Tragedy on the Mississippi

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The Assassination of President Lincoln, Courtesy of Library of Congress. Call No. LC-F81- 2117 [P&P]

A Somber Day

Today marks a somber day in the history of the United States of America. 155 years ago, our country suffered its, to this day unbeaten, greatest maritime disaster by loss of life. If that seems surprising to you, then you aren’t alone. It is, unfortunately, a chapter of our collective maritime heritage that has been largely forgotten. Why? Because it happened at the end of April in 1865.

If you’re familiar with the history of the American Civil War, then you no doubt know that April of 1865 was one of the most formative years of our Union. It was a month that saw union forces march into Richmond and high-profile surrenders that led to the end of the war. It was the month in which Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed by actor and confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. The day immediately before the disaster, Booth was cornered in Bowling Green, VA, and slain by Sergeant Boston Corbett of the 16th New York Cavalry.   Read more

Gosport in Crisis

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USS Merrimack, ca. 1855. Lithograph after drawing by G.G. Pook. Courtesy of US Naval History & Heritage Command NH#46248

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

Gosport Navy Yard: Before the Storm

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Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, ca. 1840. Historical Recollections of Va, Henry Howe, 1852. Library of Congress.
Gosport’s Beginnings

Gosport Navy Yard, located in Portsmouth, across the Elizabeth River from the busy port of Norfolk, Virginia, was one of the largest shipyards in the United States. Norfolk merchant Andrew Sprowl established the yard in 1767. Sprowl remained a loyalist when the Revolutionary War erupted. The yard was confiscated by the Commonwealth of Virginia, and then burned by the British in 1779.

The yard remained inactive until 1794, when the property was leased by the United States. Captain Richard Dale served as the superintendent for this new government shipyard. When the US Navy was formally established in 1798, it assumed operation of the yard and designated it as the Gosport Navy Yard.   Read more