American Civil War: CSS Virginia

USS Virginia (USS Merrimack) in drydock.
CSS Virginia under construction. US Naval History & Heritage Command

CSS Virginia was the first ironclad warship constructed by the Confederate States Navy during Civil War (1861-1865). Lacking the numerical resources to take on the US Navy directly, the Confederate Navy commenced experimenting with ironclads in 1861. Built as a casemate ironclad from the remains of the former steam frigate USS Merrimack, CSS Virginia was completed in March 1862. On March 8, Virginia inflicted severe losses on Union naval forces at the Battle of Hampton Roads. The next day, it engaged in the first battle between ironclads when it engaged USS Monitor. Forced to withdraw to Norfolk, Virginia was burned that May to prevent capture when the city fell to Union troops.


Following the outbreak of the conflict in April 1861, the US Navy found that one of its largest facilities, the Norfolk (Gosport) Navy Yard, was now behind enemy lines. While attempts were made to remove as many ships and as much material as possible, circumstances prevented the yard's commander, Commodore Charles Stuart McCauley, from saving everything. As Union forces began to evacuate, the decision was made to burn the yard and destroy the remaining ships.

USS Merrimack

Among the ships burned or scuttled were the ships-of-the-line USS Pennsylvania (120 guns), USS Delaware (74), and USS Columbus (90), the frigates USS United States (44 ), USS Raritan (50), and USS Columbia (50), as well as several sloops-of-war and smaller vessels. One of the most modern vessels that was lost was the relatively new steam frigate USS Merrimack (40 guns). Commissioned in 1856, Merrimack had served as flagship of the Pacific Squadron for three years before arriving at Norfolk in 1860.

Engraving of USS Merrimack
USS Merrimack (1855).  Public Domain

Attempts were made to remove Merrimack before the Confederates captured the yard. While Chief Engineer Benjamin F. Isherwood succeeded in getting the frigate's boilers lit, efforts had to be abandoned when it was found that the Confederates had blocked the channel between Craney Island and Sewell's Point. With no other option remaining, the ship was burned on April 20. Taking possession of the yard, Confederate officials later examined the wreck of Merrimack and found that it had only burned to the waterline and most of its machinery remained intact.


With the Union blockade of the Confederacy tightening, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory began searching for ways in which his small force could challenge the enemy. One avenue that he elected to investigate was the development of ironclad, armored warships. The first of these, the French La Gloire (44) and British HMS Warrior (40 guns), had appeared in the last year and built upon lessons learned with armored floating batteries during the Crimean War (1853-1856).

Consulting John M. Brooke, John L. Porter, and William P. Williamson, Mallory began pushing the ironclad program forward but found that the South lacked the industrial capacity to build the needed steam engines in a timely manner. Upon learning this, Williamson suggested using the engines and remains of the former Merrimack. Porter soon submitted revised plans to Mallory that based the new ship around Merrimack's power plant.

CSS Virginia


  • Nation: Confederate States of America
  • Type: Ironclad
  • Shipyard: Norfolk (Gosport) Navy Yard
  • Ordered: July 11, 1861
  • Completed: March 7, 1862
  • Commissioned: February 17, 1862
  • Fate: Burned, May 11, 1862
  • Displacement: 4,100 tons
  • Length: 275 ft.
  • Beam: 51 ft.
  • Draft: 21 ft.
  • Speed: 5-6 knots
  • Complement: 320 men
  • Armament: 2 × 7-in. Brooke rifles, 2 × 6.4-in. Brooke rifles, 6 × 9-in. Dahlgren smoothbores, 2 × 12-pdr howitzers

Design & Construction

Approved on July 11, 1861, work soon began at Norfolk on CSS Virginia under the guidance of Brooke and Porter. Moving from preliminary sketches to advanced plans, both men envisioned the new ship as a casemate ironclad. Workers soon cut down the burned timbers of Merrimack to below the waterline and commenced construction of a new deck and the armored casemate. For protection, Virginia's casemate was built of layers of oak and pine to a two-foot thickness before being covered by four inches of iron plate. Brooke and Porter designed the ship's casemate to have angled sides to aid in deflecting enemy shot.

The ship possessed a mixed armament consisting of two 7-in. Brooke rifles, two 6.4-in. Brooke rifles, six 9-in. Dahlgren smoothbores, as well as two 12-pdr howitzers. While the bulk of the guns were mounted in the ship's broadside, the two 7-in. Brooke rifles were mounted on pivots at the bow and stern and could traverse to fire from multiple gun ports. In creating the ship, the designers concluded that its guns would be unable to penetrate the armor of another ironclad. As a result, they had Virginia fitted with a large ram on the bow.

Battle of Hampton Roads

Work on CSS Virginia progressed in early 1862, and its executive officer, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, oversaw fitting out the ship. Though construction was ongoing, Virginia was commissioned on February 17 with Flag Officer Franklin Buchanan in command. Eager to test the new ironclad, Buchanan sailed on March 8 to attack Union warships in Hampton Roads despite the fact that workmen were still on board. The tenders CSS Raleigh (1) and Beaufort (1) accompanied Buchanan.

USS Cumberland sinking as it is rammed by CSS Virginia.
CSS Virginia rams and sinks USS Cumberland, 1962. Library of Congress

Though a formidable vessel, Virginia's size and balky engines made it difficult to maneuver and complete circle required a mile of space and forty-five minutes. Steaming down the Elizabeth River, Virginia found five warships of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron anchored in Hampton Roads near the protective guns of Fortress Monroe. Joined by three gunboats from the James River Squadron, Buchanan singled out the sloop of war USS Cumberland (24) and charged forward. Though initially unsure what to make of the strange new ship, Union sailors aboard the frigate USS Congress (44) opened fire as Virginia passed.

Rapid Success

Returning fire, Buchanan's guns inflicted significant damage on Congress. Engaging Cumberland, Virginia pounded the wooden ship as the Union shells bounced off its armor. After crossing Cumberland's bow and raking it with fire, Buchanan rammed it in an effort to save gunpowder. Piercing the Union ship's side, part of Virginia's ram detached as it was withdrawn. With Cumberland sinking, Virginia turned its attention to Congress which had grounded in an attempt to close with the Confederate ironclad. Engaging the frigate from a distance, Buchanan compelled it to strike its colors after an hour of fighting.

Ordering his tenders forward to receive the ship's surrender, Buchanan was angered when Union troops ashore, not understanding the situation, opened fire. Returning fire from Virginia's deck with a carbine, he was wounded in the thigh by a Union bullet. In retaliation, Buchanan ordered Congress be shelled with incendiary hot shot. Catching on fire, Congress burned throughout the rest of the day exploded that night. Pressing his attack, Buchanan attempted to move against the steam frigate USS Minnesota (50), but was unable to inflict any damage as the Union ship fled into shallow water and ran aground.

Meeting USS Monitor

Withdrawing due to darkness, Virginia had won a stunning victory, but had taken damage amounting to two guns disabled, its ram lost, several armored plates damaged, and its smoke stack riddled. As temporary repairs were made during the night, command devolved to Jones. In Hampton Roads, the situation of the Union fleet improved dramatically that night with the arrival of the new turret ironclad USS Monitor from New York. Taking a defensive position to protect Minnesota and the frigate USS St. Lawrence (44), the ironclad awaited Virginia's return. Steaming back to Hampton Roads in the morning, Jones anticipated an easy victory and initially ignored the strange-looking Monitor.

Battle of Hampton Roads. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Moving to engage, the two ships soon opened the first battle between ironclad warships. Pounding each other for over four hours, neither was able to inflict significant damage on the other. Though the Union ship's heavier guns were able to crack Virginia's armor, the Confederates scored a hit on their adversary's pilot house temporarily blinding Monitor's captain, Lieutenant John L. Worden.

Taking command, Lieutenant Samuel D. Greene drew the ship away, leading Jones to believe that he had won. Unable to reach Minnesota, and with his ship damaged, Jones began moving towards Norfolk. At this time, Monitor returned to the fight. Seeing Virginia retreating and with orders to protect Minnesota, Greene elected not to pursue.

Later Career

Following the Battle of Hampton Roads, Virginia made several attempts to lure Monitor into battle. These failed as the Union ship was under strict orders not to engage as its presence alone ensured that the blockade remained in place. Serving with the James River Squadron, Virginia faced a crisis with Norfolk fell to Union troops on May 10.

Due to its deep draft, the ship could not move up the James River to safety. When efforts to lighten the ship failed to significantly reduce its draft, the decision was made to destroy it to prevent capture. Stripped of its guns, Virginia was set on fire off Craney Island early on May 11. The ship exploded when the flames reached its magazines.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: CSS Virginia." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 29). American Civil War: CSS Virginia. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: CSS Virginia." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).