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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.
P
ennsylvania, Columbia, Raritan & United States,
also Steam Frigate Merrimac at Gosport.

(Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Room)