The 13th North Carolina Regiment of Confederate Troops provided twelve men to serve as crew members on the famous iron-clad C.S.S. Merrimac. Lacking evidence to the contrary, they all are presumed to have been on board during those two fateful days of March 8 and 9, 1862, when the Confederate ship Merrimac fought the Union ship Monitor at Hampton Roads, Virginia. This was the first iron-clad naval engagement in the world, and would forever change the way that nations would conduct warfare at sea. Those two days would mark the end of wooden ships of war.
Four of the twelve men who served aboard this Confederate behemoth were from Caswell County. In an inspection of known records of the various units comprising the companies of the 13th North Carolina Regiment, the following summary can be given of the men serving on the Merrimac:
1. Caswell County, Company A ("Yanceyville Grays")--three soldiers transferred to C.S.S. Merrimac.
2. Mecklinburg County, Company B ("Ranaleburg Riflemen")--five soldiers transferred to C.S.S. Merrimac.
3. Caswell County, Company D ("Leasburg Grays")--one soldier transferred to C.S.S. Merrimac.
4. Alamance County, Company E ("Alamance Regulators")--two soldiers transferred to C.S.S. Merrimac.
5. Rockingham County, Company H ("Rockingham Guards")--one soldier transferred to C.S.S. Merrimac.
In order to plumb the mystery of how these men came to their rendezvous with destiny, it is necessary to trace the activities of the 13th North Carolina Regiment during the time leading up to February 1862. This is the month that all twelve men (including the four from Caswell County) voluntarily transferred from their regiment in the army to the Confederate Navy. The regimental history of the 13th North Carolina Regiment shows that it was located along the James River near Suffolk and Norfolk, and at Camp Ruffin, Benns Church near Smithfield, Virginia. Some men of the companies in the regiment served as gun-crew members, manning artillery batteries in various fortified emplacements along the river near Smithfield, Virginia.
On June 13, 1861, Companies B ("Ranalebur Riflemen") and Company C ("Milton Blues") marched to Fort Des Londe to man the battery and construct additional fortifications. Company A ("Yanceyville Grays") on July 4, 1861, moved to Pagan Creek Battery.
The editors of a Caswell County newspaper, The Milton Chronicle, visited Caswell County troops stationed in the James River area and offered excellent information regarding the type of duty that the soldiers experienced. These particular comments are concerning the "Milton Blues," Company C of the 13th North Carolina Regiment. However, the type of duty and living conditions could in general be expected to apply equally to the other companies of the regiment because they rotated in the various duty assignments:
The "Blues" and a fine looking Company from Mecklenburg, this State, under command of Capt. Edwin, have been detached from the Regiment and stationed at Todd's Point on James River -- at the mouth of Paygan and Jones' Creeks and three miles below the town of Smithfield. A Battery is erected at this Point and four pieces of cannon of 32 lb. caliber mounted, which Battery the Blues have charge of -- When we left, Capt Page late of the U.S. Navy was drilling the boys in the management of the guns. This Battery was erected to prevent the landing of the enemy's troops at Todd's point and to prevent his ships passing up Paygan Creek and demolishing Smithfield. Another object of troops at this point is to cut off sailboat communications on this side of the river with Newport News on the other side, a few miles below.For the first nine months of the war the men of the 13th North Carolina Regiment experienced frustrations born of relative inactivity along with poor food and living conditions. They were moved in all sorts of weather conditions back and forth to their various duty stations. During this time, not a few soldiers in the Regiment were ill or died of sickness or disease brought about by the privations.
The fare of the "Blues" when we left and for several days previous, consisted of cold water, crackers, bacon and peas. Many of the Privates prefer buying flour at 6 1/4 cents per pound (only!) to eating these hard crackers; indeed the poor soldiers (many of them) spend money more than they make buying something to eat, such as flour and sugar (when these articles are minus, as sometimes they are) and eggs, butter, chickens, honey, molasses, fresh fish, potatoes, mile, etc.
They charge $12 per barrel for flour at Smithfield, and high in proportion for everything else. The idea is the soldier is obliged to have it--can't help himself--and we'll skin him if we can. But the Smithfieldians are not singular in this--it is treatment of troops almost everywhere. We think there is Flour enough in North Carolina to keep her troops always supplied, and if they get out, the Commissary ought to supply them. Can't the people in this section send the "Blues" a dozen or two barrels of good Flour? Fresh beef and vegetables, once in a while, would be conducive to health. They get no fresh meat or vegetables at Todd's Point, but still the men do not complain, and would be glad to remain there at least for awhile to come.
Against the backdrop of these conditions, some of the 13th Regiment's soldiers volunteering for duty with the Confederate States' Navy can be more readily understood. A promise of some real activity, better food, and an end to marching back and forth while living in camps exposed to the elements was indeed an enticement. Volunteering for sea duty must have particularly offered some merit when presented by impressive and impeccably dressed Confederate Naval Officers bent on winning recruits from the Army for their fledgling Navy. Also, the duty of manning the cannon on board a Naval ship seemed particularly feasible. They had already received training by naval officers for that type of duty, on the shore batteries during the preceding months.
There was a great shortage of available men in the Confederacy that were experienced seamen. Lieutenant J. N. Barney, CSN complained in December of 1861: "It is impossible to get men of the proper kind unless from the Army; and I have applied for the discharge from that Branch of the service a number of men who have expressed a desire to enter the Navy." This shortage of seamen led Secretary of the Navy Stephen R. Mallory to request that the Confederate War Department permit qualified soldiers to be transferred to the Navy. An order was given allowing permission to do so, and recruits were sought from Major General Benjamen Hugers' command in the Norfolk area, along with Major General John B. Magruder's army at Yorktown. There were more than 200 volunteers out of which eighty sailors were selected who had seen service in the ships that visited New Orleans.
The Merrimac crew of 320 men was thus obtained with great difficulty. With few exceptions they were both volunteers from the army and landsmen. However, one of her officers after the war ended remarked that her crew proved to be "As gallant and trusty a body of men as any one could wish to command, not only in battle, but in reverse and retreat."
Just like any other new naval recruits in that area, it is assumed that the men from Caswell County were sent to a "receiving ship" at Norfolk. A ship of this type was considered unsuitable for active duty but was used instead for a barracks as well as for training purposes. Instruction was given by experienced naval personnel in seamanship and gunnery, while naval discipline and customs were also taught. Before the beginning of March 1862, the crew of the confederate iron-clad Virginia (Merrimac) was ordered on board the ship.
When Confederate forces took possession of the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk in late April of 1861, they found that Federal forces had attempted to destroy much of the yard by setting it on fire as they abandoned the Norfolk area. Southern occupying troops found that the U.S.S. Merrimac, a sloop-of-war, had been burned to the water-line and sunk. the ship was ordered raised by the Confederate Government and rebuilt into an armored gunboat. The hull of the ship was 275 feet long, with approximately 160 feet of the central portion of its length covered by a roof of wood and iron. The sides of this section were inclined about thirty-six degrees. The wood covering on the sides was two feet thick and consisting of oak planks that were 4 inches thick. The timber was laid up next to the steel armor, which had been rolled into plates of 4 inches thickness and 8 inches width that were attached in two layers. The armor was prepared by Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond from steel railroad rails. There was an additional protection afforded by two layers of pine timber; one of them measured 4 inches in thickness and the other 8 inches.
13th Regiment North Carolina Troops
Company A ("Yanceyville Grays"), Caswell County, North Carolina
1. Brice Harralson, Private. Enlisted at Yanceyville April 29, 1861. Born Caswell County. Resided there as a merchant. Age 30. Present or accounted for until transferred to C.S. Navy for duty on the C.S.S. Merrimac February 19, 1862.
2. William W. Lyon, Private. Enlisted in Rockingham County May 30, 1861. Born Caswell county. Resided in Rockingham County. Occupation was a carpenter or a mechanic. Age 25. Present or accounted for until transferred to C.S. Navy for duty on the C.S.S. Merrimac February 14, 1862.
3. Levin H. Wood, Private. Born in Alamance County. Enlisted in Caswell County, April 29, 1861. Age 27. Resided in Caswell County. Occupation-Grocer. Present or accounted for until transferred to C.S. Navy for duty on the C.S.S. Merrimac February 19, 1862.
Company D ("Leasburg Grayss"), Caswell County, North Carolina
4. Sidney R. Wright, Private. Mustered in as a Sgt.--Red. to Ranks 10-31-61. Enlisted in Caswell County May 1, 1861. Age 25. Born Caswell County. Occupation-Painter or carpenter. Resided in Caswell County. Present or accounted for until transferred to C.S. Navy for duty on the C.S.S. Merrimac on February 15, 1862.
Note also that one member of Company E ("Alamance Regulators"), Alamance County, North Carolina, was born in Caswell County:
Richard A. Mitchell, Private. Born in Caswell County. Enlisted in Alamance County May 8, 1861. Age 25. Resided in Alamance County. Occupation-Laborer. Present or accounted for until transferred to C.S. Navy for duty on the C.S.S. Merrimac February 19, 1862.