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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)