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Franklin Buchanan Sends His Autograph – The First Commander of CSS Virginia and the Confederacy’s Only Full Admiral
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“The only public office I have held since the war was the Presidency of the Maryland Agricultural College which I resigned at the expiration of the first year…”

More than a decade after its destruction, the first commander of the CSS Virginia responds to a request for an autograph. On March 8, 1862, Captain Franklin Buchanan and the crew of the CSS Virginia gave the U.S. Navy its worst defeat to that point, and not eclipsed until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor nearly eighty years later. Wounded during the battle, Buchanan did not participate in the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, when the USS Monitor confronted the CSS Virginia in an hours-long battle of the ironclads.

FRANKLIN BUCHANAN. Autograph Letter Signed, to John Neafie, April 25, 1874. 1 p., 5 x 8 in.

Inventory #24006.03       Price: $450

Franklin Buchanan (1800-1874) was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and joined the U.S. Navy in 1815 as a midshipman. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1825, commander in 1841, and captain in 1855. He submitted plans in 1845 for a naval school - the United States Naval Academy - and served as its first superintendent from 1845 to 1847. Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard in 1861, he resigned his commission expecting Maryland to secede. When it did not, he tried to recall his resignation, but Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles refused. Buchanan joined the Confederate Navy as a captain in September 1861. In February 1862, Buchanan was appointed as flag officer of the James River Squadron, and selected the CSS Virginia as his flagship. Wounded in the first (victorious) day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, he did not command the Virginia against the USS Monitor. In August 1862, Buchanan became the Confederate navy’s only Full Admiral, and took command of naval forces at Mobile Bay, Alabama. Wounded and taken prisoner during the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, Buchanan was exchanged in February 1865 and spent the rest of the war convalescing. He was a businessman in Mobile and Maryland after the war.

John Neafie (1856-1935) was born in New York. In 1870, he was a clerk in a broker’s office at age 14. In 1880, he was a clerk and later he was an auditor. In February 1882, Neafie married Emma Jane Ramsey (1857-1923). Neafie was an amateur genealogist and transcribed thousands of headstones in cemeteries throughout New York and New Jersey.

Complete Transcript

                                                                        “The Rest” near Eaton, Md

                                                                        April 25th ‘74.

John Neafie Esqr

New York

Dear sir,

            Your letter of the 13th inst found me confined to a sick bed which prevented my replying to it earlier, I now send you my autograph as you desire. The only public office I have held since the war was the Presidency of the Maryland Agricultural College which I resigned at the expiration of the first year.

                                                                        Respectfully &c

                                                                        Frankn Buchanan

[Envelope:] John Neafie Esqr / 133 Charles St. / New York

Historical Background

When Virginia seceded from the Union in April 1861, the U.S. Navy commander at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, ordered the USS Merrimack to be burned and sunk to prevent its capture. Workers burned the ship to the waterline, but Confederates discovered that the ship’s lower hull and machinery were undamaged. On that hull, the Confederacy constructed the CSS Virginia as an ironclad with fourteen gun ports distributed around its armored casemate. The casemate was constructed of 24 inches of oak and pine in several layers and two inches of iron plating.

On March 8, 1862, the CSS Virginia, under the command of Captain Franklin Buchanan, engaged the Union fleet blockading the James River and the Chesapeake Bay. The CSS Virginia destroyed both the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress. When the surviving crew of the Congress were leaving the ship, a Union battery on the north shore of the James River opened fire on the Virginia. Outraged at this breach of protocol, Captain Buchanan ordered hot shot fired at the Congress, which exploded and sank. Buchanan also climbed to the top deck of the Virginia and began firing at the Union battery with a carbine. A Union sharpshooter shot Buchanan in the thigh.

That night the USS Monitor arrived at Fort Monroe, rushed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard while not yet complete. The next day, the first battle between ironclads took place. The smaller and faster Monitor, with a rotating gun port and commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden, was able to outmaneuver the Virginia, but neither ship could do extensive damage to the other. Worden was temporarily blinded by a gunpowder explosion to his face, while looking through the Monitor’s narrow viewing slits. Because Captain Buchanan had been wounded the previous day, the command of the Virginia went to Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones. When the Monitor retreated to shallow water to assess damages, Jones took the Virginia back over the bar to Portsmouth before the falling tide trapped it within striking distance of the Monitor. The Virginia remained in drydock for repairs until April 4, 1862.

Over the next month, the CSS Virginia tried several times to lure the Union Navy into an attack; however, the USS Monitor was under strict orders not to re-engage. On April 11, the Confederate Navy sent seven ships in full view of the Union squadron, urging them to fight. The Confederates even seized three merchant ships, the brigs Marcus and Sabout and the schooner Catherine T. Dix, from their moorings at the mouth of Hampton Creek.  By late April, two more Union ironclads had joined the blockade at Fort Monroe. On May 8, the CSS Virginia again ventured out when Union ships began shelling the Confederate fortifications near Norfolk. The Union ships retreated to the protection of shore batteries on the north side of the James River and did not engage the Virginia.

Union troops occupied Norfolk on May 10, 1862, and the Confederates faced a dilemma. Because of its weight, the CSS Virginia was not seaworthy enough to enter the Atlantic Ocean, even if it could run the Union blockade, and it could not retreat further up the James River. The new captain reluctantly ordered the destruction of the Virginia, and Lieutenant Jones set the powder trails to the ship’s magazine, destroying it in a huge explosion and ending Confederate hopes for raising the blockade of the James River and Chesapeake Bay.

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