USS Merrimack aka CSS Virginia

Source: John L. Porter Collection, East Carolina Manuscript Collection #850

USS Merrimack aka CSS Virginia

USS Merrimack aka CSS Virginia

Staff Person: Jon Dembo


Attached is an original pen & ink sketch of the MERRIMAC (sic), the famous Confederate ironclad ram. The sketch was made in 1862 by Naval Constructor John Luke Porter (1831-1893) who had helped convert her into the first ironclad warship. The sketch is part of a notebook / diary which he began writing in 1860 and continued until after the Civil War. A slightly edited version of the text was published as John L. Porter: Naval Constructor of Destiny, by Alan B. Flanders in 2000. However, this may be the first time that this image has ever been published.

Originally a frigate in the US Navy known as the USS MERRIMACK, the retreating federal forces had burned her to the waterline in 1861 in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent her use by the Confederacy. Porter, one of the few professional naval constructors in service to the Confederacy led the team that raised and converted her into an ironclad warship.

Upon commissioning, the Confederate Navy renamed her CSS VIRGINIA. Almost immediately, on 8 March 1862, the MERRIMAC engaged in a series of historic naval battles sinking or damaging several wooden Union warships in an attempt to break their blockade of Southern commerce. In doing so, she decisively proved the superiority of iron over wooden-hulled warships. She made history again, on 9 March, when she fought the even more radical Union ironclad, the USS MONITOR, off Hampton Roads, Virginia. That battle, which ended in a tactical draw, was the first ever between iron hulled warships. It ushered in the age of iron and steel warships which endures to the present day. The battle between the MONITOR and the MERRIMAC proved a strategic victory for the Union by preserving the blockade and thus, may have spelled the doom of the Confederacy.

Later during the Civil War Porter went on to build more than a dozen ironclads for the Confederacy and become the head of Confederate Navy ironclad building program. Among a variety of other writings, the Porter notebook / diary contains two versions of the story of raising and re-fitting the MERRIMAC and concludes with a description of Porter’s experiences during the final days of the Civil War in Eastern North Carolina.

In later years, Southern sympathizers tended to avoid using the name MERRIMAC to describe the vessel; Porter, a loyal southerner, however, consistently used his slightly corrupted version of the ship’s original name instead of VIRGINIA. In the wake of the famous battle between the MONITOR and MERRIMAC, Porter engaged in a long-running controversy with Lt. John M. Brook, CSN, who also claimed to have been chiefly responsible for raising the MERRIMAC. Both sides continued the battle until long after the principals were deceased but without settling the matter decisively.

The Porter notebook / diary may be found in the John L. Porter Collection (#850) along with a variety of other materials relating to Porter. Please contact the Special Collections department if you have any questions.

When Johnny Came Marching Home Again

Source: Timothy Hunter Papers, East Carolina Manuscript Collection #748

Pass that allowed C.B. Keeling to travel home after the Civil War

Pass that allowed C.B. Keeling to travel home after the Civil War

Staff Person: Jean Hiebert

Timothy Hunter was a shipbuilder in Elizabeth City, North Carolina from 1835 until the advent of the Civil War. We are fortunate to have his personal papers which were donated to Joyner by his great-great-great granddaughter, Mrs. Joanne Foreman. The finding aid for his papers is at: Manuscript Collection 748.

Tucked deep into these papers is the pass that allowed a young soldier, C.B. Keeling, to travel home after the war ended. Hunter and Keeling knew each other because Keeling served several times as a seaman on the schooner San Juan that Hunter built in 1858. Hunter hired him as one of the six crew who routinely manned the schooner. The ship’s manifest from 1860 lists Keeling as a 22 year-old who stood 5’8″ tall and earned $16 a month. As was typical of the time, he had a second career as well. He was listed as a printer when he joined the Confederate army on May 4, 1861.

A little background . . .
By July of 1861, the Union had begun a blockade of southern ports. In many cases, blockade runners like the San Juan were the only ships small enough and fast enough to slip through the blockade. It was a dangerous business and even the fastest ships sometimes got caught. On September 28, 1861, the U.S.S. Susquehanna intercepted the San Juan on her way back from the West Indies where she had been loaded with sugar, salt, and gin. Both the cargo (worth $4000) and the ship (worth $4500) were seized by the Union navy, but it is unclear what punishment was dealt the crew.

Nearly five months later, Keeling turned up as a private in Company L of the 17th Regiment that was assembled on Roanoke Island. The strategy of the great Burnside Expedition was to overtake each island fort on the way to Richmond where Union forces would then have easy access to the railway linking Richmond with New Orleans. Brigadier-General D.H. Hill felt that this was such a crucial battle that the fall of Roanoke Island would be as “fully fatal as that of Manassas.” Ships were sunk in the inlet as impediments to the advance of the Union fleet. Regiments from North Carolina and Georgia manned the few cannon available on the island and the famous Mosquito fleet attempted to repel the Union advance. None of it worked and Roanoke Island fell on February 15, 1862. General Burnside took the whole encampment as prisoners.

Why the pass is important . . .
Keeling was exchanged in August 1862 and was present or accounted for until March of 1863 when the regiment was disbanded. He likely joined another unit and was recaptured. The date on the pass is April, 1865 — the fifth and final April of the war. The pass allowed Keeling to travel from Richmond to Norfolk. The Dismal Swamp Canal spanned the distance between Norfolk and Keeling’s home in Elizabeth City and would have been a familiar route to him. Before beginning the trip home, Keeling was required to sign an oath of parole that granted him permission to return to Pasquotank County. It was an agreement of honor that he would not participate in hostile acts against the United States until he was properly exchanged.

The creases still show on this small square of paper where it had been folded into quarters. I have held it in my hands many times in the hopes that somehow it could impart just a little more information on the man Timothy Hunter had been. It was a long time before I stopped to consider that the real story it tells is that of a man who was 27 years old when the war ended; a man who was most likely tired, hungry, dispirited, and afraid of how he was going to survive now that everything he knew had been changed forever. This simple square of paper was all the permission he had in the world to even try his luck at surviving. How many hands had held it? How many pairs of eyes had surveyed it with suspicion, then reluctant assent? How many times had Keeling folded it back up, returned it to his pocket, and let go of the breath he had held in fear?

I don’t know if Keeling ever went back to Elizabeth City or if he married and had a family. There is no further record of him in the Hunter papers. At the oddest times, he will enter my thoughts and I can’t help but wonder what ever became of him. In the few moments that I have held his pass, I’ve had an eerie sense that I was holding a man’s life in my hands.

I hope that it was finally a peaceful life.

Civil War Special Orders

Source: Thomas Sparrow Collection, East Carolina Manuscript Collection #1

Confederate States of America special order for Major Thomas Sparrow, June 7, 1864

Confederate States of America special order for Major Thomas Sparrow, June 7, 1864

Staff Person: Brian Johnson

The first image below is a Special Order from General Pierre G.T. Beauregard dated June 7th, 1864 relieving Major Thomas Sparrow of his command of the 10th North Carolina troops and reassigning him to the command of the companies at Plymouth, NC. The second image is a Special Order dated October 13th, 1864 granting a ten day leave of absence to Major Sparrow due to illness.

Thomas Sparrow (1819-1884) was a Washington, NC lawyer until the outbreak of the Civil War. He was commissioned a captain in the Confederate Army in 1861 and served at Fort Hatteras, commanding the Washington Grays until he was taken prisoner by Union forces in August of that year. He was later paroled from a Union prison in February, 1862. After the war he returned to Washington and represented Beaufort County in the North Carolina General Assembly in 1870 and 1881.

These documents and others from the Thomas Sparrow Collection (# 1.1) and can be viewed in the Special Collections department. The finding aid is available at Manuscript Collection 1

Click on the image to see an enlarged version.

Confederate States of America special order for Major Thomas Sparrow, June 7, 1864

Confederate States of America special order for Major Thomas Sparrow, June 7, 1864

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