Thursday, January 12, 2023

HRNM Brick-by-Brick Lego Shipbuilding Event: Building CSS Virginia

By Jim Beute

One of the best things that ever happened to my son Andrew and myself was attending the HRNM Lego Shipbuilding event back in 2014. We had a lot of fun, and it started us on a shared hobby that we’ve enjoyed together for eight years now. As our building skills and our pile of bricks have grown over those years, we challenge ourselves to build bigger and better creations for all the different Lego events that we now attend. The time that I’ve spent as a volunteer docent has sparked my interest in the Battle of Hampton Roads, and in the CSS Virginia as well.

Starting with the goal to “Build a big, cool model of CSS Virginia out of Lego for the HRNM Event!”, my first step is to nail down the scope of the model (how big, how cool) within the design constraints (the actual CSS Virginia design), the budget (my pile of bricks), and the project schedule (4 February deadline). The figure below depicts how my little Systems Engineer brain relates these concepts to each other, and the decisions that I reached for this model.

Jim's thoughts about creating his next big Lego build

Bigger is almost always better with Lego models, since it allows greater precision when making constant compromises of scale when building with Lego bricks. Building at minifigure scale (1:42) allows much more interesting models with lots of small plastic human interaction within the model to bring it alive for the audience.

One guiding principle for Lego kits and for my own models is that there should always be some fun or interesting feature that is a pleasant surprise. I have decided to “cut away” the starboard side to show the interior decks and spaces and to have a working engine room with pistons turning the propeller shaft. This decision quadrupled the complexity of the model, but it should significantly increase human interest and interaction with the model.

The decision to build a cut-away interior made it important to find good, detailed plans and drawings of the Virginia. The resources and helpful staff at HRNM, Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum, and the Mariners’ Museum helped me to find the best drawings and books available. Unfortunately, there just aren’t any complete interior drawings for the Virginia, and the available source materials often contradict each other. Carl Park faces this same dilemma in Ironclad Down. To fill in the gaps, he extrapolates from the limited construction drawings by John Porter such as the one shown below, pre-conversion drawings of USS Merrimack, and additional clues from crew memoirs.

This Porter drawing came from a digitized version at Eastern Carolina University (

While Carl Park provides the most complete composite sketch of the Virginia interior available, his efforts are more focused on ship construction than operational use. Even his composite makes extensive use of “Compartment Configuration Unknown” throughout the berth deck. Since I must build something there, I’ve put on my old ship’s ballcap and tried to imagine what a feasible arrangement for messing and berthing would be, extrapolating from the same limited sources. The picture below shows what I came up with. I’m sure there are many errors, but in my research, I’ve learned that every model of the Virginia falls back upon the artist’s imagination at some point.

CSS Virginia (Jim Beute)

Over the years, I have also learned to build modularity into the design of larger models. An 8-foot Lego ironclad looks great on the coffee table, but it needs to fit through doors in order to share it with others. I’ve built the Virginia in five easy pieces for transport. The four sections shown below snap together, and the casement then snaps onto the hull.

CSS Virginia in pieces (Jim Beute)

In addition, there is a bin of accessories (cannon, minifigures, etc.) that are then added to complete the scene. Minifigures and motion turn the static model into a historic scene of Civil War mayhem and chaos as shown below. Hopefully that will bring some of this history alive for the kids at the event. Lego doesn’t make Confederate minifigures, but they do make a variety of rebel scum from the Star Wars universe. This keeps the model from being too serious and allows for “find the Wookie” easter eggs that will lead people into spending a lot more time studying the interior of an ironclad than they would otherwise.

Closeup of the interior (Jim Beute)

Building the Virginia was a fun and educational experience for me. Come out to the HRNM Brick-by-Brick Lego Shipbuilding Event on February 4th for a closer look!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Your Blog concerning the C.S.S. Virginia is both instructive and an invitation to others to attempt their own models. When you complete your model, I believe it should be situated permanently in the museum along side the present one that just shows the outside of the Virginia. It would be not only illustrative but spur interest in the LEGO competition.

Dick Hanna