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Monday, November 14, 2011

History Matters: Credits for Conversion of the CSS VIRGINIA – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #16 (written October 26, 2011)

   Without money nothing is accomplished and so was the case for the Confederate Navy. Secretary Mallory on the 18th of July, 1861, submitted a report to the Confederate Congress in which he said, "The cost of this work is estimated by the constructor and engineer in charge at $172,523, and as time is of the first consequence in this enterprise, I have not hesitated to commence the work, and to ask Congress for the necessary appropriation."

   Thus a shipbuilding program had begun for the South at Gosport but with certain problems as John V. Quarstein points out in his book C.S.S. Virginia Mistress of Hampton Roads the following:

"Despite shrewd success, Mallory did err with his shipbuilding program; he delegated responsibilities among several individuals. French Forrest, who did not really approve of the project, retained administrative control as yard commandant. Chief Engineer William Williamson was given the task of machinery revitalization, and Naval Constructor John L. Porter was charged with supervising the actual construction. John Mercer Brooke, a favorite of Mallory, managed the armor and armament for the ironclad as well as acting as the inspecting agent for the entire project. Friction arose immediately between Brooke and Porter since much of the project overlapped. The acrimony began with the fact that both men claimed the vessel's design as their own and continued with Brooke's modifications throughout the project. Nevertheless, the Confederacy had its first ironclad under construction by July in its finest shipyard."

Mr. John L. Porter's Model June 1861
(page 347 History of Norfolk County 1861-1865)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

   The following various statements are gleaned from John W. H. Porter's History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published in 1892.
Porter put forth a design per his model of June 1861 to extend the shield and submerged her eaves and ends two feet all around, and would have extended her shield the entire length had she not been too sharp at the bow and the stern, and therefore he stopped it where the vessel became too narrow to admit its being built any further.

   Subsequent to the publication of the report of Secretary Mallory Lieutenant Brooke applied to the Confederate Patent Office and obtained a patent for "an iron-clad with submerged ends, projecting beyond her shield", and it was claimed for him that this is evidence that he was the author of which the Virginia was built into an iron-clad.
(page 351 History of Norfolk County 1861-1865)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

   The Merrimac was not selected as the result of any plan, but simply because she had an engine in her which could be utilized where it was, and the Confederates lacked the facilities for building a new engine for a new boat. The burned portion as cut away and the weight of her armor, armament, and submerged the remainder so that only her shield was out of the water. It is not probable that Constructor Porter would have built a new vessel with her ends extending out under water beyond the shield. He converted the Merrimac into an iron-clad after that style through necessity, and not from choice.

   The converting of the vessel into an iron-clad consisted in putting the shot proof shield on her. That is all of an iron-clad nature there was about her, all there was of a plan. All the rest of was the result of accident, and not design, and if anyone is entitled to the credit of submerging her ends beyond her shield, it was Commodore Paulding of the United States Navy, who ordered Gosport to be burned, in consequence of which the Merrimac was burned to the water's edge.

   Without any photographs of VIRGINIA, we are only left to the personal viewpoints of those with power and access to producing a sketch or the written word of the era. Remember also that there are very few scant surviving documents. The Porter vs. Brooke claims of the early 1860's being what they were continued on for decades as their own individual campaigns of pride seeking credit for design. It should be noted despite of all of this fuss no Confederate iron-clads were subsequently built with submerged projecting ends.

   As time went on an article published in the Century Magazine of March 1885 further opened the rift. The story by John Taylor Wood who served on VIRGINIA gave new life to the controversy. The Porter camp claimed not only did the article provided an inaccurate description of the ship but that it also seemed to accept Lieutenant Jones' account to the vulnerability of the vessel at the waterline and the unprotected condition concerning the rudder and propeller.

   Even extending into the 1891-92 time frames, there was still newly written correspondence supporting Porter's claim for sole design of the shield for Merrimac. It should be noted that by the time of Porter's death in Portsmouth, Virginia, 1893, it would be fair to believe he must have thought about his place in history daily.

   Getting beyond the issue of "credit" for who designed VIRGINIA or its specific configuration, one must look upon the entire canvas of materials left and understand that the written word that we have today is from individuals that participated in the unprecedented historical events at Gosport in 1861 and 1862 leading up to the Battle of Hampton Roads. They have left us "their" side of the story; we can't change what they wrote and hope modern authors stay true to the known facts and keep their spin to themselves.

   Next we shall explore the physical transformation of VIRGINIA in the drydock because - "history matters".

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

History Matters: Naval Constructor, John L. Porter – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #15 (written September 03, 2011)

Portsmouth's lifeblood has revolved around its location along the Elizabeth River here in eastern Virginia thus ship building and ship repair is interwoven into the very fabric of this community.  Gosport's success as the premier shipyard of the United States as the calendar turned into mid-1861 owed credit not only to its unencumbered location in which shipbuilding materials could get to the yard efficiently, by sea, road or rail but the abundance of a large local skilled labor workforce.

The Gosport shipyard could accomplish the most difficult tasks of supporting the young United States Navy.

In overview, one need to also appreciate that modern technology supporting the most advanced tasks of  today's shipbuilding and repair did not exist 150 years ago.  Today tasks are calculated by computer and fabricated by robot-like machinery with such quickness, programmed by people who may have never stepped foot upon a ship, but this was not always the case.  Consider that in the days of sail and steam everything was drafted longhand with exacting mathematical calculation and practical naval architectural knowledge by the very most experienced master shipbuilder.  Afterward, these rigorous ship building tasks were then commissioned to be preformed by the yard's labor and craftsmen along the Gosport's waterfront.

In summary, for a successful project one needed an experienced master shipbuilder.  In the summer of 1861 for the South that person came in the form of a local Portsmouth born son, John L. Porter, Naval Constructor.

Who exactly was John Luke Porter?  The Naval Historical Center provides this brief summary:

John L. Porter, whose father was a shipwright at Portsmouth, Virginia, was born in 1813. He became a Navy civilian employee during the 1840s and a Naval Constructor in 1859. After resigning from the U.S. Navy in May 1861, he began working for the Confederate Navy at the Gosport (Norfolk) Navy Yard, at Portsmouth. He played an important role in the conversion of the scuttled and burned steam frigate Merrimack to an ironclad, which became CSS Virginia when commissioned in February 1862.
   After the Confederates abandoned the Norfolk area in May 1862, Porter became a Naval Constructor at Richmond and later at Wilmington, North Carolina. He was promoted to Chief Naval Constructor in January 1864 and served in that capacity to the end of the Civil War, designing many of the South's domestically-built warships. Following the conflict, Porter worked in civilian shipbuilding, industry and ferry operations. He died on 14 December 1893.This page features our only pictures of Chief Naval Constructor John L. Porter, CSN.

An insight to how busy John L. Porter was at Gosport is found within his testimony recorded in the Official Records from the Confederate Congressional Investigation of the Navy Department; a portion of Tuesday, March 3, 1863 details the following:

   "We were altering the Merrimack and were fitting out a number of gunboats out of steamers that were brought for the North Carolina service.  We were building other ironclad vessels and three wooden gunboats.  Two of the wooden boats are in the river and one we burned at the evacuation of Norfolk.  We were doing a great deal of work for the defenses around Norfolk in the way of arms, as a matter of convenience for the batteries, fortifications, etc
   "My duties have been various.  I had charge of the operations at the Norfolk Navy Yard up to the time of the evacuation.  I made all the drawings, nearly, for the gunboats that have been built in different places.  Since the evacuation I have been on duty here at Richmond, carrying on in the yard at Rocketts.  I also made a great many plans for the Secretary of the Navy".

The Naval Historical Center article references a half-tone line image from 1907 thus no real photos may be in existence of John L. Porter.  The Portsmouth Naval Museum located in Portsmouth Virginia has within their collection an undated vintage oil painting by Doris Porter McLean that depicts this same image, in color.  (Continues Below)

Naval Constructor John L. Porter CSN
Photo # NH47207
(Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command)

John L. Porter Oil Painting
Courtesy of Portsmouth Naval Museum
(photo by Marcus W. Robbins)


John L. Porter Historic Marker
High Street, Portsmouth Virginia
(photo by Marcus W. Robbins)

 I invite you to stroll outside of the museum at the foot of High Street then find within a short distance of the Elizabeth River, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources roadside marker erected in 1997.  This large metal plaque gives honor to Portsmouth's own, John L. Porter (19 September 1813 ~ 14 December 1893).

If one looks beyond the roadside marker you view along the Elizabeth River shoreline the gray hull of a modern United States warship undergoing repairs. From this same vantage point almost 150 years ago you would have been able to see Mr. Porter's creation, the Confederate States Ship, CSS VIRGINIA sailing down river about to make naval history in March of 1862 because - "history matters".

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

History Matters: Gosport's Drydock & Planning of CSS Virginia – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #14 (written August 21, 2011)

Along the southern branch of the Elizabeth River our stone dock still remains in service today, a testament to its excellent construction that began in 1827.  As I wrote in earlier blogs, Gosport had one of a kind ship building and repair facilities, facilities worth fighting for.    

Gosport's industrial base was the best in the nation.  Without a single shot being fired the Confederates find themselves with an instant naval establishment in summer of 1861.

Gosport's much under-stated value to the fledgling Southern Navy was the capacity to work on a ship in drydock.  Our stone dock gained fame with the first ever dry-docking in the northern hemisphere by receiving the 74 gun Ship of the Line DELAWARE on June 17, 1833 but conditions are so radically different in June of 1861.  A short 28 years later, the muddy burnt hulk of ex-MERRIMAC begins a re-birth into what eventually shall become the CSS VIRGINIA in this same stone dock.

The dock remains in service today looking much like the photos shown below that were taken in the early 1930's, over 75 years ago.  More importantly for the South, this dock looked the same 150 years ago. 

The following information is from John W. H. Porter's History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published in 1892. Mr. Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate States Navy, called the attention of the House Committee on Naval Affairs to the subject of iron-clads before the seat of government was removed from Montgomery to Richmond.

On the 22d of June, 1861 Naval Constructor Porter received orders to report to the Navy Department at Richmond.  The orders did not state the object for which he was to report but he took advantage of the occasion to carry his model to Richmond for the purpose of submitting it to the Secretary.  The Secretary immediately ordered a board consisting of Mr. Porter, Chief Engineer Williamson and Lieutenant Brooke to consider it.  Messers. Williamson and Brooke were at that time in Richmond.

June 25th, 1861

Sir –
     In obedience to your order we have carefully examined and considered the various plans and propositions for constructing a shoot proof steam battery, and respectfully report that, in our opinion, the steam frigate Merrimac, which is in such condition from the effects of fire as to be useless for any other purpose without incurring a heavy expense in her rebuilding, can be made an efficient vessel of that character, mounting ten heavy guns; two pivot guns, and eight broadside guns of her original battery, and for further consideration we, that we cannot procure a suitable engine and boilers for any other vessel without building them, which would occupy too much time, is would appear that this is our only chance to get a suitable vessel in a short time. 
     The bottom of the hull, boilers and heavy costly parts of the engine, being little injured, reduce the cost of construction to about one-third the amount which would be required to construct such a vessel anew.  We cannot, without further examination, make an accurate estimate of the cost of the projected work, but think it will be about one hundred and ten thousand dollars, the most of which will be for labor, the materials being nearly all on hand in the yard, except the iron plating to cover the shield.  The plan to be adopted in the arrangement of her shield for glancing shots, mounting guns, arranging the hull and plating, to be in accordance with the plans submitted for approval of the department.

Wm. P. Williamson, Cheif Engineer
John M. Brooke, Lieutenant
John L. Porter, Naval Constructor

Gosport's drydock was about to become the heart of the Confederate Navy's industrial machine and the task of transformation now rested with the Naval Constructor,  Portsmouth's own, John L. Porter, because - "history matters".

Drydock 1 Length (looking east, showing ship keel blocking) circa 1930's
Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Room

Drydock 1 Headwall circa 1930's
Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Room

Friday, August 19, 2011

History Matters: The South's Grand Gift, the Merrimac – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #13 (written August 15, 2011)

In my last blog I provided a complete listing of the ships destroyed at Gosport in the early morning hours of April 21, 1861.  Every published report after that event continued to be concerned upon the fate of one particular ship now lying on the muddy bottom of the Elizabeth River, being the ex-USS MERRIMAC.

As recorded by the proceedings of the 37th Congress, 2nd Session special report that examined THE SURRENDER AND DESTRUCTION OF THE NAVY YARDS ECT. published in 1862 the USS MERRIMAC was considered the most important ship at Gosport as the following portion of testimony given by Henry A. Wise, Lieutenant U.S. Navy indicates:

Question. "What was the character and value of the "Merrimack?"
Answer. "She was the most valuable ship in the navy; she was worth, I think, twelve hundred thousand dollars, when fully equipped."

Question. "What was her value compared with that of the "Cumberland?".
Answer. "She was worth nearly three times as much."

Question. "Under the circumstances then existing at the yard, if only one of two vessels could be saved, would the throwing of officers and men on board the "Merrimack," and taking her out in preference to the "Cumberland," have evinced proper military sagacity and foresight?"
Answer. "Yes sir; she was worth all the ships there together."

It should be also noted that Lieutenant Wise in his answer to the interrogatories gave testimony of his first going on several ships including Merrimack and laying the trains of combustibles then later when the signal was given going in his boat from ship to ship as he touched off the trains to which he comments about Merrimack …"that I scarcely had time to get away from her."  Lieutenant Wise is among the last Federals to walk her decks forever.

To answer why the USS MERRIMAC was considered so worthy one must roll back the clock a little over five years to the time of her being ready for her element.  As I write this I am looking at the front leaf of a Boston Weekly - BALLOU'S PICTORIAL (see below) of January 26,1856 that celebrates – THE STEAM FRIGATE MERRIMAC.

With much pride the article points out the following fact, she is the first of her class of steam frigates ordered to be built by Congress.

"Her model is a beautiful one, and reflects the highest credit on the ability of Mr. Lenthall, the chief of the bureau of construction and Mr. Delano, naval constructor of the Charlestown navy-yard and Mr. Melvin Simmons, master carpenter, the practical carrying out of the naval architect's design is to be credited. 

These gentlemen may well be proud in their share of this floating leviathan, for she is four thousand tons burthen.  The huge cannon, which show their grim muzzles through the port-holes, were cast at Alger's foundry, South Boston.  She is a propeller, pierced for seventy guns, but will only carry fifty at present.  We regard the steam frigate Merrimac as a complete success, and cannot but rejoice at this commencement of a steam navy worthy of the name."

The article continues and points out several key points that apply even to today's 2011 Navy, reading on…

"We are well aware that a steam navy is costly; but yet we believe there can be no better investment of the public money.  It is absolutely necessary to keep pace with other nations in our provisions for defence.  To be completely prepared, armed at all points, is the surest way of preventing aggression, and we all know how much cheaper prevention is than cure. 

A squadron of sailing vessels can be soon equipped, and in case of war, our mercantile marine might be largely drawn upon for the exigencies of the government.  But a steam navy cannot be created on the spur of the moment.  Notwithstanding the zeal and industry displayed in building the Merrimac, we have seen that sixteen months were required to complete her, and this dispatch is cited as extraordinary.  Our government has done wisely in not waiting for the emergency, to commence the good work."

At Gosport, the flag on the staff in Trophy Park has changed from that of the Union to the state of Virginia in the spring of 1861 and by the summer of 1861 the flag of the Confederacy waves.  The USS MERRIMAC first built under the stars and stripes would now forever carry a southern banner as the CSS VIRGINIA.

After just over a month on the bottom of the Elizabeth River the ship begins the first step in a transformation that would forever change the naval warfare forever.  "She had been raised by the Baker Wrecking Company on 30th of May 1861 and Mr. Porter, as Constructor at the Yard, had her put in the dry-dock and made a thorough examination of her".

Mr. Porter then sets into motion the beginnings of a radical transformation of this muddy burnt hulk, into the CSS VIRGINIA.  Gosport again finds itself at the forefront of naval technology because - "history matters".

Ballou's Pictorial, Boston, Saturday, January 26, 1856

Monday, July 25, 2011

History Matters: Gosport, Raising & Repairing the Ships – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #12 (written July 20, 2011)

Although the Federal forces at Gosport managed to render useless for the moment all of the ships found at the yard I want to touch on each one briefly before we explore in depth the conversion of the most valuable of them all, the steamer MERRIMAC. 

Upon entry into the stone drydock, it would to the South, evermore be referred to as the Confederate States Ship; CSS VIRGINIA while the North would continually remain defiant by reporting its former name; MERRIMAC or MERRIMACK depending upon the author. 

To this day, these three interchangeable names exist in typeset, conversation and memorial with some degree of pride, depending on the storyteller or by some degree of confusion unless the receiver is familiar with the timeline. 

Remember, at Gosport begins the historic timeline leading up to the Battle of Hampton Roads, 1862.

As cited in the Burton's History of Norfolk Virginia, 1877 we find a reference recorded on October 28th of 1861 that states in part: "The large force of workmen at the Navy-yard made wonderful progress in manufacturing war implements and in repair the ships which the Federals had rendered useless".

In my last blog I provided a table based upon the listing provided in a Navy Department letter dated November 12, 1861 that named each ship and its estimated value prior to its loss.  Some of these ships went on to continue services thus becoming reborn into a second life but at present I will focus only on their conditions as reported 150 years ago. 

The following quotes are compiled between Burton's History of Norfolk Virginia, 1877, John W. H. Porter History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published 1892 and the 37th Congress, 2nd Session special report that examined THE SURRENDER AND DESTRUCTION OF THE NAVY YARDS ECT. published 1862.

MERRIMAC ~ "All I could see of the "Merrimack" was her timbers and smoke stack; she was burnt to the water's edge. 

MERRIMAC ~ "She had been raised by the Baker Wrecking Company on 30th of May 1861 and Mr. Porter, as Constructor at the Yard, had her put in the dry-dock and made a thorough examination of her".

PENNSYLVANIA ~ "On the same day (October 28th 1861) divers examined the guns of the Pennsylvania, and found her sixty-eight pounders in good order; her 32-pounders were all burst.

COLUMBUS & DELAWARE ~ "They are sunk, near the mouth of the dry dock"

NEW YORK ~ (in response to a question of what was destroyed on the night of 20th and morning of the 21st of April) … "In the yard, the two ship houses, one of them containing the unfinished United States vessel "New York" …

RARITAN & COLUMBIA ~ (from a longer paragraph) … "Raritan", "Columbia" … "were all destroyed, and the guns were spiked".

UNITED STATES ~ "The "United States" was still afloat.  They had, as I understood, towed her down the river on Sunday morning, with a view to sink her for the obstruction of the channel.  They didn't sink her, however, but brought her back to the yard for a receiving ship; she appeared to be uninjured".

PLYMOUTH ~ "I could just see the masts of the "Plymouth;" she was not burnt.  I was told that she had been scuttled, and had sunk at the stern".

GERMANTOWN ~ "In going to the yard in a steam-tug, I saw the "Germantown" sunk under the shears.

DOLPHIN ~ "She was burnt to the water and sunk.  They have raised her, but she was found to be burnt to a coal".

As it is our modern motto at here at Norfolk Naval Shipyard - ANY SHIP, ANY WHERE, ANY TIME; look back 150 years ago.  The Virginia secessionist movement became identified with the Confederate States flag flying over Gosport in July of 1861.  The fire did not injure Gosport's basic industrial plant; men were working in the shops the very next day.

The South raised the huge gift from the river bottom being the ex-USS MERRIMAC.

Now, what would they do with their gift to be known as the CSS VIRGINIA? - because "history matters".

(this view indicates an almost completed conversion - circa 1862)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

History Matters: Gosport, Summary of Destruction – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #11 (written July 13, 2011)

Numbers tell a story. 

Today in the age of the Internet, we can see that the page visit counters at the recently launched NNSY “History Matters” blog are approaching 600 hits after a few months and at my personal website of a couple of years now devoted to the old Norfolk Navy Yard (pre -1945) are approaching 6,400 hits.

I shall continue to be true to the reader by only using documented numbers, written works, publications, engravings and photos to properly put things in historic perspective without favoritism to either side in both of my Internet forums regarding the late unpleasantness. 

The Civil War continues to inspire a much spirited debate over 150 years later.  We can learn from our past, we must continue to study the facts about Gosport.

As I said before numbers tell a story.  One of the most useful documents I have in my personal collection is an original 37th Congress, 2nd Session, of which the proceedings appoint a select committee to inquire on the destruction of the Navy Yard at Norfolk. 

Published in 1862 this document provides the following summaries of the destruction left by the Federal forces as they burned and evacuated Gosport on April 21, 1861.  While not every line item will be repeated here it is interesting to note that the sub-line item dollar amounts cited are specific and deliberate.  These people cared to the smallest degree of the items placed under there care.  I dare say lessons could be learned today of their accounting methods.

The following are of various letters concerning the destruction of the Gosport Navy Yard (as formatted and presented) summarized under the APPENDIX.  Navy Department, November 12, 1861


Provisions………………….……   $55,148  25
Clothing………………………....     71,678  75
Small stores………………….….       8,023  14
Contingent………………….…...       3,643  62
                                                       $138,493 93


Steamer Merrimac………………………$600,000  00
Ship-of-the line Pennsylvania…………….. 275,000  00
Ship-of-the line Columbus………………... 185,000  00
Ship-of-the line Delaware…………………   65,000  00
Ship-of-the line New York……………….. 220,000  00
Frigate Raritan……………………………. 155,000  00
Frigate Columbia………………………….  130,000  00
Frigate United States………………………    30,000  00
Sloop-of-war Plymouth…………………...   140,000  00
Sloop-of-war Germantown………………..   140,000  00
Brig Dolphin……………………………….    40,000  00

            Total value…………………………1,980,000  00 


…."the whole value of the ordnance, ordnance stores, nautical instruments, &c., was $664,883  78."   


Medical property on receiving ship Pennsylvania,    $398  51
At the navy yard…………………………………. 498  08
At the naval hospital……………………………..6,403  03
         Total………………………………………7,299  89

MARINE CORPS – November 8, 1861

….."The whole value of the clothing and marine stores at the yard, according to the schedule accompanying is $1,527  05."

BUREAU OF YARDS AND DOCKS – November 8, 1861

SIR: In compliance with your letter of the 6th instant, I transmit herewith and inventory of naval stores pertaining to this bureau at the Norfolk navy yard on the 1st of January, 1861 – the date of the last returns received prior to the destruction of the yard.
  I enclose, also, a plan of the yard, showing, in black ink, the buildings, &c., which had been constructed or were in progress, and, in red ink, those which it was proposed to build, together with a statement of the expenditures for improvements and repairs of the yard, hospital, and magazine, as far as can be ascertained.

Navy yard………………………………………  $4,508,439  95
Hospital………………………………………...       393,174  70
Magazine and ordnance works…………………        204,562  53
                                                                                 5,106177  18

As the report concludes a line item concerning miscellaneous articles in the amount of $1,865,433  72 is listed.

The report now brings forward a grand total of $9,760,181  93 that was lost at the Gosport Navy Yard under the command of Captain Charles S. McCauley whom had been in command since the 7th  of August,1860. 

If the walls of Quarters A could talk we might have his insight to why the chain of events in April of 1861 began to reach a fever pitch leading up the final inferno that started with the striking of the smallest matches.

The result of Shipyard Commander McCauley's decisions 150 years ago resulted in numbers. 

Numbers that tell the story of the yard's 2nd burning, because "history matters".

"Merrimac" Destroyed at the Burning of the Norfolk Navy Yard, April 19, 1861.
1906 postcard - Painting by B. A. Richardson.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gosport, A Grand Gift & Confederate Spoils of War – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus Robbins, Blog #10. June 22, 2011.

I have taken a little break after writing so much leading up to the 2nd burning of the shipyard on April 21, 1861, and in this space of time did some research on what exactly the North so readily handed the newly formed Confederate States.

It proved to be a gift for the southern cause as not a shot was fired by them in attack as the yard was abandoned and attempted to be destroyed by the northern United States forces, but by the very fact the destruction was so incomplete the functions of Gosport’s industrial plant continued on immediately, just under another flag at the very next sunrise.

Instantly the secessionist gained an industrial base and as shall be discussed in later blogs, also a huge gift with the sunken and burned hulk of USS MERRIMAC in time to be raised and transformed into the CSS VIRGINIA.

In future months we shall explore details of the progress of that work. But, in brief reflection of this gift that changed naval warfare forever, please take note that today you can still stand right at the edge of what we call Berth 2, at the very location where USS MERRIMAC was scuttled and burned along the Elizabeth River.

Take a short trip south down the modern waterfront and you can view the very drydock, our Drydock 1, where the conversion takes place into CSS VIRGINIA and of where she sails out early in March of 1862 to meet the northern ironclad MONITOR. It is also in this very dock her hulk is finally broken up after being removed as a navigation hazard off of Craney Island in 1876. Our drydock continues in service to this day. It also became a gift 150 years ago, as the Union unsuccessfully attempted to explode with kegs of black powder.

After Gosport is lost, the 37th Congress, 2nd Session, appoints a select committee to inquire on the destruction of the navy yard at Norfolk. I have a full original 1862 copy in my personal collection of these proceedings. What interesting reading! The following is a representative snapshot of these hearings that lends insight for us of what happened after the flames went out. Being questioned is Mr. Mifflin Pyle, age 24 years old, a boilermaker by trade, who witnessed the entire destruction, but I will only focus on the facilities portion:

Question. How much of the government property at the yard was destroyed on the night of 20th of April, and how much was left undestroyed?

Answer. The two ship-houses, the marine barracks, the sail loft, the rigging loft, the ordnance loft, the offices connected with that building, the ships "Pennsylvania," "Raritan," "Columbia," "Dolphin," "Germantown," "Plymouth," and "Merrimack," were destroyed, and all the guns were spiked. The ordinance department and the ordinance, the machinery department and the tools, the blacksmith's shop, carpenter's shop, boiler shop, provision houses and provisions, commandant's and other officers' dwellings, timber sheds, & c., were uninjured.

When this testimony is compared to Plate 2, a map of Gosport in 1860, it becomes very apparent that Commander McCauley did not have the resources to destroy the entire navy yard. While most of the ships and both of the grand ship houses "A"and "B" were consumed totally by the unforgiving inferno of the match, other of our brick buildings survived uninjured.

If you look close enough from Lincoln Street, you can see the effects of the raging inferno that consumed and brought the upper parts of Buildings 19 and 51 down, yet to be rebuilt twice. You can still see the heavy metal stable hinges along the repeating brick arches of Buildings 9, 11, 13 and 17. There are numerous accounts of facility survivors, facilities today which are in excess of 160 years old.

If you can, go take a walk. Look closely at the silent brickwork, it still speaks loudly today because - "history matters".

Plan of the U.S. Navy Yard,Norfolk,Va.
showing conditions November 1860
Lull – History of the Gosport Navy Yard, 1874
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Friday, April 29, 2011

History Matters: Gosport, A Rare Written Firsthand Report – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins
, Code 1100, Blog #9 (written April 28, 2011)

The spoken word is yet temporary but the written word lives on.  Newspaper accounts while bare on feelings give relevant facts and depending upon what soil they were published always seemed to carry certain political overtones.  Hand written letters on the other hand describe things seen by the author and most times give certain personal insights and feelings.  Surviving letters penned by the very person involved in an historical event are indeed rare.  I have in my personal collection what I consider a gem – a hand written letter by a solider that states …”at about 6 o'clock p.m. we were marched aboard the Pawnee for a pleasure excursion to Norfolk Navy Yard”.

Below is the complete transcription of my letter which was recently featured in the Virginian Pilot’s series, Voices of the Civil War on April 10, 2011.

[Page 1]
Fort Monroe, Virginia, April 28, 1861
  Dear Sir:

As some of our boys promised to write you, and none of them have yet fulfilled their pledges, I thought I would spend a few moments in doing so. We all of us have so many correspondents that our letters are necessarily short and hurried and if critically examined would show many imperfections.

A snippit of the H. W. Poole letter written on April 28, 1861
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The Spalding landed us (the 3rd Regt.) at this fort about 11 o'clock a.m. Saturday the 20th, the 4th Regt. having been here 5 or 6 hours before we arrived. Our passage Friday being pretty rough, most of the men were suffering from the effects of sea sickness, but at about 6 o'clock p.m. we were marched aboard the Pawnee for a pleasure excursion to Norfolk Navy Yard. The Commodore of the Pawnee (Paulding) wished to take the 4th Regiment aboard as they had been ashore the longest and had had three rations served to them since landing, but Col. Packard objected saying his men were too tired. Hearing this Col. Wardrop exclaimed, "My G_d, my men can go!" and in reply to Com. Paulding's enquiry as to how much time was needed for preparation, he replied, "fifteen minutes." The

[Page 2] result of our going you have doubtless seen in the papers long since. The Navy Yard was completely ruined, the ships and their houses completely destroyed, their magnificent dry dock, costing millions of dollars, blown up, and an immense quantity of guns, pistols, cutlasses, powder, shells, etc., put where it can never be of any use. It was a good streak of luck for Government, as it would have all been seized the very next day by the Succession Army, if we had not used it up so completely and the very guns we spiked and the ammunition we spoiled would have been directed against Fort Monroe. Our Regiment was favored by not being attacked, for so many of us were nearly dead from the fatigues from a sea voyage that we could have made little resistance, and huddled as we were, nearly 400 of us volunteers, we should have been decidedly worse than nothing, as we would have stood in the way of the Marines who manned the vessel.

The Rebels appear to be busy making preparations to attack us, but nearly everybody in the Fort doubts their making any demonstration. We have command of the river by having the Man-of-War Cumberland stationed here. She is one of the vessels we took up in Norfolk and towed down and has already proved very serviceable to us. Last Thursday she fired into a tug which was towing out toward Norfolk a schooner, and the

[Page 3] shot taking effect upon her wheelhouse she was brought to, and we made prizes of the tug and schooner both. On bringing the schooner to the wharf she was found to be commanded by a sailor who only a short time since deserted from the Cumberland, and it is said he was hung by the Marines. The craft was completely loaded with all the munitions of war including guns, gun carriages, ammunition, provisions, etc., and proved to be quite a prize – the little tug has been pressed into Uncle Sam's service, and very useful she proves.

This Fort answers very well the description given of it in the Boston Post about the time we sailed. It is a beautiful place and the transition from the barren and snow-clad hills of New England to the luxuriance of spring as seen here is well worth a trip to see. Our parade ground is covered with green grass and the trees which border the walks are just leafing out. There is a capital Brass Band in the Fort and they give us every morning some of the best music I ever heard. So beautiful is the scene, that we can hardly realize that it is possible that all this loveliness may soon be a barren waste. One cannot truly imagine the change which the horrors of an actual war may cause to pass over the face of everything here. I hope we may not witness the sight, but I do believe that if compelled to fight, the 3rd will

[Page 4] give a good account of herself. I suppose there is an intense feeling in the North. Our Company have not had many letters, so all the news we get is from Baltimore papers, but even those represent a decision of purpose on the part of the North, and North West to stand by our "Father Abraham." We expect soon to have northern papers regularly, and they will seem nearly as good as a letter. I long to see some of the Boston dailies.

You must excuse the style, etc., of this letter as I don't have time to be very particular and to have to write just as it comes into my head.  I would be pleased to hear from you, at any time, and trusting you will overlook all errors.

Very respectfully yours,
H. W. Poole

Cyrus Thompson, Esq.

Address: H. W. Poole
Care Capt. Harlen
Co. A 3rd Reg.
Fort Monroe,

Think about what we have just read, 150 years ago (April 28, 1861) this communication was born; ink upon paper. 

Events are still fresh in this young man’s mind less than a week after he participates in the 2nd burn, evacuation and destruction of the Gosport Shipyard on the night of April 20, 1861.  He further continues to tell of the Cumberland’s actions the very next week, events never recorded by the news of the day.  Woe to that deserter from the captured schooner off Fort Monroe after the Cumberland fired into it, “and it is said he was hung by the Marines”.

While this simple four page letter was addressed to inform just one person, Cyrus Thompson of Boston pertaining to what the Massachusetts volunteer, H. W. Poole had just witnessed so far away in Virginia now fast forward to today.  Realize that 150 years later with a just a few simple computer clicks this message can now be accessed around the world.

The written word is important because - “history matters”.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

History Matters: Gosport, Union - Evacuation, Destruction & the 2nd Burning – 150 Years Ago

Code 1100, Blog #8 (written April 20, 2011)  By Marcus W. Robbins

The below paragraph is taken from the H. W. Burton’s 1877 book – The History of Norfolk Virginia.

On Saturday night, April 20th, 1861, the Gosport Navy-yard was evacuated by the U. S. Government troops.  General Taliaferro, commandant of the Virginia militia at this place, made a demand upon Commodore Macauley for a surrender of the Government property at the yard, which was refused – the Commodore assuring General T. that nothing would be removed and no vessel should leave the yard without due notice being given him.  This assurance quieted our people for a while; but in short time it was observed that the hands in the yard were engaged in “cutting down the shears, (which fell across the Germantown), scuttling the vessels, spiking the guns and destroying everything they could lay hands upon.”

150th anniversary of the 2nd burning of the shipyard at Gosport At the very beginning of the Civil War, the Gosport Navy Yard (now Norfolk Naval Shipyard) was of vital importance to controlling Hampton Roads. The shipyard commander directed Union forces to scuttle 11 vessels and set fire to the yard to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Confederates. Read more about the events that transformed Gosport’s landscape forever at NNSY’s Facebook page on the "History Matters" blog written by Marcus Robbins and learn about three of the buildings in this view which survived the fire and are still standing today.
The following provides summary as given in testimony to the select committee of the Senate appointed by resolution of the 25th of July, 1861, that was formed to inquire into the circumstances attending the destruction of the property of the United States at the Navy Yard at Norfolk.

On the 18th of April, Captain Paulding was sent to Norfolk with written instruction to take command of all the naval forces there afloat, to defend the property of the United States, repelling force by force, and, if necessary, to destroy the vessels and property there to prevent them from falling into the hands of the insurrectionists, or those would wrest them from the custody of the government.

He arrived at the navy yard at about 8 o’ clock in the evening of the 20th of April; he had at his command all the vessels of war belonging to the United States, and fully one thousand effective men, viz: one hundred marines, taken at Washington on board the “Pawnee” in which vessel he went to Norfolk, the crew of the “Pawnee” of one hundred men, Colonel Wardrop’s regiment of Massachusetts volunteers, consisting of three hundred and fifty men taken on board the “Pawnee” at Fortress Monroe, three hundred and fifty men on board the “Cumberland, “ and at least one hundred and fifty marines and sailors at the yard on the receiving ships.

Captain McCauley was highly censurable for neglecting to send the Merrimac from the yard as he was ordered, and also for scuttling the ships and preparing to abandon the yard before any attack was made or seriously threatened, when he should have defended it and the property instructed to him, repelling force by force, as he was instructed to do if the occasion should present itself.                                                                 

In quick fashion summary as many reams of paper have been written by others before me the following events transpired over the evening of April 20 and into the morning of April 21, 1861.  Gosport would now fall victim to the match for the second time. The flag would change from the Union stars and stripes to that of the state of Virginia by daylight of the 21st, all without a single shot being fired.

Crews of men were scatted upon the yard with the sole purpose to destroy anything of value to prevent it falling into the hands of the secessionist.  Machinery and supplies and the facilities protecting them were not ignored.  The mighty shear (the large crane to load cannon upon vessels) located between the ship houses, “A” & “B” had been cut down and fell across the Germantown earlier in the afternoon.  The ships in the stream were scuttled and began to sink in place. 

Guns were spiked, that is to say having rat tail files or nails driven into their touch-hole to render ineffective for a short time, unsuccessful attempts were also made to break trunnions with sledgehammers to render the vast number of cannon useless.  The great granite drydock was mined with enough powder to destroy everything in the southern end of the yard but the match failed somehow.  Trains of powder were laid upon the decks of the ships in the stream, the mighty ship houses and certain of the buildings on the yard in order to ignite the turpentine and cotton wastes carefully placed to insure that sheets of flames would reach up into the heavens once the order was given.

At 4 o’clock in the morning all was ready and the Pawnee slipped her mooring and took out the Cumberland in tow.  At twenty past four the concerted signal was given by a rocket from the Pawnee, the torch was applied simultaneously at many points and in a few minutes the ships and their buildings in the yard were wrapped in sheets of flames and explosion as ammunition from the heavy guns burst as the intensive inferno raged.  The countryside was illuminated for miles around, the roar of the flames must have been unbelievable as years of work and materials were consumed, useless for neither side now.

In the April edition of Norfolk Naval Shipyard’s monthly publication – Service to the Fleet I supplied a small snapshot of the interior view burn engraving featured below and gave the statement “learn about three of the buildings in this view which survived the fire and are still standing today”. 

The answer is - Buildings 3, 9 and 51 are all contained in the view shown below, they and many other north end facilities are survivors.   Facilities built to stand the test of time, not just mere stone and brick structures but a testament to the quality construction techniques of Gosport’s 19th century craftsman as these facilities continue to serve Norfolk and our modern Navy well into their second century because - “history matters”.

Harpers Weekly double fold engraving of MAY 11, 1861
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)