John L. Porter's notebook (Pensacola, Fla., 1860), blueprint, photocopies of blueprints, newspaper clippings and photographic print, relating to U.S. Navy ship construction and C.S. ship construction, including drawings of CSS Virginia (USS Merrimac) and other ships; Porter family genealogy, ca. 1860-1936.
John L. Porter (1813–1893) was a naval constructor in Portsmouth, Virginia, the son of a shipwright. In 1859, after passing the naval constructor's examination, he became a naval constructor for the U.S. Navy. He was stationed at the U.S. Navy Yard at Pensacola, Florida, and witnessed the Confederate takeover when Florida seceded from the Union. He was then reassigned to the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard. A few days before Virginia voted to secede from the Union, Porter was assigned to serve as a naval constructor at the Gosport (Norfolk) Naval Yard. He was in Portsmouth when Confederate forces took control of the Gosport Navy Yard. Porter immediately resigned from the U.S. Navy and offered his services to Virginia. He immediately became prominent in the Confederate States' naval construction program. He played a major role in the refloating and converting the USS Merrimac, a burned and scuttled wooden U.S. Navy steam frigate, into the CSS Virginia, the first ever ironclad gunboat and ram, which was commissioned into the Confederate Navy in February 1862. Designed to break the ever-strengthening Union blockade of the South, the CSS Virginia was successful in defeating all wooden warships that she faced; however, Virginia proved unable to overcome the USS Monitor. The two ironclads fought each other to a draw in the Chesapeake Bay off Portsmouth in March 1962. Neither side was able to defeat the other but the draw benefited the Union since it allowed the blockade to continue.
In May 1862 the Confederates abandoned the Norfolk area. Porter then relocated to Richmond, Virginia. As the Civil War progressed, he relocated again to Wilmington, North Carolina. In January 1864 Porter was promoted to Chief Naval Constructor, serving in that position till the end of the war. In this position, he designed many of the Confederate warships that participated in battle during the war. After the war, Porter worked in the industries of civilian and naval ship construction and ferry operations. In later years he conducted a long and inconclusive debate with other participants in the effort to raise the USS Merrimac and build the CSS Virginia. He died in Portsmouth in 1893.
The most significant item in the John Luke Porter Papers is notebook in which Porter recorded all the information he believed was required to pass the U.S. Naval Constructor's examination. The notebook features an examination guide for prospective naval contractor candidates, detailing information needed to know to pass the examination. As a note, the naval architectural notebook of John Porter was copied word-for-word directly from an 1816 treatise on steam propulsion by Robertson Buchanan. Robertson Buchanan, A practical treatise on propelling vessels by steam. (London: Ackerman 1816) appeared in numerous editions throughout the 19th century. It is not know which edition Porter copied. The text was also available in the widely-read Universal Encyclopedia.
The notebook is chiefly significant for the significant amount of personal information that Porter inserted in it. Porter includes two accounts details the construction of the USS Merrimac and its battle with the USS Monitor in 1862, as well as a short history of Porter's life during the Civil War. He writes an especially vivid account of the last days of the Civil War in which he retreated from Wilmington under Union attack. He was present in Greensboro at the time of the Gen. Johnston's surrender. He also describes his return to Portsmouth to find his house and property confiscated and sold. Also included, is a transcribed letter written by Porter taken from an entry in his notebook. In the letter, written to Thomas O. Selfridge, Commander U.S.N. at the Boston Navy Yard, Porter gives specific details of the USS Merrimac, including its physical structure and its battle and post-battle history. The notebook includes lists of ships that Porter built, lyrics to patriotic naval songs, and brief accounts of Porter's postwar activities.
Also present in the papers are various printed materials concerning genealogical information of the Porter family, as well as a photograph of a Porter relative, Miss Georgie Ridgely. Other topics covered in the printed materials include the history of Portsmouth, Virginia, Alfred Berkeley and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Oversized items consist of eight naval architectural plans for the USS Merrimac/CSS Virginia, the CSS Albemarle, and the CSS Neuse, and several other unidentified warships.
The collection also includes a significant amount of genealogical and historical materials relating to the Porter and Williams family in Portsmouth, Virginia and Baltimore, Maryland.
On 28 November 2012 the lenders, Mrs. and Mrs. John H. P. Williams, requested the return of the original documents in the collection loaned to the repository in 2002. Remaining in the collection are photocopies and digital reproductions of the original documents. See container list for details.
Loan and Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Hunter Porter Williams; Loan returned to lender 11/28/2012
Accessioned and inventoried by Jonathan Dembo, 5/21/2002; arranged, described Processed by Brian T. Clayton, April 2003; Encoded by Mark Custer, February 2008; originals deaccessioned, 11/28/2012; collection re-arranged, finding aid and inventory revised by Jonathan Dembo, 11/29/2012
Literary rights to specific documents are retained by the authors or their descendants in accordance with U.S. copyright law.