Today, the Civil War Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin remembers the events during the early hours of May 11, 1862 when the confederate men burned their ship, the Merrimac.
From the Southern Historical Society Papers, Volume XX, edited by R. A. Brock, published in 1892:
THE DESTRUCTION OF THE MERRIMAC BY THE CONFEDERATES.
The conference in Norfolk of May 9th as to the disposal of the Merrimac had resulted in the decision that “the Merrimac was then employed to best advantage, and that she should continue for the present to protect Norfolk, and thus afford time to remove the public property.”
Commodore Tatnall upon this joined his ship, at anchor near Sewell’s Point.
On May 10th, about 10 A. M., it was observed that no Confederate flag was flying at Sewell’s Point battery and that the fort seemed to be abandoned.
Flag-Lieutenant J. Pembroke Jones was immediately sent to Craney Island, and there learned for the first time that a large force of the enemy had landed at Bay Shore and were rapidly marching on Norfolk, and that our troops were retreating.
Lieutenant Jones was then sent to Norfolk to confer with General Huger, in command at that place, and with Captain Sidney S. Lee at the navy-yard.
At the navy-yard he found everything in flames, and that all the officers had left on the railroad.
At Norfolk he was informed that General Huger and all his officers had left and that the enemy were within half a mile of the city in treaty with the mayor for its surrender.
About 7 P. M. he reached the Merrimac with his report, and at this hour all the batteries on the river and Craney Island had been abandoned by our troops.
The night was fast approaching, and what was to be done must be done quickly.
It had been decided previously that the Merrimac could accomplish nothing in York river by reason of its width and many creeks of refuge.
The ascent of the Potomac to Washington, except in good weather, was impracticable.
A venture outside the capes was an impossibility.
Battle with the Federal fleet in the Roads on their own terms gave no encouragement.
It had been previously declined, and now, with our base of supplies in the hands of our enemies, they had but to keep out of our way and ten days or a week would bring the crew of the Merrimac face to face with starvation and capitulation.
In the emergency, and under the assurance of the pilots that if the ship were lightened to eighteen feet she could be carried to within forty miles of Richmond.
Commodore Tatnall called his crew to quarters, and informed them of his purpose.
With a cheer they set to work to lighten ship, dumping overboard all heavy stones, ballast, and pig-iron which had been put aboard to bring her down in the water to fighting trim.
Commodore Tatnall being unwell had retired to rest.
Between 1 and 2 A. M. of the 11th, he was aroused by Lieutenant Ap. Catesby Jones, with the report that after the crew had been at work some five hours, and had lightened the ship so as to expose her hull and render her unfit for action, the pilots now said the ship could not be carried with eighteen feet above Jamestown Flats.
Some distance above this point the river was in possession of the enemy on both banks.
Tatnall demanded of his pilots the reason for their deception or change of opinion.
They replied eighteen feet could be carried over Jamestown Flats during the prevalence of easterly winds, but as the wind had been westerly for several days they were unwilling to make the attempt.
The wooden hull was now above water and entirely defenseless against shot and shell.
Her ballast had been thrown overboard, and nothing was at hand to bring her down in the water again.
To engage the Federal fleet was now hopeless and shorn of every prospect of success.
The attempt must meet with certain destruction and great sacrifice of life.
A hasty conference with his officers decided Tatnall that the wisest course now open to him was to abandon and burn his ship and save his crew for service in Richmond.
She was, therefore, put on shore as near Craney Island as possible, and having but two boats it took three hours to land her crew.
She was set fire to fore and aft, and was soon in full blaze.
At about 4.30 o’clock on the morning of the 11th of May, 1862, her magazine exploded, and the Merrimac was a thing of the past.
In the blaze of the burning vessel the crew were marched to Suffolk, twenty-two miles distant, where they took train for Richmond, arriving there in time to render valuable service in our land batteries at Drury‘s Bluff, where they had the pleasure of again meeting and foiling their old adversaries, the Monitor, Galena, and other United States vessels in their attack on Drury’s Bluff May 15. 1862.
The success and the fame of the Merrimac had far outreached, in the imagination of the Southern people, her real capacity.
The disappointment and indignation of the public, and the criticism of our press, were so vehement in their condemnation of Commodore Tatnall that he promptly requested a court of inquiry, and then a court martial upon his conduct.
After a full and exhaustive examination of all the particulars he was awarded an unanimous acquittal.
The court, composed of a board of twelve officers of the highest rank and with the experience of many years’ service, closed its finding in these words:
“Being thus situated, the only alternative in the opinion of the court was to abandon and burn the ship then and there, which, in the judgment of this court, was deliberately and wisely done; wherefore, the court do award to the said Captain Josiah Tatnall an honorable acquittal.”
The Civil War Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin shows with an artist’s image of the destruction of the Merrimac, circa 1860s.