HOW THE ‘MERRIMACK’ WAS BUILT
The Construction Drawing for the
Trail-blazing Ship provides a Wealth
of Information on its Design History.
THE DUEL BETWEEN THE IRONCLADS Monitor and Merrimack on March 9, 1862, remains a subject of animated controversy to this very 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 hack to the 1870s, 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’s construction drawing from a collector who had obtained it directly from the Porter family.
The finely detailed three-view pen-and-ink drawing measured 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, and placed a ram on the front of the vessel.
After their clash at Hampton Roads, neither vessel lasted out the year. The Monitor served nine months of 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 now 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 battle that changed naval warfare forever.
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