Monday, May 7, 2012

CSS Virginia's Firestorm

After many unsuccessful attempts to bring Monitor to battle in April 1862, Commodore Josiah Tattnall and CSS Virginia faced a major crisis during the first week of May.   As Union ground forces landed at Ocean View and began to march towards downtown Norfolk and Portsmouth, Confederate ground forces evacuated.  The only problem was that no one in the Confederate Army told Tattnall of the evacuation plan.  His junior officers reported that both the Gosport Navy Yard and the batteries at Sewells Point had been abandoned, and the fort at Craney Island was in the process of being abandoned. 

No stranger to a hard fight (see the "Blood is Thicker Than Water" incident), Tattnall was prepared to make a last stand, but instead elected to move the ironclad up the James River.  He solicited the advice of two local harbor pilots.  Both stated that if Virginia's draft was lightened to draw only 18 feet of water (as opposite to her normal 22 feet), the ironclad could make it to safety near City Point.  The commodore went with the plan and had all the guns and stores removed.  On May 10, 1862, Tattnall was ready to make the attempt.  The pilots, however, changed their mind and informed Tattnall that the attempt could not be made.   John Taylor Wood would later remark "Moral: All officers should learn to do their own piloting."

Knowing the Union forces were closing in, and with great reluctance, Tattnall ordered Virginia to be put to the torch.  Virginia's executive officer, ap Roger Jones, did the honors and set the ship on fire.  The ship's company marched to Suffolk and boarded a train for Richmond where they would live to fight another day.

The veteran flag officer knew the move would be controversial and fully expected to be grilled by his superiors, but not second-guessed.  Three of the Confederate Navy's senior officers and Tattnall's personal colleagues, French Forrest, Duncan Ingraham, and William Lynch, blasted the commodore for incompetence and accused him of being "panic-stricken."  Many officers came to Tattnall's defense and counter-accused the Board for speaking about things they knew nothing about.  Tattnall demanded and received a formal court marital to clear up his name. 

Two months later, a board of twelve officers including Franklin Buchanan, Syndey Lee, and Mathew Murray heard three charges against Tattnall.  After listening to Tattnall's account of the scuttling and the dire situation in Hampton Roads, the court unanimously cleared the commodore of incompetence.  Tattnall was allowed to continue his new command in Georgia. 

A more complete record of both hearings can be found here in a biography of Tattnall (chapter 15). 

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