NORFOLK NAVY YARD
W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
Copyright. All rights reserved.
A transcription by Jefferson M. Moak, Archivist, National Archives, Philadelphia,
& Donated to the Norfolk Navy Yard site.
Original document resides at National Archives at Philadelphia.
The History of Our Navy Yard
By Com. A. W. Ashbrook
Aid to the Commandant,
Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Va.
(Published in The Portsmouth Star, 9 January 1927)
There has been recorded by various historians much of the statistical and chronological events and happenings relating to the Norfolk Navy Yard, known to the older local inhabitants as the Gosport Navy Yard, but nowhere are there recorded the traditions and personal experiences of the Yard’s former officials and employees. In such an organization, whose beginning dates back prior to the Revolutionary War, there must have been many individuals whose characteristics and achievements would be of real interest if they were more generally known.
In compiling these historical recollections of the Norfolk Navy Yard I have omitted many of the dry facts, and have endeavored to insert in their place some of the traditions pertaining to the establishment and the personal experiences of its former officials and employees which I have been enabled to gather together after months spent in interviewing old residents of this community, poring over personal diaries and other aged documents and, in general, making myself a nuisance to the surviving members of the old families of the vicinity, through whose interest and cooperation I am able to set forth the story told in the following pages.
The history of the Norfolk Navy Yard up to 1870 has already been covered by Commander Edward P. Lull, U.S.N., in his “History of the United States Navy Yard at Gosport, Va.’ Published in 1874, and also up to about 1900 by Colonel William H. Stewart in his “History of Norfolk County Virginia”, published in 1902. With two such complete compilations already in existence, it is manifestly impossible to add much to the salient facts set forth in them. Should the readers of this work have occasion to seek more detailed historical information than I have presented, I refer them to these two histories.
It is regretted that I have been able to insert only a meager amount of the personal side into this sketch, but the reader must remember that the sources of such material lie almost wholly in the living generation and in the records of the next older one. These sources, I am sorry to say, carry us back only a few years prior to the Civil War. The official records and files of the Yard itself prior to 1861 do not exists, as they were completely destroyed in the several fires which have occurred since that time.
I have no doubt omitted a great many incidents of importance, and it is very probable that some of those I have used are not treated as exhaustively as they might be. If in the perusal of these paragraphs the reader finds that he can either add to or correct them, I will greatly appreciate receipt of such additional data or corrections.
Today, as the great shops of this Yard give forth their products necessary in the upbuilding and maintenance of the ships of our fleet, we are apt to forget the fact that it was in this same Yard almost one hundred and fifty years ago that our forefathers were building and equipping ships upon which to a large extent the very independence of our country depended. At evening sunset we pause to raise our hats as the Stars and Stripes are slowly lowered from the flag pole in the Yard, but how may know that in its place the flags of five different sovereignties have flown?
There are many other outstanding points just as interesting, though not strictly as historical, as the two just referred to. Such facts should be in some accessible form, even if they are to rest among the dusty archives, so as to be available in future years to those who come after us. These latter things I have endeavored to gather together and, while a strict line of demarcation cannot be drawn between them and the dry historical facts, I will try to interweave the two together in order to set forth in an interesting a manner as possible the story of this Navy Yard.
The exact date of the establishment of the Norfolk Navy Yard has never been definitely known, but from letters now on file in the Navy Department we learn that it was used by the British as a marine yard prior to the Revolutionary War.
When the Colonies declared war against Great Britain, Virginia confiscated the Yard and used it to care for the vessels belonging to the navy of that state. As soon at the Yard became the property of Virginia, measures were adopted for its improvement and in October, 1776, the Virginia Convention directed the Commissioners of the Continental Virginia Navy to provide the necessary materials with which to build two thirty-two gun frigates and four galleys, and authorized the enlistment of crews for these ships to serve for three years from March 1, 1777. The Commissioners of the Navy at this time were Messrs. Paul Loyall and David Stoddard. It was with them that Dr. Thomas Talbott entered into a contract to furnish the necessary timber for a frigate. The contract price of this timber was $ 3,333.33 and it was estimated that it would require two hundred oak and one hundred and fifty pine trees to fill the contract.
Sad to say, there is surprisingly little data available regarding this Virginia Navy, but we know that it consisted of a few fast sailing vessels which gave a good account of themselves during the war. Commodore Barron, a native of Hampton, Va., and the father of James and Samuel Barron, was the Commodore of this organization, and it included among its captains both of the Commodore’s sons, also Richard Dale. Captain Cunningham, another officer, while in command of the schooner Liberty, was captured by the enemy and confined in Portsmouth. He effected his escape by swimming the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River, just a little below the Navy Yard. It was this Navy that, cooperating with General Washington’s Army, helped in a material way to bring about the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
In May, 1779, a squadron of British vessels under the command of Sit George Collier arrived at Hampton Roads and on May 11, General Mathews took possession of Portsmouth and the Navy Yard. He destroyed by fire large supplies of lumber and stores at the Yard and after capturing and burning Norfolk, Suffolk and the Yard, withdrew his army, taking with him a large amount of plunder. Portsmouth apparently was not burned at this time, because we find comment made in later years that the growth of Norfolk had surpassed that of Portsmouth, notwithstanding the fact that the former had been burned.
The following interesting account of this campaign is taken from a volume entitled “A Detail of Some Particular Services Performed in America, during the Years 1776 to 1779,” which was compiled from journals and original papers, supposed to have been taken principally from a journal kept on board the flagship Rainbow, commanded by Sir George Collier. In describing the Yard this book states:
“Norfolk and Gosport, where the rebels had fixed a very capital marine yard for building ships, were both abandoned at the same time by the enemy, and the men-of-war moved into the harbor, where they moored.
“The enemy, previous to their flight, set fire to a fine ship of war of 28 guns, ready for launching, belonging to Congress; and also to two large French merchantmen, one of which was loaded with bale goods, and the other with a thousand hogsheads of tobacco.
“The quantity of naval stores, of all kings, found in their arsenals was astonishing. Many vessels of war were taken on the stocks in different forwardness; one of 36 guns; one of 18; three of 16; and three of 14; besides many merchantmen. The whole number taken, burned and destroyed, while the King’s ships were in the river, amounted to 137 sail of vessels. A great deal of tobacco, tar, and other commodities, were found in the warehouses.”
Quoting again from this book:
“As many of the naval stores as could be carried away were shipped off, but great quantities were unavoidable left behind and set on fire. The conflagration in the night appears grand beyond description, though the sight was a melancholy one. Five thousand loads of fine seasons oak knees for ship building, an infinite quantity of plank, masts, cordage, and numbers of beautiful ships of war on the stocks, were at one time in a blaze, and all totally consumed, not a vestige remaining, but the iron work.”
After the close of the war with England the Yard remained under the State of Virginia, in more or less an inactive status, until 1794 when it was loaned to the United States for the purpose of building ships to be used against the Algerian pirates.
The Congress of the United States in March, 1794, passed an act to provide a naval armament and directed the building of four ships of 44 guns, and two ships of 36 guns, with which to protect our commerce from the Mediterranean pirates. Of these six vessels the frigate Chesapeake was to have been built in this yard, but in 1796, after a treaty of peace had been signed with Algiers, work was suspended on this vessel; however, two years later it was resumed.
At this time Captain Richard Dale was ordered to the Yard as Superintendent in direct charge of shipbuilding, together with Mr. Josiah Fox as Naval Constructor and Mr. William Pennock as naval Agent.
Captain Dale was born in 1756 and served in the Virginia Navy. During the war he was captured some five or six times and finally was ordered as First Lieutenant with John Paul Jones on board the Bonhomme Richard. While so serving he was wounded in the engagement with the Serapis.
Mr. Pennock was a citizen of Norfolk who carried on a rather extensive business as a shipping agent. The files of the Norfolk Gazette and Public Ledger of this period carry many advertisements of Mr. Pennock’s business and also a statement in its issue of July 29, 1808, that he had withdrawn from the firm of Wilson, Cunningham and Pennock, and was in business for himself with his counting room at No. 4, of his own wharf. The Norfolk City Directory for the year 1801 gives Mr. Pennock as living at 16 Maine Street with his counting room at Nos. 10 and 15 Newton’s Wharf.
The status of the Naval Agent at this time was not very clearly defined. He was a civilian who had charge of the Navy’s interests as well as the supplies, stores, etc., in the Yard. He acted as financial agent for the Government and received as pay, one per cent of his total expenditures. His compensation could not exceed $ 2,000.00 per year, however.
Mr. Pennock apparently did not exercise the degree of economy desired by the Navy Department, for on July 16, 1799, Commodore Samuel Barron was ordered in command of the Yard, where he remained until sometime in 1800.
Having had the use of the Yard as a loan for six years, finally, in January of 1800, the United States realized that they should always retain control of it and expressed to Governor James Monroe of Virginia a desire to purchase the property and obtain permanent possession of it. Accordingly on January 25, 1800, the Virginia legislature passed an act authorizing the Governor to convey to the United State under certain conditions the Gosport Navy Yard. These conditions stipulated that a commission should be appointed to determine a fair price for the property, gave absolute jurisdiction over it to the United States, reserved the right to serve any state process within the Yard and provided for the return of the property to the state should the United States abandon its use as a navy yard.
Mr. Pennock was appointed commissioner to represent the United States in the price settlement. He met with Mr. Newton, who represented the state, to try to set up a fair price on the sixteen acres which then made up the Yard. The Secretary of the Navy felt that a price of 100 dollars an acre would be fair and reasonable and communicated this feeling to Mr. Newton. It can easily be gathered why the Navy Department was somewhat astounded when the commissioners agreed upon a price of $ 12,000.00 or $ 750.00 an acre. On April 26, 1802, Mr. Pennock was relieved by Mr. Daniel Beddinger as naval agent, and just one year later we find where the Navy Department allotted Mr. Beddinger the sum of $ 10,000 with which to build storehouses in the Yard. Previous to this time the stores of the Yard were placed in privately owned warehouses when the amount exceeded the meager storage facilities of the Yard. The $ 10,000 the Naval Agent expended for a brick wall around the northern boundary which was at that time a continuation of what is now Second St., and for a set of comfortable quarters for himself. After the expenditures for these purposes there remained but a very small amount of this $ 10,000 which was used to erect a poorly built, small storehouse which had to be taken down not many years afterwards.
In October of the same year the first Marine Guard was ordered to the Yard and wooden quarters were assigned to them as barracks. These barracks were located in what was then the northwest corner of the Yard. According to the present Yard, this location was not far from where the band pavilion now stands in the park just inside the First St. Gate. This guard remained here only until August, 1804, when it was detached and ordered to the Navy Yard at Washington, and the Yard was without Marines until November, 1807.
It will be of interest here to state that the Norfolk city directory for the year 1806 states that the population of Portsmouth in that year was about 5,000 people, living in about 700 houses, and that ten years previous, or in 1796, the population was about 1700 people living in 300 houses. This same publication gives the information that in 1806 there were drawbridges across both branches of the Elizabeth River and that a person going from Portsmouth could make better time by these than he could by going on the ferry.
The bridge spanning the Southern Branch crossed over to the St. Helena side of the river from a point just to the northward of where the present South Landing is located in the Yard. This bridge is really a causeway built of wood on wooden piling. It was about 25 feet wide with a draw in its center and was used by both pedestrians and vehicles. The approach to this bridge from Gosport was down Second Street to the County road which led directly to it. At the Gosport end of the bridge stood the toll house.
By 1806 the sum of $ 42,748.78 had been spent by the U.S. on Yard improvements, with scarcely more than the wall and agent’s house to show for it.
In April of the same year authority was given the Naval Agent to build a new timber shed and warehouse, and in May, 1809, to build a powder magazine.
On July 7, 1810, the Department, after having experienced considerable difficulty in operating navy yards under the direction of civilian naval agents, who also had outside commercial interests, ordered Commodore Samuel Barron to the Yard as Commandant. This was the second tour of duty at the Yard for this officer. The naval agent was continued, although under the Commandant, and the relation of these two officers to each other was clearly defined in the following letter of instruction from the Secretary of the Navy:
“Navy Department, September 29, 1810
“Sir: - In defining your duties and your authority in the Yard at Gosport, it will be sufficient for me to state that all the military stores of every description will be under your care; that the direction of all improvements in the Yard and of all reparations to our vessels at the Yard are committed to you; and that within the Yard you are to have the entire undivided command.
“The Navy Agent, as heretofore, will have the charge of all stores other than military and he must have a warehouse at the Yard for their safekeeping with perfect liberty of ingress or egress.
“ Signed, Paul Hamilton.”
This letter seems to be the first statement from the Navy Department as to its policy regarding the duties of a Commandant.
Commodore Samuel Barron was the son of James Barron, the Commodore of the Virginia Navy. He was a brother of James Barron, II, and had a son, Samuel, who later served in the Confederate Navy.
In 1810 Samuel Barron came to this Yard as Commandant. In describing this officer and his death it has been said that,
“On 29 October, 1810, while seated at the dinner table with a party of friends, he raised his elbow to the table, and laying his head on his hand, expired in an instant, without a struggle, or a groan, or even so much as a sigh.
“He was a little over 6 ft. in height, well formed and a noble looking man. His manners were courteous and engaging. His temple and disposition were gentle, amiable, and winning in the highest degree. His friends were numerous.”
The Commodore’s house was assigned to Commodore Warren. This was the house which Dr. Beddinger built out of the funds appropriated for storehouses. It was built about 1803 and stood in what was then the Southeast corner of the Yard not far from the water front and about 900 feet from the First Street Gate. It was a two story brick dwelling.
When Commodore Barron moved into this house it was vacated by an eccentric old ex-sea captain named Thomas Dulton, a native of England, who was storekeeper or clerk of the Yard. Many stories are told regarding the eccentricities of old Captain Dulton and from them it seems that he considered himself to be the most important thing in the whole Yard. He performed the duties of clerk of the Yard and, in addition, personally mustered all of the Yard employees as well as attended to the ringing of the Yard bell at its regular times each day.
Upon Commodore Barron’s death the duties of his office devolved upon Lieutenant Robert Henley, pending the arrival of an officer of higher rank.
Lieutenant Henley was born in Virginia in 1783, and after being educated at William and Mary College was appointed Midshipman in 1799. He made a great name for himself in the Navy during the War of 1812 and was presented a special gold medal by Congress for his gallant handling of his ship, the brig Eagle, in action. Lieutenant Henley remained as Commandant until he was relieved on May 1, 1811, by Captain Samuel Evans, who, in turn, occupied that office until relieved August 10, 1812, by Captain John Cassin.
War was formally declared against England on June 18, 1812, and, while the enemy maintained a blockade of Hampton Roads, there seems to have been no attempts made to take any of the nearby cities, except an unsuccessful one to capture Craney Island.
In the Norfolk Gazette and Public Ledger of February 7, 1812, appears a note to the effect that Lieutenant Massey, U.S. Marine Corps, fell off the bridge connecting Portsmouth and Gosport and was drowned.
About this time, although I am not sure as to the exact date, another young Marine officer came to his death in the Yard. He had in some way insulted one of his subordinates who challenged him to a duel. The challenge was accepted and the mortal contest took place under the two large old tree which stand today along the southern side of the house occupied by the Civil Engineer of the Yard. Both contestants were wounded but only one mortally. This officer was buried in the old graveyard which was located near what is today known as the Stone Dry Dock. In excavating for one of the dry docks of the Yard, the remains of this officer were dug up and it was found that he had been buried in his full dress uniform wearing his sword.
Under date of May 25, 1813, Captain Cassin in a report to the Department describes the Yard as follows:-
“The Commodore’s dwelling is of brick, two stories high; the marine barracks miserable huts of wood wanting much repaid; the officers’ quarters (meaning those of the Marine Officers) are low two story frame buildings, the whole 150 feet from the west wall which is only five and a half feet high; the North (apparently referring to the Yard) is bounded by warehouses and timber sheds, having to extend a fence on the East side to low water mark. The marine hospital stands in the center of the Yard, tow stories high and was formerly occupied as boatswains and gunners storerooms, built of wood, the center of which is occupied as a hospital, the garret as a rigging loft, and the lower part gunner stores, storekeeper’s office, purser’s issuing room and office. The blacksmiths’ shop begun of brick, 165 feet by 50 feet, including anchor and plumber shop not completed, the old shop being dangerous to heat a large fire. One large timber shed, 300 feet long with brick pillars and 50 feet wide. One small shed for the armorer and plumber; two sheds appropriated for, one for the joiners, the other for the mast makers.”
In the summer of 1817 the keel of a line-of-battle ship was laid. This vessel was named Delaware and was to be built out of time which had been in store since 1799.
In January, 1818, authority was given to tear down the hospital building, and a small frame building located near the Gosport end of the bridge leading over the Southern Branch to St. Helena was used as a hospital until 1829 when the present Naval Hospital was built.
During the latter part of 1818 the old wooden marine barracks which housed the first marine guard were torn down and new barracks of brick were built closer to the west wall and little more to the southward than the original ones.
It was in this same year that the line-of-battle ship New York was laid down. This ship was never launched and was burned 43 years later while still on the ways when the Federal forces evacuated the Yard.
Captain Lewis Warrington came to the Yard as Commandant on June 1, 1821. He was born in Williamsburg, Va. 3 November, 1782, and was educated at William and Mary College. He was appointed a midshipman in January, 1800, and made his first cruise with James Barron in the Chesapeake. He commanded the Peacock during here memorable cruise of 1814, capturing the Epervier and because of his success was promoted to Captain in November, 1814. After his tour of duty here in the Yard as Commandant, he served as a member of the Board of Navy Commissioners and in September, 1841, was appointed Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography, which office he held until his death in Washington, October 12, 1851. His grandfather was the Rev. Thomas Warrington minister of Hampton Church in 1770.
In 1821 Captain Warrington was directed by the Department to fill the old timber basin. This was done, and on the spot ship house B. was afterwards built. Ship house A. was erected over the ship New York while that vessel was on the ways.
In November, 1823, according to a report made to the Secretary of the Navy, the Gosport Yard included: -
“ A brick wall around the Yard.
A comfortable dwelling for the Commandant.
A large convenient smith shop of brick.
Two large brick warehouses.
A few frame buildings used as joiners shops, coopers shops, etc.
Very convenient houses and quarters for the marines.
A building slip.
A substantial ship house.
A pair of mast shears.”
Gosport as it existed between the years 1820 and 1830 was described by one of the inhabitants of Portsmouth in his personal diary, who writes that –
“Portsmouth in 1830 had a population of 9860 people and included Gosport and New Town which lie to the South of it, the former being connected to Portsmouth by a bridge which is logged and railed with a draw in it. The whole of Gosport is to be found along First or Water Street running from this bridge to the Navy Yard gate with a few houses on Lincoln Street running along the side of the North wall of the Yard. Along First Street on the East side of the street from the bridge to the Yard are in order named:’
A foundry. (This foundry was later known as the Gosport Iron Works and was under the management of a Mr. A. Mahaffey of Pennsylvania. It was in these works that the engines for the U. S. S. Powhatan were built. This vessel was laid down in the Yard in July of 1847.)
Large wooden residence of Mr. Clark.
Residence of Mr. Davidson.
Residence of Mrs. Staples who kept a boarding house.
Elegant residence of Captain William Dickson, a merchant who owned several ships in the West Indian trade. The property of Captain Dickson occupied an entire block and in addition to his residence consisted of four large warehouses, wharves, &.
Residence of Mr. James Young another large merchant with several warehouses on the waterfront. This residence was later occupied by Mrs. Lewis Page who kept an officers’ boarding house. (This house still stands now deserted, on First Street, and it referred to as the Neville house.)
Very large wooden house having a foundation of free stone owned by Captain John Cox but occupied by Mr. P. McDonough as a boarding house.
Residence of Mr. Nelson Miller, an accomplished gentleman who for years was a member of the Virginia Legislature.
On the corner next to the Yard was a house owned by Captain John Dickson but used as a restaurant.
On the west side of the street from the bridge to the Yard there was but one house up to Henry Street. It was occupied by a Mr. Guthrie, a rigger.
On the corner of Henry Street stood the residence of Captain Samuel Davis, a stately and elegant gentleman who always dressed in the old English fashion. He was a retired sea captain.
Brick residence owned and occupied by Mrs. Buckley formerly Mrs. Poulson.
Several other houses owned by Mr. Poulson. (It was in one of these Poulson houses in 1814 that Portsmouth Masonic Lodge No. 100 was organized with Lieutenant Walter G. Anderson, U.S.N., installed as the first master.)
There were no houses between this and the corner next to the Yard. On this corner Mr. Thomas Nash, a lumber inspector in the Yard, resided.
On Lincoln Street running west from First Street were several houses built by Captain Jack Dickson who resided in one of them.
This ended the whole of Gosport.
When Newtown now is there was a wilderness of chinquepins with but two houses in the whole of Newtown to Edwards’ farm. One of these was owned and occupied by Mr. Robert Jones and the other by Mr. Wm. Wakefield.
Gosport at this time was a fashionable residential place and the Elite of Portsmouth resided there.”
The name Gosport was doubtless taken from the fortified English seaport town of the same name. This port adjoined the city of Portsmouth, England, and was the site of extensive barracks, together with the Royal Clarence Victualling Yard, a powder magazine and other Naval activities, including the Hasler Naval Hospital built in 1762.
Portsmouth, Virginia, about this time was also a busy port with many shipyards, wharves and storehouses. At the north end of Court Street, where in later years stood the residence of Mr. William Peters, was quite an extensive shipyard conducted by Mr. John Jarvis who built many fine vessels. The last one built here was a schooner about half finished when Mr. Jarvis died. This vessel was purchased by Mr. William Dyson, Senior, and was launched with her masts stepped, which was considered at that time to be a great fact. Next to the southward was the residence of Mr. Jarvis; then came the homes of some of Portsmouth’s most prominent citizens, Mr. John Gaskins, John Wilson, Wm. H. Wilson and A. Seekie. It was Mr. Wm. H. Wilson who conducted an extensive water works for supplying fresh water to the ships in the harbor. He had a long wharf extending out into the river carrying troughs, inclined, down which the water flowed to the end of the wharf.
Continuing to the south we come to the North wharf which in that day was the ferry landing for the ferry plying between Norfolk and Portsmouth. The first ferry was a large rowboat principally used by foot passengers, although it was capable of carrying a single horse and vehicle. The route for vehicles was by way of the bridges which spanned both the Eastern and Southern Branches of the Elizabeth River. This route was the one used by the regular stage coaches running from Norfolk to North Carolina.
It was in 1823 that regular vehicle ferries were first operated. They were propelled by means of horses in a sort of treadmill arrangement. These ferries were built by Messrs. Wm. Dyson and Joseph Porter and were used until about 1832, when steam ferries were installed.
To the south of the North wharf came the shipyard of Mr. Wm. Dyson. On the next wharf were the sail lofts of John Kay and D. Ballentine and the block shop of James Rudder and John Pritchard, all of whom did a thriving business, especially in sailmaking, as there were no steam vessels in those days. Farther along the water front was the blacksmith shop of Mr. Robert Peed and John Rudder. At the foot of High Street were the Wood Wharf and Fish Market.
Where the old depot stood was the shipyard of John Accinelly. Next came the most extensive shipyard in the city, conducted by Mr. Joseph Porter. This was once the firm of Porter and Dyson. On the Wharf now owned by the railroad company, was a brass foundry and plumber shop operated by a Mr. Davidson. It was in this foundry that Mr. Davidson cast the bell formerly used in the old courthouse, but later moved to the jail of the city. At the corner of Crawford and County Streets stood a large sugar refinery which occupied all of the land south of County Street. This completed the water front of Portsmouth up to the Gosport Bridge.
Continuing along the shores of Gosport one came to the large extensive warehouses of Captain William Dickson, and others previously mentioned who owned many ships and brigs trading to foreign ports. Captain Dickson was assisted by his accomplished clerk, Mr. William Moffatt, and did an immense business. An old inhabitant has stated that he saw more rum, sugar and molasses landed at Dickson’s Wharf in one day at this time than one could see fifty years later landed in six months in the entire city of Portsmouth. At this time (1820-1830) the extent of the shipping business in Portsmouth is shown by the following list of sea captains residing in Portsmouth, some of them owning and all sailing vessels out of this port:
Captain John Accinelly
Captain Robert Barclay
Captain Sam Bacci
Captain Henry Bell
Captain John Basden
Captain Wm. Benthall
Captain John Bingham
Captain Wm. Benson
Captain John Benson
Captain Beverly Bayton
Captain John Cox
Captain Alex Cunningham
Captain Enoch Choat
Captain Bill Collins
Captain Samuel Davis
Captain Jack Davis
Captain Harry Dickson
Captain John Dickson
Captain Thomas Dulton
Captain Wm. Doggett
Captain John M. Foster
Captain Wm. Fee
Captain Louis Legrand
Captain John Lanier
Captain John B. Levy
Captain Wm. Moffat
Captain John McRae
Captain Dock Nash
Captain Wm. Rudder
Captain Thomas Rourke
Captain David A. Reynolds
Captain Alex Seekie
Captain Joseph Seward
Captain Frank Saiverance
Captain Henry Serlie
Captain John Thomas
Captain George Weble, Sr.
Captain George Weble, Jr.
Captain Richard Weble
Captain Nathan Wilkerson
Captain Guy C. Wheeler
Captain Ed. L. Young
Captain Harry Young
In December, 1824, Captain Lewis Warrington was relieved from duty as Commandant of the Yard by Master-Commandant James Renshaw. This title of Master Commandant was in 1837 by an act of Congress changed to Commander.
In 1824 General Lafayette in his tour of the United States visited Portsmouth. The General visited the Yard and was sent to Yorktown in a special barge. At this time Robert Donaldson Thorburn was a midshipman. His aunt had married Captain Warrington and Thorburn was placed in command of this barge with the General as a passenger.
In 1824 the Senate of the United States called upon the Secretary of the Navy for information relative to the usefulness, best location and estimated cost of a permanent dry-dock of a size necessary to accommodate ships of the line. The Secretary recommended that two such dry-docks be built, one of which was recommended for the Gosport Yard. No action was taken by Congress on this subject until several years later.
On May 25, 1825, Commodore James Barron came to the Yard as Commandant, and in November of the same year proposed a plan of improvements to the Yard which involved the purchase of adjoining lands. He was the son of Commodore James Barron of the Virginia Navy and a brother of Samuel Barron, who died in 1810 in this Yard. He was born in Hampton, Virginia, in the year 1768 and served with his father and brother in the Virginia Navy. After the War of 1812, a controversy arose between James Barron and Commodore Stephen Decatur, who at that time was one of the Board of Navy Commissioners. This controversy terminated in Barron sending a challenge to Decatur, which the latter promptly accepted. A duel was fought at Bladensburg, near Washington, D.C., on the 22nd of March, 1820. It was fought with pistols at a distance of eight yards. This was to accommodate Commodore Barron whose sight was defective. Just before opening first Barron addressed Decatur as follows: - “Now, Decatur, my brave fellow, when we get in the other world, I hope we shall be better friends than we have been in this.” Commodore Decatur replied, “I have never been your enemy, sir.” Both men fired their pistols so exactly together that only one report was heard. Barron fell wounded in the right hip, which Decatur was wounded in the right side. Decatur died as a result of this duel, while Barron recovered slowly.
Barron was one of the invited guests at the grand fete at Yorkton given to General Lafayette by the State of Virginia on October 19, 1824. He died the 21st of April, 1851, in the eighty-third year of his life. It has been said of him that, “He was governed by a high sense of honor and bore himself with a dignity, courtesy and affability, which gave a charm to his society.” He was buried in the churchyard of Trinity Church in Portsmouth, Va.
In 1826, the frigate St. Lawrence was laid down and a second ship house called “B” was erected. This ship house was similar in size and design to the house “A” already built and was located parallel to and just to the southward of it on the location of the old timber basin which had been filled in some years before.
About this time Mr. Miles King, the then Navy agent, reported to the Navy Department that all the land from Jefferson Street along the line of Third Street to the county road and thence to the river could be purchased for $ 7,285.00. He was accordingly authorized to acquire this property, together with such other property to the southward of the Yard as might be deemed necessary. This land included all that to the South of Lincoln Street and to the east of Third Street and also several tracts to the southward of the Yard as it existed at that time.
During the years 1827-1828 the Board of Navy Commissioners, of which Commodore Wm. Bainbridge was president, made a careful study of the question of improvement to the Yard in pursuance to an Act of Congress dated March 3, 1827, and on the first of April, 1828, their recommendations were graphically set forth in the form of a plan of the Yard surveyed by Colonel Laommi Baldwin, who was at that time one of the foremost civil engineers of the country. This plan states that it “shows the positions and dimensions of buildings as they are at present and of docks and other improvements as recommended by the Board.” The plan was signed by all three members of the board and was approved by President John Quincy Adams on November 24, 1828.
Work on the newly authorized dry dock, which was to be made of stone, was started in November, 1827, and Colonel Baldwin was appointed engineer in charge of the work with Captain W. P. S. Sander as his assistant. The site finally chosen for this dock was at one time a burial ground and a number of bodies were removed during the building of the dock, while others remained in the ground until 1889, when the wooden dry-dock, known as Simpson Dock, was built. A number of people were buried in the area in question during the War of 1812, and also when Portsmouth was visited by cholera and smallpox in 1847.
The stone dry-dock, known today as Dock No. 1, was capable of taking a ship, under ordinary conditions, 253 feet long. June 17, 1833, the anniversary of the battle of Bunker Hill, was the day set for the formal opening of this dock and the ship-of-the-line Delaware was chosen as the first vessel to enter the dock. This occasion attracted widespread interest and many visitors came to the Yard on that day. President Andrew Jackson attended the opening ceremonies. It was rather warm that day and one of the old characters of the Yard was busily engaged with his work of carrying water to the Yard workmen. This water carrier, an old colored man, dispensed water from the bucket with a dipper. He was very particular not to allow any person other than a Yard employee to drink from his bucket. As this old man passed, the President reached for the dipper, which was quickly snatched away from him and at the same time the water boy demanded, in a very important tone of voice, “Who is you?” He was informed that he was addressing the President of the United States, whereupon he removed the dipper and holding forth the bucket said, “Lody, Boss, you sho kin hav de hol buket full.”
The docket was turned over to the Commandant of the Yard on March 15, 1834, at a total cost of $ 974,356.65. It was the first dry-dock to be completed in the United States, and the Delaware was the first ship to enter a dry-dock in this country. Although nearly a hundred years old, this dock is at present in daily use.
By an act of the Virginia Legislature passed February 27, 1833, Governor Littleton W. Tazewell conveyed by a deed, dated April 1, 1835, jurisdiction to the United States over all the lands recently purchased.
After completion of his work on the dry-dock Captain Sanger remained at the Yard until 1842.
Commodore Lewis Warrington returned to the Yard as Commandant on May 26, 1831, and remained here until October 1, 1840, a period of nine years and four months, which was the longest tour of duty of any of the Commandants either before or after this time.
From about 1830 up to the time of the Civil War the Yard was busily engaged in building and repairing ships. Some of the vessels built at the Yard were:
John Adams, sloop, built 1830
Macedonian, frigate, built 1832-1836
Pioneer, brig, launched 1836
Yorktown, sloop, laid down 1835, launched 1839
Union, steamer, built 1841-1842
Southampton, storeship, laid down 1842
Perry, brig, laid down 1843.
Jamestown, sloop, laid down 1843, launched 1844
St. Lawrence, frigate, launched in 1847
Powhatan, steam frigate, laid down 1847
Dakota, steam sloop, laid down 1858, launched 1859
Richmond, steam sloop, laid down 1858, launched 1860
Despatch, rebuilt into Pocahontas, in 1859
On August 26, 1846, the property across the river from the Yard, known as St. Helena, was purchased and added to the Yard.
The first dredging machine to be used at the Yard was authorized and purchased in 1842. It was used to dredge off the approach to the dry-dock and long the quay wells. Much of the dredged material was used in filling in and leveling off the Yard.
It was in 1847 that the country surrounding the Yard was the scene of the dreaded cholera plague. This plague was accompanied by the smallpox and it proved fatal to a larger number of the inhabitants.
One who witnessed the launching of the Powhatan on February 14, 1848, described it as follows:
“The morning of the day was stormy and forbidding, and many were kept away from the scene who would have enjoyed it highly. A large crowd, however, had assembled in spite of the weather, to witness the exciting spectacle, and at the appointed hour the conscious ship broke away from her bed, and rushed into the river with a joyous crash that called forth thunders of applause.
“There was a beautiful and touching incident,” says the Argus, “that occurred as the very moment the Powhatan plunged into her destined element, which rendered the scene truly thrilling and sublime. The morning, as we before remarked, was lowering, blustering, and rainy, but as the ship went proudly over the waves, the winds were suddenly stilled, the rain ceased to fall, and a brilliant rainbow made its appearance in the heavens, spanning, as it seemed, the sister towns of Norfolk and Portsmouth, in one long and delightful embrace.”
“After the ceremony of the launching was over, Commodore Sloat, Captain Farragut, Lt. Gleason and the other officers of the Yard extended every civility and attention to the honorable members of the Legislature and other visitors, and after conducting them to the Dry-dock and the various departments connected with the Station, the Commodore took them to his residence where a sumptuous repast awaited them, and where they were entertained with the most cordial hospitality.
“We are happy to state that not a single accident occurred to mar the pleasures of the occasion.”
Another writer describing the launching of the Powhatan says –
“The steamer Powhatan was launched precisely at 10:45 a.m. with the grace of a swan and the truth of a rifle.”
This vessel’s keel was laid in 1847 and was constructed under the superintendence of Naval Constructor S. T. Hartt, from plans drawn by Mr. Francis Grice. Her engines were made by the Gosport Iron Works.
At this period the refuse from the woodworking shops in the Yard were hauled in ox carts to a dumping place outside the Yard where the people in need of fuel could obtain it. These people would gather just outside the Yard gate and when the ox cart would come through they would run to it and placing a hand on the cart, follow it until dumped. This hand hold on the cart, indicated their right to their portion of its contents. When the refuse was dumped, all who had this right would fall down on the wood and shavings with outstretched arms and thus claim for their use everything within their grasp. These rights grew up among the people themselves and were not to be disputed.
In 1850 there was a limited amount of fresh water available for the Yard, so an appropriation was made to build to cisterns for the collection of rain water. One of these cisterns was completed in 1851, but the other was apparently never started. In 1856-57 two large water reservoirs were built. These reservoirs were large wooden tanks built above ground and held about 125,000 gallons each. The rain water from the roofs of buildings 14 and 16 drained into one of these tanks while from buildings 32 and 33 drained into the other.
There was also maintained at the Yard a supply of fresh water from the Dismal Swamp. This water, known as Juniper water, was of excellent quality and supposed to posses certain medicinal properties. It was some of this water that was one day offered to a lady visitor on board the Receiving Ship Pennsylvania. It was its peculiar color, perhaps, that caused this lady to refuse the drink, thinking she was being offered something stronger than water.
In 1851-52 a building was erected along the North wall of the Yard. It contained a rigging loft, armory, offices and the First Street gateway.
It was in July of 1855 that a merchant ship, the Ben Franklin, arrived at Dickson’s Wharf in Portsmouth; this ship had arrived from some southern port and brought to the town the yellow fever. The disease spread through the towns of Norfolk and Portsmouth in such a virulent form that it ravaged the populace unchecked until after the first frost of October. During this epidemic, work in the towns as well as in the Yard was at a standstill. All who were able left the vicinity and those who remained feared to come out of their homes. In describing this terrible time Dr. Randolph Harrison, one of the six Naval Surgeons sent to the Naval Hospital here to assist in fighting the fever, in writing to his relatives at the time states – “No one who had never witnessed anything of the kind could form any idea of the utter desolation of the two cities (Norfolk and Portsmouth); no hotel or store open, the very drug stores kept by the doctors themselves, as the apothecaries had all fled, in fact everything was given to the physicians and the undertakers.” These six doctors did such heroic work in fighting the yellow-fever, and, with no regard for their personal safety, rendered such valuable assistance to the stricken people that the City of Portsmouth publicly thanked them and caused to be struck six gold medals or plaques which were presented to these gallant men.
On April 1, 1856, Commodore Isaac McKeever died while Commandant of the Yard. His funeral was attended by the entire naval and civilian personnel of the Yard, together with the various officials and military organizations of Norfolk and Portsmouth. He was buried in the cemetery of the Naval Hospital here.
The steamer Despatch was purchased by the Government in 1858 and rebuilt at the Yard under the direction of Naval Constructor Samuel Hart of Portsmouth. The Despatch was hauled upon the launching ways where the workmen could get at her hull. When the day came to haul this vessel up on the ways every available man in the Yard was gathered around the two capstans and every one from master workmen down bent their backs to the capstan bars. To help out a fifer played “Yankee Doodle” and other inspiring airs. When rebuilt in 1859 the Despatch was renamed the Pocahontas.
During the period immediately preceding the outbreak of the Civil War prosperity reigned in this vicinity. There was plenty of work for the Yard as well as ample appropriations from Congress to execute it. All available labor was given employment and the Yard presented a picture replete with busy shops storehouses, docks and workmen.
From May 6, 1856, to April 30, 1859, Captain Thomas A. Dornin was Commandant. He was assisted in his busy administration by such officers as Captain Robert Pyson, Lieutenant Spottswood, Engineer Thomas Williamson, and Naval Constructor Samuel Hart. Captain Dornin was born in Ireland in 1800 and was noted for the traditional wit and humor of his native land. He was rather short in stature, and did not present a formidable appearance.
One noon hour while walking through the park leading to his quarters, Captain Dornin came upon a group of husky looking men standing beside a large pile of old 32-pound round shot and arguing about who could pick one of them up and hold it out at arm’s length. All seemed reluctant to try however. The Commandant brushed into the center of the group, and, stooping, picked up one of the shot, and accomplished the much discussed feat, to the complete surprise of all. This pleased the men and they applauded him freely.
Another incident connected with this Commandant is worth recording. He came upon a Yard workman, also a native of Brin, who was loafing. The Commandant stopped, and called the man to task about his not working. Now this man no doubt recognized the Commandant but his native humor came to his aid and instead of making excuses for his delinquency, he told the Commandant to move on, adding, “If old Captain Dornin should happen along her now and see a drunken midshipman taking my valuable time, he would kick us both out of the Yard.” The Captain realized that the joke was on him and moved on.
On the morning of Saturday, April 20, 1861, everything in the Yard seemed to the casual observer to be serene. Prosperity was at its zenith, since all available labor in this vicinity was given employment in the Yard. First Street, in Gosport, up to the Main Gate of the Yard seemed to be a continuous line of warehouses, shops, yards, etc. necessary to support merchant shipping. These shops included machine, blacksmith, carpenter, block, sail and, in fact, all kinds allied with the business of ship building. The largest and most important of these was the Gosport Iron Works. These shops were all on the East side of First Street, while on the other side were to be seen the Salem Eating House, the Eagle House, and other such establishments. It was said that at this time all departments of the ship building trade were represented on First Street, where approximately 1,000 men were employed. This Street ended, or rather passed into the Navy Yard through the Main Gate at the corner of Lincoln and First Streets.
This Main Gate had a beautiful gallery built over it forming a sort of arch way. Directly over the entrance was a cupola on top of which was mounted a weather van. The cupola held the Yard bell which called the workmen to work in the morning and after dinner, as well as tolled out the hours of the day. The Main Gate building was of brick and extended along the north boundary of the Yard in both directions from the gateway. It formed part of the wall in those days as it does at present. In it, just to the eastward of the entrance, were the quarters of the Captain of the Yard Watch, in order that he could be available at all hours of the day or night. The watermen were stationed throughout the Yard from this building, and each watch had its captain who would pass the call every hour from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. The members of the watch were stationed on regular beats throughout the Yard and were augmented by marine sentries.
Just inside the Main Gate was the park (now known as Trophy Park) which had a row of old cannons arranged along its borders. These old guns lay side by side and were of varying sized and ages. Some of them dated back to the days of the Revolution. It was estimated that there were about 1500 of these old cannons in the Yard with about 1000 similar ones stored across the river at St. Helena.
The row of ships moored in the river opposite the Yard was headed by the receiving ship Pennsylvania, which was almost opposite the end of Lincoln Street. These vessels were considered to be in ordinary, or out of commission and included, besides the receiving ship, the Columbus, Raritan, Delaware, United States, Columbia, Dolphin and Perry.
There were other vessels in various stages of fitting out and preparing for sea including the Yankee, Germantown, Plymouth, Dolphin, Merrimac and Cumberland.
The Germantown had just completed taking on board guns, ammunition, and stores, and was berthed abreast the large wooden shear legs on the sea wall between ship houses “A” and “B”. The shears had just completed hoisting her guns aboard.
On the building ways in ship house “A” was the ship New York, laid down in 1818, but never completed. The ship house had been erected over this vessel. It was a large wooden building about 290 feet long, eight stories high with a cupola and flagstaff mounted on its western end. The roof of this house, as well as its sides, was fitted with windows or skylights to provide light for the work inside.
Parallel to and just to the southward of this house stood its duplicate, ship house “B”. In the Wet Basin in front of the timber docks were a few tug boats and Yard Craft. Between this basin and the Stone Dry Dock stood several brick buildings used as storehouses, shops, etc. The stone dock (Present Dock No. 1), which was opened June 17, 1833, by the ship Delaware, was the only dock then in the Yard. It was empty with its gate in place and no water in it. Surrounding the dry dock were the foundry, timber sheds, dock engine house, and shops. The officers’ quarters consisted of the present Commandant’s house, with the quarters to the westward of it occupied, in order, by the Executive Officer (Captain of Yard) and the Surgeon. There were two other sets of quarters for officers in the Yard. These were in the present double house occupied now by the Outside and the Inside Superintendents, known as Quarters “D” and “E”. These were occupied at that time by the Engineer Officer and Naval Constructor of the Yard.
On the water front near the dry dock was Ship House “C”, which had never been completed, although its ways were in use. It was here that the steamer Despatch was hauled out of the water and rebuilt into the Pocahontas as already referred to.
The stables of the Yard were not far from the present old power house, near the Dispensary, and were a model for neatness and cleanliness. Here were kept about 24 horses and 50 yoke of oxen.
The stables stood at the head of the Wet Basin, or Timber Dock as it was called. This was about 1000 feet long by 250 feet wide, having a gateway something like a dry dock.
Facing the Timber Docket and to the northward of it was the Marine Barracks with its parade ground and annex, the latter containing prison cells and quarters for the Marine Officer of the Day.
To the east of these Barracks were the Yard Officers. From this office building the Yard employees with their master workmen had to muster. It was three stories high and contained the offices of the Yard, except those of the Commandant and the Constructor which were in the building at the Main Gate.
In the ship joiners’ shop, on the first floor, was the Fire Department with the four Yard fire engines, all hand operated. On the afternoon of the last Saturday of each month fire drill was held. At the fire call, which was sounded on the Yard bell over the Main Gate, all Yard workmen would stop their work and run to their fire stations. The carpenters would man No. 1 fire engine and hose reel, while the blacksmiths and boilermakers would be responsible for engines Nos. 2 and 3 with hose reels. Engine No. 4 was used as a spare or standby. At these drills the scene of the supposed fire was generally Ship House “A”, where the fire hose was lead out, the engines put into operation (by hand) and the streams of water directed generally at the flagship on the roof of the ship house. Times were taken from the sounding of the fire call to the first stream of water thrown over the ship house. The horizontal distance each engine threw water was measured. This was generally a little more than 200 feet.
Fire drill was competitive; and there was much interest taken in the monthly drills, as well as in the upkeep and repair of the apparatus. When these drills were completed the order to “Reel up” was given, followed by “Stow away”. A roll call was held after each drill and all absentees noted. Immediately following this muster the winners of the drill were announced.
Up to noon of that memorable 20th of April, 1861, the work of the Yard continued in full sway. On that Saturday the Yard bell was rung at noon to stop work for dinner, and great was the astonishment of the workmen when they were informed at that time not to return to the Yard after dinner, as there would be no afternoon work.
Commodore Charles S. McCauley, Commandant since the first of August, 1860, was called to the Main Gate of the Yard at noon to meet a committee from Richmond, Virginia, composed of General Taliferro, Major H. Tyler, accompanied by officials from the Norfolk Custom House. This Committee was empowered by the Governor of Virginia to come to the Yard and take possession of the steamer Yankee secured at the wharf at the north end of the Yard. The Yankee had failed to have her ship’s papers renewed by the Customs officials and had apparently taken refuge in the Yard. This Committee made a formal demand for the surrender of the Yankee. They told the Commandant that they would give him a receipt for the Yankee and see to her obtaining the proper papers. After a few minutes, the Commandant refused this demand, and the Captain of the Cumberland, who was with Captain McCauley, addressed them saying – “Gentlemen, remove from the channel of the river the old barges and logs which had been sunk this side of Fort Nelson because I leave the Yard tonight and if I am either fired upon or the progress of my ship hindered in any way I shall bombard both Norfolk and Portsmouth, so I now warn you to remove the women and children from those cities.”
The Commandant realizing that conditions were becoming acute, sent his orderly at once to the Marine Barracks with order for the Captain of Marines (Captain Baker, U.S.M.C.) to bring his entire guard to the Main Gate at once. He responded at once on the double with his men equipped with muskets and ammunition and his officers wearing their side arms. The Commandant also sent orders to the ships Cumberland and Pennsylvania to train their guns on the Yankee and fire should she attempt to leave the Yard. With this display of force, the Committee withdrew.
At this period in these times of excitement and quick action in the Yard the people of Portsmouth and Norfolk little realized that conditions, as regarded the Yard, were as critical as they actually were, but the news of the visit of the Committee to the Yard and of the Commandant’s refusal to meet their demands quickly spread through the whole community. All available militia were called out and took stations to meet any eventuality.
At 12:30 p.m. of this same day, the Commandant called a conference of the Yard and ships’ officers, at which it was decided to destroy as much of the Yard with its stores, shops, and ships as possible. Commodore McCauley was under the impressions that large numbers of Confederate troops were arriving in Portsmouth by rail. This was due to the fact that General Mahone, who was an official of what is now the Norfolk and Western Railroad, caused train after train to be run into the city. True these trains were empty but the General’s ruse, no doubt, had great weight in causing the officials to decide upon the hurried evacuation of the Yard. To carry out this decision, men from the ships Cumberland and Pennsylvania worked all the remainder of that day destroying everything possible in the Yard. Trunnions were broken off the old cannon, shear legs cut down, stores were damaged and broken up and quantities of guns and ammunition thrown into the river. Ships were scuttled at their moorings. Excitement ran wild, both inside and outside the Yard.
In both Norfolk and Portsmouth hasty preparations were made for war. Soldiers were running from place to place and artillery companies were rushed into their position.
In the Yard the men carrying on the work of destruction were armed with all kinds of sledges and mauls and the noise made by them was deafening. About 10:00 p.m. the U.S.S. Pawnee, with Rear Admiral Paulding on board, arrived from Washington. As she steamed up the river her band could be heard playing the “Red, White and Blue” and other similar airs. She landed a detachment of men who joined in the work of destruction. At 4:20 a.m. a signal rocket was fired from the Pawnee, immediately following which the noise of the destruction died down and in its place arose the first few clouds of smoke and flame which was soon to envelope the entire Yard. First was first seen coming from the Marine quarters, but it was only a short time until practically the entire Yard was lighted by the terrible conflagration. The Portsmouth Fire Department rushed to the Yard to lend their help in extinguishing the fire, but upon arrival at the gate they were refused admittance. Thus the flames were allowed to eat their way into this valuable property unobstructed. In the stone dry dock, which had its gate in position and was empty of water, was placed about 2000 pounds of powder with fuses leading to it. The fuses were lighted by Commander Rogers. This officer in making his retreat from the Yard was captured in Norfolk, about 6:00 a.m., Sunday, 21st April, 1861. Commander Rogers says that on the following day he was sent with an officer to Richmond, where he was most kindly treated by the Governor and his family. He remained on parole in Richmond until Wednesday, April 24, when he was sent to Washington.
The story goes, that as the last sailor left the doomed dry dock, he realized that if it was blown up, the falling stones would kill many innocent people in the town of Portsmouth, and trampled the fire out of the fuse. His act was prompted by humanity and not through any sympathy for the Confederate cause. Whether this story be true of not, it is a fact that the powder placed in this dock was never exploded.
The scuttled ships were burned to the water’s edge.
When the officers of the Yard were satisfied that their work of destruction was a thorough as it could be made, they embarked on board the Cumberland, which was towed to Hampton Roads by the Pawnee assisted by the Yankee. In leaving the Yard in the early morning, the band on the Yankee could again be heard playing the “Red, White and Blue”, “All Hail to the Chief”, and the “Star Spangled Banner.”
On Sunday morning, the 21st of April, this great industrial plant presented a sad sight. There, less than 24 hours previous, were to be seen busy shops and stately ships, now appeared only the flaming ruins of what had been the Nation’s greatest and most valuable Navy Yard.
The Main Gate building, Ship Houses “A”, “B”, and “C”, together with many other buildings in the Yard, were all engulfed in flames, as were also the hulls of the ships.
The evacuation by the Federal forces was complete, none of them remaining to witness the ending of the work of destruction they had started.
The Fire Department of Portsmouth again came to the Yard on this Sunday morning, but not being able to enter the Main Gate, due to the fire, they succeeded in cutting a hole through the Yard wall at the western end of the Main Gate building. They were able to get water on some of the buildings and prevented their total destruction. The officers’ quarters in the Yard were not fired although their furnishings were demolished.
When the crew abandoned the receiving ship Pennsylvania her guns were left loaded and trained up Lincoln Street. As the fire heated them they fired themselves and, while they did little or no damage, they caused no end of anxiety among the populace. Luckily the flames did not spread to Portsmouth, except to the houses in one block along Lincoln Street.
The Yard was at this time at the mercy of the people who came into it to plunder, as well as to help extinguish the fires. Property which had belonged to the United States was considered by these people to be a legal prize for anyone desiring it.
One crowd of men was seen laboriously rolling a barrel of whiskey all the way through the Yard and out through the West Gate. Upon getting their plunder to a place of safety, they smashed in the head of the barrel only to find it filled with oil.
The civil officials were quick to call upon the militia and all citizens to help save what remained of the Yard. Guards were ordered to protect the property, and the Yard was taken over on the 21st of April by Captain Robert B. Pegram, a commissioned officer in the Virginia Navy. This officer had recently resigned from the United States Navy. Lieutenant Spottswood, himself a native of Virginia, hoisted the flag of that State to the top of the flagpole in the station and the Yard remained until this flag until July, 1861, when Virginia joined the Confederacy. The State flag was then hauled down and replaced by the Stars and Bars. After a tour of duty of only one day, Captain Pegram was relieved by Commodore French Forrest, also of the Virginia Navy, who had recently resigned his commission as an officer in the United States Navy.
As soon as the fires in the Yard were extinguished, steps were immediately taken to salvage as much of the property as was useful. Buildings were quickly repaired and the Yard entered upon one of the busiest periods in its history. A survey of the materials which were not damaged by the first showed that a vast amount of general stores, provisions, clothing, and ammunition remained in the Yard. In addition to this, there were some 1,085 cannon, together with their gun carriages, which were serviceable. These cannon were dispatched to various points in the vicinity for use in defense against the Federal Forces. As this was the largest supply of munitions which had so far fallen into the hands of the Confederates, these cannon proved to be a great asset. They were used at the Naval Hospital, Craney Island, Fort Norfolk, Pig Point, Pinner’s Point, Sewall’s Point, and Lambert’s Point, and, in addition, a large number of them were sent to Richmond, to Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Louisiana, North Carolina, and, in fact, to practically all important points in the south.
During the Confederate occupation of this Yard a vast amount of work was done and it was here that the iron-clad Virginia was built from the remains of the Merrimac. Troops guarded every entrance to the Yard to protect it against any attack by Federal troops. The U.S.S. Pawnee, which towed the Cumberland away from the Yard on the 20th of April, was expected to return and bombard the towns of Norfolk and Portsmouth. In the Yard, workmen were employed day and night repairing the damaged cannon and working on the hulks of the sunken and burned ships. In the space of one year’s time a number of these ships had been raised and fitted for service.
In the Yard under Commodore Forest were, among other officers, Captains Lee, Hunter, Fairfax and Page. Captain Pegram, who had been relieved from his one day’s tour of duty as Commandant, was placed in command of the fortifications at Pig Point.
Under the Confederates, the Yard developed very rapidly, the working force soon numbering about 5,000 men, and it was during their occupation that one of the 32-pounf, smooth bore, cannon was successfully rifled. The Confederacy realized the importance and value to them of this Yard. The Virginia Daily Transcript, published in Portsmouth in about December, 1861, states –
“There is no place in the Southern Confederacy that the Yankees so much desire as the Gosport Navy Yard and the loss of which would cause us so much injury. Its many spacious storehouses are filled with materials for building and equipping ships that could not be procured in the Country at this time at any cost. The extensive, varied and costly machinery, which we are now employing there so successfully, could not, if destroyed, be replaced by any efforts during the continuation of the War. A great deal of work cannot, perhaps, be accomplished at any other point in the Confederacy. To the Confederacy its value cannot be estimated in money. The importance and value of certain cities, however great their importance, is but trivial to the Confederacy in furnishing material aid in the common defense when contrasted with that of the Gosport Navy Yard.”
No steps were omitted to protect the Yard. Holes about 18 inches square were cut through the brick wall surrounding the Yard with platform steps below them. These holes were about 7 ½ or 8 feet above the ground and 4 feet apart. There were for the use of rifles to repel an attack. The Yard workmen manned these rifles and a drill was held every Saturday at 4 p.m. in their use. Upon the sounding of the alarm, each workman ran to the Ordnance building, selected a rifle and manned his assigned hole in the wall. Large cannon with grape shot were mounted at the Yard gates and a battery of 9-inch guns was mounted on top of one of the raised cisterns in the Yard at the west side. From this position the guns overlooked the whole city of Portsmouth. At the northwest corner of the Yard, that is the corner of Third and Lincoln Streets, there was a large battery mounted behind breastworks at the corner of the wall. This battery was surrounded on the town side by a moat of 20 feet wide filled with water. Along the top of the west wall were mounted heavy cannon and another formidable battery was located about where the Yard restaurant now stands.
The Third Georgia Regiment was encamped along Gosport Road, where the Marine parade ground is now. Three companies from this Regiment were also on duty inside the Yard.
The Yard, in addition to completing the conversion of the sunken ship Merrimac into the iron clad Virginia, also made plans for and launched the hull of another iron-clad named “Lady Davis” after the wife of the President of the Confederacy. This second iron-clad was completed and sent up the James River to be used in the defense of Richmond. The Yard also built three first-class gunboats. They were the Portsmouth, Norfolk and Richmond. The Germantown and Plymouth were raised and refitted, as were several other ships in the Yard. The work of rebuilding the burned storehouses, ship houses, and other structures in the Yard was carried on.
In April of 1862, or after just one year of Confederate occupation, the Federals threatened Norfolk, and as a result the officials decided to evacuate the Yard. They determined to send as many of the stores as possible to Charlotte, North Carolina, from which point they would be distributed throughout the Confederacy as needed. This shipment of stores commenced on April 30, 1862, and continued by means of the railroad, daily until the 10th of May. On Saturday, May 10, 1862, the Confederates were forced to evacuate the Yard, sooner than they had anticipated.
At 4 a.m. Sunday, the 11th of May, the Yard was again fired at various points, excepting the officers’ quarters. An attempt was made to blow up the stone dry dock which failed, only minor damage being done to the gates. By that night the Yard was a roaring furnace which illuminated the country for miles around, and on the following day, the 12th of May, the United States Blockading Squadron, under Rear Admiral Goldsborough, took formal charge of the Yard, St. Helena and the Naval Hospital. In his report of this day, Admiral Goldsborough states –
“In the afternoon I visited the Navy Yard and went all over it. It is still burning in many places. Nearly everything is destroyed. Of the buildings, the officers’ quarters remain intact. The dock gates are all destroyed and the pier heads connected with the gates have been blown up to a partial degree, but otherwise the dock itself remains uninjured.”
Commodore John W. Livingston assumed charge of the Yard as Commandant on the 20th of May and had with him Captains Reel and Robb, two lieutenants, Paymaster Sands, and Chief Engineer Williamson. All civilians in the Yard were appointed by President Lincoln upon the recommendations of the local postmaster and political leaders. This was the beginning of a regime of several years during which many orders regarding discharges and employments were issued. These seem to have been regulated by politics and caused great hardship on the working force of the Yard. Hard times ensued which continued to grow worse and finally reached a climax in the financial panic of 1873. Commodore Livingston ruled with an iron hand and his first efforts were to place in serviceable temporary condition all of the needed shops. Work of repairing the dry dock was immediately begun. A new caisson had to be built for it. All available men having a knowledge of carpentry or iron working were called in. Even soldiers and sailors fitted for this sort of work were retained at the Yard.
The years immediately following the War were trying one for the people of this community. The officials in the Yard were, of course, looked upon as “Damn Yankees” and they reciprocated by considering outsiders as “Rebels.” Many things happened during these years to cause criticism by the townspeople of the United States officials here in their midst. The action taken by one of the Commandants in regard to a memorial window erected in Trinity Church in Portsmouth was a glowing example of the conditions existing at that time. This incident, though it happened sixty years ago, has never been forgotten by the people of this community and it will, no doubt, be handed to future generations as the one outstanding incident of those reconstruction days.
On September 4, 1866, Rear Admiral Stephen C. Rowan came to the Yard as Commandant, and on the following evening a gun was fired at 9 o’clock from the Receiving Ship. This gun continued to be fired regularly and today is known and loved by the inhabitants of both Norfolk and Portsmouth. It is spoken of as “The 9 o’clock Gun”. At its nightly “boom” the people of this vicinity pause in their reading of the day’s news, or look up from their evening game of bridge, just long enough to cast a hurried glance at their time pieces and note mentally whether or not they are correctly set. They pause only for a second and rarely are conscious that they have paused, yet they invariably do so at this house of the evening long enough to pay silent tribute, so to speak, to the 9 o’clock Gun. Many of these same people scarcely give this gun a thought throughout the year, yet they can be seen any evening, as the hour of nine approaches, unconsciously beginning to fidget and play with their watch chains, or working into some position where the face of the watch is visible. They may not stop their reading or interrupt their Bridge, but just the same when the report of the gun is heard, they all compare their timepieces. Rarely do you ever see any of these people reset their watches or clocks, but they all make a mental note of the discrepancy, and forthwith forget it by the next morning. The time of firing this gun might be from three to five minutes in error and it is perfectly all right, as far as the people are concerned, but let one single evening pass without the gun being fired and the whole community will be talking about it the next day. Strange it seems and strange it is that such an inanimate object as a gun could cause people of the present day to come so much under its spell without even attempting to find out something about the why and the wherefore of it.
On December 27, 1907, Admiral E. D. Taussig came to the Yard as Commandant and remained until relieved by Rear Admiral William A. Marshall on November 20, 1909. During Admiral Taussig’s duty here this 9 o’clock Gun was fired from the Receiving Ship at St. Helena. There was at this time living on board the Receiving Ship a child and, in order not to disturb this little one, the Commandant ordered the gun not be fired. The entire community protested this order and rose up in arms against the stopping of what they considered an old friend. Petitions and requests were sent to the Commandant with no avail. The matter was carried to Washington. Admiral Taussig, however, remained firm in his position. The fight to restore the gun was continued, but Admiral Taussig was detached without ever again starting the gun. The stopping of the firing of this gun, trivial as it may seem, did not serve to better the friendly relations between the Yard and the Cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth which had never fully recovered from the shock of the Memorial window incident.
On the day Admiral Marshall reported to the Yard for duty, in fact, about fifteen minutes after he had taken over his duties as Commandant, he was visited by a committee representing the citizens of both Portsmouth and Norfolk, who requested of him the resumption of the firing of this gun. The admiral assured them that he would issue orders again placing in effect this time honored and much desired event. Accordingly that night the population of these cities was overjoyed to hear again the voice of their old friend. They were so much pleased, I believe, that the following day in some way, possibly with a brass band, they expressed their appreciation to the Commandant. From that time to the present this gun has issued forth its greeting to its friends nightly at 9 p.m. and from the position it holds in the hearts of its admirers, it is probable that it will continue to live and function as long as the Yard itself is here.
During the late summer and fall of 1866 the dreaded cholera and smallpox again visited this community. This scourge carried off many of the citizens and raged unchecked until frost. It was also in this year that the Elizabeth River between Portsmouth and Norfolk was completed frozen over.
On January 13, 1870, the last piece of the wreck of the ship Delaware was removed from the stone dry dock where it had been admitted for salvage purposes. It is quite a coincidence that the life of this ship should have ended in this dry dock, into which she so proudly entered on the 18th of June, 1833, with many distinguished visitors looking on, being the ship chosen for the ceremonies attending the opening of this dock. During the same year the wrecks of several others of the old ships were raised and cleared away.
On December 11, 1871, there arrived in the Yard from Florida, a ship with a cargo of live oak timber to be used in shipbuilding. This was the first cargo of the kind to reach here in thirty years.
During this period the Yard was considered the show place of the community and was visited by a number of distinguished guests, among whom were outstanding Naval officers of both our own and foreign navies, including the Admiral of the Haitian Navy and his colored officers, who were received with the usual salute and civilities of the Yard; King Kalakua of the Hawaiian Islands; the Russian Grand Duke Alexis; generals who had won distinction in the last war; and members of the Nation’s cabinet. The final climax or anti-climax, to the reception of these distinguished visitors came on the 27th of April, 1872, when the Vice-President of the United States was expected. The officers of the Yard, with the full guard and band, were assembled at 11 a.m. to render due honors to this official. They stood by, and continued to stand by, from hour to hour to 6 p.m., when finally the boat upon which this official was supposed to be traveling hove in sight. A gun salute of nineteen guns was fired, and the reception party, though worn out with seven hours of waiting, came to attention. To the great surprise of all, it was found that the Vice President was not on board but had sent in his place a committee from Congress. This committee visited all the shops and remained in the Yard for two days.
From 1833 to 1889 the Yard functioned with but one dry dock, but in that year the formal opening of the Simpson Dry Dock took place, the little ship Yantick being used to christen the structure. It was in this same year that the Yard began work on the construction of the U.S.S. Texas, the first of the ships of the so-called Modern Navy.
The Texas was followed by the Amphritrite and the Raleigh. Three years later, on the 28th of June, 1892, in a pouring rain, before a large crowd of spectators, Miss Madge Williams christened the Texas as she was launched. From this time on the Yard was busily engaged in building and repairing the ships of the Fleet, and down through the years practically all of the vessels on the Navy list have been to the Norfolk Yard as visitors, or for repairs or alterations.
In 1907 the authorities, realizing that the Yard must expand in order to carry on its important work, purchased the large tract of land to the southward known as the “Schmoele Tract” upon which now stand the Marine Barracks and the large modern shops.
In 1915, before the United States had entered the World Ward, the people of this community were surprised to find one morning, lying at anchor in Hampton Roads, one of the large German raiders. This vessel was followed a few weeks later by the second of these ships. Both of them, the Kronpriz Wilhelm and the Prinz Eitel Friedrich, were brought to the Yard and interned. Their crews numbered about 1,000 men total. These ships were berthed just to the southward of dry dock no. 3, across what is now the entrance to the large Dry Dock No. 4. Just in-shore of these ships the German sailors, in order to occupy themselves, built a model German city named “Eitel Wilhelm.” This model city was built of scrap material from the Yard and was indeed an ingenious pier of work. It contained houses, streets, a wind mill, fire state, church, police station, marriage license bureau, band stand and a flagpole used for drying their signal flags. Strange to say, these signal flags always required drying on occasion of German victories abroad.
During the World Ward, the activities of the Yard were indeed great, and it was found that its facilities were not adequate for the work demanded of it. Accordingly, appropriation was made for the building of Dry Dock No. 4, which is 1000 feet long and capable of docking the largest ship afloat. There is but one other such dock in this Country, the Commonwealth at Boston. In addition to Dry Dock No. 4, the large modern building ways, power plant, and shops, including the Sheet Metal, Joiner, Machine and Pattern Shops, and the Foundry were built.
The Yard today, in its present condition, is able with its facilities, together with its nucleus of trained and skilled workmen, to be rapidly expanded to a condition where it can readily taken care of the work which would be thrown upon it should out national safety ever be again endangered.