Gosport Navy Yard is Recaptured

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Ruins of Norfolk Navy Yard, Virginia. Alexander Gardner, photographer, ca. 1865. Courtesy Library of Congress.
Confederate Retreat from the Peninsula 

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

Fort Fisher: Defender of the Cape Fear

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Union Attack on Fort Fisher, NC, January 1865. Robert Knox Sneden, cartographer. Courtesy National Archives.

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

Gosport Navy Yard is Captured

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The Navy Yard at Norfolk. Harper’s Weekly, 1861. Courtesy Library of Congress.

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. 

Escape Plan    Read more

Siege of Yorktown, Part One: The Navies

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The Siege of Yorktown, April 1862. Ch. Worret, contributor. Courtesy Library of Congress.
CSS Virginia Enables the 1862 Defense of Yorktown 

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

Gun Boring? No! Gun fascinating!

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Microscopic image of grey cast iron, sampled from a Civil War period Hotchkiss bolt. The squiggly, black lines and nodules are graphite, surrounded by lighter-colored iron.

Last month, we were able to complete one of the last major steps in the conservation of USS Monitor’s two XI-Inch Dahlgren shell guns: boring concretion out of the barrels. Material Culture Specialist Hannah recently showed off what we found in this process (coal is, indeed, cool), but why clean the gun bores to begin with? And how do you actually go about doing that, anyway?

The ‘why’ has a few pieces to it. There are benefits to our archaeological knowledge of the wreck, but our primary concern was keeping the guns in good condition. Monitor’s guns are made of iron, and specifically are made of grey cast iron. Grey cast iron is not 100% pure iron; it contains about 4% carbon, and that carbon exists as flakes of graphite locked in by the metal surrounding it – picture little shavings of pencil lead and you won’t be that far off.   Read more