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
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.
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, 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