Greensborough Patriot

June 5, 1862



From the Richmond Inquirer, May 23rd, 1862

The Destruction of the Virginia—A Reply to Commodore Tatnall’s Report

            The undersigned, Pilots on board the late noble steamer Virginia, were astonished and amazed to see in the Richmond Enquirer of May 19th, the afterthought communication of Josiah Tatnall, late Flag officer commanding the steamer Virginia, and it was the first intimation we had that we were to be made the “scapegoats for the sins” of those high in authority.  Humble as we are in station, yet we are free, native born Virginians, and dare to hurl back in the teeth of a Commodore his futile and contradictory missiles, and if we have the ability, to pour hot shot into his exposed broadsides.  To do this, it is necessary to begin at the beginning of his letter to Secretary Mallory.  Near the commencement he says: “I begin with your telegraphic dispatches to me of the 4th and 5th instant, directing me to take such a position in the James River as would entirely prevent the enemy’s ascending it.”  Further on he says: “On the 6th you (Secretary Mallory) telegraphed me to endeavor to afford protection to Norfolk as well as the James river, which replaced me in my original position.”  Why did he not state that his “original position” was for the Elizabeth river, a short distance below Craney Island, which position only protected Norfolk, when by lying in the mouth of the James river, he protected Norfolk and at the same time protected Richmond; because at all tides and at any time, night or day, the ship could be gotten under way, and either intercept the Monitor, if she attempted to got to Norfolk, (of which there was no danger, as she was afraid as death of the Virginia) or get in her rear, and follow her up and capture her.  He says: “On the 7th instant, Commodore Hollins reached Norfolk with orders from you (Sec. Mallory) to consult with me, and such officers as I might select, in regard to the best disposition to be made of the Virginia under the then appearance of things.”  But on the next day, before the time appointed for conference, the enemy attacked Sewell’s Point Battery, and he (the Commodore) left the Navy Yard to attack the Yankee fleet, and in the meantime three of the enemy’s vessels had gone up James river, bound for Richmond—one of them being the iron clad steamer Galena that lately attacked Drury’s Bluff, below Richmond.  But it will be said that Commodore Tatnall had to go to Norfolk with the Virginia to get water, provisions, etc.  This we deny, because the Virginia might have been kept in the mouth of the Elizabeth river, or in the mouth of the James river, and water, provisions, coal, yea, all she required, could have been carried down to her without the slightest difficulty or danger. So the awful blunder of going up to Norfolk, where she could come out at high water, and permitting the enemy to ascend the James river unmolested, cannot be justified or excused by falsely accusing the pilots of deception.  The order from the Secretary of the Navy directed that the Virginia should afford protection to the James river, as well as to Norfolk, and by going up to Norfolk and leaving James river entirely open and exposed to the enemy!  And even when the Virginia was not at the Navy Yard she lay in the Elizabeth river just below Craney Island, instead of lying in the mouth of the James river, where she protected both Richmond and Norfolk.

            We come now to the sections where Commodore Tatnall says: “The pilots had assured me that they could take the ship, with a draught of eighteen feet, to within forty miles of Richmond.”  This we deny.  We said with favorable tides we could take the ship to Westover, about three miles below Harrison’s Bar, which is about fifty-three miles from Richmond.  But let us see what was the real object in lightening the ship.  On the return from Norfolk, where they learned that Gen. Huger had retreated, the batteries been abandoned and the enemy was about to take possession of Norfolk, he says: “It was about 7 o’clock in the evening, and this unexpected information rendered prompt measures necessary for the safety of the Virginia.”  Now, if words are to convey ideas, is it not plain that the lightening the ship was not for the purpose of coming up James river to attack the iron clad Galena and two other formidable gunboats, with the wooden sides, bow, stern and rudder of the Virginia entirely exposed.  At first the Commodore says the Virginia was lightened for the safety of the ship; and yet in the same communication, he says: “I determined to lighten the ship at once, and run up the James River for the protection of Richmond.”  Now, was there no panic here?  Was there not wanting the spirit, the coolness, and calm decision of our dear and beloved Buchanan?  What if the Virginia, that noble specimen of the genius of her construction—she that was mistress of at least of all Virginia’s waters—required prompt measures for her safety!  At her very approach the Yankee iron clad gunboats, and the whole Yankee navy seemed to tremble, and she had only to make her appearance and they ran in a moment.

            But let us lift the veil a little higher.  The Commodore said he “had retired to bed, and between one and two o’clock the First Lieutenant reported to me that after the ship had been lifted so as to render her unfit for action the pilots had declared their inability to carry eighteen feet above Jamestown flats.”  Now here is an admission that she was unfit for action; and yet this Commodore says he intended to take her up the James river to contend with the “iron clad Galena and two gunboats” that had ascended James river while he was protecting Richmond by lying at Norfolk.

            Now we desire to state a fact, and we defy contradiction: that after the Virginia was lightened so as to render her “unfit for action,” having thrown over all her ballast and much of her coal, she drew aft twenty feet six inches, and twenty feet forward.  This was ascertained by chief pilot Parish’s going in a boat and ascertaining her exact draft.  And here we wish to state another fact, exposing the ignorance of this commander of the draft of his ship—so plainly that even he that “runs may read.”  When the Virginia was first floated from the Dry Dock at Gosport Navy yard, she drew eighteen feet four inches aft, and seventeen feet forward, with fifty tons of coal, ten tanks of water forward, and her boilers filled.  She had no guns on, no shell, no ballast, and has since had put upon her upwards of 200 more tons of iron.  Thus she drew two feet six inches more than we had ever said she could carry to within 40 miles of Richmond, (even admitting what he says though we deny its correctness.)  Now, is it not plain, that the fact of the Virginia’s having had added to her weight more than 200 tons of iron besides her guns shot, and shell, and stores since she first came out of the Dock, when she drew 18 feet 4 inches, had escaped the memory of the Commodore, or he was ignorant of what he ought to have known?  He says: “After the ship was rendered unfit for action, he was informed by the First Lieutenant the pilots had declared their inability to carry 18 feet above the Jamestown Flats.”  What the pilots did say was that they desired, if possible, the ship should be lightened to less than 18 feet, as the wind has been several days to the westward, which makes the tide much lower.  But at the same time we said we were ready and willing to obey the commands of the Commander.  One of us remarked we were not afraid, when a Lieut. Replied, “No, we know that; for you have been tried and proven yourselves men of courage.”  The fact is the ship could not be lightened to draw 18 feet water unless the guns, ammunition, provisions, and nearly her entire supply of fuel had been thrown overboard, which would have placed her at the mercy of the enemy, and Commodore Tatnall ought to have known it before he attempted to lighten her.

            The Commodore says we heard his address to the crew.  But at the same time we were not consulted as to the tides, wind, or depth of water that could be carried at that time.  He says:  on demanding from the Chief Pilot, Mr. Parish, an explanation of the palpable deception, he replied that 18 feet would be carried after the prevalence of easterly winds and that the wind for the last two days had been westerly.”  This statement Pilot Parish utterly denies and says no such demand of an explanation of “this palpable deception” was made.  No man charged him with it.  So far from it, not one word of copsure or complaint was uttered during the whole time.  In fact, we all felt grateful for the kind treatment we had received and the Commodore in particular acted generously and kind.  So much so that on our way to Suffolk, he took one of us (Pilot Parish) in a cart with him and gave him a good drink out of his tickler; and moreover when we arrived in Richmond he endorsed all our bills for pay.  Now we did not desire this treatment.  If we had acted with palpable deception, why were we not charged with this deception on board the ship at the time the first Lieutenant informed him, the pilots said 18 feet water could not be carried over the Jamestown Flats? 

            “It will be asked (he says) what motives the pilots would have to deceive me.  The only imaginable one is, that they wished to avoid going into battle.  Had the ship not been lifted so as to render her unfit for action, a desperate contest must have ensued with a force against us too great to justify much hope of success, and as battle is not their occupation they adopted this deceitful course to avoid it; for I had seen no reason to doubt their good faith to the Confederacy.”

            One would suppose from the foregoing paragraph that the pilots ordered the Virginia to be lightened, to prevent her going into action; for the Commodore says “if she had not been lightened a desperate contest must have ensued against a force too great to justify much hope of success.”  It was the Commodore that knew of the great force he had to contend with, and he had the ship lightened.  But he says it was fear that prompted us to deceive, and that as battle is not our occupation, we adopted this deceitful course to avoid it.

            It is true, our occupation sends us on the tempestuous ocean in sunshine and in storm and we do not tread the decks of men of war Commodores; but we encounter some danger, at least, in bringing in the weather-beaten mariner to a haven of safety.  We have never served our country in times of peace on Dead Sam’s deck, but we were present with the brave—Buchanan, Jones and other officers and crew when they sank the Cumberland and destroyed the Congress.

            We have stood exposed to the enemy’s fire on the uncalled for destroyed Virginia when minie balls and cannon balls fell thick as hail.  One of us (first Pilot Parish) was on board the Harmony, commanded by the brave Capt. Fairfax, when he fought the Savannah off Newport News.  He was also on board the Sea Bird, under the brave veteran Commodore Lynch, when he took the Sherwood from the Express, and was under the fire of the enemy for two hours.  From the first day the Virginia flung to the breeze the flag of our beloved Southern confederacy, we have acted as her Pilots; and if we have shown cowardice or an unwillingness to obey orders, or incompetency, let Buchanan, Jones and others say so. 

            Now a few words to the management of the ship:  On the memorable battle of the 8th and 9th of March, when the wonder of the world (the Virginia) under command of Buchanan and Jones, gallantly encountered the Cumberland, the congress, the Minnesota, the Monitor, the St. Lawrence and several gunboats, a crowd of twenty thousand persons, with many naval officers, united in one voice in saying that the Virginia is “splendidly managed.”  One of us (Pilot Geo. Wright) piloted the French ship Gassenoia from Norfolk, with the French Minister on board, and had the high gratification of hearing from the lips of the French Commander, the compliment “that on the battle of the 8th and 9th, the Virginia was handled in a masterly and seamanlike manner.”  “And, sir,” he said, “I have a drawing I will show you of the battle, and the victory.”  Pilot Wright remarked, “sir, it is very correct.”  Thus it will be seen that, so far from fault being expressed, nothing but commendation was bestowed upon us until we reached Richmond, when for the first time, we are charged with deception.  Commodore Tatnall says: “I have seen no reason to distrust their good faith to the Confederacy.”  Sir, we did not require your endorsement.  We are known by men at least fully your equals, and no man has ever dared to doubt our loyalty to our State and to the South.  If we had chosen to be traitors, thousands and tens of thousands might have been at our command, if we could have been bribed to pilot Union ships instead of Southern ships.  Though poor, the three of us men of large families, dependent on us for subsistence, there is not Yankee gold enough in all the land to induce us to betray the Southern Confederacy.  No Virginia pilot has disobeyed the proclamation of our Governor, prohibiting them from piloting Yankee men of war or merchant vessels.

            We have nearly concluded this communication, and though a more thorough and elaborated answer would have exposed the fallacy and inconsistency of Com. Tatnall’s communication, yet we hope enough has been said to open the eyes of the authorities and the public.

            Before closing it is proper to notice the unjust and unmerited treatment manifested towards Chief Pilot Parish.  Since the Virginia was launched, Pilot Parish has been with her in good and evil report.  He received a commission as Master in the Navy signed by President Davis, and has endeavored to do his duty to his State and country.  On his arrival in Richmond he was ordered to the batteries of Drury’s Bluff.  He immediately repaired to that post and commenced with his powers to aid in blockading the James river, which had been exposed to Yankee’s gunboats by the withdrawal of the Virginia from the defences [sic] of the James river.

            While thus engaged, Pilot Parish received from Secretary Mallory an order revoking his commission and dismissing him from the service without affording him the form of a trial, and without even a notice of charge.  Pilot Parish would rather have fallen in defence [sic] of his country, leaving a good name to his wife and children, than that to which he is unjustly entitled.  But conscious that a full investigation of the whole matter will fully exhonorate [sic] the Pilot from all blame in relation to the destruction of the Virginia.  Pilot Parish will content himself meanwhile with the consciousness that he has done his duty; as have also the Pilots associated with him on board the Virginia.”

            In conclusion we say, that in the destruction of the “Pride of the South,” the Pilots on board had no part or lot; and no fault or blame can be attached to us.

                                                WM. PARISH, Pilot                                         

                                                GEO. WRIGHT, Pilot             

                                                WM. T. C. CLARK, Pilot

                                                H. WILLIAMS, Pilot  

[Transcribed by Sharon Strout]