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How The ‘merrimack’ Was Built

June 2024
1min read


The duel between the ironclads Monitor and Merrimack on March 9,
1862, remains a subject of animated controversy to this day. The disputes extend
even to the proper name for the Confederate ship (the Rebels called it Virginia )
and the outcome of the battle (although partisans of both sides claim victory, a recent attempt by one of our editors to call it a standoff was overruled by a superior).

Another controversial issue is the question of who designed the ironclad revamping of the Merrimack , originally a
wooden vessel that was sunk when the
Union abandoned the navy yard at Norfolk, Virginia. The plans were drawn by
John L. Porter, an experienced naval constructor, with advice from John Mercer
Brooke, a gifted scientist who also designed innovative ordnance. But what was the relative importance of the two men’s contributions?

In a controversy that dates back to
the 187Os, Brooke supporters contend
that Porter acted merely as a draftsman, while Porter backers say Brooke
was just an adviser who tried to hog
the credit after the war ended. An important step in clarifying the Merrimack ’s
parentage came this summer, when
the Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, Virginia, bought Porter’sconstruction drawing from a collector who had obtained it from the Porter family.

The finely detailed three-view pen-and-
ink drawing measures six feet by two feet
and contains a wealth of clues about how
the design developed. Erasure marks show
that Porter originally included a stern pilothouse, which was removed at Brooke’s
insistence. Brooke also redesigned the gunports, added more armor and a submerged bow, andplaced a ram on the front of the vessel.

After their clash at Hampton Roads,
neither vessel lasted out the year. The
Monitor served nine monthsof intermittent patrol duty and then sank in a storm
on the final day of 1862. In the last three
years, Navy divers have begun to raise
it piece by piece. The official repository
for the salvaged sections is the Mariners’
Museum, where the Monitor Center, which will preserve documents, drawings, and
other artifacts related to both ironclads involved in the epochal confrontation, is scheduled to open in 2007.

The Merrimack , unfortunately, will
never be raised; it was blown up to keep
it from falling into enemy hands when
Union forces recaptured Norfolk Navy Yard in May 1862. Documents like Porter’s construction drawing are thus invaluable in illuminating the steps leading up to the battlethat changed naval warfare forever.

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