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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Gosport, Before the Powder Exploded – 150 Years Ago

Blog #4. March 18, 2011.

The following will be the first in a series of posts ...

In 1861 the Gosport Navy Yard (GNY) was the premier Naval Station for Uncle Sam here along the banks of the Elizabeth River, but in March of 1861 the winds blew with an uneasiness that the images below can not capture. Ultimately, on April 21, 1861, things were about to drastically change the very landscape we work at today, but I will save that till next month to tell.

Plan of the Harbor (Partial Section) of Norfolk and Portsmouth
by Chas. E. Cassell, March 1, 1861.
(Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Room)

On February 18th, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated at Montgomery, Alabama, as President of the Confederate States of America. On March 4th, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President of the United States. The atmosphere hung heavy with the dark clouds of a civil war coming on. Newsprint of the time was full of speculation of Mr. Lincoln’s recent call for arming of troops. Likewise the South began to establish a formal military structure. Sides were being drawn and soon talk of secession was in the air throughout the South. With the April 12, 1861, action at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the die was cast for the ultimate direction that Virginia would take: succeeding from the Union on April 17th, 1861.

But now back to life at GNY before the late unpleasantness –

I want to paint a mental image for you what Gosport was like and will cover our canvas with a collection of statements contained in 36th Congress, 1st Session, House of Representatives, Document Number 34 of March 2, 1860, that was really an investigation report on all the Navy Yard conditions at the time. Also, with a look back using 37th Congress, Senate, Document Number 37 of April 18, 1862, that provides colorful background before the destruction of Gosport, this document frames an accurate written account of the physical shipyard appearance and shipbuilding infrastructure leading up to the raging inferno yet to come.

Upon the date of the visit of June 20, 1859, in the first mentioned document the following lead statement was made that reads in part, "It is the largest and most important yard in the United States" . . . Later within this document is found "The general appearance of the yard is good, and the buildings in pretty good order, with the exception of the ship-houses”. Writer’s note -- the large ship-house structures you see in the below engraving were erected in 1820 overtop of the stone building ways, so being constructed entirely of wood and with dirt floors, forty years later they must have been a sight to see. It is at this location, just north of the iconic Hammerhead Crane today we have a large parking lot. So just under our feet remain the granite ruins of both ship-houses "A"& "B".


Gosport - The Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia.
Harper's Weekly, March 16, 1861.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Found within the Senate review, a detailed narrative of Gosport is given. "This yard was one of the oldest naval depots in the country, and since its original establishment had been very much enlarged in area. At the time of its abandonment, on 20th of April, 1861, it was about three-fourths of a mile long and one-fourth of a mile wide, being by far the most extensive and valuable yard in the possession of the United States.

There was connected with it a dry dock of granite like the Charlestown dry dock. The yard was covered with machine shops, dwelling-houses for officers, and storehouses of various kinds. There were in it two ship-houses entire and another in progress of erection, marine barracks, sail loft, riggers' loft, gunners' loft, numerous smith shops and sheds, carpenters' shops and sheds, machine shops, timber sheds, foundries, dispensary, saw-mill, boiler shop, burnetizing-house, spar-house, provision-house, numerous dwellings, and a large amount of tools and machinery. There were also great quantities of material, provisions, and ammunition of every description".

All of this was about to change, Gosport Navy Yard would never be the same because – "history matters".

Stay tuned .....