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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gosport Shipyard – U. S. Navy Yard, Norfolk ~ First Accomplishments (1794-1862)

Blog #22. November 11, 2012 by Marcus W. Robbins

On November 1, 2012 as promised I stated that we would soon revisit some of the "first accomplishments" of our shipyard in celebration of its 245th birthday.  This blog will look at several up until the 1860's time period; there will always be future blogs to continue tracing our many historic roots forward.  Please enjoy looking back and take pride of these major naval events that took place on the shores of the southern Elizabeth River:


The frigate Chesapeake can trace its history to 27 March, 1794 when Congress passed "An Act to Provide Naval Armament".  Six frigates were built; United States, Constellation, Constitution, President, Congress and Chesapeake. Also known as frigate "D" the keel was laid on 30 April 1798 then launched on 2 December 1799 with formal commission on 22 May 1800.  The Chesapeake was built near the site of the present day Building 74 in the historic north end of the shipyard.  It is always interesting to reflect back on the importance of Gosport's physical location for the construction of wooden ships from the day of sawpits to the rigging of sail.  In 1794 the state of Virginia leased this riverfront property to the young United States government, the same formerly belonging to the British agent Andrew Sprowle due to its superior location.  Chesapeake will always be remembered as one of President George Washington's first six frigates and namesake of a local Virginia city.

USS Chesapeake (Naval History & Heritage Command image NH 59556-KN)


Following the War of 1812 Gosport expanded its shipbuilding capacity in not only physical size of the yard but also in the class of war ships it would be capable of constructing.  Delaware had its keel laid in August of 1817 and was launched 21 October 1820 again near the present day site of Building 74 in the historic north end of the shipyard.  What made Delaware unique is the sheer size of the vessel, being rated as a "74 gun ship of the line", it was the largest ship to that date constructed at Gosport.  Also as a result of "An Act for the Gradual Improvement of the Navy of the United States", passed by Congress, 3 March 1827 there was constructed at Gosport one of two drydocks in the United States, the other being at Boston.  Begun in 1827 and finally completed in 1834 the dock at Norfolk is still in use today with only the cassion being repaired or replaced as required.  Before the drydock was formally completed it was christened on 17 June 1833 by USS DELAWARE, the first vessel to be dry docked in the northern hemisphere.

USS Delaware entering Gosport stone drydock, 17 June 1833 (traditional image)


The steam frigate Merrimac, 40 guns, which had been under repair at the yard was burnt to the waterline and sunk on 21 April 1861 by Union forces that abandoned Gosport attempting to destroy valuable warships and industrial shops.  While somewhat successful the effort was not complete.  Confederate forces gained control of Gosport as their own and were successful in converting Merrimac into the CSS Virginia by the spring of 1862.  Virginia went on to make history at the Battle of Hampton Roads on 8 March 1862 by sinking USS Cumberland and burning USS Congress then engaging in the first ironclad vs. ironclad with USS Monitor on 9 March 1862 resulting in a draw; thus forever changing naval warfare making obsolete wooden ships under the power of sail.

USS Merrimac burning at Gosport 21 April 1862 (circa 1905 postcard courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

CSS Virginia conversion at Gosport (circa 1880's steel engraving image courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Battle of Ironclads, March 9 1862 (circa 1905 postcard courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The site of the modern Norfolk Naval Shipyard has been the home to so many "first accomplishments" it is impossible to consolidate them all in a single blog.  Over the next few months please check back as we examine the neglect of Gosport regarding post Civil War reconstruction, the eventual expansion supporting the age of steel and steam in the 1880's then the departure of the Great White Fleet, which would only get us up to 1907!  There can be much also written about the unique German Village we hosted in 1915, Norfolk's contributions to the birth naval aviation, vast expansion due to World War I, the battleship modernization program of the late 1920's, the great depression, our awesome industrial output and physical growth during World War II with over 43,000 employees and forward into the 21st century supporting the nuclear navy because – “history matters”.

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