If you mention the CSS Virginia around a bunch of computer nerds (like me), they’re liable to get all excited, albeit for the wrong reasons. They’ll probably suppose that it’s a new-fangled add-on that will make development of Cascading Style Sheets easier and more enjoyable. You can easily crush their hopes with a two-part response. First, tell them that nothing exists that will ever make CSS easier or more enjoyable.
If the angry mob doesn’t immediately pummel you to death with their pocket protectors, or maybe write some software that exiles you to Katmandu, you can deliver the second part of the response…Today’s History Lesson.
The CSS Virginia was a Confederate States Ship. Yep, the Confederacy had a navy. Now maybe one or two of the nerds is listening. Then mention that, before it was the Virginia, it was called the Merrimack…the USS Merrimack…as in United States Ship. Tell the nerds that the Confederate government took the ship from the Union. Better yet, say the Conderates “pirated” the ship, because piracy is a big deal in computer circles. By now, you should have a small, but captive, audience.
When Virginia left the Union in 1861, Union forces were ordered to destroy the naval base at Portsmouth before departing. Included in that destruction was the destruction of the frigate Merrimack, so she was torched. But she sank before being completely burned out, and was subsequently raised by the Confederates to clear the harbor for operations. So the whole “piracy” thing is a bit of a stretch.
But then it was discovered that the Merrimack’s hull and running gear was still serviceable. So it was chopped and channeled, given a louvered hood and thrush pipes,…well, not really. But it was highly modified, covered with heavy armor plating, and converted to an ironclad. Tell the computer guys that the Confederates didn’t just patch the old ship, they did a ground-up rewrite of the code and gave it a new name.
And then the CSS Virginia was released, and fought that famous battle with its northern counterpart, the USS Monitor, in March of 1862, which pretty much ended in a draw. And that was the last time the Virginia would fire her guns in anger. Union forces moved back into Virginia (the state) and occupied Norfolk on May 10th. The CSS Virginia, still undergoing repairs, was not ready for ocean travel, and had too deep a draft to move up-river.
So, in computer parlance, the Confederates crashed their own hard drives. In historical language, the guns were removed, and on May 11, 1862, she was filled with explosives and set afire. And this time, the damage was complete. The fire reached the powder magazines and blew the CSS Virginia apart.
Recommended reading: The Civil War: A Narrative–Fort Sumter to Perryville, Vol. 1