By Marcus Robbins, Blog #10. June 22, 2011.
I have taken a little break after writing so much leading up to the 2nd burning of the shipyard on April 21, 1861, and in this space of time did some research on what exactly the North so readily handed the newly formed Confederate States.
It proved to be a gift for the southern cause as not a shot was fired by them in attack as the yard was abandoned and attempted to be destroyed by the northern United States forces, but by the very fact the destruction was so incomplete the functions of Gosport’s industrial plant continued on immediately, just under another flag at the very next sunrise.
Instantly the secessionist gained an industrial base and as shall be discussed in later blogs, also a huge gift with the sunken and burned hulk of USS MERRIMAC in time to be raised and transformed into the CSS VIRGINIA.
In future months we shall explore details of the progress of that work. But, in brief reflection of this gift that changed naval warfare forever, please take note that today you can still stand right at the edge of what we call Berth 2, at the very location where USS MERRIMAC was scuttled and burned along the Elizabeth River.
Take a short trip south down the modern waterfront and you can view the very drydock, our Drydock 1, where the conversion takes place into CSS VIRGINIA and of where she sails out early in March of 1862 to meet the northern ironclad MONITOR. It is also in this very dock her hulk is finally broken up after being removed as a navigation hazard off of Craney Island in 1876. Our drydock continues in service to this day. It also became a gift 150 years ago, as the Union unsuccessfully attempted to explode with kegs of black powder.
After Gosport is lost, the 37th Congress, 2nd Session, appoints a select committee to inquire on the destruction of the navy yard at Norfolk. I have a full original 1862 copy in my personal collection of these proceedings. What interesting reading! The following is a representative snapshot of these hearings that lends insight for us of what happened after the flames went out. Being questioned is Mr. Mifflin Pyle, age 24 years old, a boilermaker by trade, who witnessed the entire destruction, but I will only focus on the facilities portion:
Question. How much of the government property at the yard was destroyed on the night of 20th of April, and how much was left undestroyed?
Answer. The two ship-houses, the marine barracks, the sail loft, the rigging loft, the ordnance loft, the offices connected with that building, the ships "Pennsylvania," "Raritan," "Columbia," "Dolphin," "Germantown," "Plymouth," and "Merrimack," were destroyed, and all the guns were spiked. The ordinance department and the ordinance, the machinery department and the tools, the blacksmith's shop, carpenter's shop, boiler shop, provision houses and provisions, commandant's and other officers' dwellings, timber sheds, & c., were uninjured.
When this testimony is compared to Plate 2, a map of Gosport in 1860, it becomes very apparent that Commander McCauley did not have the resources to destroy the entire navy yard. While most of the ships and both of the grand ship houses "A"and "B" were consumed totally by the unforgiving inferno of the match, other of our brick buildings survived uninjured.
If you look close enough from Lincoln Street, you can see the effects of the raging inferno that consumed and brought the upper parts of Buildings 19 and 51 down, yet to be rebuilt twice. You can still see the heavy metal stable hinges along the repeating brick arches of Buildings 9, 11, 13 and 17. There are numerous accounts of facility survivors, facilities today which are in excess of 160 years old.
If you can, go take a walk. Look closely at the silent brickwork, it still speaks loudly today because - "history matters".
Plan of the U.S. Navy Yard,Norfolk,Va.
showing conditions November 1860
Lull – History of the Gosport Navy Yard, 1874
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)