No. 550.
Report of the naval court of inquiry.

The court of inquiry ordered to convene at the Navy Department on Wednesday, the 7th day of January, A. D. 1874, for the purpose of inquiring [Page 1149] into the causes and particulars of the foundering, on or about the 26th day of December, in the year 1873, off Cape Fear, of the steamship Virginius, recently delivered by the Spanish authorities at Bahia Honda, Cuba, into the possession of the United States, has the honor to submit the following report:

In order to conform to the injunctions and to follow the distinctions of the precept, this report is distributed under four heads, viz:

  • First. Replies to the separate inquiries contained in the precept, numbered from one to eight.
  • Second. The condition of the Virginius at the time of her leaving the Tortugas, and her daily condition subsequently up to the time of her sinking.
  • Third. The immediate and remote causes of the sinking of the Virginius.
  • Fourth. The final report upon the above points, and upon the question of further proceedings.

The burden of evidence goes to show that “the exact condition of the Virginius, in every department, when she was delivered to the United States officers at Bahia Honda, Cuba, on the 16th December, 1873,” was as follows:

In the engineer’s department the engines were in working-order, but in indifferent condition. They needed cleaning, overhauling, repacking, &c. The auxiliary pump was out of order, and needed repairs. The furnaces were wooded and coaled, ready for firing, and the boilers were run up, preventing their thorough examination. Several tubes were plugged up in each tube-box; the boilers were ten years old, and bore the appearance of having been much neglected; the hand-pumps needed overhauling. In the hull a leak was discovered in the eyes of the ship, which had at one time been stopped by cement. This cement, by the working of the vessel, had become partially detached from the hull, and gave admission to a small stream of water. There was water in the after compartment, fire-room, bilges, and forward compartment— about 2½ feet in the latter: and in the fire-room the water was above the floor-plates. The Virginius had not been pumped out for the previous twenty-four hours. Some sixty tons of bituminous coal had been dumped into the hold, and there was also a quantity of old iron and wire rigging in the fore hold.

In the Fire-room was a quantity of ashes, cinders and débris, estimated at fifteen tons. The condition of the Virginus was filthy in the extreme. All the furniture, except a few chairs, had been removed; no stores save the coal referred to were on board. Of the two compasses, one was in fair condition; the chain steering-gear was old and worn, and the wheel needed repairs. There was one sail, a jib, on board.

Second. “As to what was necessary to be done to her to prepare her to go to the Tortugas.”

It was necessary to provision her, make a few minor adjustments of the machinery, to fill the boilers, overhaul the steering-gear, repair the wheel, examine the compasses, bend the only sail on board, clear the fire-room of ashes, &c., pump the ship out, put in order the auxiliary and donkey pumps, and examine the vessel for leaks.

Third. “As to what actually was done to her before she left Bahia Honda,”

All the above was actually done, except putting in order the pumps. The auxiliary pump was repaired during the passage to the Tortugas.

Fourth. “As to her condition during the passage to the Tortugas.”

Her condition was fair. In attempting to steam out of the harbor, [Page 1150] the condenser became heated and the engines were stopped. The Des patch then took her in tow. (The Virginius got under way at 1.30 p.m., December 16, 1873.) The hand-pumps were kept constantly at work. At 1.30 a.m. of the 17th December the Virginius’s engines were got into working-order and were started. At 7.45 the tow-lines from the Despatch parted, and the Virginius proceeded under steam, without being further towed, to the Tortugas. The engines worked well after they were started at 1.30 a.m., and the steam-pumps kept the leak under. The weather was fine, the sea smooth.

Pressure of steam carried, from twenty to twenty-two pounds.

At 1.50 p.m., December 17, the Virginius anchored at the Tortugas.

Fifth. “As to her condition when she arrived at the Tortugas.”

She was in the same condition as when she left Bahia Honda, except that the auxiliary pump had been repaired, and that some minor repairs had been made to the engines on the passage.

Sixth. “As to the nature and extent of the examination that was made of her condition after her arrival at Tortugas.”

On December 18, 1873, Capt. W. D. Whiting, Lieut, Com. D. C. Woodrow, and Chief Engineer W. H. King made an examination of the hull and engines of the Virginius. A small leak was discovered in the bows, on the inside and near the stem, which appeared to have been at one time stopped by filling in with cement. At the time of the examination the cement was partially detached from the shell of the vessel, and water was welling in over and under the cement.

In the forward compartment the hull was much rusted, the iron plates thin, and covered with heavy rust scales; there was a plate in the port bow, about ten feet abaft the stem, which had a patch on it. There was no evidence of leak in the starboard bow. The engines were also examined and found to be in fair working condition. The donkey-pump was found much out of order, and the stuffing-boxes needed repacking.

The boilers were run up and could not be thoroughly examined. The passage from Bahia Honda had developed no leaks nor any especial weakness, as twenty-two pounds of steam had been carried.

So far as was practicable, the whole vessel had been searched for leaks, but none other than the one in the bow had been discovered.

Seventh. “As to what was necessary to be done to her to prepare her to go to New York.”

With the evidence of her successful passage from Bahia Honda to the Tortugas, and considering the apparent unimportance of the leak in the bow, which the steam-pumps had easily kept under, all that appeared necessary to be done to the Virginius was to prepare her for sea by packing stuffing-boxes, reeving new wheel-chains, furnishing her with the necessary stores and provisions, repairing and fitting her boats, and repairing the donkey-engine. This statement is based upon the evidence before the court.

Eighth. “As to what actually was done to her at the Tortugas to prepare her for her passage to New York.”

Everything noted in the answer to the seventh in errogatory, with the exception of repairing the donkey-pump.

Ninth. “As to her condition when she left the Tortugas, and afterward, daily, during her passage toward New York, until she finally sank.”

In the opinions of the officers who have appeared before the court, as expressed in their evidence, the Virginius, when she left the Tortugas, was in a sufficiently seaworthy condition to make the passage to New [Page 1151] York, provided no very bad weather supervened. The daily condition of the Virginius, as shown, by the evidence, was as follows:

The Virginius steamed from the Tortugas in tow of the Ossipee on the 19th day of December, 1873; the weather was fine, and the engines turned over slowly, to avoid running upon the Ossipee. The steam-pumps kept the leak under. The leak in the bow did hot apparently increase, although it was observed that the vessel worked forward.

December 20, 1873.—Weather fine; sea smooth; wind from the northward; the leak was kept under by the steam-pumps; Virginius stopped twice to repair eccentrics; average pressure of steam, 8 pounds.

December 21, 1873.—Weather fine; wind from north and east, and wind and sea moderate; Virginius leaking forward more than at any previous time; water gained in forward compartment; the holes in water-tight bulk-head of forward compartment were plugged up; strainers on bilge pumps became choked; water gained in fire-room; got the donkey-pump in working-order, and the water was cleared from the fire-room; the plugs were removed from the forward bulk-head to allow the water to run aft to the pumps; during the night the wind and sea increased.

December 22, 1873.—Weather cold and rainy; wind fresh from north and east; sea rough; ship rolled and pitched moderately. The working of the ship’s bows was quite apparent; the engines were turned over slowly, to avoid fouling the Ossipee.

The Virginius leaked freely, and the forward compartment gradually filling. The steam and hand pumps were worked constantly. During the night it blew heavily, in squalls. Water in forward compartment, 4½ feet. Average steam-pressure, 14 pounds.

December 23, 1873.—Weather cloudy and rainy; a moderate gale from the north and east was blowing; the sea was rough. During the morning the water gained fast; six feet in the forward compartment, and nearly up to grate bars in the fire-room. Steam and hand pumps were constantly worked. At 8 a.m. signal was made to the Ossipee, “Making water badly; go ahead faster, so that we can work our pumps,” (move quickly.) Shortly after, Ossipee was signaled, “Stand in toward land.” At 9.30 a.m. Ossipee changed course to northwest by west and made sail. The port anchor, wire rigging, and old iron in the fore hold were thrown overboard to lighten the vessel forward; coal was shifted from fore to aft hold; a sea-anchor was rigged, under the lee of which the boats might ride in case of necessity; the boats were also provisioned and watered. At 5.30 p.m. one fire, under forward boiler, was extinguished by water; Ossipee was signaled, “Will wave red lantern tonight, in case we need assistance;” also, “Water rising in fore hold; can go no farther north. Dock in Charleston.” Ossipee replied, “Is water rising in fire-room?” Was answered, “Yes, six inches.” Ossipee signaled, “Can you hold on until daylight?” Was answered, “Yes, if forward bulk-head holds out.” Ossipee signaled, “We are bound for Charleston.” During the night the wind moderated, and the pumps gained on the leak, in consequence of the increased speed of the engines and the quicker working of the pumps, the Ossipee being under steam and sail standing toward the land, and going faster than she had previously been going. During the night 8 feet of water in forward compartment; Virginius pitched heavily and steered badly.

December24, 1873.—Weather cold and thick; wind from north and east, moderate, with moderate sea. At 3 a.m. crown-sheet of after boiler gave way, and fire was hauled from under the boiler; the fact was signaled to the Ossipee. At 7.20 Chief-Engineer King, of the Ossipee, [Page 1152] went on board the Virginias to inspect the boilers; he left at 8.20, and 8.25 the Ossipee signaled, “We will continue up the coast.” At this time the Virginius was about forty-three miles from Charleston, The steam and hand pumps were constantly worked; officers and men were nearly exhausted. During the afternoon blisters were discovered on the forward boiler; hauled fires in one furnace, and reduced steam to 2½ pounds. During the night the wind and sea increased, and the leak gained.

December 25, 1873.—Weather cold and rainy; wind from north and east, blowing a moderate gale; sea rough. At 6.15 a.m. the towing-hawser parted, and the Virginius steamed toward the land, the Ossipee leading. At 8 a.m. a cast of the lead was got in eight fathoms; land was sighted, bearing north by east, distant about fifteen miles. At 8.30 the Ossipee anchored, and sent end of hawser to the Virginius. The Virginius commenced to back her engines in order to work the steam-pumps. The leak gained fast during the day. The water was 9 feet in the forward compartment, 2 feet in the fore hold, and 8 inches in forward fire room. Signal was made to Ossipee, Haul us up and take us off; can do nothing more.” At 5 p.m. the crew of the Virginius went aft, and asked that the ship might be abandoned, as they were entirely exhausted, having been wet through for several days, and having had no place to sleep in.

During the afternoon the don key-pump gave out. At 6 p.m. it was repaired and working, but very indifferently. Stopped backing the engines, as, from the low pressure of steam and the increase in the leak, they were of little or no service; they could not be backed rapidly enough.

At 7 p.m. Virginius signaled, “Can hold out until morning.” During the night the wind and sea increased, and the water gained steadily; 5 feet in fore hold and nearly up to the grate-bars in forward fire-room. The Virginius was slowly sinking by the head.

December 26, 1873.—Weather cloudy, with rain. A gale was blowing and heavy sea running. At 3 a.m. signal was made to Ossipee, “Water gaining fast; fires nearly out; haul us up.” The bows of the Virginius worked so badly that the bunks in the top-gallant forecastle fell down. At 5 a.m. the water rose above the grate-bars and fires were extinguished. Signal was made to the Ossipee, “Haul us up and take us off.” At 6 a.m. the wind moderated; the crew had been employed bailing with buckets, but at this time ceased, as further efforts were useless.

The Ossipee hauled the Virginius to within fifty fathoms, and dropped a cutter down to her to receive her crew. By — a.m. the Virginius was abandoned, the officers and crew losing nearly all their personal effects, but saving the chronometer and nautical instruments.

At the time of abandoning the Virginius the forward compartment contained 10 feet of water, the fore hold 5 feet, and the water was five inches above the grate-bars in the fire-room.

At 4.17 p.m. the Virginius sank, bows first, in eight fathoms of water.

Tenth. “As to the immediate and remote causes of the sinking of the said vessel.”

The immediate causes of the sinking of the Virginius were stress of weather, the increased leaks caused thereby, the giving out of the boilers, and the inability to work the pumps effectively, in consequence of the failure of the steam-power.

The remote causes were the weakness of the hull, resulting from age and neglect, and the deterioration of the boilers from the same causes, which deterioration was not fully appreciable when the examination was made of them at the Tortugas.