Military Monday: The Burning of Gosport Navy Yard 1861

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Gosport Navy Yard Image One
Destruction of the Gosport Navy Yard by Union forces.
Image Credit: M. W. Robbins Collection &
The Virginian-Pilot

I haven’t done a Military Monday since 2018. One-hundred, fifty-nine years ago, today…~Vic

In 1861, Virginia joined the Confederate States of America. Fearing that the Confederacy would take control of the [Navy yard] facility, the shipyard commander Charles Stewart McCauley ordered the burning of the shipyard.

[The USS Pawnee was] dispatched to Norfolk to secure the ships and stores of the Gosport Navy Yard. Arriving at Norfolk the night of [April 20], she found that all ships, save [the] USS Cumberland, had been scuttled […]. [So], an attempt was made to destroy the Naval stores and the dry dock. Their efforts were largely unsuccessful but, she took Cumberland in tow and saved the frigate.

On Saturday evening, at 9 o’clock, the Pawnee arrived from Washington with 200 volunteers, and 100 marines, besides her own crew […]. [At] once, the officers and crew of the Pawnee and Cumberland went to the Navy yard and, spiked and disabled the guns, [plus], threw the shot and small arms into the river. At 10 o’clock, the marines, who had been quartered in the barracks, fired them and came on board the Pawnee. A party of officers, [in the] meantime, were going through the different buildings and ships, distributing waste and turpentine, and laying a train, so as to blow up the dry dock. At this time, the scene was indescribably magnificent, all the buildings being in a blaze, and explosions, here and there, scattering the cinders in all directions.

The Government vessels had been scuttled in the afternoon before the Pawnee arrived, to prevent their being seized by the Secessionists, who had been in arms in both Norfolk and Portsmouth.

The Merrimack/Virgina Image Two
The Merrimack Conversion
Image Credit: M. W. Robbins Collection &
The Virginian-Pilot

The Confederate forces did, in fact, take over the shipyard and did so without armed conflict through an elaborate ruse orchestrated by civilian railroad builder William Mahone (then President of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad and soon to become a famous Confederate officer). He bluffed the Federal troops into abandoning the shipyard in Portsmouth by running a single passenger train into Norfolk with great noise and whistle-blowing […]. [T]hen, much more quietly, [he sent] it back west […]. [He returned] the same train, again, creating the illusion of large numbers of arriving troops [with] the Federals listening in Portsmouth across the Elizabeth River (and just barely out of sight).

[In] July, Confederate shipyard workers begin converting the unburned underbelly of the USS Merrimack into the ironclad CSS Virginia in Drydock 1.

Burning of Gosport Navy Yard (The New York Times)
The History of Norfolk Naval Shipyard (The Virginian-Pilot Online)
This Day in Naval History (US Navy Website)
How Fear, Deception and Indecision Nearly Destroyed Norfolk Naval Shipyard (USN History)
Norfolk Naval Shipyard (Wikipedia)

Clip from Hearts in Bondage (1936)

8 thoughts on “Military Monday: The Burning of Gosport Navy Yard 1861

    bereavedandbeingasingleparent said:
    April 21, 2020 at 5:07 AM

    Thanks for this. I know so little about this period in history. Must learn up on it.

    badfinger20 said:
    May 1, 2020 at 11:47 AM

    I love the William Mahone story…that is a movie in itself.

      The Hinoeuma responded:
      May 1, 2020 at 3:07 PM

      Yeah, it is. Clever guy.

        badfinger20 said:
        May 1, 2020 at 3:09 PM

        I just loved his plan. You know…in most Civil War movies people root for the south…Buster Keaton once said…audiences sympathies will not go with the North.

          The Hinoeuma responded:
          May 1, 2020 at 4:18 PM

          That was back when people remembered WHY we actually went to war. Think about it…in, say, 1920, the Civil War ended just 55 years before. There were still younger veterans alive…not to mention spouses that may have married an older veteran.

          These days, they purposely don’t teach the truth about the war and, instead, raised up a nation of victims (the war was fought over slavery!!!) And, the fools continue to destroy their own history…with help from the government. Government doesn’t want a nation of really educated people…to call them on their overreaching and tyranny. Keep a watchful eye on how growing protests will be handled.

            badfinger20 said:
            May 1, 2020 at 4:57 PM

            Jen’s brother Dale got in trouble in high school arguing this same fact. He still gets pissed off talking about it. I tell him I’m impressed he knows history so well…being from West Vriginia…his two sisters didn’t pay attention.

            He wanted to be a history teacher but also wanted to be a Marine even more….that won out. Now he is out and drives trucks. Great guy, witty, and smart as hell.

              The Hinoeuma responded:
              May 1, 2020 at 7:24 PM

              Sounds like an awesome dude and truth seeker.

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