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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

History Matters: Gosport's Drydock & Planning of CSS Virginia – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #14 (written August 21, 2011)

Along the southern branch of the Elizabeth River our stone dock still remains in service today, a testament to its excellent construction that began in 1827.  As I wrote in earlier blogs, Gosport had one of a kind ship building and repair facilities, facilities worth fighting for.    

Gosport's industrial base was the best in the nation.  Without a single shot being fired the Confederates find themselves with an instant naval establishment in summer of 1861.

Gosport's much under-stated value to the fledgling Southern Navy was the capacity to work on a ship in drydock.  Our stone dock gained fame with the first ever dry-docking in the northern hemisphere by receiving the 74 gun Ship of the Line DELAWARE on June 17, 1833 but conditions are so radically different in June of 1861.  A short 28 years later, the muddy burnt hulk of ex-MERRIMAC begins a re-birth into what eventually shall become the CSS VIRGINIA in this same stone dock.

The dock remains in service today looking much like the photos shown below that were taken in the early 1930's, over 75 years ago.  More importantly for the South, this dock looked the same 150 years ago. 

The following information is from John W. H. Porter's History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published in 1892. Mr. Mallory, Secretary of the Confederate States Navy, called the attention of the House Committee on Naval Affairs to the subject of iron-clads before the seat of government was removed from Montgomery to Richmond.

On the 22d of June, 1861 Naval Constructor Porter received orders to report to the Navy Department at Richmond.  The orders did not state the object for which he was to report but he took advantage of the occasion to carry his model to Richmond for the purpose of submitting it to the Secretary.  The Secretary immediately ordered a board consisting of Mr. Porter, Chief Engineer Williamson and Lieutenant Brooke to consider it.  Messers. Williamson and Brooke were at that time in Richmond.

NAVY DEPARTMENT
RICHMOND VIRGINIA.,
June 25th, 1861

Sir –
     In obedience to your order we have carefully examined and considered the various plans and propositions for constructing a shoot proof steam battery, and respectfully report that, in our opinion, the steam frigate Merrimac, which is in such condition from the effects of fire as to be useless for any other purpose without incurring a heavy expense in her rebuilding, can be made an efficient vessel of that character, mounting ten heavy guns; two pivot guns, and eight broadside guns of her original battery, and for further consideration we, that we cannot procure a suitable engine and boilers for any other vessel without building them, which would occupy too much time, is would appear that this is our only chance to get a suitable vessel in a short time. 
     The bottom of the hull, boilers and heavy costly parts of the engine, being little injured, reduce the cost of construction to about one-third the amount which would be required to construct such a vessel anew.  We cannot, without further examination, make an accurate estimate of the cost of the projected work, but think it will be about one hundred and ten thousand dollars, the most of which will be for labor, the materials being nearly all on hand in the yard, except the iron plating to cover the shield.  The plan to be adopted in the arrangement of her shield for glancing shots, mounting guns, arranging the hull and plating, to be in accordance with the plans submitted for approval of the department.

[signed]
Wm. P. Williamson, Cheif Engineer
John M. Brooke, Lieutenant
John L. Porter, Naval Constructor

Gosport's drydock was about to become the heart of the Confederate Navy's industrial machine and the task of transformation now rested with the Naval Constructor,  Portsmouth's own, John L. Porter, because - "history matters".


Drydock 1 Length (looking east, showing ship keel blocking) circa 1930's
Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Room

Drydock 1 Headwall circa 1930's
Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Room