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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
DESTRUCTION OF UNITED STATESNAVY YARD AT NORFOLK VIRGINIA, BY FIRE, BY THE UNITED STATES TROOPS, ON APRIL 20, 1861.
&
DESTRUCTION OF THE UNITED STATES SHIPS AT THE NORFOLK NAVY YARD, BY ORDER OF THE GOVERNMENT.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)