As delegates to the Virginia Convention considered secession, former Governor Henry A. Wise had already begun taking steps to secure Norfolk, specifically the Gosport (or Norfolk) Navy Yard, for the commonwealth. This was one of the most valuable naval ports in the South. Conversely, U.S. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles ordered Captain Hiram Paulding to lead 1,000 Marines to Norfolk to investigate a charge by Benjamin F. Isherwood, the chief naval engineer, that the U.S. commander at the Navy Yard, Captain Charles S. McCauley, was being influenced by “liquor and bad men,” and would soon surrender the yard to the Virginians. Paulding was to “take command of all naval forces there afloat… and should it finally become necessary, you will… destroy the property.”
McCauley, in command of 800 officers and men at the Navy Yard, had initially been ordered to do nothing to upset the local residents, but these orders were revised to take valuable ships and equipment out of harm’s way regardless of local reaction. McCauley had been told that such an aggressive move would force Virginia out of the Union, so he refused to allow the U.S.S. Merrimack and three other warships to leave port to avoid possible capture. The ships had a total of 1,200 serviceable cannon, but most of the civilian workers and naval officers at the Navy Yard were southerners.
Paulding and the Marines arrived to reinforce McCauley, and Paulding inspected the Navy Yard and McCauley’s command. He returned to Washington on the 18th and reported to Welles that McCauley was trustworthy and capable of making the right decision regarding the Navy Yard when the time came. Welles wrote in his diary: “Although this report was more favorable than I had expected, I greatly regretted he did not remain and act for the Department, and so informed him. I also blamed myself for not having given him explicit written orders to that effect.”
On the 19th, Major General William B. Taliaferro, recently appointed to command the Virginia militia in the Norfolk district, met with McCauley, and it was agreed “that none of the vessels should be removed, not a shot fired except in self defense.” Virginia secessionists tried to ensure that no Federal ships could move by sinking hulks in the Elizabeth River to block their escape. They did not fully seal the channel, but the move led McCauley to erroneously conclude that the Navy Yard was in danger of being attacked, and that some of the men under his command would join the attackers.
On the night of the 20th, McCauley ordered the Gosport Navy Yard abandoned and burned. But he overestimated the danger and disregarded the 1,000 Marine reinforcements. In a last-ditch effort to save the yard, Welles ordered the U.S.S. Pawnee to steam from Fort Monroe, on the nearby tip of the Virginia Peninsula between the York and James rivers, to Norfolk with a detachment of troops. But they arrived too late.
Near midnight, 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. Captain Charles Wilkes was tasked with supervising the destruction. Federals partially burned the yard and scuttled nine aged ships of the line: the U.S.S. Columbus, Delaware, and Pennsylvania; the frigates Columbia, Merrimac, and Raritan; and the sloops Dolphin, Germantown, and Plymouth.
Five vessels burned to the waterline and four others, including the Merrimack, sank in the Elizabeth River after burning. Only three ships escaped, and only one—the U.S.S. Cumberland—was seaworthy. The Pawnee towed her out of the harbor. Subordinates talked McCauley out of following naval tradition and going down with the ships. By dawn, the Navy Yard was smoldering and the command was safely at Fort Monroe.
All told, the Federals destroyed several million dollars’ worth of property before withdrawing. But in their haste to escape, they left 1,198 guns worth about $7,307,000, some 2,000 barrels of gunpowder, and plants and dry docks that enabled the Confederates to repair equipment lost and manufacture even more. Confederates used these facilities to rebuild four vessels, including the Merrimack, which was converted into the C.S.S. Virginia, the first-ever ironclad warship.
McCauley endured widespread condemnation for his rushed decision to abandon one of the most valuable naval yards in North America without a fight. Some considered him unfit for duty due to old age and ill-health. Others accused him of drunkenness or treason. The Lincoln administration was questioned as to why such a man had been in command of such an important base.
The Senate Naval Committee later concluded: “Captain McCauley was abundantly able to defend the yard.” This despite claims by Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, general-in-chief of the U.S. Army, that the place had no fortifications or defenses of any kind and was therefore bound to be captured. Navy Secretary Welles concluded: “In the light of subsequent events the performance may be condemned. It was certainly unfortunate and disastrous. There were feebleness and incapacity in McCauley, and treachery and infidelity on the part of some, in fact most, of his subordinates… but I am aware of no evidence of cowardice, even in the pusillanimous commander.”
Welles blamed Congress for the loss of the Navy Yard: “It will be borne in mind that Congress, which had just adjourned, put forth no preparation for the coming crisis, had made no extra appropriations, had not authorized the enlistment of any additional seamen; almost all our naval force was abroad; most of the small Home Squadron was in the Gulf or West Indies, nearly as remote and inaccessible as the European Squadron; and the whole available force north of the Chesapeake had been dispatched to the relief of Fort Sumter and secretly and surreptitiously, without the knowledge of the Navy Department, sent to Fort Pickens…” McCauley retired into obscurity.
Virginia militia went in and occupied the Gosport Navy Yard on the 21st. Surveying the damage, Taliaferro charged that the attempt to destroy the place was “one of the most cowardly and disgraceful acts which ever disgraced the Government of a civilized people.” Despite this, 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 to make up for the loss by reinforcing other areas around the Navy Yard, including posting the 4th Massachusetts at nearby Fort Monroe.
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