Tag Archives: Gosport Navy Yard

The Destruction of the C.S.S. Virginia

May 11, 1862 – The ironclad that had terrified the Federals was destroyed to prevent capture. This paved the way for the Federal naval fleet to advance up the James River to threaten Richmond.

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

C.S.S. Virginia | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The fall of Norfolk and the Gosport Navy Yard left the mighty C.S.S. Virginia (formerly the U.S.S. Merrimac) without a port. Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall, commanding the Confederate naval squadron on the James, initially tried withdrawing the Virginia to Harrison’s Landing, 35 miles upriver. The ship’s draft was lowered from 21 to 18 feet, but she still could not clear the shoals.

Tattnall met with his officers, and they acknowledged that the Virginia could not stay at Norfolk because the Federals would capture her, she could not go upriver over the shoals, and she could not go downriver into Chesapeake Bay because the Federal blockading fleet awaited her. Therefore, they decided that the Virginia must be destroyed.

The vessel’s crew towed her to Craney Island and set her on fire. The flames burned for about an hour before reaching the 16-ton powder keg on board. The ship exploded at 4:58 a.m. After destroying the Virginia, her crew marched up the south side of the James to Suffolk, took a train to Richmond, and became part of the garrison defending Fort Darling on Drewry’s Bluff against a potential Federal naval advance up the James.

Federal crewmen aboard the U.S.S. Dakota, two and a half miles away, could see the massive explosion. An officer informed Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough, commanding the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron from his flagship, the U.S.S. Minnesota. Goldsborough, who had planned to pit the ironclad U.S.S. Monitor against the Virginia once more, ordered his squadron to advance upriver and “reduce all of the works of the enemy as they go along.” From there, they were to “get up to Richmond, all with the least possible delay, and shell the city to a surrender.”

Commander John Rodgers headed the squadron, which included the ironclads U.S.S. Monitor and Galena. They began steaming up the James in the hopes of forcing Richmond’s surrender just as Admiral David G. Farragut had taken New Orleans in April. The Federals secured Sewell’s Point and Craney Island en route. But the Confederates at Fort Darling, eight miles in front of the Confederate capital, stood in their way.

President Abraham Lincoln was told the good news that the Virginia had been destroyed as he returned to Washington from Fort Monroe. He telegraphed Major General Henry W. Halleck in Mississippi: “Norfolk in our possession. Merrimac blown up, & Monitor & other boats going up James River to Richmond. Be very sure to sustain no reverse in your Department.”

Major General George B. McClellan, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula, learned of the Virginia’s demise from West Point. He concurred with Goldsborough’s order to move the naval fleet up the James to Richmond.

A Confederate court of inquiry later found that the Virginia’s destruction had been unnecessary. Tattnall argued that he and his crew had desperately tried to lighten the ship before finally ordering the explosion. He demanded a court-martial to refute the court’s findings. Confederate officials ultimately granted Tattnall’s request and exonerated him of any wrongdoing.

The fall of Norfolk had been imminent for several weeks, leading many southerners to question why Confederate Navy Secretary Stephen R. Mallory did not take greater precautions to ensure the Virginia’s security. Others argued that Mallory should have at least sided with Tattnall and waived the court-martial.

The Confederacy suffered an irreparable loss with the Virginia’s destruction. This ensured that the Federal blockade would not only be maintained, but it would be gradually strengthened as the war went on.

—–

References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 125-27; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (11 May 1862); Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 169; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 414-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 151; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 210; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 109; Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 329; Thomas, Emory M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 335, 571, 742; Time-Life Editors, The Blockade: Runners and Raiders (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 63

Confederates Abandon Norfolk

May 9, 1862 – President Abraham Lincoln personally directed an operation that resulted in capturing one of the Confederacy’s most important naval bases.

As elements of the Federal and Confederate armies clashed at Williamsburg, Lincoln left the Washington Navy Yard aboard the five-gun Treasury cutter Miami, bound for Fort Monroe. Lincoln’s secretary stated that the president was going “to ascertain by personal observation whether some further vigilance and vigor might not be infused into the operations of the army and navy at that point.” Joining the president were Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, and General Egbert Viele.

Part of the trip’s intent was to see if Norfolk could be captured now that Yorktown had fallen. Norfolk, on the south side of the James River estuary, housed the vital Gosport Navy Yard for the Confederacy and was home to the powerful ironclad C.S.S. Virginia. Lincoln and his fellow travelers hoped to end the Virginia’s reign of terror over the Federal blockading fleet.

Gen J.E. Wool | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Gen J.E. Wool | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The Miami reached Fort Monroe on the night of May 6, after a 27-hour trip. When Lincoln was informed that Major General George B. McClellan would not be meeting with him because he was busy directing operations at Williamsburg, he personally inspected the area around Hampton Roads. Seeing that Norfolk, now isolated due to the fall of Yorktown, could be easily taken, Lincoln turned to 78-year-old Major General John E. Wool, commanding the Federals at Fort Monroe, to lay out a plan to capture the town.

On May 8, a Confederate tugboat captain who had deserted informed the Federals that Major General Benjamin Huger was hurriedly evacuating his 9,000 Confederates from Norfolk. Lincoln ordered a naval squadron–consisting of the U.S.S. Monitor, Dacotah, Naugatuck, Seminole, and Susquehanna–to bombard Sewell’s Point, about seven and a half miles north of Norfolk, in preparation for a troop landing. However, the Virginia arrived to push the Federal vessels back to Fort Monroe.

As Lincoln inspected Hampton Roads for a potential troop landing on the 9th, the Confederates evacuated Norfolk, losing the town they had captured in April 1861. Lincoln directed the U.S.S. Monitor to see if Confederates had abandoned their batteries at Sewell’s Point. Learning that they had, Lincoln ordered Wool to land Federals on Willoughby Spit, away from the enemy batteries, on the south side of Hampton Roads. That night, about 5,000 Federals led by Wool and Treasury Secretary Chase left Fort Monroe.

The Federals reached Norfolk without resistance, with Mayor William W. Lamb and other municipal officials meeting Wool and Chase outside the city. Lamb handed keys to the city to the Federals. He then stretched out the surrender ceremony long enough for the last Confederates to destroy the Gosport Navy Yard and anything else useful to the Federals before escaping.

The loss of Norfolk devastated the Confederacy. It also threatened to end the career of the C.S.S. Virginia, which was now without a base. The Confederates retreated up the south side of the James, planning to make their next stand at Drewry’s Bluff. Lincoln triumphantly visited both Norfolk and Portsmouth the following day. Norfolk was placed under martial law, with General Viele governing, for the rest of the war.

The fall of Yorktown effectively doomed Norfolk, but Lincoln’s direct involvement made it happen faster than it otherwise would have. An officer of the Monitor credited Lincoln with “stirring up dry bones,” referring to the aging General Wool and Flag Officer Louis M. Goldsborough of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The officer wrote, “It is extremely fortunate that the President came down when he did–he seems to have infused new life into everything, even the superannuated old fogies began to show some signs of life.”

Chase told Lincoln about the operations and then wrote his daughter: “So has ended a brilliant week’s campaign of the President, for I think it quite certain that if he had not come down, (Norfolk) would still have been in possession of the enemy and the Merrimac (i.e., Virginia) as grim and defiant and as much a terror as ever.” McClellan did not acknowledge either Norfolk’s fall or Lincoln’s involvement.

—–

References

Bailey, Ronald H., Forward to Richmond: McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 124-25; CivilWarDailyGazette.com (10 May 1862); Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 15279-89; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 167-68; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 7408-19; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War, A Narrative: Fort Sumter to Perryville (New York: Vintage Books, 1958), p. 414-15; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 149-50; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 3405-18; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 436-39; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 209-10; McPherson, James M., War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 (Littlefield History of the Civil War Era, The University of North Carolina Press, Kindle Edition, 2012), p. 108; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q262

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: Wikimedia.org

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

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.

—–

Sources

  • Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 230-31
  • Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (Kindle Edition 2008, 1889), Loc 5770
  • Davis, William C., First Blood: Fort Sumter to Bull Run (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 17
  • Delaney, Ned C., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 562
  • Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 36-37
  • Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 23-26
  • Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 2436
  • Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 60-61, 63-65
  • Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 455
  • McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 278-79
  • Pollard, Edward A., Southern History of the War (New York: The Fairfax Press, 1990), p. 71-72
  • Robertson, James I., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 535
  • Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 529-30