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How Fear, Deception and Indecision Nearly Destroyed Norfolk Naval Shipyard

April 20, 2016 | By Michael Brayshaw, Norfolk Naval Shipyard Lead Public Affairs Specialist
The United States Navy's oldest, largest and most multifaceted industrial facility is just a buck and change shy of its 250th anniversary in November 2017. But as flames consumed the structures and ships of Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) the evening of April 20, 1861, its future was very much in doubt.

Photo #: NH 59179 Destruction of the United States Navy-Yard at Norfolk, Virginia, by Fire, by the United States Troops, on April 20, 1861 Line engraving published in Harper's Weekly, 1861, providing two scenes of the burning of Norfolk Navy Yard and the destruction of ships located there. Ships shown in the lower scene (as identified below the print), from left to right: USS United States (afire); tug Yankee with USS Cumberland (underway, leaving the area); USS Merrimack (afire in left center distance); USS Pawnee (underway, leaving the area), and USS Pennsylvania (afire). U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

At the advent of the Civil War, Gosport Shipyard (as NNSY was then known) was a premier naval facility in Portsmouth, Virginia for constructing large warships, including five recently completed steam vessels. Two huge ship houses loomed over the waterfront. The shipyard was home to the Navy's largest arsenal, which included 300 Dahlgren cannons and more than 50 nine-inch guns, as well as a squadron of active and reserve vessels.

The control of Gosport Shipyard wasn't just a game changer; it was a war changer. Warning signs for the Navy and nation were increasingly glaring between November 1860 and January 1861, with almost 50 southern naval officers providing their resignations. This number eventually ballooned past 250, with many of these officers serving at Gosport in early 1861. As the officers resigned, the southern states seceded. Who, or what, was there to stop them? U.S. Navy ships were scattered across the world's oceans, and President James Buchanan was a thoughtful, moderate man whose rationales were a whisper in a hurricane of inflamed emotion on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Buchanan, an attorney at heart, drank his own political poison in the conflicting beliefs that the states had no legal right to secede, but nor could the federal government legally prevent them from doing so.
While the Norfolk Naval Shipyard has had an important past, it has an equally vital future.
Weeks after President Abraham Lincoln took office, frenzied preparations were underway to hurry Gosport's strategic asset the 12-knot screw frigate USS Merrimack off to Philadelphia despite its engine parts scattered throughout shipyard shops and in various states of repair. On April 17, 1861, the very day Virginia seceded, steam was up, and permission to get Merrimack underway was requested. However, Shipyard Commander, Commodore Charles McCauley, denied the request. A War of 1812 veteran, this 68-year-old Philadelphia native was a fervid Unionist, but became fearful and indecisive during a pivotal moment in American history. On April 20 while awaiting Northern reinforcements, McCauley received reports Confederate attack was imminent, with forces arriving locally in one large trainload after another.

Line engraving published in Harper's Weekly, 16 March 1861. The ship of the line Pennsylvania, receiving ship at the yard, is shown at anchor on the left side of the image. The Navy Yard, and the Pennsylvania, were burned just over a month later, on 20 April 1861. Courtesy of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Proving the benefits of deception in wartime, the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad was actually just continuously running a single convoy of soldiers to Norfolk a convoy masquerading as an army. McCauley ordered the scuttling of ships, and destruction of the first dry dock in the Western Hemisphere, Dry Dock 1. While the Merrimack burned to the waterline and sunk, Dry Dock 1 was destined to remain a permanent fixture of the shipyard. It was set for demolition, black powder loaded into the dock's pumping galley and slow burning fuses strategically placed. It's unknown how the dock survived faulty materials "Water in the dock" Sympathetic union soldiers who snuffed the fuses, or a shrewd Southern officer who opened up the dry dock to the river? McCauley's military force on yard was comprised of 16 officers, 60 Marines, and nearly 100 sailors, but these relationships were a wary waltz on the eve of wartime--particularly since McCauley thought many of his officers favored the South.

With the shipyard's ships and structures ablaze the evening of April 20, Portsmouth's citizens were initially fearful but ultimately fortunate, due to the winds blowing out toward the Elizabeth River. Damage was largely limited to the shipyard, with the exception of when USS Pennsylvania's guns heated past the firing point, shooting cannonballs down a city street and damaging at least one private residence. The invading Confederates overtook a shipyard minus a rigging or sail loft, and the ships of Merrimack, Germantown, Plymouth and Dolphin were severely damaged or altogether destroyed. The U.S. Senate later condemned McCauley for yielding the Navy's largest shore facility to the Confederacy with scarcely a shot fired during the takeover. Much of the shipyard's weaponry survived, including the highly valuable 300 Dahlgren cannons.

Despite the determined efforts to destroy Merrimack, the Confederacy raised the ship's remains and rebuilt her as the ironclad ram C.S.S. Virginia. This ship became the Confederacy's foremost hope in defending local waters, at least until the shipyard was seized a year later in May 1862. The reclamation greatly weakened the Confederacy's operational readiness, causing C.S.S. Virginia to lose its homeport. Without this facility to repair and outfit the small Southern Navy, the ship was destroyed to prevent it from falling into the hands of Union forces.

Today, Norfolk Naval Shipyard is one of the nation's four public shipyards, which perform logistic support and work in connection with ship construction, conversion, overhaul, repair, alteration, drydocking, outfitting, manufacturing research and test work. NNSY's mission is to maintain and modernize naval ships and to provide emergency repair of those ships. Its full-service fleet capability includes being able to service aircraft carriers, other surface ships and submarines. NNSY is the only East Coast naval shipyard capable of dry docking nuclear aircraft carriers. In the past two years it has christened itself "America's Shipyard," ably serving the needs of the 21st century Navy and nation - whatever they may be. While the shipyard has had an important past, it has an equally vital future.