Virginia and commissioned on February 17, 1862.

In just over three weeks, the Virginia would face off against the USS Monitor – a US Navy ironclad recently completed in New York City’s Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Though both vessels were ironclads, their respective designs could not have been more divergent.  While the Virginia maintained an overall appearance of a naval vessel with multiple port-gun mounted cannon from stem to stern, the Monitor had an incredibly radical design.  Her deck was just 18 inches above the waterline and her armament were two cannon housed in a single traversing turret.

The site of the world’s first naval battle between two ironclads (ironclads had previously only fought against wooden vessels) occurred at Hampton Roads, Virginia on the morning of March 9, 1862.

Monitor and Virginia fired dozens upon dozens of cannon balls. Each vessel pounded the other at extremely close range. At the end of four hours, the vessels withdrew. The clash was a draw. The battle received worldwide attention and it had immediate and significant effects on navies around the world. Across the globe, naval powers halted further construction of wooden vessels and shifted designs toward ironclads.

The Battle of Hampton Roads signaled a new age of naval vessel design, construction, and warfare. This one battle doomed wooden naval ships to the breakers and ushered in a new chapter in world-wide naval history.

Stories from the Shipyard is an occasional series about the history of the Charlestown Navy Yard produced by Mike Manning, chair – Friends of the Boston Harborwalk.

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