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The Fires Of Norfolk

July 2024
26min read

At war’s outbreak a frightened commander was ready to give away the Union’s greatest navy yard

The calamity was already full blown when Abraham Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861. South Carolina had left the Union three months back, and six states had followed her out. By early February a secessionist congress had convened in Montgomery, Alabama, declared a provisional government, and voted Jefferson Davis president of the Confederate States of America. Lincoln was facing the gravest presidential crisis in the nation’s history: the collapse of the Republic.

At the moment there was hardly anything Lincoln could do to prevent it. The United States Army in the spring of 1861 was a tiny organization of some 16,000 regulars in dusty, isolated posts cast along the Western frontier and behind the ramparts of coastal forts; 322 of its 1,108 officers had already resigned their commissions and decamped 58 south. The concentration of even one mixed brigade for immediate service against the Rebels was impossible.

The situation afloat was equally daunting, as was quickly discovered by the unlikely new Secretary of the Navy. The fussy, long-bearded, bewigged former postmaster and newspaper editor Gideon Welles had arrived in Washington expecting the portfolio of Postmaster General. Instead Lincoln gave the man he came to call Father Neptune the Navy, and an excellent appointment it proved.

When Welles ran down the Navy list, he counted an eclectic assortment of ninety wooden ships, forty of which were fairly modern steamers, equal, if not superior, to any man-of-war afloat. But the numbers were deceptive. Fully half the fleet, including its five newest, most powerful steam frigates, was out of commission—“in ordinary”—or ludicrously obsolete and unfit for service. The remainder cruised the globe in their overseas squadrons, leaving only four active vessels in home waters on the day of Lincoln’s inauguration.

The yard’s commander was a Unionist; his officers were for secession.

The mixture of personnel numbered a top-heavy 1,457 line and staff officers and 7,600 bluejackets (plus about 1,400 Marines). With the defection of the Southern states, 259 officers tendered their resignations, which Welles refused to accept, opting instead to dismiss them from the naval service.

The navy yards were sinkholes of political corruption. Civilian workers received their jobs on the basis of party affiliation and were routinely assessed “contributions” by the district congressmen. When a new presidential administration took office, the wholesale replacement of the yard work forces inevitably followed. Lincoln, moving cautiously, temporarily halted the practice. Not wishing to antagonize wavering slave states, especially Virginia, whose Norfolk yard was the Navy’s largest, he ordered Welles to refrain “from all unnecessary exercise of political party authority.” It proved, at least in March 1861, a grave error; the nearly one thousand civilian workers at the Norfolk Navy Yard remained Democratic in politics and Southern in sympathy.

The three-quarter-mile-long yard actually lay opposite Norfolk at Gosport, on the west bank of the Elizabeth River where it emptied into Hampton Roads, the gateway to Chesapeake Bay and the waters leading to Washington and Richmond. By the standards of the day the yard was a first-class establishment. Two huge, slat-sided ship houses, with a third under construction, dominated the riverfront. They were completely equipped for building the largest and most modern warships, and five steam vessels had already gone down their ways. The yard was chockablock with foundries, machine and boiler shops, sawmills, spar, sail, and riggers’ lofts, a rope walk, carpenter shops—every facility for constructing and servicing a steam-driven wooden fleet.

The yard also housed the Navy’s largest arsenal and reserve store of guns, nearly two thousand pieces of heavy ordnance. True, many were relics from the War of 1812, but there were also three hundred modern Dahlgren smoothbore cannon, the famed “soda bottles,” fifty-two of them potent, heavy nine-inchers.

Norfolk’s most valuable asset was the new granite masonry dry dock. One of only two in the nation, it could berth any vessel in the fleet. Opposite the yard, on the east bank of the Elizabeth River, lay two important outworks. The powder magazine, Fort Norfolk, was to the north of the city, and the gun carriage works at old Fort St. Helena was to the southeast. To placate a still-wavering Virginia, whose legislature was at that moment in convention considering secession, both were left unguarded.

Tied up at the navy yard in varying degrees of unreadiness lay the vessels of a potentially strong squadron, chief among them the forty-gun, three-masted steam frigate Merrimack. Probably the best vessel in the fleet, she was, when commissioned in 1856, the most powerful warship afloat in any navy. But now she was laid up in ordinary with guns unshipped and engines dismantled and condemned.

Ready and provisioned for sea, but lacking crews, were three sailing vessels, the 22-gun sloops Germantown and Plymouth and the 4-gun brig Dolphin. Even by 1861 standards the rest of the ships were better suited to a nautical museum. Three great ships of the line were led by the 120-gun Pennsylvania, the grandest, biggest three-decker ever built for the United States Navy. Now her keel rested securely in the mud, as she served out her days as the yard receiving ship. Moldering with her in retirement were the Columbus and Delaware , both 74s. In one of the ship houses reposed the skeletal hull of the never-launched two-decker New York, left to rot on the ways since 1816. The exhibits concluded with a trio of frigates: Raritan, Columbia, and the venerable United States, which had entered the Navy list in 1797.

Commanding the navy yard was Commodore Charles S. McCauley, an officer as antiquated as some of his ships. Commodore McCauley had served the Navy for fifty-two of his sixty-eight years. (He held the substantive rank of captain, the honorific Commodore being applied to those captains who held senior command afloat or ashore.) A Pennsylvanian, McCauley had led a relatively undistinguished career. He had entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1809, and except for those halcyon years of the frigate during the War of 1812, he spent his service in the first dark age of the old Navy, when officers had become old and gray by the time they rose to positions of responsibility. In July 1860 Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey chose McCauley to command the navy yard. It was a disastrous appointment. A staunch Unionist, but timid, vacillating, and too fond of drink, McCauley was utterly unfit to confront the emergency that was soon to burst about his head.

At McCauley’s immediate command were sixteen officers, something less than one hundred sailors, and sixty Marines. The officers, almost to a man, were Southern secessionists. One of the few officers at the yard loyal to the Union was the chief engineer, Robert Danby, whose principal concern was getting the Merrimack out of potential danger and to sea.

From the outset Commodore McCauley established impediments. At least one month was necessary, he told Danby, before the ship’s machinery could be set up and the boilers fired. This, in Danby’s opinion, was ridiculous. In a private letter to his departmental superior, the Navy’s vigorous, newly appointed engineer in chief, Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, Danby complained that one week would suffice. Isherwood received the letter on April 10 and immediately brought it to Welles’s attention. The secretary at once dictated a set of confidential instructions and sent them by special courier to Norfolk. “The steamer Merrimack,” he ordered, “should be in condition to proceed to Philadelphia or to any other yard …in case of danger from unlawful attempts to take possession of her.” Yet in his attempts to assure Virginia of the government’s trust, Welles inserted a fatal flaw. “It is desirable,” he continued, “that there should be no steps taken to give needless alarm.”


McCauley signed the receipt the next day and with commendable speed ordered the Merrimack warped under the ordnance wharf shears for the mounting of her guns. This brought forth strident and self-righteous protests from Norfolk’s secessionist populace and press. McCauley halted the work. Welles’s “needless alarm” stricture, coupled with false counsel from soon-to-be-turncoat officers, had taken its first toll at the navy yard.

When word of McCauley’s action reached Washington, Secretary Welles temporized no further. He ordered Isherwood and Commander James Alden, “without creating a sensation, but in a quiet manner,” to Norfolk. Isherwood would take charge of the Merrimack’s refit, and once it was done, Alden would assume command and get her safely to Philadelphia. But that was only half the problem; Welles still had to find her a crew. Fully manned, the Merrimack shipped more than six hundred sailors and Marines, and mustering even a skeleton force would strip the East Coast of every idle bluejacket. The secretary had little choice and ordered his commodore at the New York yard, Samuel Breese, to dispatch two hundred “seamen, ordinary seamen, and landsmen …and coal heavers” to Norfolk without delay. But Breese had only sixty three available men, hardly enough to get the Merrimack across Hampton Roads, much less to Philadelphia. Still, he informed the secretary, his recruiting officers were beating the bushes around New York’s waterfront, and he hoped to have at least part of the contingent sailing in about a week. The day he wrote, April 12, South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter; the Civil War had begun.

At Norfolk Commander Alden stepped ashore at the city’s commercial docks and was shocked to learn that his “private instructions” from the Secretary of the Navy had become public knowledge. “It was intended,” he said, “that no one else either about the [Navy] Department or elsewhere know of their existence …still, to my surprise, all Norfolk, seemed to be full of it.” Passing through the town, Alden was closely watched, “and the attitude of the people [was] threatening.” Prudently he destroyed his orders and reported to Commodore McCauley.

Alden faced the commodore squarely and, without equivocation, made the situation plain, “to have the Merrimack removed …to the Philadelphia Navy Yard with the utmost dispatch.” Isherwood, he continued, would arrive shortly “for the purpose of expediting the duty.” But Alden was in for a second surprise. The civilian yard workers, McCauley blandly informed him, had all gone home!

Isherwood arrived at the yard on Sunday, April 14, the day after Fort Sumter’s surrender. He was met by Danby, and the two engineers immediately made a thorough inspection of the Merrimack’s machinery. It was not an easy task, for not only were her engines dismantled, but they were scattered—iron and brass, nuts and bolts, bits and pieces—throughout the shops and forges of the yard. Nevertheless, the two men estimated the engineering plant could be patched together for at least temporary steaming in three days. By Monday morning they had rousted enough mechanics to begin work. Isherwood divided the men into three gangs for round-the-clock shifts, with himself and Danby alternating supervision every twelve hours. He told Welles the Merrimack would be ready for sea on Thursday, April 18.

Welles wanted certainty and on Tuesday, the sixteenth, he sent the Navy’s senior line officer, Commodore Hiram Paulding, to Norfolk to prod McCauley along. The commandant was instructed to “defend at any hazard, repelling by force if necessary, any and all attempts to seize them,” to provide Isherwood all assistance, and to load “the more valuable public property, ordnance, stores, etc., on shipboard so that they can at any moment be moved.”

Danby and Isherwood begged to set sail. But McCauley refused.

As for the Thursday departure of the Merrimack, Welles dangerously hedged. “It may not be necessary,” he needlessly cautioned McCauley, “that she should leave at that time, unless there is immediate danger pending.” Fortunately, the nagging problem of finding a crew had been solved. As a buttress of trust for the Virginia Unionists, there arrived at the yard for scheduled repairs Commodore Garrett Pendergrast and his Home Squadron flagship, the fifty-gun frigate Cumberland. Should the New York draft be delayed, Paulding was instructed to take men from the Cumberland and get the Merrimack out.

Paulding landed at Norfolk City on the seventeenth and was not reassured by his first impressions. “A threatening and hostile spirit,” he reported, “seemed to pervade the vicinity of the yard, and the public property seemed in some jeopardy.” In conference on board the Cumberland, six navy yard officers, all Southerners, men Paulding “had known and esteemed for their honor from boyhood,” informed him “that although they were painfully situated they would defend the public property to the last.” But later in McCauley’s office one commander pleaded with Paulding to “say to the Secretary of the Navy that it was very desirable to them to be relieved.” Paulding returned to Washington and made his report to the secretary and President. Lincoln, with good foresight, put no faith in the pledges of loyalty and ordered all wavering officers replaced by “reliable northerners.”

Events, however, moved too quickly. The Virginia convention, asserting that Lincoln’s call for seventy-five thousand volunteers was tantamount to a declaration of war, joined the Confederacy. Nearly to a man, the navy-yard officers resigned their commissions. Old McCauley shrank from confrontation, and he became a prey to shadows and phantoms.

That day, at 4:00 P.M., Wednesday, the seventeenth, Isherwood and Danby, exhausted from their labors, presented themselves to the commandant. With great effort they had managed to put the Merrimack’s engines in a fit state for steaming to Philadelphia. Isherwood had engaged forty-four firemen and coal heavers for the passage and requested immediate permission to fire the boilers. But McCauley, “seemingly startled by the suddenness of the preparations,” refused; “tomorrow,” he told the engineers, would be time enough. They returned to the ship and passed the last hours of the day in teeth-grinding impotence.

By dawn Thursday there was no mistaking that Isherwood and Danby had done their jobs. At pier side the Merrimack sat thumping with life, a huge, dirty brown column of coal smoke pouring from her funnel. At 9:00 A.M. Isherwood made the short walk to McCauley’s office and reported the engineer force on board, steam up; only McCauley’s order to cast off was needed. But the commodore was not up to it. Isherwood pleaded in vain, then called McCauley’s attention to Welles’s peremptory orders. Still the commodore would not budge; he would give Isherwood his decision in a few hours. “He sat in his office immovable,” the chief engineer said, “not knowing what to do …I could not get him to do anything.”

Through the morning and early afternoon, the Merrimack lay with steam up, and Isherwood by his own exertions had managed to get enough coal on board for a passage across Hampton Roads to either Newport News or Fortress Monroe; without a crew Philadelphia was no longer an option.

Another confrontation now heated up in the commandant’s office. With Isherwood’s preparations complete, Alden also reported the Merrimack ready to sail. He got support from Pendergrast and Capt. John Marston of the Cumberland, both of whom were present. But McCauley remained paralyzed.

In the strongest terms Pendergrast and Marston urged that the Merrimack, with the Germantown in tow, be removed immediately to Fortress Monroe; thirty of the Cumberland’s sailors were already detailed as a skeleton crew. For a moment McCauley seemed to waver. Alden pressed the advantage and received permission to load two field guns into the ship as a token battery. He sped from the office and ordered one of the Cumberland ’s officers to offer a thousand dollars to any civilian pilot willing to take the Merrimack across the roads, “and twice that sum, together with a place in the Navy for life, if we succeeded in getting the Germantown out also.” With high optimism Alden ran to the ordnance wharf for his two guns.

Meanwhile, Isherwood and Danby had managed to scrape up a crew of their own; with promises of lavish pay, enough firemen, oilers, and coal heavers agreed to work the ship as far as Newport News. Isherwood replaced the ship’s chain moorings with hemp cable and stationed axmen at the bitts to cut the lines upon his order.

At the ordnance wharf Alden met with nothing but obfuscation; no one would cooperate. In disgust he returned to the Merrimack to supervise the final preparations for her departure. En route he fell in with Commander Robert Robb. Alden requested a party of men to warp the ship into the fairway and turn her downriver. Robb, who would soon resign his commission, refused. It was no longer necessary, he said. McCauley had ordered Isherwood to draw the fires. Stunned and “unwilling to believe in the correctness of Commander Robb’s statement, whose loyalty I had begun to doubt,” Alden burst into McCauley’s office “and found it was too true. The fatal order had been given.”

Even more surprising was Alden’s acceptance of the decision in contravention of his own orders from the Secretary of the Navy. Isherwood had gotten the ship ready for sea, and Alden was completely justified in taking her out then and there. But his confidence collapsed. He considered his duty done and, leaving Isherwood in the lurch, boarded the Baltimore steamer and returned to Washington. Alden later proved himself in the hottest actions, but at the moment, “at Norfolk,” wrote Secretary Welles, “all his heroic drawing room resolution and good intentions failed him.”

It is also not clear why McCauley issued the “fatal order.” Many years later, and with several axes to grind, Isherwood wrote: “The Commodore was in a state of complete prostration. …He was weak, vacillating, hesitating, and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his position. He behaved as though stupified. …” The ship, McCauley told the engineer in chief, would be kept to defend the yard, and he ordered the fires drawn.

Isherwood returned to the ship for the last time and shut down her plant. “As I witnessed the gradual dying out of the revolutions of the Merrimack’s engines at the dock I was greatly tempted to cut the ropes that held her, and to bring her out on my own responsibility.” But like Alden before him, he gave way. The rules of the service were too ingrained. He was an engineer, not a line officer, and thus precluded from holding command afloat. “With great sorrow,” he wrote, “I dismissed my men, waited until the engines made their last revolution …[and] left the yard.”

On Friday, the nineteenth, Welles, too late, relieved McCauley of his command and rushed whatever reinforcements were at hand to Norfolk. He ordered the skipper of the receiving ship Allegheny at Baltimore to enlist and dispatch fifty raw recruits by commercial steamer. At Philadelphia Commodore Samuel du Pont received secret orders to charter the fastest available steamer and pack it with fifty Marines, fifty seamen and landsmen, plus artillery, ammunition, and provisions for immediate service. At the Washington Navy Yard one hundred Marines marched on board the screw sloop Pawnee; “be prepared to sail without delay,” read the orders to her skipper, Stephen Rowan.

Welles appointed Hiram Paulding with “full powers to command the services of the entire naval force,” ashore and afloat. He charged him to “repel force by force,” to prevent anything from falling into Rebel hands, and, “should it finally become necessary,” to destroy the navy yard. Toward that catastrophic eventuality Pawnee’s bluejackets loaded into her hold 40 barrels of gunpowder, 11 tanks of turpentine, a dozen bales of cotton waste, and 181 port fires.

At Norfolk Captain Marston of the Cumberland readied his ship to defend the yard, while on the Rebel side that Friday morning Maj. Gen. William Taliaferro arrived from Richmond to command all Virginia troops in the area “and endeavor,” read his orders from Gov. John Letcher of Virginia, “by a rapid movement, to secure the navy yard.” For the task, Taliaferro found a motley collection of local militia companies, about three hundred men, most without weapons, and “a few 6-pounder field pieces” for artillery. The general found that storming the navy yard was out of the question. True, the “trifling brick wall” on its landward side could be breached, and the yard’s minuscule Marine detachment thrown back. But so long as the Cumberland’s grape-shotted guns bore on the landward approaches, any attempt would result in slaughter.

At last Isherwood returned to the ship and shut down her engines.

But Confederate reinforcements gathered. Governor Letcher wired Jeff Davis that five thousand troops were needed to capture the yard. Davis agreed to send what he had. Two regiments of South Carolina infantry and four companies from Georgia, in all about twenty-five hundred men, were ordered north up the Seaboard Railroad.

These troops arrived too late to materially influence events, but McCauley took fright. One of his “spies” had just reported troops massing in the city, along with feverish Rebel work, throwing up earthen batteries at St. Helena, commanding the seaward approaches just across the river. Commodore Pendergrast, who lived in Norfolk, going home to bed each night, watched a good deal of parading by the militia, but nothing near the hordes counted by McCauley’s agent. In fairness, McCauley had been duped by an elaborately successful ruse de guerre perpetrated by the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad. All day it ran empty trains a few miles down the line, where it loaded some civilians before returning. Then, as a Confederate naval officer said, “with every man yelling with all his might [it created] the desired impression of large reinforcements pouring into the city.” But the earthworks, though toothless, were probably real enough. Some Confederate historians hotly deny their existence, but they had been spotted by Cumberland’s lookouts. Lieutenant Selfridge went ashore to report and suggested he be sent into Norfolk, under a flag of truce, and inform the Confederate commander that if work on the batteries continued, the Cumberland would fire on the city. Surprisingly, McCauley “liked this plan and directed that it be carried out.”

Escorted by a just-resigned naval officer now serving as Taliaferro’s provost marshal, Selfridge confronted the Confederate general and delivered his message “in very forcible terms.” Taliaferro took offense. It would be “a terrible thing,” he said, to open fire on an undefended city. It would also be “a terrible thing,” Selfridge replied, if the yard and warships were destroyed by Rebel artillery. For the moment Selfridge held the aces, and on Taliaferro’s orders, Col. Henry Heth (who later commanded the Rebel division that opened the Battle of Gettysburg) crossed the river with him to the navy yard. The batteries were empty, he told McCauley, because other than their few little six-pounders, the Virginia militia had no artillery. Nevertheless, Heth gave “effective assurances” that work on the earthen revetments would cease.


Taliaferro, however, did not remain idle. He moved his militia companies to the unguarded powder magazine at Fort Norfolk and seized it without a shot; twenty-eight hundred barrels of Yankee gunpowder passed to the Confederacy. Half the powder Taliaferro loaded into barges and sent up the James River to Richmond; the remainder he prudently moved inland, beyond the range of the Cumberland’s guns.

That Friday evening the Pawnee cast off her lines and headed down the Potomac into Chesapeake Bay. She had on board several key officers slated to take command of the ships at Norfolk. The senior was the noted Antarctic explorer Capt. Charles Wilkes, assigned to the Merrimack. His associates included Commanders William Walker, John Rodgers, and James Alden for the Germantown, Plymouth, and Dolphin. From the Army came Capt. H. G. Wright of the engineers, charged with organizing the yard’s defenses and, if necessary, its demolition.

Gideon Welles’s efforts to rush reinforcements to Norfolk were having mixed results. Breese at New York could find only about two hundred recruits. Sailing by commercial steamer, they could arrive no earlier than Sunday, the twenty-first. At Philadelphia, Commodore du Pont had chartered the steamer Keystone State at one thousand dollars per day. But her engines broke down in the Delaware. Du Pont ordered out his tugs, and “by extraordinary exertions [she] was towed to the yard [at Philadelphia], the work on the machinery going on all the time.” By sunset Friday the sailors, Marines, artillery, ammunition, seven days’ coal, and two weeks’ provisions were loaded on board, and she belched off for Norfolk at first light the next morning.

But in a Baltimore rife with secessionist passions, the skipper of the navy’s receiving ship found it impossible to get his fifty recruits passage to Norfolk.

In midafternoon, Saturday, April 20, the Pawnee rounded Old Point Comfort, steamed into Hampton Roads, and anchored under the great guns of Fortress Monroe. Her officer at the watch penned in the log, “At 5:15 [ P.M. ], the Third Massachusetts Regiment …marched out of Fortress Monroe and embarked on this ship to the number of 349, rank and file.” These were fresh recruits, undrilled save for the very basics and armed with old-fashioned smoothbore muskets. But the Bay Staters were keen to face any foe, and their strong backs would relieve the sailors of the chore of unloading the reinforcing vessels soon to arrive.

At dusk the Pawnee heaved in her anchor and set out across the final eighteen miles of Hampton Roads and up the Elizabeth to the navy yard. As she rounded Sewell’s Point and entered the river’s mouth, the marine drummers beat to quarters, and the Pawnee cleared for action, her eight 9-inch smoothbores loaded and run out.

On board the Cumberland Lieutenant Selfridge passed an uncomfortable quarter-hour. “At about 8 P.M.,” he wrote, “the drums unexpectedly beat to quarters, and I rushed to my 10inch pivot gun on the forecastle. We could make out a large steamer standing towards us from seaward. It was manifestly important that, if hostile, she should not be allowed to approach too near, since …we might be boarded before sufficient gunfire could be directed against her. I had laid the pivot gun …and taken the lock string myself, for fear that the gun captain might misfire from excitement. Finally, when no answer was received to our several hails, I sang out to the Captain, ‘Shall I fire, Sir?’ He replied, ‘No, we will hail her once more.’ This was done and from the … Pennsylvania, lying just below us, came the reply, ‘Do not fire, it is the Pawnee.’ A moment more and a ten-inch shell would have swept decks crowded with soldiers.”

“With a hurricane of heartiness,” the Cumberland’s bluejackets packed the rigging to cheer in the Pawnee, the welcome being returned in equal measure. But it might as well have been a funeral dirge, for in a moment Hiram Paulding learned the awful truth. One of the very few loyal yard officers boarded the Pawnee and reported aft to the commodore. “Greatly to my regret,” Paulding later said, “I found that these vessels [less the Cumberland] had all been scuttled about two or three hours before my arrival, and were sinking fast.” Paulding immediately landed his infantry and Marines, who deployed in defensive positions around the yard. Thousands of armed Rebels were said to be in the neighborhood, but he could see none “nor any hostile demonstration.”

Captains Wilkes and Wright were sent to McCauley’s office, and pathetically the old man explained his actions. Colonel Heth, McCauley explained, had given his word regarding the work on the Confederate batteries, and thus assured, “I then commenced scuttling the Germantown, Plymouth, Dolphin, and Merrimack. …My officers, with a few exceptions, had all deserted me; even the watchmen had thrown off their allegiance and had taken part with the secessionists.”

Part of the odious work had fallen to Lieutenant Selfridge. “It seemed an impossible task,” he remembered, “with my small force of only a few boat crews, and we were compelled to limit the work to the spiking of a number of guns, and other minor measures short of setting fire to property. The Germantown …happened to be berthed under the big sheer-legs. We pulled out the main supporting pin …and allowed them to drop on the ship, with the result that her masts and hull were badly shattered. It was difficult to decide what to do with the Merrimack. …Orders were received to sink her by opening the sea valves, which to me seemed a great pity. I represented to Captain Marston that she should be left afloat so long as there remained a possibility of our being able to take her out. …[But] the orders were carried out and the Merrimack slowly sank until she grounded, with her gun deck a little above water.”

Captain Wilkes raced from the commandant’s office and ordered boarding parties into the scuttled ships to ascertain if they might be saved by some quick action. Lt. Henry Wise rushed down the Merrimack’s ladders to her berth deck. She was sinking fast, and Wise knew it; the splash of the block he threw down the hatch told him the water was already over the orlop. Taking a boat to the Pawnee, Wise reported that unless a diver could be sent to close the seacocks, the Merrimack was lost. But there were neither divers nor gear, and the Merrimack, once the pride of the fleet, groaned slowly into the mud.

Commodore Paulding was now faced with some critical choices. His primary mission, as he saw it, was to save the shipping at the yard; because of McCauley’s stupidity, that was no longer possible. The next option that presented itself was to hold the yard until reinforcements arrived. Paulding commanded roughly a thousand men, half of them fully equipped infantry and Marines. At their backs were the looming broadsides of the Cumberland and Pawnee. The ships’ guns not only would have kept the Confederate troops at bay and prevented further construction of channel blocks but could also, if need be, have demolished the city of Norfolk. Paulding’s orders from Secretary Welles clearly charged to “repel force by force,” and he knew that the Keystone State’s reinforcements were en route.

But Paulding was swayed by peripheral considerations, chiefly that the 3rd Massachusetts was only temporarily, and grudgingly at that, attached to his command; the Pawnee must also quickly return up Chesapeake Bay for the defense of Washington. For whatever reason, Commodore Paulding, like McCauley, Alden, and Isherwood, shied at the end from taking the bold step; he ordered the navy yard put to the torch. Wilkes, charged with commanding the foul labor, was instructed to take care in not destroying private property, “or anything that in any way could be construed as an aggression on individuals or their property.”

The capable Lieutenant Wise got the job of burning the ships.

The capable Lieutenant Wise got the job of burning the scuttled ships. Into a longboat he loaded “a number of powder tanks filled with spirits of turpentine and cotton waste,” then ordered his crew to pull for the Merrimack. The frigate was now riding very low, and the combustibles were heaved over her rail with a will. Wise’s men dumped piles of cordage, ladders, gratings, hawsers, and anything else that would take fire in a V shape, its apex at the base of the ship’s mainmast and reaching forward along the main deck. Atop were laid ropes of cotton waste soaked in turpentine, while more tanks of the stuff were stove in and liberally splashed over the Merrimack’s decks and beams. Lengths of match fuse were layed out over the side, and Wise and his crew jumped into their boat and pulled for the Germantown to continue their work.

Only the ancient Delaware, which lay too distant, and the rotting United States, which, Wilkes reported, “was in so decayed a condition that it was deemed unnecessary to waste the material of turpentine upon her,” were spared. From the opposite shore, random Confederate sniper fire began pinging the water.

While the ships were readied for the bonfire, gangs of bluejackets and soldiers, armed with eighteen-pound sledgehammers, set up a terrific din at the ordnance wharf. It was impossible for the artillery to be removed from the yard, and the three hundred latest-pattern Dahlgren guns must in no way fall intact to the Rebels. But try as the men might, the sturdy barrels didn’t give a fraction. “One hundred men worked for an hour with sledge hammers,” Paulding reported, “and such was the tenacity of the iron that they did not succeed in breaking a single trunnion.” The men had to settle for spiking the guns and dumping them into the river. The ship houses, shops, and marine barracks were all packed with barrels of powder, and slow match fuses were laid.

But more important than the guns and facilities, more vital even than the Merrimack, the real prize of the navy yard was the great granite dry dock. Without it any hope the Confederacy had of salvage, repair, and construction for its yet unborn navy was out of the question. “If the Government are not sure of holding the Gosport navy yard,” wrote a concerned Buffalo, New York, citizen to Gideon Welles, “for God’s sake mine and destroy the dry dock.” The crucial work fell to Commander Rodgers and the Army’s Captain Wright, assisted by forty soldiers and a few bluejackets. In pitch-darkness a ton of black powder was lowered into the dock’s pumping gallery. Powder trains were snaked to the stone steps, and four slow match fuses made ready.

It did not take the Rebels long to get the yard working again.

In the Confederate camp General Taliaferro seethed at Paulding’s actions, but he was powerless to intervene. With high temerity he sent a flag of truce and offered Paulding the opportunity to depart “unmolested” with the Pawnee and Cumberland if he at once stopped the destruction. Paulding’s initial reaction has gone unrecorded.

By 2:00 A.M. on Sunday all was ready, and Wilkes ordered the troops and Marines back to the ships. At the landing he and Lieutenant Wise stood by in the last longboat to take off the demolition gangs. Now when all awaited the signal to set alight the fuses, Commodore McCauley chose to play out his final role in the sad affair. Clambering up the Pawnee’s side came the ex-commandant’s youngest son, “tears streaming down his cheeks.” To Hiram Paulding he reported that the old man refused to leave his post, preferring to die in the flames that would soon sweep the yard. With the tide running, Paulding had no time for histrionics, and he sent Alden ashore with orders to get McCauley out. What transpired in the commander’s office Alden never said. But, Wilkes reported, “he was induced, with great reluctance, to remove to the Cumberland.”

At 3:30 A.M. on Monday the tug Yankee arrived with the flood tide, warped the Cumberland out, and took her in tow. In less than an hour it was high water, and the Pawnee, Yankee, and Cumberland, guns shotted, armed Marines at the rails, slowly headed down the Elizabeth. Just as the Pawnee’s screw bit the river, Paulding ordered the signal rocket fired, its high, arching red tail calling down the cataclysm on the navy yard.

Ashore the slow matches were lit, and the last of the sailors raced for Wilkes’s boat. “At 4:20 [ A.M. ],” he noted in his report, “the signal was made and the torch applied, in a few minutes the whole area of the yard was one sheet of flame—the two ship houses and the whole line of stores, as well as the Merrimack .…The Merrimack lay close astern of the Germantown and the fire soon reached her rigging and spars. …The conflagration was rapid, in vast sheets of flame, and dense smoke. At this time the masts and spars of the Germantown were on fire, and portions of her hull enveloped in the flames from the Merrimack.”

At the dry dock the lit fuses smoldered toward the powder trains when Rodgers and Wright made their break. So intense were the fires from the barrels of pitch, tar, and turpentine from the burning ship houses that it was impossible to see, and they assumed Wilkes had already pulled away. But the old polar explorer—he was sixty-three—was of stern stuff. “Our own safety,” he said, “was not thought of until all hope or chance of their joining us was at an end. Then, and with great reluctance, I gave the order to shove off…the large flakes of fire falling around us.”

Rodgers and Wright were trapped in the yard. But they managed to make a run through the burning main gate, where they seized a boat on the Elizabeth. Their way downstream, however, was blocked by sniping Rebels, and rather than risk death to no end, they landed on the Norfolk side and, as Wright penned, “deliver[ed] ourselves up to the Commanding General of the Virginia forces.”

On board the retiring ships ears pitched for the great explosion of the two thousand pounds of powder in the dry dock; but nothing happened, and to this day no one knows why. Some accounts treat it as ill luck or faulty materials. Others refer to water in the dock that might have snuffed the powder trains. One historian puts the blame on “a considerate Union petty officer,” who broke the slow match to protect the nearby homes of his friends. A Confederate naval history credits Lieut. Charles Spotswood, lately of the United States Navy, who “promptly directed the opening of the [dock] gates, and thus saved [it] from destruction.”

By the light of the raging holocaust, the Pawnee, Yankee, and Cumberland steamed downriver. The Cumberland dropped anchor to await Wilkes and the boats, while the other ships continued across the roads to Fortress Monroe. Just as the Pawnee reached her mooring, there hove into view the Keystone State, crammed with the Marines, field artillery, ammunition, and stores from Philadelphia. Had Paulding waited just a half-day longer, these reinforcements would have scotched any excuse for abandoning the yard.

At dawn the Rebels swarmed in, and at first sight the damage wrought by the demolition parties seemed monumental. “The most abominable vandalism at the yard,” reported a Confederate officer. Two ship houses were burned to the ground. The rigging and sail lofts were gone, as were the rope-walk and gun carriage depot with all its wooden carriages in store. Resting in the mud were the charred hulks of the Merrimack, Germantown, Plymouth, and Dolphin, and the relic ships-of-the-line and frigates, a mighty would-be nucleus for the Confederate navy. General Taliaferro called Paulding’s action “one of the most cowardly and disgraceful acts which has ever disgraced the Government of a civilized people.” But he had little real cause for complaint. With hardly a shot fired, his militia companies had taken the United States Navy’s largest shore facility, complete with intact dry dock, and 1,195 pieces of heavy ordnance. Into his lap, too, had fallen the arsenal at Fort St. Helena, with all its arsenal machinery in perfect working order.

It didn’t take long before the Rebels got the yard back into operation. Under its new commandant, Flag Officer French Forrest, late of the United States Navy, salvage and repair were taken in hand. The guns were fished up from the river bottom and un-spiked. The older pieces provided batteries along the whole of the Confederate coast. Most of the modern Dahlgrens, however, were converted into excellent rifled, shell-firing pieces for service afloat.


But the most noteworthy effect on the Confederate cause was the conversion of the Merrimack into the ironclad CSS Virginia. On May 30, a bare six weeks after the fall of the yard, Forrest wrote to Robert E. Lee, “We have the Merrimack up and just putting her in dry dock.” On March 8, 1862, this vessel, completely transformed from the graceful forty-gun frigate, sank the Cumberland and captured the frigate Congress. The next day she met her match with the little Union Monitor, in the world’s first clash between iron ships.

The Rebels held the Norfolk Navy Yard for little more than a year, and so long as Union forces garrisoned Fortress Monroe, key to Hampton Roads, there was no hope of their minuscule navy’s breaking out. Nevertheless, the yard in Confederate hands forced the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron to send its ships for refit and replenishment far from the war zone to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The old Merrimack, while still in dry dock for her transformation into the iron monster CSS Virginia, struck fear into the heart of the Union general in chief, George B. McClellan. She could hardly wheeze her way down the Elizabeth River and the ten-mile stretch of Hampton Roads, much less take the open sea, but her very existence posed the threat of a “fleet in being” and delayed McClellan’s Peninsular campaign by nearly three months. This at a time when Union forces might have captured the Rebel capital at Richmond and possibly ended the war in the first months of 1862.

The Navy convened neither general courts-martial nor a board of inquiry into the facts of the Norfolk debacle. Charles McCauley immediately went into retirement. The Senate, however, called a special committee under John Hale of New Hampshire to investigate the “Surrender and Destruction of Navy Yards.” Its conclusions, released in April 1862, found Commodore McCauley’s conduct and actions “deplorable.” Service sentiment was generally expressed by Commodore Samuel du Pont. “If a person of his feebleness could be held as a responsible being,” he noted in a letter to a friend, “in England or in France he would have lost his life—he would have been hung. …” As for Commodores Paulding and Pendergrast, the Senate report condemned “the inconsiderate haste, if not the timidity and want of nerve, under which they acted …exhibiting none of the energy and resolute spirit which had hitherto distinguished the American Navy.”

On May 10, 1862, a bare three weeks after the release of the Senate report, Federal forces, spearheaded by two hundred Marines, recaptured Norfolk’s navy yard.

The Rebels in turn had done their best to destroy buildings, stores, ordnance, and machinery. Of buildings, only the officers’ quarters remained standing. Accompanying Gideon Welles on a tour of inspection, Secretary of State Seward looked upon “a mass of smoking ruins. Long rows of crumbling walls, and roofless, empty, charred brick buildings, piles of still smoking ashes, docks and wharves torn up by gunpowder, wrecks of vessels burned to the water’s edge, cover many acres.”

But not quite everything was destroyed. Once again the granite dry dock withstood demolition efforts and was back in service within a year. When Capt. John W. Livingston arrived as the new commandant, a considerable amount of property that had been taken and concealed was returned to him by Norfolk citizens. The shops most needed for fleet maintenance were rapidly put in order, and by war’s end the yard had been almost completely rebuilt from its ashes.

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