Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ship's Bell- USS Merrimack/CSS Virginia

This a ship's bell  used on the ironclad CSS Virginia when Confederate forces converted the ship.  It is on display in the museum's Civil War gallery.   Inscribed on the bell are the words, "Bell from Ironclad Merrimack."  The bell is one of three different bells with a claim to the ship.  The other two are with the Museum of the Confederacy and the National Museum of the United States Navy.

Ship bells from this time period were very similar to bells used for civilian purposes (such as church bells).  They were cast with an alloy appropriately called "bell metal." This alloy was a mixture of 67% to 75% copper and 25% to 33% tin, depending on the size of the bell.  The smaller the bell, the more tin the metallurgist used. 

In the late 19th to early 20th century, however, the U.S. Navy moved away from this formula and toward "admiralty" or "naval" brass in many of its bells.  This formula uses at least 69% copper, 30% zinc, and only 1% tin.  This alloy has far better corrosion prevention properties, which would be particularly important for a bell exposed to salty ocean water year-round. 

This particular bell is on loan from the Chrysler Museum of Art.  Before it became the art museum that it is today, Chrysler used to be the City of Norfolk's museum for science, industry, and local history.  In his book Ironclad Down: The USS Merrimack-CSS Virginia from Construction to Destruction, Carl Park told the story of this bell.  In short, it was salvaged from Virginia in the 1870s; given to St. Paul's Church in Portsmouth, VA; cracked and melted in a fire that ravaged Portsmouth in 1907; sold to a scrap dealer in Baltimore; rescued by vigilant citizen; handed down through family members; and eventually donated to the City of Norfolk's museum.  Of course, Park also notes that the bell could be a fake. The woman who allegedly rescued the bell recorded having a reproduction of Virginia's bell cast in Baltimore from scrap metal allegedly from the ironclad.

Looking at the bell itself provides evidence that lends credence to its being original.  On the side of the bell, you will notice that the metal seems melted as if it had been in a fire.  However, we welcome other opinions and ideas!

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