Wednesday, April 20, 2011

150 Years Ago -- Norfolk Abandoned

The Norfolk Navy Yard is burned and abandoned ...Image via Wikipedia

On Saturday, April 20, 1861, the Gosport Shipyard at Norfolk, Virginia was abandoned by the Federals and seized by armed Virginians.  The name was changed to Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1862; then, as now, it was the most important naval installation in the United States.

The shipyard had been fumbled away through bad timing.  The commander there, Commodore Charles McCauley, a 68-year-old veteran of the War of 1812, had succumbed to pressure and ordered the evacuation.  State troops under General William Taliaferro were menacing the base, putting up batteries for a bombardment.  In addition, several of McCauley's officers and men had resigned to go South.

The Federal sailors and marines began making preparations to leave by scuttling the warships at the yard on April 19.  As the ships sank to the bottom, a relief expedition led by the U.S.S. Pawnee arrived.  The officers conferred and finally decided the only thing to do was complete the destruction the following day.

On the evening of April 20, the Federals finished by burning the buildings and the upper works of some of the ships that were poking up out of the water.  A mine was set in the dry dock.  The Virginians moved in after the Federals moved out, and found, like Harper's Ferry the day before, that most of the machinery was still serviceable.  The mine had failed to explode, leaving the dry dock intact.

A big steam frigate, the Merrimack, was another major prize for the Southerners.  The ship had been at the yard for engine repairs.  As the nation had moved toward war and Virginia had moved toward secession, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles had sent the navy's chief engineer, Benjamin Isherwood, to make repairs and Commander James Alden to take command of the Merrimack and get her to Philadelphia.  McCauley, not wanting to antagonize the Virginians, had refused to let the ship leave.  Now, the Confederates could raise and reuse her.

Also, on this date, in Maryland, a steamer carrying the 8th Massachusetts Infantry arrived at Annapolis.  The troops, led by Massachusetts politician Benjamin Butler, a newly minted brigadier general, were bound for Washington, forty miles away.  Governor Thomas Hicks, surely thinking about the Baltimore riot the day before, urged Butler to keep his men on the boat.  Hicks wired Lincoln: "I have felt it to be my duty to advise the President of the United States to order elsewhere the troops now off Annapolis and also that no more may be sent through Maryland."  Hicks and Butler negotiated over the weekend, and Butler finally brought his men ashore on Monday, April 22.

Colonel Robert E. Lee sent his official letter of resignation to the War Department.

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