The First Ironclad Emerges: Battle of the Head of Passes

Posted on
Confederate 6.4-inch banded rifle, 1862. This is the weapon type used as the bow pivot gun on CSS Ivy. Note the 100-pound conical projectile at the right rear of the gun carriage.  Courtesy of Library of Congress, CWPB 01053.

When the Civil War erupted, Confederate Secretary of the Navy Stephen Russell Mallory knew that the South could only counter and defeat the larger US Navy if ironclads were employed.  Mallory immediately ordered the construction of ironclads. The first project was the conversion of USS Merrimack into CSS Virginia at the Gosport Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia. Mallory then ordered two ironclads laid down in New Orleans, and another two built in Memphis, Tennessee. These vessels could not be built fast enough to stem the Union’s advance against Confederate ports.

Ironclad Imagined

The urgent need for ironclads was recognized by New Orleans Commission Agent Captain John Stephenson who also served as secretary of the New Orleans Pilots’ Benevolent Association.  Stephenson went to meet with President Jefferson Davis in Montgomery, Alabama, to ask for the use of a heavy tug, altering it to make it “comparatively safe against the heaviest guns afloat, and by preparing … bow in a peculiar manner … rendered them capable of sinking by collision the heaviest vessels ever built.” With Davis’s approval, Stevenson returned to New Orleans to build an ironclad privateer, quickly raising more than $100,000 in subscriptions.   Read more

Gosport Navy Yard is Recaptured

Posted on
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

Posted on
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

Posted on
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

Gosport Navy Yard: Before the Storm

Posted on
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