She was laid down on 21 May 1902 Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, Newport News, Virginia; launched on 6 April 1904; sponsored by Miss Gay Montague, daughter of the Governor of Virginia; and commissioned on 7 May 1906, Capt. Seaton Schroeder in command.
After fitting out, Virginia conducted her shakedown cruise in Lynnhaven Bay, Virginia, off Newport, Rhode Island, and off Long Island, New York before she put into Bradford, Rhode Island, for coal on 9 August. After running trials for the standardization of her screws off Rockland, Maine, the battleship maneuvered in Long Island Sound before anchoring off President Theodore Roosevelt's home, Oyster Bay, Long Island, from 2 September to 4 September, for a Presidential review.
Virginia then continued her shakedown cruise before she coaled again at Bradford. Meanwhile, events were occurring in the Caribbean that would alter the new battleship's employment. On the island of Cuba, in August 1906, a revolution had broken out against the government of President T. Estrada Palma. The disaffection, which had started in Pinar del Rio province, grew in the early autumn to the point where President Palma had no recourse but to appeal to the United States for intervention. By mid-September, it had become apparent that the small Cuban constabulary (8,000 rural guards) was unable to protect foreign interests, and intervention would be necessary. Accordingly, Virginia departed Newport on 15 September 1906, bound for Cuba, and reached Havana on the 21st, ready to protect the city from attack if necessary. The battleship remained at Havana until 18 October, when she sailed for Sewell's Point, Virginia.
Virginia disembarked General Frederick Funston at Norfolk upon her arrival there and coaled before heading north to Tompkinsville to await further orders. She shifted soon thereafter to the New York Navy Yard where she was coaled and drydocked to have her hull bottom painted before undergoing repairs and alterations at the Norfolk Navy Yard from 3 November 1906 to 18 February 1907. After installation of fire control apparatus at the New York Navy Yard between 19 February and 23 March, the battleship sailed once more for Cuban waters, joining the fleet at Guantanamo Bay on 28 March.
Virginia fired target practices in Cuban waters before she sailed for Hampton Roads on 10 April to participate in the Jamestown Tricentennial Exposition festivities. She remained in Hampton Roads for a month, from 15 April to 15 May, before she underwent repairs at the Norfolk Navy Yard into early June. Subsequently reviewed in Hampton Roads by President Theodore Roosevelt between 7 June and 13 June, Virginia shifted northward for target practices on the target grounds of Cape Cod Bay - evolutions that lasted from mid-June to mid-July. She later cruised with her division to Newport; the North River, New York City; and to Provincetown, Massachusetts, before conducting day and night battle practice in Cape Cod Bay.
Returning southward early that autumn, Virginia underwent two months of repairs and alterations at the Norfolk Navy Yard, from 24 September to 24 November, before undergoing further repairs at the New York Navy Yard later in November. She subsequently shifted southward again, reaching Hampton Roads on 6 December.
Virginia spent the next 10 days preparing for a feat never before attempted; an around-the-world cruise by the battleships of the Atlantic Fleet. The voyage of the Great White Fleet, regarded by President Roosevelt as a dramatic gesture to the Japanese - who had only recently emerged on the world stage as a power to be reckoned with - proved to be a signal success.
The cruise began eight days before Christmas of 1907, and ended on Washington's Birthday, 22 February 1909. During the course of the voyage, the ships called at ports along both coasts of South America; on the west coast of the United States; at Hawaii; in the Philippines; Japan; China; and in Ceylon. Virginia's division also visited Smyrna, Turkey, via Beirut, during the Mediterranean leg of the cruise. Both upon departure and upon arrival, the fleet was reviewed at Hampton Roads by President Roosevelt, whose "big stick" diplomacy and flair for the dramatic gesture had been practically personified by the cruise of the Great White Fleet.
Following her circumnavigation, Virginia underwent four months of voyage repairs and alterations at the Norfolk Navy Yard from 26 February to 26 June 1909. She spent the next year and three months operating off the eastern seaboard of the United States, ranging from the southern drill grounds, off the Virginia capes, to Newport, R.I. During that time, she conducted one brief cruise with members of the Naval Militia embarked and visited Rockport and Provincetown, Mass. For the better part of that time, she conducted battle practices with the fleet - evolutions only broken by brief periods of yard work at Norfolk and Boston.
Virginia visited Brest, France, and Gravesend, England, from 15 November to 7 December and from 8 December to 29 December 1909, respectively, before she - as part of the 4th Division, U.S. Atlantic Fleet - joined the Atlantic fleet in Guantanamo Bay for drills and exercises. She subsequently operated in Cuban waters for two months, from 13 January to 13 March 1910 before she returned north for battle practices on the southern drill grounds.
Virginia departed Hampton Roads on 11 April, in company with , and reached the Boston Navy Yard two days later. She underwent repairs there until 24 May before putting to sea for Provincetown. Over the next five days, Virginia operated with the collier Vestal, testing a "coaling-at-sea apparatus" off Provincetown and at Stellwagen's Bank, before she conducted torpedo practices. The battleship returned to the Boston Navy Yard on 18 June.
Virginia maintained her routine of operations off the eastern seaboard - occasionally ranging into Cuban waters for regularly scheduled fleet evolutions in tactics and gunnery - into 1913, a routine largely uninterrupted. In 1913, however, unrest in Mexico caused the frequent dispatch of American men-of-war to those waters. Virginia became one of those ships in mid-February, when she reached Tampico on the 15th of that month; she remained there until 2 March, when she shifted to Veracruz for coal. She returned to Tampico on 5 March and remained there for 10 days.
After another stint of operations off the eastern seaboard, ranging from the Virginia capes to Newport - a period of maneuvers and exercises varied by a visit to New York at the end of May 1913 for the dedication of the memorial to the battleship (sunk in Havana Harbor in February 1898) and one to Boston in mid-June for Flag Day and Bunker Hill exercises - Virginia returned to Mexican waters in November. She reached Veracruz on 4 November and remained in port until the 30th, when she shifted to Tampico. She observed conditions in those ports and operated off the Mexican coast into January 1914.
Returning to Cuban waters for exercises and maneuvers with the fleet, Virginia sailed for the Virginia capes in mid-March 1914. She maneuvered with the fleet off Cape Henry and in Lynnhaven Roads before she conducted gunnery drills at the wreck of San Marcos (ex-Texas) in Tangier Sound, Chesapeake Bay. Virginia subsequently held experimental gunnery firings on the southern drill grounds before she spent much of April drydocked at Boston.
The American occupation of Veracruz in April 1914 resulted in the sizable deployment of American men-of-war to that port that lasted into the autumn. Virginia reached Veracruz on 1 May and operated with the fleet out of that port into early October, a period of time broken by target practice in Guantanamo Bay between 18 September and 3 October.
While war raged in Europe, Virginia continued her operations off the eastern seaboard of the United States, ranging from the southern drill grounds to the coast of New England and occasionally steaming to Cuban waters for winter maneuvers. She was placed in reserve on 20 March 1916, at the Boston Navy Yard, and was undergoing an extensive overhaul in the spring of 1917 when the United States declared war on Germany.
On the day America entered World War I, the United States government took steps to take over all interned German merchant vessels then in American ports. As part of that move, Virginia sent boarding parties to seize the German passenger and cargo vessels Amerika, Cincinnati, Wittekind, Koln, and Ockenfels on 6 April 1917.
Completing her overhaul at Boston on 27 August, Virginia sailed for Port Jefferson, New York, three days later, to join the 3d Division, Battleship Force, Atlantic Fleet. Over the ensuing 12 months, the battleship served as a gunnery training ship out of Port Jefferson and Norfolk; service interrupted briefly in early December 1917, when she became temporary flagship for Rear Admiral John A. Hoogewerff, Commander, Battleship Division 1. She subsequently became flagship for the 3d Division commander, Rear Admiral Thomas Snowden.
Overhauled at the Boston Navy Yard in the autumn of 1918, Virginia spent the remainder of hostilities engaged in convoy escort duties, taking convoys well over half-way across the Atlantic. She departed New York on 14 October 1918 on her first such mission, covering a convoy that had some 12,176 men embarked. After escorting those ships to longitude 22 degrees west, she put about and headed for home.
That proved to be her only such wartime mission, however, because the armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, the day before Virginia set out with a France-bound convoy, her second escort run into the mid-Atlantic. After leaving that convoy at longitude 34 degrees west, Virginia put about and headed for Hampton Roads.
The cessation of hostilities meant the return of the many troops that had been engaged in fighting the enemy overseas. With additional messing and berthing facilities installed to permit her use as a troopship, Virginia departed Norfolk eight days before Christmas of 1918. Over the ensuing months, she conducted five round-trip voyages to Brest, France, and back. Reaching Boston on Independence Day 1919, ending her last troop lift, Virginia ended her transport service, having brought some 6,037 men back from France.
Virginia remained at the Boston Navy Yard, inactive, until decommissioned there on 13 August 1920. Struck from the Naval Vessel Register and placed on the sale list on 12 July 1922, the battleship - reclassified prior to her inactivation to BB-13 on 17 July 1920 - was subsequently taken off the sale list and transferred to the War Department on 6 August 1923 for use as a bombing target.
Virginia and her sistership were taken to a point three miles (5 km) off the Diamond Shoals lightship, off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and anchored there on 5 September 1923. The "attacks" made by Army Air Service Martin bombers began shortly before 0900. On the third attack, seven Martins flying at , each dropped two 1,100 pound bombs on Virginia - only one of them hit. That single bomb, however, "completely demolished the ship as such." An observer later wrote: "Both masts, the bridge; all three smokestacks, and the upperworks disappeared with the explosion and there remained, after the smoke cleared away, nothing but the bare hull, decks blown off, and covered with a mass of tangled debris from stem to stern consisting of stacks, ventilators, cage masts, and bridges."
Within one-half-hour of the cataclysmic blast that wrecked the ship, her battered hulk sank beneath the waves. Her sistership ultimately joined her shortly thereafter. Virginia's end, and New Jersey's, provided far-sighted naval officers with a dramatic demonstration of air power and impressed upon them the "urgent need of developing naval aviation with the fleet." As such, the service performed by the old pre-dreadnought may have been her most valuable.
Friedman, Norman. U.S. Battleships: An Illustrated Design History. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1985. ISBN 0870217151
Reilly, John C. and Robert L. Scheina. American Battleships 1996-1923: Predreadnought Design and Construction. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1980. ISBN 0870215248