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Friday, May 4, 2012

The 3rd Burn of Gosport – 150 Years Ago

 Blog #20. April 22, 2012 by Marcus Robbins

Setting the match to a waterfront industrial facility is a very efficient way to cease its productive war capacity. The shipyard at Gosport along the shore of the Elizabeth River has suffered three separate fires: first by the British on May 15, 1779, then by the Union forces on April 21, 1861, and finally by the Confederate forces on May 10, 1862.

War is like a chess match with tactical moves made by both sides and the end game vision of capture and victory. Once again as the premiere industrial ship building and repair facility of the south, Gosport and the Confederates are victims of a slow deliberate vice-like grip by the North, a hundred and fifty years ago.

In the weeks after the Battle of Hampton Roads during of March 1862, the Confederate forces continued to make the Gosport Navy Yard the heart of their industrial war machine. There was certain feeling of pride and victory in the streets of both Norfolk and Portsmouth. The craftsmen at Gosport worked upon CSS VIRGINIA in the drydock, then re-floated it stronger than ever. Several attempts of engagement were made over the next few weeks but the USS MONITOR kept a respectful distance, always staying close under the protective guns of Fortress Monroe.

As late April 1862 turned into May, the Confederate command soon realized that Norfolk would not be able to be saved as Burnside approached from the southern Outer Banks and McClellan occupied the northern side of the harbor. Railroad and river routes were being squeezed that connected both Norfolk and Portsmouth.

Gosport stood as the South's principle workshop for ship building and supporting the war effort by its foundry and valuable machinery. The loss of such an industrial base would surely hamper the southern cause.
Under direction by a visit to Gosport in early May, 1862, Secretary Mallory of the Confederate States Navy arrived in Portsmouth and informed Captain S.S. Lee, commanding the Navy Yard from March 24, 1862, that it was the intention of the Government to abandon the city.

Steps were being taken to remove all rolling stock, munitions and other items of military value. Preparations were made also to evacuate and render useless the Navy Yard. Vessels were sent to Richmond under cover of the darkness on the following nights and what could not be towed was destroyed at the pier side.

Options were weighed for saving the VIRGINIA including the unsuccessful effort to lighten her and sail up the James River to protect Richmond. The doomed VIRGINIA also was destroyed off of Craney Island. Covered with tar, oil, fat and grease the crew was sent ashore before the ship was set afire, exploded then ceased to exist.

On Saturday morning May 10, 1862, General John E. Wool under the direction of President Lincoln's visit to the Rip Raps from the prior day, landed 6,000 troops for a march upon Norfolk, landing at what today is Ocean View beach. Norfolk's Mayor William W. Lamb went out to the outer northern limits of the city for what would become the peaceful surrender of Norfolk without a shot being fired. In the end, all of the Confederate defenses that were erected around the harbor with much care and labor supporting heavy guns were abandoned without a struggle and in such haste that no effort was made to remove the guns.

As the Federal forces occupied Norfolk and Mayor Lamb stalled for as long as he could, the Confederates were setting fire to the Gosport Navy Yard for a third time in its history and the second time within 13 months. Destruction again was wrought upon the finest shipbuilding facility in the country, this time by the retreating Southern forces. The drydock was mined again but without total damage. Gosport's fine buildings were torched and remaining ships and machinery were destroyed.

A first hand account letter survives written by a Union solider on May 15, 1862, from within the walls of Gosport and he states:

"I was saying that the Sucesh had not destroyed anything but I was mistaken for I never saw such destruction of property as there is here at the Navy Yard and all the machinery is burned. There were some of the largest and nicest brick buildings I ever saw. Uncle Sams property is burnt. Most of the private property is saved, most all the folks are here yet. There is still some fire here yet."

Looking North with current building 705 seen in center

At the Norfolk Naval Shipyard today, some of these very buildings provide service to the Navy, continuing as a testament to the strength of which they were built some 175 years ago. If one knows where to look, the buildings still show the effects of both war and fire. Gosport has always been known as having facilities worth fighting for, because - "history matters".

Union capture of cannon, circa 1862 along western boundary wall.

Looking from north of the drydock, ex-Building 18 in the view, circa 1864 photo.

Horseshoe recovered from Civil War era stables beside south-western boundary wall.

Actual letter written from Gosport May 15, 1862

Drydock, Machine Shop and Foundry, May 1862.

Rotten Row, off of the drydock showing burnt ruins of DELAWARE & COLUMBUS.

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