Tuesday, September 27, 2011

CSS Virginia

..part 2 of my, not so secret any more, purchase at Colours was this.. the CSS Virginia......

Sometimes (incorrectly) known as the "Merrimack" (for reasons I'll explain later) like the USS Monitor, the CSS Virginia was also a "first" as she was the first steam-powered ironclad warship of the Confederate States Navy.

Virginia was a casemate ironclad which was a new term to me, but means that rather than have its cannons in a gun deck (armoured or otherwise, but think HMS Warrior, HMS Victory etc.) it has an armoured structure (the casemate) on the deck with the guns inside that. These ironclads were seen as the intermediate step between traditional, Napoleonic style, ships (albeit ironclad) and the battleships of later years with their guns in turrets (of which Monitor was the precursor).

Why casemate?? To a very great extent this design decision was driven by what basic building blocks the Confederates had to use at the start of the war.

When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, one of the main military establishments that fell into Confederate hands was the Union Naval Base at Gosport (that's the Gosport in Virginia as opposed to my local one here in the UK ). The Union forces planned to destroy everything before it fell into Confederate hands, but for one reason or another this was bungled with the USS Merrimack (that's her to the left), and although burned to the waterline, she was found to be salvageable - not much of a basic building block but when it's all you have, ingenuity will find a way...

The Confederate ship builders cut out all the burned timber, and on top of this built a new deck with the casemate for the guns.

The deck comprised 4-inch thick iron, the casemate was built up of 24 inches of oak and pine in several layers, topped with two 2-inch layers of iron plating oriented perpendicular to each other, and angled to deflect hits (yee gods - can you imagine how heavy she must have been?!). I thought that was massive overkill, but actually HMS Victory had the same thickness at the waterline, but less the 4" of iron...

Unusually she was also equipped with a ram as the designers were well aware that the Union Navy had not stood still while they were designing Virginia, they were designing their own ironclads and that it was unlikely that Virginia's guns would be able to sink another ironclad. The problem was that whereas the old triremes would have relied on speed to drive their ram home the engines in Virginia, inherited from Merrimack, although working were not good (that was the reason Merrimack had been in the yard in the first place!) - after first sea trials Virginia was found to have a turning radius of a mile (!) and a top speed of only 5 to 6 knots. The not inconsiderable draft, a consequence of the choice of hull, was also a shortcoming and would inhibit her operations in what was mostly a fairly shallow river..

So what about armament? The casemate had 14 gun-ports, three each in the bow and stern, and four on each side. The battery consisted of :
  1. Four muzzle-loading single-banded Brooke rifles:
    • Two of the rifles were 7-inch calibre firing a 104-pound shell, these were on a pivot and could fire out of any of the three ports in the the bow and stern..
    • The other two rifles were 6.4-inch, one in each broadside.
  2. Six smooth-bore 9-inch Dahlgren guns, mounted three on each side, and firing a 72.5-pound shell up to a range of 3,357 yards; the gun on each side nearest the furnaces was also fitted for firing heated shot
  3. She also had two 12-pdr howitzers

Vital Statistics:

Displacement: about 4,000 long tons
Length: 275 ft
Beam: 51 ft 2 in
Draft: 21 ft (23ft after further work later in her life)
Speed: 5–6 knots
Complement: about 320 officers and men
Armament: 2 × 7-inch Brooke rifles
2 × 6.4-inch Brooke rifles
6 × 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbores
2 × 12-pounder howitzers
Armor: Belt: 1–3 inches
Deck: 1 inches
Casemate: 4 inches

Like the USS Monitor unfortunately CSS Virginia was not destined to make 'old bones'.

In May 1862 advancing Union troops occupied Norfolk and since she was not an ocean going vessel, and was unable to retreat further up the James River due to that deep 22-foot draft - her commander decided to blow her up after running her aground and removing all her guns. Early on the morning of May 11, 1862, fire reached her magazine and she was destroyed by a great explosion.

Ignominious ends for two ships that had served so well, but rich fodder indeed for a wargamer looking for his first scenario - stay tuned for a post on the Battle of Hampton Roads, which in turn should precede my first table top action... all I need to figure out is what rules to you use!

Further Reading:


  1. Great article Steve and very nice little model and paint job.

    Just love Ironclads.

  2. Great post, lovely model and good times with her to come!

  3. Excellent post and a great looking ship as well!

  4. Loved this! I remember making them both out of Lego when I was small. We had had a new blue carpet laid in the living room and before we put the furniture back I had two days of refighting this battle. Had to be a square turret however. No curved bricks in those days!