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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)

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Gosport, Suspense & the Ships in the Stream – 150 Years Ago

Blog #7. April 18, 2011. Written by Marcus Robbins

As the morning of April 18, 1861, dawned 150 years ago today, Virginia had the day before voted for succession from the Union. The storm clouds of uncertainly cast upon the local population of what was to come next was like that of a great massive thunderstorm building and you know it is going to rain and rain hard. The suspense is in that you don’t know exactly when the first bolt of lighting will strike.

The Gosport Navy Yard existed for the purpose of constructing and repairing ships of the United States Navy, but now, what was to become of this the most important of all the naval stations? It now finds itself on the soil of a state that has voted to withdraw from the Union.

As a steady place of employment and a provider of commerce for the communities of Gosport, Portsmouth and Norfolk, the Navy Yard became central to events both within its walls, along its waterfront and in the surrounding communities. The work force and officers had a choice to make and make soon. Commander Charles S. McCauley had about 800 mechanics and laborers. "In the beginning most of them appeared to be loyal, but none of them at the end, after the State of Virginia had gone out of the Union."

The official Senate investigations held in November 1861 affords a glimpse back on certain events as all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place leading to Gosport’s demise. Actions were being taken to sink lighter boats full of stone in the narrows of the channel beyond Fort Norfolk as a means to keep the Gosport fleet from leaving to the safety of Fortress Monroe. There were also reports of batteries being thrown up under the heavy pine woods on the St. Helena side of the river and near Craney Island.

The powder magazine at Fort Norfolk had been recently taken, the night air was thick with the sounds of train whistles and a force of insurgents reported to be between two and three thousand strong arriving from Richmond and Petersburg and other places in the vicinity of Norfolk. Some events were real, some a clever ruse to fool, which worked well. The trains were but empty cars circulated over and over, with local citizens making great noises upon arrival and creating the impression of a massive gathering of secessionist troops arriving by the train load.

McCauley was dependant on getting his information from messengers he sent from the yard to obtain the mail and from officers who went out into Norfolk and Portsmouth to obtain a feeling of what was happening beyond the walls of the Navy Yard. He later states in official testimony "… from messengers and other sources which at the time I deemed perfectly reliable. I do not know that these messengers were disloyal; their statements were corroborated from other sources".

McCauley also received naval visitors, dispatched under official orders from Washington to effect repairs on Merrimac along with written communication from the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles to "… impose additional vigilance and care in protecting the public property under your charge, and placing the vessels and stores, if necessary, beyond jeopardy". In closing his April 16 letter Welles states. "The vessels and stores under your charge you will defend at any hazard, repelling by force if necessary, any and all attempts to seize them, whether by mob violence, organized effort, or any assumed authority."

There were at the Navy Yard at that time, the sloop-of-war Cumberland, 22 guns, in commission, with a full complement of officers and men on board; the sloops-of-war Plymouth, 22 guns, and Germantown, 22 guns, and the brig Dolphin, 6 guns, almost ready for sea; the steam frigate Merrimac, 40 guns, almost ready for sea and undergoing repairs; the line of battleship Pennsylvania, 120 guns, in commission as a receiving ship, with considerable crew on board, and the 74-gun ships Delaware and Columbus, and the frigates Raritan, Columbia and United States, dismantled and in ordinary.

The force of sailors and marines on the various vessels and at the Navy Yard was probably about 600, well armed and abundantly supplied with ammunition. The Plymouth, Germantown, Dolphin and Merrimac were lying alongside the wharves and men working on them. The Delaware and Columbus were at a wharf at the southern end of the yard, and might have been considered in "Rotten Row" a term applied to vessels for which the Government no longer has any use.

The above paragraph taken from John W. H. Porter’s 1892 book History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 gives a fitting description of the ships in the stream as it perfectly describes the pre-fire setting at Gosport because - "history matters".

Harpers Weekly engraving of April 6, 1861.
ennsylvania, Columbia, Raritan & United States,
also Steam Frigate Merrimac at Gosport.

(Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Room)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Gosport, Facilities Worth Fighting For – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #6 (written April 9, 2011)

In 1861 sides had been drawn, the great Civil War conflict began in South Carolina at Fort Sumter on April 12.  Virginia voted for succession from the Union on April 17 and as they say – “the rest is history”.

If the events of the afternoon of April 20 and well into the night had not happened here at Gosport like they did with the Union’s self inflicted burning of the shipyard and scuttling of 11 vessels to avoid falling into the hands of the secessionist the entire timeline of the Civil War would have been altered. 

The events at Gosport influenced the outcome of the Civil War!  Amazingly Gosport was lost without a single shot being fired, only lost by the flame of the Union’s lit match.

Gosport’s flag changed from that of the United States Union to the rebel flag of Virginia flying over the smoldering devastation by sunrise on April 21 1861, a day that marked the birth for the infant confederate shipbuilding industry. 

 Captain Robert Pegram was immediately ordered by Virginia’s Governor Letcher as Commandant of Gosport pending the arrival of Captain French Forrest on April 22, both men now representing the newly formed Virginia State Navy, VSN.  They had both recently resigned their commissions in the U.S. Navy.  Later each would become commissioned in the Confederate States Navy, CSN and by July 1, 1861 the Confederates States flag was hoisted over Gosport.  

No other location in the newly formed Confederate States provided a ready made industrial base like Gosport.   As discussed in my last blog the great stone drydock, the immense ship houses built upon massive granite stone inclined ship ways, the brick stores, supply houses, stables and shops of all sorts were aligned in a grid fashion to both the north and south sides of a great deep water timber basin. 

Travel the historic north end of today’s shipyard as detailed in the my last blog to observe those same surviving structures as we continue to occupy and operate supporting our modern 21st century Navy from their solid brick and stone cores.  Gosport was built to transcend time by the quality craftsmanship given to these same facilities from the early to mid 19th century.

Why was Gosport important?  That answer is surprisingly short and can be summed up in one word – facilities. 

Facilities worth fighting for--yet the South was handed such a prize without bloodshed that enabled them to send powder, ammunition and cannon west to the Mississippi River and into the deep south along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean shorelines in order to supply fortifications supporting campaigns in the long years to follow.

Give pause and reflect that Gosport’s loss indeed influenced if nothing else the duration of the Civil War.

Gosport also had strategic advantages of a protected harbor, nearby railroad services, a center of commerce with the established towns of both Norfolk and Portsmouth that also provided an immediate and skilled workforce.   Both worker and officer loyalty and the way that Commander McCauley dealt with same will be explored later.

This blog installment concludes the land based naval configuration of Gosport.  The 1860 conditions map I presented last gives an overall appreciation of the immense industrial base that Gosport represented at the outbreak of hostilities.  Also now please observe an attached small section of an 1857 Norfolk Harbor map by the U.S. Coast Survey Office.  While this map is not all inclusive showing the entire of Gosport’s facilities it provides a transition to where we will explore next, the waterfront.

The very name of our establishment – Gosport Navy Yard begs now to explore the “Navy” side.   What ships were in the stream?  To the edge of the quay wall and looking out into the southern branch of the Elizabeth we will venture next because - “history matters”.

Norfolk Harbor Map – 1857 (partial section)
U. S. Coast Survey Office
(courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)