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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Looking Back at the 2nd Burn of the Navy Yard ~ 153 Years Ago Today

Blog #30. April 21, 2014 By Marcus W. Robbins

 If you are a regular reader of this blog you no doubt followed the progression and build-up to not only the 2nd burn of the Gosport Navy Yard on April 21, 1861 by the Union forces but the instant industrial base of ship building and repair operations gained by the Confederates.

All without a single shot being fired yet for the decisions ultimately made by Shipyard Commander Charles S. McCauley to torch the yard and destroy the remaining ships over the night of April 20 and into the daylight of April 21, 1861 influences directly the duration of the Civil War.

These events were covered in great detail beginning with my “History Matters” Blog #4 written on March 4, 2011 and progressing in a specific cadence of what was transpiring exactly 150 years ago and concluding with my “History Matters” Blog #10 written on June 22, 2011.

These specific blogs as well as the other historical events leading up to the Battle of Hampton Roads and then 3rd burn of the Gosport Navy Yard may be found upon my main website under the “History Matters” link found here:

As to pay respect to the memory of what happened 153 years ago I have blended excerpts from some of my prior blog passages mentioned above to give a concise summary for the reader of the 2nd burn of the Gosport Navy Yard.  It is my hope that today’s visitors walking around the surviving structures and the very grounds that were once covered with ash would gain an appreciation of how historic an event this was thus I share the below:

In order to really appreciate our shore based history today I want to now share of what buildings and facilities were in place before our shipyard suffered it’s second of three major fires, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the inferno.  Gosport would soon become a smoldering victim of the match under the Union force’s evacuation on April 21, 1861.

Wood by its very nature is temporary, thus buildings become wounded by decay or completing their circle of life in a few decades are in time replaced by other structures.  Brick, a more permanent and lasting material is generally found devoted to more important structures depending on the application and can under the right conditions mark their age by a century or more.  Any building can be damaged by the external forces of nature - rain, wind and flood such as are found on the shores of the Elizabeth yet nothing is completely safe from FIRE.
Towering along the waterfront were the massive ship houses “A” and “B” of which there are no known photographs, but are shown in their pre-destruction service in an 1861 engraving contained in my prior blog.  Soon they were also wrapped in flames that were seen for miles, marking a new chapter in Gosport’s rich story.

Harpers Pictorial History of the Civil War pages 94 & 95
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins) 

Officer quarters provided the Shipyard Commander and other Navy Yard Officers a place of private residence on station.  Quarters - A, B, C, D & E were all constructed in the 1830’s.  For untold reasons lost to time neither side in 1861 or 1862 set fire to these grand architectural structures of which we can be thankful for today.

In 1851 was constructed a grand entrance gate flanked by an imposing set of wings, along the northern face of the yard.  Today we know this area as Buildings 19 and 51, and the main formal center structure survived till the outbreak of World War 1 to later become what we know as Gate 3.  Take time, walk Lincoln Street and observe the effects of fire damage to the upper brickwork as the wood roofs burnt off each of these buildings.

The below paragraph is taken from the H. W. Burton’s 1877 book – The History of Norfolk Virginia.

On Saturday night, April 20th, 1861, the Gosport Navy-yard was evacuated by the U. S. Government troops.  General Taliaferro, commandant of the Virginia militia at this place, made a demand upon Commodore MaCauley for a surrender of the Government property at the yard, which was refused – the Commodore assuring General T. that nothing would be removed and no vessel should leave the yard without due notice being given him.  This assurance quieted our people for a while; but in short time it was observed that the hands in the yard were engaged in “cutting down the shears, (which fell across the Germantown), scuttling the vessels, spiking the guns and destroying everything they could lay hands upon.

The following provides summary as given in testimony to the select committee of the Senate appointed by resolution of the 25th of July, 1861, that was formed to inquire into the circumstances attending the destruction of the property of the United States at the Navy Yard at Norfolk.

On the 18th of April, Captain Paulding was sent to Norfolk with written instruction to take command of all the naval forces there afloat, to defend the property of the United States, repelling force by force, and, if necessary, to destroy the vessels and property there to prevent them from falling into the hands of the insurrectionists, or those would wrest them from the custody of the government. He arrived at the navy yard at about 8 o’ clock in the evening of the 20th of April; he had at his command all the vessels of war belonging to the United States, and fully one thousand effective men, viz: one hundred marines, taken at Washington on board the “Pawnee” in which vessel he went to Norfolk, the crew of the “Pawnee” of one hundred men, Colonel Wardrop’s regiment of Massachusetts volunteers, consisting of three hundred and fifty men taken on board the “Pawnee” at Fortress Monroe, three hundred and fifty men on board the “Cumberland, “ and at least one hundred and fifty marines and sailors at the yard on the receiving ships.

Captain McCauley was highly censurable for neglecting to send the Merrimac from the yard as he was ordered, and also for scuttling the ships and preparing to abandon the yard before any attack was made or seriously threatened, when he should have defended it and the property instructed to him, repelling force by force, as he was instructed to do if the occasion should present itself.

A summary of the vessels at Gosport is provided here:

There were at the Navy Yard at that time, the sloop-of-war Cumberland, 22 guns, in commission, with a full complement of officers and men on board; the sloops-of-war Plymouth, 22 guns, and Germantown, 22 guns, and the brig Dolphin, 6 guns, almost ready for sea; the steam frigate Merrimac, 40 guns, almost ready for sea and undergoing repairs; the line of battleship Pennsylvania, 120 guns, in commission as a receiving ship, with considerable crew on board, and the 74-gun ships Delaware and Columbus, and the frigates Raritan, Columbia and United States, dismantled and in ordinary.  The force of sailors and marines on the various vessels and at the Navy Yard was probably about 600, well-armed and abundantly supplied with ammunition.  The Plymouth, Germantown, Dolphin and Merrimac were lying alongside the wharves and men working on them.  The Delaware and Columbus were at a wharf at the southern end of the yard, and might have been considered in “Rotten Row” a term applied to vessels for which the Government no longer has any use.

In closing, many reams of paper have been written by others before me of the events that transpired over the evening of April 20 and into the morning of April 21, 1861.  Gosport would now fall victim to the match for the second time.  The flag would change from the Union stars and stripes to that of the state of Virginia by daylight of the 21st, all without a single shot being fired because –“history matters”.

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