Thursday, July 1, 2021

Did Demon Rum Play a Part in the Destruction of CSS Virginia?

By Hunt Lewis
HRNM Volunteer

One of the last survivors of the crew of the CSS Virginia (ex USS Merrimack) said so.

In an interview conducted by B.C. Utecht for the Calvert News, Calvert, Texas in 1923, 85-year-old Andrew Jackson Sharp claimed rum did indeed play a part in the ship's destruction. Sharp was a landsman on CSS Virginia when it was destroyed by the Confederates on May 11, 1862.
Article from the Calvert News
Sharp related:
        "The Merrimac, or Virginia, suffered some damage from the Monitor’s guns, but the damage was easily repaired, and the warship then was in good shape as before. But now about this prohibition; "Our plans were well laid," said the aged veteran as he sat reminiscing on the veranda of his home. "The Merrimac had been thoroughly gone over, and we had plenty of ammunition and were in shape for good work. We were close to the mouth of the James River, and in order to steam upstream it was necessary for us to raise the ship about two feet so that we could cross the bar at that point. To do this it was necessary to throw off ballast.
        "We began the job of lightening the vessel about 9 o’clock that night. Now, as everybody knows, sailors in every navy are, or were, supplied with whisky rations. Both the navies of the North and South were furnished with rum. While throwing off ballast, so we could head up the James to relieve Richmond, members of the crew got hold of a barrel of whisky and drank it down with a large dipper. A little of this was all right, but they kept at it too long and were soon tipsy. No officer was at hand at the time. The men continued to throw off ballast until all of it went overboard. I remonstrated with them, raising quite a row and they argued back at me. I told them of the danger, and we had quite a tilt. Soon I saw our ship, instead of being raised only two feet, was up five feet exposing the wooden sides. This was due to throwing away all our ballast. I hurried to Captain Technor and explained the situation, but by this time it was too late. Federal ships were not far from us, and they could see us plainly because of the five foot difference. A shot from one of them into our wooden sides would have done for us. So the plan to go to the relief of Richmond was abandoned for the lack of ballast control protection on such an undertakings and decided to attack the Union fleet off Newport News instead." 

Sharp’s memory may have failed him or else the reporter misunderstood the name of the Virginia’s captain. It was Tattnall, not Technor, and the attack was never made.
CSS Virginia's captain, Josiah Tattnall (Naval History and Heritage Command)
There may be an inkling of truth in Sharp’s story, although the presence of Demon Rum is never mentioned in official reports. Commodore Tattnall in his report on May 14, 1862 to Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory stated, "The pilots had assured me they could take the ship with a draft of 18 feet to within 40 miles of Richmond...Confiding in these assurances...I determined to lighten the ship at once and run up the river for the protection of Richmond. 
        "All hands having been called on deck, I stated to them the condition of things, and my hope that by getting up river before the enemy could be made aware of our design we might capture his vessels which had ascended it. And render efficient aid in the defense of Richmond, but to effect this, would require all their energy in lightening the ship.
        "Being quite unwell, I had retired to bed. Between 1 and 2 o’clock in the morning the first lieutenant reported to me that after the crew had worked for five or six hours and lifted the ship so as to render her unfit for action,.. the pilots had declared their inability to carry 18 feet above Jamestown flats, up to a point the shore on each side was occupied by the enemy." [2]

The chief pilot explained that 18 feet could be carried only if the prevailing winds were blowing up-river, but for the last two days the winds had been blowing downriver: "I had no time to lose. The ship was in not in a condition for battle even with an enemy of equal force, and the force was overwhelming. I therefor save the crew for further service by landing them at Craney Island, the only road for retreat open to us, and to destroy the ship to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy."
Explosion of the CSS Virginia (Naval History and Heritage Command)

[1] The Calvert News story by J.C. Utecht dated Sunday November 25, 1923 is reproduced verbatim on pages14-17 of On the Hills of Home by John Calvin Sharpe. This book can be viewed or downloaded from

[2] Official records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion, Series 1,Volume 7, North Atlantic Blockading Squadron, pp 336-338

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