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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

History Matters: Naval Constructor, John L. Porter – 150 Years Ago

By Marcus W. Robbins, Code 1100, Blog #15 (written September 03, 2011)

Portsmouth's lifeblood has revolved around its location along the Elizabeth River here in eastern Virginia thus ship building and ship repair is interwoven into the very fabric of this community.  Gosport's success as the premier shipyard of the United States as the calendar turned into mid-1861 owed credit not only to its unencumbered location in which shipbuilding materials could get to the yard efficiently, by sea, road or rail but the abundance of a large local skilled labor workforce.

The Gosport shipyard could accomplish the most difficult tasks of supporting the young United States Navy.

In overview, one need to also appreciate that modern technology supporting the most advanced tasks of  today's shipbuilding and repair did not exist 150 years ago.  Today tasks are calculated by computer and fabricated by robot-like machinery with such quickness, programmed by people who may have never stepped foot upon a ship, but this was not always the case.  Consider that in the days of sail and steam everything was drafted longhand with exacting mathematical calculation and practical naval architectural knowledge by the very most experienced master shipbuilder.  Afterward, these rigorous ship building tasks were then commissioned to be preformed by the yard's labor and craftsmen along the Gosport's waterfront.

In summary, for a successful project one needed an experienced master shipbuilder.  In the summer of 1861 for the South that person came in the form of a local Portsmouth born son, John L. Porter, Naval Constructor.

Who exactly was John Luke Porter?  The Naval Historical Center provides this brief summary:

John L. Porter, whose father was a shipwright at Portsmouth, Virginia, was born in 1813. He became a Navy civilian employee during the 1840s and a Naval Constructor in 1859. After resigning from the U.S. Navy in May 1861, he began working for the Confederate Navy at the Gosport (Norfolk) Navy Yard, at Portsmouth. He played an important role in the conversion of the scuttled and burned steam frigate Merrimack to an ironclad, which became CSS Virginia when commissioned in February 1862.
   After the Confederates abandoned the Norfolk area in May 1862, Porter became a Naval Constructor at Richmond and later at Wilmington, North Carolina. He was promoted to Chief Naval Constructor in January 1864 and served in that capacity to the end of the Civil War, designing many of the South's domestically-built warships. Following the conflict, Porter worked in civilian shipbuilding, industry and ferry operations. He died on 14 December 1893.This page features our only pictures of Chief Naval Constructor John L. Porter, CSN.

An insight to how busy John L. Porter was at Gosport is found within his testimony recorded in the Official Records from the Confederate Congressional Investigation of the Navy Department; a portion of Tuesday, March 3, 1863 details the following:

   "We were altering the Merrimack and were fitting out a number of gunboats out of steamers that were brought for the North Carolina service.  We were building other ironclad vessels and three wooden gunboats.  Two of the wooden boats are in the river and one we burned at the evacuation of Norfolk.  We were doing a great deal of work for the defenses around Norfolk in the way of arms, as a matter of convenience for the batteries, fortifications, etc
   "My duties have been various.  I had charge of the operations at the Norfolk Navy Yard up to the time of the evacuation.  I made all the drawings, nearly, for the gunboats that have been built in different places.  Since the evacuation I have been on duty here at Richmond, carrying on in the yard at Rocketts.  I also made a great many plans for the Secretary of the Navy".

The Naval Historical Center article references a half-tone line image from 1907 thus no real photos may be in existence of John L. Porter.  The Portsmouth Naval Museum located in Portsmouth Virginia has within their collection an undated vintage oil painting by Doris Porter McLean that depicts this same image, in color.  (Continues Below)

Naval Constructor John L. Porter CSN
Photo # NH47207
(Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command)

John L. Porter Oil Painting
Courtesy of Portsmouth Naval Museum
(photo by Marcus W. Robbins)


John L. Porter Historic Marker
High Street, Portsmouth Virginia
(photo by Marcus W. Robbins)

 I invite you to stroll outside of the museum at the foot of High Street then find within a short distance of the Elizabeth River, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources roadside marker erected in 1997.  This large metal plaque gives honor to Portsmouth's own, John L. Porter (19 September 1813 ~ 14 December 1893).

If one looks beyond the roadside marker you view along the Elizabeth River shoreline the gray hull of a modern United States warship undergoing repairs. From this same vantage point almost 150 years ago you would have been able to see Mr. Porter's creation, the Confederate States Ship, CSS VIRGINIA sailing down river about to make naval history in March of 1862 because - "history matters".

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