The Fall of Norfolk

April 21, 1861 – Virginia militia seized the Gosport Navy Yard at Norfolk after Federals partially burned and abandoned the vital naval base.

As delegates to the Virginia Convention considered secession, former Governor Henry Wise had already begun taking steps to secure Norfolk, specifically the Gosport Navy Yard, for the commonwealth. Conversely, U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles ordered Captain Hiram Paulding to assemble 1,000 Marines and “take command of all naval forces there afloat… and should it finally become necessary, you will… destroy the property.”

Charles S. McCauley, commanding 800 officers and men at the Navy Yard, had initially been ordered to do nothing to upset local Virginians, but these orders were soon revised to take valuable ships and equipment out of harm’s way regardless of local reaction. McCauley opted to follow the original orders, refusing to allow U.S.S. Merrimack and three other warships to leave port to avoid possible capture. McCauley also reached an agreement with the Virginia militia commander “that none of the vessels should be removed, not a shot fired except in self defense.”

Despite the arrival of Paulding and his men, McCauley ordered the Navy Yard abandoned and burned. McCauley had decided to evacuate based on an erroneous report that Virginia forces were about to storm the facility; McCauley also worried that some of the southerners on his base might join the Virginians.

On the night of the 20th, the Federals began burning the ship-houses, docks, warehouses, stores, offices, and other property in the yard. McCauley also ordered the destruction of all warships that could not be put out to sea. Federals scuttled nine aged ships of the line: U.S.S. Columbus, Delaware, and Pennsylvania; frigates Columbia, Merrimac, and Raritan; and sloops Dolphin, Germantown, and Plymouth. Five vessels burned to the waterline and four others, including Merrimack, sank in the Elizabeth River after burning. Only three ships escaped. Captain Paulding, who made the final decision to abandon the yard, took U.S.S. Pawnee to defend Washington.

Burning of U.S.S. Merrimack at Norfolk | Image Credit:
Burning of U.S.S. Merrimack at Norfolk | Image Credit:

All told, the Federals destroyed several million dollars’ worth of property before withdrawing. But in their haste to leave, they left 1,198 guns worth about $7,307,000, some 2,000 barrels of gunpowder, and plants and dry docks enabling the Confederates to repair equipment lost and manufacture even more. Confederates used these facilities to rebuild four vessels, including Merrimack as the first ever ironclad warship, C.S.S. Virginia.

McCauley received widespread criticism from his superiors and the public for his rushed decision to abandon the most valuable naval yard in the U.S. without a fight. Some considered him unfit for duty due to old age and ill-health. Some accused him of drunkenness. And some questioned why the Lincoln administration would put such a man in command of so important a base. A Senate investigating committee report concluded that McCauley had acted hastily and irresponsibly, and he retired into obscurity.

Virginia militia quickly took back the smoldering Gosport Navy Yard after the botched Federal retreat. The Confederacy now had a vital base of operations from which to protect the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina, challenge the Federal navy, and disrupt the blockade. Federals tried making up for the loss by reinforcing other areas around the navy yard, including posting the 4th Massachusetts at Fort Monroe on the nearby tip of the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers.



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