USS Cumberland – Sink Before Surrender

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U.S. Frigate Cumberland. Lithograph. Published by Currier & Ives,
ca. 1843-1848. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

USS Cumberland, flagship of the US Navy’s Home Squadron, was dispatched to Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, upon the sloop’s return from a brief cruise to Veracruz, Mexico. It was hoped that the warship’s presence would deter any effort to capture the yard during the secession crisis. Gosport was the largest and most advanced navy yard in the United States. Besides its granite dry dock and other ship repair/construction facilities, Gosport housed 14 warships, including the steam screw frigate USS Merrimack awaiting repair and others in ordinary like USS Raritan. The Cumberland, then commanded by Captain Garrett J. Pendergrast, was anchored just off Gosport so its firepower could be utilized to defend the yard or cover the release of ships.  

Three days after Virginia left the Union on April 17, the Union abandoned the yard. Cumberland’s crew helped to destroy the facility and various ships. By 4:20 a.m. on April 21, Cumberland, loaded with sailors and Marines, was towed out of the yard by USS Pawnee supported by the tug USS Yankee. Cumberland slowly passed the burning Merrimack, not realizing that what seemed to be a burning hulk would become the sloop’s death knell less than one year later.   Read more

Battle of Wassaw Sound and CSS Atlanta

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Sketch of CSS Atlanta. Robert G. Skerrett, artist.
Date unknown. The Mariners’ Museum # PNc0001.

The CSS Atlanta was an ironclad transformation effort which used the iron-hull and Scottish-built engines of SS Fingal to fashion one of the Confederacy’s most powerful warships. The ironclad; however, had a deep draft which limited its operational area below Savannah. This coupled with a very rash and impetuous captain, Commander William Webb, resulted in Atlanta’s capture in a brief engagement with the monitors USS Weehawken and USS Nahant. The ironclad soon became the USS Atlanta and served until 1865 in the James River. It was later sold to Haiti and floundered en route without a trace.

SS Fingal

The Atlanta had its genesis from the merchant ship SS Fingal. This merchant ship was constructed at the J & G Thomson’s Clyde Bank Iron Shipyard at Govan in Glasgow, Scotland. The Fingal’s dimensions were:   Read more

USS ROANOKE: THE THREE-TURRETED MONSTER

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USS Roanoke during service as a steam frigate. Lithograph, artist and date unknown. Courtesy of Naval History & Heritage Command #NH 45364

The USS Roanoke was a Merrimack-class steam screw frigate built at the Gosport Navy Yard. The frigate was commissioned in 1857 and became the flagship of the Home Squadron. When the Civil War erupted, Roanoke captured several blockade runners and fought during the March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads. Noting how the Confederates had transformed Merrimack into the ironclad CSS Virginia, the wooden Roanoke was converted into an ironclad at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The new Roanoke featured three turrets; however, the extra weight of the iron made the vessel unstable and it spent the rest of the war in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and was scrapped in 1883.

A Novel Example of Naval Architecture   Read more

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

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