John is director emeritus of the USS Monitor Center. He presents Civil War tours and lectures across the country and is the author of 18 books with three more on the way. He leads the Museum’s Civil War and Hampton Roads Lecture Series and is now writing blogs and presenting online content via YouTube Live.
John’s deep interest in all things related to the Civil War stems from his youth living on Fort Monroe, walking where heroes like Abraham Lincoln and R. E. Lee once stood. An avid collector of decoys, waterfowl/maritime art, and oriental rugs, John lives among them in his home, the 1757 Herbert House on Sunset Creek in Hampton, Virginia. On the National Register of Historic Places, this is the only house to have survived the August 7, 1861, burning of Hampton.
Time was running out for the Confederate navy in Hampton Roads. On the evening of May 3, 1862, General Joseph Eggleston Johnston ordered the evacuation of the Confederate Warwick-Yorktown Line. Johnston believed that the “fight for Yorktown must be one of artillery, in which we cannot win. The result is certain, time only doubtful.”
Johnston’s retreat up the Peninsula toward Richmond forced the Southerners to make plans to abandon the port city and navy yard. When he learned of Johnston’s withdrawal, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory telegraphed Flag Officer Josiah Tattnall that Virginia alone would have to prevent the enemy from ascending the James River.Read more
On April 19, 1861, President Abraham Lincoln declared a blockade of the Confederate coastline from the Chesapeake Bay to the Rio Grande. Wilmington, North Carolina, eventually became the leading haven for blockade runners on the east coast. Located 18 miles up the Cape Fear River from the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington was only 570 miles from Nassau in the Bahamas, and 674 miles from Bermuda.
Several factors facilitated the port’s blockade-running success. Wilmington was situated as an Atlantic railhead for major railroads leading up to Virginia and inland to Charlotte, North Carolina. Most importantly, the Cape Fear River had two entrances: the Old Inlet and the New Inlet; and there were major shoals off these entrances, including Frying Pan Shoals. This caused the US Navy to position their blockaders in a 50-mile arch. Even with almost 50 ships on station at any given time in 1864, the Union ships could not deter blockade runners from making dashes in and out of the Cape Fear. Read more
The crisis at Gosport had reached its zenith by the morning of April 20, 1861. Flag Officer Charles Stewart McCauley appeared to have given up all hope of saving or defending Gosport Navy Yard. Early that morning, he learned that militia troops had seized Fort Norfolk and an extremely useful magazine filled more than 250,000 pounds of gunpowder. Therefore, McCauley believed he had no choice but to destroy the shipyard so that it would not fall into the hands of the Virginians.
In spring 1862, Union general George Brinton McClellan had assembled a very powerful army around Washington, D.C. The Union had already recently achieved several major victories along the Mississippi River and its tributaries, as well as they had captured the North Carolina Sounds. McClellan’s army was poised and ready to strike at the Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia. General McClellan, often called ‘Young Napoleon’ or ‘Little Mac,’ wanted nothing to do with a march overland toward Richmond.
This path was blocked by General Joseph E. ‘Joe’ Johnston’s 45,000-strong army defending Manassas. In an effort to flank and isolate Johnston’s army away from Richmond, McClellan conceived the Urbanna Plan to move his army to the Rappahannock River at Urbanna, Virginia, and then strike directly at Richmond. Before the Union general could implement his campaign, Joe Johnston abandoned his Manassas defenses beginning March 6, 1862, and fell back to Fredericksburg. McClellan quickly offered a secondary amphibious operation to strike at Richmond by way of the Virginia Peninsula.Read more
Tensions were rising throughout the South during the first week of April 1861. While the Upper South had yet to join the Confederacy, the Lincoln administration was alert to the threatening war clouds and the possibility of states, like Virginia, leaving the Union. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles recognized that Gosport Navy Yard and the steam screw frigate USS Merrimack were tempting targets for pro-secessionist Virginians. Accordingly, on April 10,1861, Welles advised Gosport Navy Yard commandant Flag Officer Charles Stewart McCauley that he must show great vigilance in protecting the yard. He stated that it was important that one of the US Navy’s most modern warships, Merrimack, be repaired and moved to another navy yard. Welles added that McCauley was to do nothing to upset the Virginians and to use his best judgment in discharging his duties to protect Gosport. Welles concluded, it is “desirable that there should be no steps taken to give needless alarm.”
Merrimack Readies for Sea
Gosport’s commandant responded by telegram on April 11, stating that it would take a month to revitalize Merrimack’s dismantled engines. Welles was shocked by McCauley’s reply, calling the yard commandant “feeble and incompetent for the crisis.” He sent US Navy’s chief engineer, Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, to Gosport to prepare Merrimack for sea. Isherwood estimated that it would take him a week to rework the ship’s engines. Commander James Alden was ordered to accompany Isherwood and assume command of the frigate. They arrived at Gosport Navy Yard on April 14, 1861. Isherwood immediately set to work restoring Merrimack’s machinery.Read more