of Marine Barracks, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, Virginia
and its Predecessors, 1802-1945
In 1760 while her red-coated legions struggled with the French for control of the lands beyond the mountains, the British government began construction of a navy yard at Norfolk. Named Gosport after the royal dock yards near Portsmouth, England, the new installation boasted a fine outer harbor, Hampton Roads, an abundant supply of timber, and a climate which allowed year round operation.1
1 Hamersly's Naval Encyclopedia, 1881, cited in a historical sketch located in Subject File "Posts and Stations, Virginia,
Norfolk, Marine Barracks," Archive, HQMC.
On the eve of the American Revolution, Norfolk was the most prosperous city in Virginia as well as the colony's finest seaport. Anchored in her harbor were four frigates, a sloop, and several smaller vessels; while standing guard over the navy yard was a detachment of Royal Marines. When the Convention of Virginia decided to arm the colonial militia, Governor John Murray, the fierce tempered Earl of Dunmore, sent his Marines to Williamsburg to seize the colonists' store of powder. This rash act, as well as his later threat to lay Williamsburg in ashes, turned the citizens against Dunmore and the Crown he represented. While patriots clashed with Royal troops, the governor began recruiting an army of Loyalists, slaves and Indians; but after some bloody fighting, Dunmore withdrew his force to the waiting ships. Ablaze with rage, the vengeful Scot vowed to destroy Norfolk on New Year's Day, 1776.
At about 0400, the first round of heated shot streaked like a comet through the darkness to crash among the wooden warehouses. For seven hours some 60 guns rained down destruction on the defenseless city. Landing parties completed the devilish task, and within two days almost four-fifths of the town lay in ruins. Those buildings which survived the British bombardment were not destined to stand for long; the patriot forces soon destroyed them to deny shelter to the enemy. Thus Dunmore sailed off, leaving behind slowly cooling ashes and smoldering hatred.2
2 Christopher Ward, The War of Revolution (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1952), II, 845-849.
Although the city of Norfolk lay in ruins for the remainder of the war, the naval facilities at nearby Gosport were kept in operation until 1779. In May of that year, a British flotilla disgorged a force of 1,800 troops who occupied Portsmouth, then marched on Gosport. The American garrison of a hundred men fought bravely but was overwhelmed; and Gosport with its vast stores of timbers, rope and tar went up in flames.3
3 Ibid., 867.
Once the British hold on America was broken, the sadly battered navy yard drifted under the control of the Commonwealth of Virginia; but since the various state navies had ceased to exist, no new construction graced the ways at Gosport. At last the threat to American shipping posed by the Algerian pirates caused Congress in March 1794 to authorize the construction of several ships-of-the line. One of these new frigates was laid down at Gosport, but the peace treaty of 1796 ended the emergency before the vessel could be completed. With the coming of peace, all work at the yard was suspended; and Gosport again fell silent.
In July 1797, however, the Congress wary both of England and of revolutionary France, authorized the completion of the vessel begun at Gosport almost three years before. Josiah Fox who had been naval constructor when the frigate was laid down, now returned to Gosport to complete the task. In addition to directing work on the Chesapeake, as the vessel was now called, Fox was responsible for the fitting out of several lesser craft, among them the brig Richmond.4
4 Hamersly, loc. cit.
Meanwhile French privateers had grown increasingly bolder, until in the summer of 1798 Congress authorized the capture of armed French vessels. During the emergency, which lasted until the ratification of the Convention of 1800, the Navy grew from a force of six partially completed frigates to a fleet of 36 war vessels. The yard at Gosport proved so valuable not only in constructing and fitting out warships but as a supply depot and recruiting center that Secretary of the Navy decided to make it a permanent installation. Thus, on 25 January 1800, the Virginia legislature ceded the Gosport yard to the federal government.5
5 Ibid., Dudley W. Knox, A History of the United States Navy (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1936), p. 44ff.
Although vessels of the United States Navy habitually used the facilities at Gosport in the years immediately following its purchase by the federal government, there is no official record of a Marine guard at the station prior to April 1802 when First Lieutenant Josiah Reddick and some 20 enlisted Marines arrived at the yard. On 6 August 1804, because of the desperate need for Marines to take part in the operations against the Tripolitan pirates, the guard was withdrawn.6
6 Hamersly and muster rolls of April 1802 and August 1804 cited in Subject File mentioned above.
Once the Barbary Wars had ended Lieutenant Colonel Commandant Franklin Wharton, convinced that a Marine guard was vital to the security of the yard, decided to assign to Gosport a force made up of recruits from Baltimore and veterans recently transferred from New Orleans. In November 1807 a Marine guard under the command of First Lieutenant Edward Hall arrived at the navy yard.7
7 Ltrs, Wharton to Hall dtd 12 August 1807 and Hall to Wharton dtd 22 November 1807.
The coming of the Marines, however, was not without incident, for Lieutenant Hall discovered that the house, "a mean one" which had been assigned to the guard, was being occupied by a civilian clerk, one Mr. Beddinger. Determined that "we shall live in harmony with the Citizens," the officer stated his case and the clerk agreed to move at once. Unfortunately for the Marines, events proved that Beddinger was making no great sacrifice since the house was in wretched condition. Five years later a Navy surgeon was still urging that new quarters be found for the men "as their health must be injured by residing in them from their very open and decayed state."8
8 Ltrs, Hall to Wharton dtd 22 November 1807 and Surgeon L. Griffin to 1st Lt. Thomas R. Swift, Commanding Officer of the Marine Guard, dtd 1 May 1812.
While Gosport barracks were quietly disintegrating, the American nation, angered by the British policy of impressment and deluded by the dream of an easy conquest of Canada, was fast approaching a second war with Great Britain. On 17 June 1812, the declaration of war was approved by the Senate, and on the following day the document was signed by President James Madison. A sorely divided nation had elected to challenge Britain, the mistress of the seas.9
9 Thomas A. Bailey, A Diplomatic History of the American People (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1950), pp. 125ff.
Like every other was in our history, the War of 1812 placed new and heavier burdens on the Marine Corps. With only 22 able-bodied men to walk nine posts at Gosport, Lieutenant Thomas R. Swift attempted to recruit additional men for his guard, but he soon discovered that the Virginians lacked enthusiasm for the enterprise. Nothing, he decided, could be accomplished without music, and musicians were not to be had. At last in desperation he appealed for "a good sergeant from Headquarters who can and will carry respect among the men. I am," he wrote in conclusion, "my own Sergeant, Corporal, and in fact everything."10
10 Ltr, Swift to Wharton dtd 15 July 1812.
Recruiting, the patching of leaky roofs, and the hundred other details which plagued Lieutenant Swift were forgotten as a British flotilla under Admiral George Cockburn swept down on Norfolk. The enemy had abandoned his hit-and-run raiding tactics and was concentrating his fleet for one powerful thrust at Norfolk, her port and her navy yard. Reinforcements poured into the area; fortifications were repaired and strengthened; the frigate Constellation, then anchored at Gorport, and a flotilla of twenty small gunboats were readied for action.
The fight began at about midnight on 19 June 1813, when 15 American gunboats glided down the Elizabeth River toward the anchored British battle fleet. The HMS Junon was caught completely by surprise and roughly handled before a shift in the wind forced the intrepid Americans to withdraw. Stung by the boldness of this attack, the enemy rushed his preparations for the campaign.
The key to Norfolk harbor was low, harp-shaped Craney Island, where the Virginian, General Robert B. Taylor, had massed his few artillery pieces. Anticipating the main British effort, General Taylor reinforced the island's defenders with bands of militia, companies of regulars, sailors, and finally the Marine detachment of the Constellation under Lieutenant Henry B. Breckenridge. Early on the morning of 22 June, an enemy landing party, screened by darkness, attempted to cross the shallow channel near the mouth of Wise's Creek and seize the American battery from the rear. The sailors, Marines and militiamen who manned the guns strained and sweated, finally dragging the weapons into position to cover their exposed flank. Behind an awesome salvo of Congreve rockets, some 2,500 British moved forward; but the infantry stood firm, and the cannoneers poured canister and grape into the enemy ranks until the red line broke.
While the garrison was hurling back a force three times its number, fifty barges, ranged in two columns and carrying approximately 1,500 sailors and Royal Marines, were bearing down upon the island. In the lead was the Centipede, personal barge of Admiral John B. Warren. Dubbed the "grasshopper" by the Americans because of its dark green color, the barge was commanded by one Captain Hanchett, an illegitimate son of George III. As the awkward craft drew nearer to the island, gunners shifted their weapons to meet this new threat. With some difficulty, Major James Faulkner of the Virginia volunteers was able to restrain the eager cannoneers from firing before the enemy was in range. When at last he gave the signal, five cannon roared as one. Stubbornly, courageously, the British columns rowed onward; but the hail of shot proved too much, and they were forced to withdraw. Captain Hanchett was seriously wounded; his vessel, the "grasshopper," sank in shallow water but was salvaged by the Americans.11
11 Benson J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1869), pp. 677-680;
Clyde H. Metcalf, A History of the United States Marine Corps (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1939), pp. 69-71.
With the departure of the invasion fleet, the Marine guard resumed the normal routine; recruiting and decaying buildings again loomed large in Swift's thoughts. The signing of the articles of peace in December 1814 and Andrew Jackson's spectacular victory at New Orleans marked the end of hostilities in the war. And just as the armed forces had expanded some two years before, they now began to contract; once again, the navy yard slipped into obscurity.
Peace it would seem brought certain special problems to the harried Swift, now a Captain. Instead of basking in the sunshine of his recent promotion, he again implored Headquarters for more men, also requesting that a wall "be put up round the yard; it would prevent many desertions, and all attempts of incendiaries . . ."12 If he could not have men, he would settle for a stout fence.
12 Ltr, Swift to CMC dtd 31 March 1816.
There were, of course, problems other than arson and desertion. Captain William Anderson, Swift's successor, found that the boat belonging to the detachment had rotted away. As for the barracks, he found them to be "in a damp, leaky and unwholesome condition," totally unfit for human habitation. Furthermore, when the fresh meat rose in price, Anderson found it impossible to feed his men without exceeding the established twenty-cent per ration limit. Muskets issued the guard not only were unfit for service but were ruined beyond repair. To complete the picture, the clothing worn by the men was threadbare; and not so much as a new shirt was available for issue.13
13 Ltrs, Anderson to CMC dtd 6 November 1817, 26 April 1818, and 20 May 1818; Anderson to Quartermaster, HQMC,
November 1817 and 5 January 1818.
14 Ltrs, CMC to SecNav dtd 31 March 1818, 9 April 1818 and 9 May 1819; SecNav to CMC dtd 6 April 1818.
Early in 1818, however, affairs at the navy yard took a turn for the better -- possibly because they could have got no worse. Commandant Franklin Wharton proposed that the frantic attempts to patch the moldering barracks be abandoned and that new, permanent buildings be erected in their place. The Secretary of the Navy not only endorsed the plan but even approved the construction of a brick wall, twelve feet high and topped with iron pickets, which would enclose the new buildings. There were, naturally enough, certain points of disagreement. The Commandant, for example, objected to locating the barracks facing the street for fear that it would "become an evil to the Yard rather than a protection, by the Admission of Liquor into them through the agency of the unprincipled citizens." Also, it was necessary to alter the specifications slightly to avoid disturbing the cemetery.14
14 Ltrs, CMC to SecNav dtd 31 March 1818, 9 April 1818 and 9 May 1819; SecNav to CMC dtd 6 April 1818.
Nevertheless, the differences were resolved, the obstacles overcome, and by the summer of 1818 work had begun. In the spring of the following year, when the work was nearing completion, Captain Anderson turned his attention to furnishing the new buildings. Prominent among the fixtures were "300 yds sacking and 500 lb. straw for the Barracks Rooms as it may be required for use."15 In addition to the new quarters, the Marine detachment also enjoyed improved rations. Since the price of food was declining throughout the area, Miles King, the local Navy Agent, had little difficulty in finding a firm willing to feed the unit for a mere eighteen cents per ration, furnishing fresh beef three times each week and salt pork on the remaining days.16
15 Ltrs, Miles King, Navy Agent at Norfolk, to CMC dtd 18 June 1819 and Anderson to King dtd 15 May 1819.
16 Ltr, John Dickson to King dtd 29 December 1819.
Unfortunately, the men stationed at the Norfolk yard were not destined to enjoy the comfort of the new barracks for long; for late in 1822 the Corps was called upon to provide troops for an expedition against the West Indian pirates, and the majority of the guard was included in this force. Withdrawn from the comparative luxury of their 300 yards of sacking and 500 pounds of straw, the Marines now found themselves aboard the ships of Captain David Porter's squadron operating out of Key West.17
17 Material found in Subject File cited above.
Typical of the type of warfare the Marines waged against the pirates was the brief but bitter fight of 8 April 1823. On that morning, the barge Gallinipper and Muskito opened fire on the pirate schooner Pilot and drove the larger vessel aground some 20 miles east of Havana. The Americans quickly boarded the beached schooner, forcing the pirates to flee into the forest. A force of sailors and Marines waded ashore but soon lost the enemy in the dense undergrowth. In short, the fighting combined the most dangerous features of both boarding and landing operations.18
18 Edwin N. McClellan, History of the United States Marine Corps, vol. II, Chapter 3, p. 14. An unpublished ms. in Archives, HQMC.
In addition to the hazards of combat, the Marines were subjected to the twin scourges of climate and disease. "I can well remember," wrote Lieutenant George W. Walker, "the rainy season during the months of June and July during which time, exposed to the 'pitiles pelting of the storms,' I may safely say I was truly an amphibious animal."19 With the rains came the yellow fever. At the height of the epidemic, one-half of the Marine detachment stationed on Key West was stricken with the disease.20
19 Ibid., p. 16.
20 Ibid., p. 20.
Nevertheless, the pirate menace was ended by 1827; and the Marines were able to return to their stations. Those who returned to Gosport, however, were due for a shock. Apparently the barracks had not been built of the best material, for in 1834 the Secretary of the Navy commented that the barracks were badly in need of repair. Only three years later, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Archibald Henderson, formally requested that new quarters be built for the guard detachment.21
21 Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1834, quoted in Subject File cited above; ltr CMC to SecNav dtd 14 November 1837.
But before any action could be taken concerning the repair of the barracks, the Gosport detachment, save for a handful of men, was ordered to take the field against the Creek and Seminole Indians. At the outbreak of hostilities between those tribes and federal troops, Colonel Henderson offered the services of his Marines. In May 1836 the War Department accepted. The Commandant withdrew almost all Marines from shore stations, left only a sergeant's guard at each place, and proceeded with the assembled regiment to Fort Mitchell, Florida.
In the first contingent to leave for Florida was the Gosport Navy Yard guard. The majority of these men were assigned to Company A, 1st Battalion, commanded by Captain Levi Twiggs; the others, along with a detachment from Washington, D.C., formed Company G under Brevet Captain James McCawley. The battalion arrived at Camp Henderson, some 15 miles south of Columbus, Georgia, on 23 June. Within two days, the Marines crossed the Chattahoochie River in search of the Creek Indians. Led by Captain Twiggs, the men from Gosport were assigned the task of tracing down Jim Henry, an Indian Chieftain, and his band. The war party, however, could not be found.22
22 McClellan, pp. 24-29.
The following months were devoted almost exclusively to patrolling. The most important of these expeditions was led by Captain Twiggs who occupied Upton Mills, Georgia, thus cutting the Indians' line of communication between that state and Florida. By the autumn of 1836, the campaign against the Creek tribe was considered over, but great deal of hard fighting still lay ahead.23
23 Ibid., pp. 34-38.
Early in October, the Marines marched into Florida to assist in rounding up the Seminole Indians, another tribe scheduled to be moved to a reservation west of the Mississippi. The Seminoles, however, refused to leave their ancestral lands, and the campaign entered its second phase.
Not until 27 January 1837 did the Gosport Marines, now mingled with other Marine detachments, volunteer militia, regular Army troops and friendly Indians into a brigade under the command of Colonel Henderson, make contact with the Seminoles. In a wildly confused series of skirmishes along the Hatchee-Lustee River, the heterogeneous American force defeated a powerful band of Indians. On 6 March the tribe signed a treaty of peace; and in May Colonel Henderson with all but two companies of Marines marched northward.24
24 Ibid., pp. 55-62, 70-71; Metcalf, pp. 92-101.
It soon became apparent, however, that the Seminoles had no intention of keeping the articles of the treaty; early in June, therefore, the war was resumed. Although the two companies of Marines still in Florida at times were hard pressed, it was not necessary to reactivate the Marine regiment which Colonel Henderson had led to Florida. Since additional troops were available, he felt that the Corps now was able to furnish a small guard at Norfolk, and in 1839 the Marines returned to Gosport.25 In August 1842, shortly after the last companies of Marines were withdrawn from Florida, an additional twenty veterans of the Indian campaigns joined the barracks near Norfolk.26
25 Metcalf, 101 ff.; McClellan, p. 88; material in Subject File cited above.
26 McClellan, p. 166.
Meanwhile, the navy yard itself was undergoing extensive and badly needed repair. By 1840 many of the older buildings, including a part of the Marine barracks, had been razed or reparied.27 Once again the Marines settled down to the routine duty of guarding the various installations at the yard.
27 Hamersly, in Subject File cited above.
As the United States and Mexico drifted toward war, the Commandant repeatedly called for an increase in the strength of the Marine Corps; but no heed was taken to his warnings. Thus the formal declaration of war passed by Congress on 13 May 1846 again found the Corps understrength, and once more it was necessary to strip the shore stations in order to put an effective force in the field.28 In August 1847 Henderson, who was now a Brigadier General by brevet for his services in Florida, ordered every able-bodied Marine on duty at the navy yards to report to New York City for transportation to Mexico. As a result of this order, the strength of the Marine guard, Gosport, was reduced to two officers and 29 enlisted men.29
28 Metcalf, p. 106.
29 Ibid., p. 166; ltr, Adjutant and Inspector, USMC, to SecNav dtd 31 August 1847 found in Subject File, Archives, HQMC, "Mexican War."
On 30 May 1848 the articles of peace were signed, but the Norfolk Navy Yard did not lapse into a state of decay; instead the next decade was an era of steady progress. Docks were repaired, a cistern capable of holding 38,000 gallons was completed, several new buildings were constructed, and in 1855 gas lights were introduced to the yard. Along with these improvements, a great amount of naval construction was done. The modern stem frigates Roanoke and Colorado glided down the ways in 1857, to be followed by the steam sloops Dakota in 1859 and Richmond in 1860.30 Unfortunately the fruits of these ten years of progress were destined soon to perish.
30 Hamersly, in Subject File "Norfolk."
Although the states of the Deep South already had seceded when the month of April 1861 rolled round, Virginia still remained a part of the Federal Union. At Norfolk a handful of Navy officers and a few Marines repeatedly warned to avoid any act which might bring war, waited tensely while the political leaders of the state weighed the merits of secession. On 17 April Virginia withdrew from the United States; the Norfolk yard became an isolated outpost on a hostile shore. Three days later Captain Hiram Paulding, USN, arrived at the installation and after a quick examination of its defenses ordered the yard destroyed. Buildings were burned; vessels, among them the Merrimac, were scuttled, and thousands of cannon spiked. As the small Union garrison sailed away, Confederate soldiers marched into the yard in ample time to save the dry dock from destruction.31
31 Clarence E. Macartney, Mr. Lincoln's Admirals (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1956), p. 172ff.
With the coming of war, the Confederate States had unleashed a fleet of privateers to prey on Northern commerce. In reply, General Winfield Scott, a brilliant warrior now grown old and weary, formulated the "Anaconda Plan" by which the Navy would blockade the Southern coast while the Army smashed through the Mississippi Valley, this isolating and strangling the Confederacy.32 Faced with this dire possibility, the Confederate States Navy sought a means of shattering the blockade. The answer lay in a model of an ironclad warship designed 15 years before by a Naval Constructor John L. Porter. From this dusty model and a plan submitted by Commander John M. Brooks, Confederate States Navy, came the idea for a floating iron monster able to attack with gunfire or to ram. Next came the building of the vessel. Here the credit goes to Chief Engineer William P. Williams who hit upon the idea of salvaging the Merrimac and converting her into an ironclad. By March 1862, the CSS Virginia, as the Merrimac had been rechristened, was ready for action. Looking like an iron barn adrift on the flood, this Goliath could stagger along at a mere five knots; but even so in a calm sea she was superior to any vessel in the Federal blockading fleet.33
32 Bruce Catton, This Hallowed Ground (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1956), p. 52.
33 Macartney, pp. 175-176.
On Saturday 8 March 1862 the Virginia cast off her lines and like a monstrous turtle waddled down the Elizabeth River to Hampton Roads. The story of the first engagement might be summed up in two telegrams sent by the blockading force, the first announcing that "The Merrimac is close at hand," and the second appealing for blankets for the survivors of the sunken Union vessels.34 First, Captain Franklin Buchanan's ironclad rammed and sunk the wooden sloop Cumberland, whose gunners watched in horror as their shot glanced off the armored giant bearing down upon them. Although death was less than a cable length distant and drawing closer by the second, the men of the Cumberland stood to their guns. Captain Charles Heywood and his Marines displayed remarkable courage, but the Virginia could not be stopped. With a splintering crash, the heavy beak of the Confederate ship stove in her starboard side, starting the Union sloop on her deathward plunge. Next the ironclad drove the Congress aground and set her ablaze with heated shot.35 For the time being, at least, the CSS Virginia was master of Hampton Roads.
34 Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of Rebellion, Series I, v. 7 (Washington: Government
Printing Office, 1898), pp. 3-5.
35 Ibid., pp. 20-22; Macartney, pp. 176-181.
Grim as death, the Virginia returned the following morning. Her new skipper, Lieutenant Catesby Rogers Jones (Buchanan had been put out of action with a hip wound) conned the clumsy vessel toward the USS Minnesota, a wooden ship which had run aground on the previous day while attempting to divert the Confederate attack. As the towering ironclad lumbered near her target, a queer, turreted vessel detached herself from alongside the Minnesota and maneuvered into deep water. She was the iron Monitor, commanded by Lieutenant John L. Worden.
While thousands lined the shore, the two ironclads joined battle. For three hours they hammered at each other, the Monitor firing from her revolving turret, the Virginia replying with her broadside guns. Shortly before noon, the Union vessel suddenly hauled clear. A cry of despair welled up in the throats of Union onlookers as the Confederate ship wallowed about and bore down on the Minnesota; but the cry became a cheer as Worden, who had broken off the action to hoist ammunition into the turret, hurled his terrier at the charging bull. His attack frustrated, Jones ordered the Virginia's gunners to concentrate their fire on his opponent's turret. At this point, chance took a hand in the action; a Confederate shell exploded against an observation slit in the Monitor's pilot house just as Worden was peering out. Temporarily blinded, his face smeared with blood, the Union skipper thought that most of the pilot house had been carried away and ordered his ship out of range of the enemy's guns.
As the Monitor widened the range, Jones again steered toward the stranded Minnesota; but once more his attempt to ram her was thwarted. The slab-sided Virginia, with a maximum draft of 22 feet, could not approach her wooden target without running hard aground. By this time, however, the Union ironclad was back in action; so Jones reluctantly ordered his ship back to Norfolk.36
36 Macartney, pp. 190-195. A recent monograph devoted entirely to the history of the Monitor is Tin Can on a Shingle by
William Chapman White and Ruth White (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1957).
Confederate control of the naval facilities at Norfolk proved shortlived; for with the Virginia effectively bottled up, a Union army under the command of General John E. Wool was able to reoccupy the city and its docks by 10 May 1862. Before withdrawing, the Confederates put the torch to what remained of the once impressive installation. As for the mighty ironclad, she steamed down the Elizabeth River in hopes of reaching the channel of the James and sailing upstream toward Richmond; but her great draft proved her undoing. When high winds and low tide barred the ponderous Virginia from the James River, she was run aground at Craney's Point and burned.37
37 Ibid., pp. 196, 197.
On May 1862 the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Colonel John Harris, directed Marine Captain Charles G. McCawley to assume command of a force of 200 officers and men and proceed at once to Norfolk to protect the Navy Yard.38 As they marched into the yard, they were greeted by a scene of almost complete devastation; nevertheless they went to work restoring the port. For the remainder of the war, Norfolk remained in Union hands and along with Fortress Monroe at Old Point Comfort proved to be an important staging area for Federal operations along the coast.
38 Ltr, CMC to McCawlay dtd 22 May 1862.
Because of the severe wartime destruction, the Marines were forced to move from one temporary structure to another. In fact, as late as 1872 they were still quartered aboard a moored ship, the St. Lawrence.39 Fully aware of the hardships faced by the Norfolk detachment, Commandant Charles G. McCawley began a persistent campaign to obtain better quarters for his men. In 1880 he called the attention of the Secretary of the Navy to the fact that the guard was "miserably Quartered in the most unhealthy part of the Navy Yard." His request denied, the Commandant continued to plead his case until Congress in 1888 at last appropriated $30,000 for construction of permanent barracks. Unfortunately the sum proved inadequate, causing further argument and compromise. In December 1890 a mere month before McCawley's retirement, the buildings were completed.40
39 Historical sketch found in Subject File "Norfolk."
40 Annual Report of the SecNav, 1880, pp. 529-530; 1888, p. 525; 1889, p. 825; 1891, p. 619.
In spite of the new construction, life at Norfolk was far from easy. Because of the need for Marines aboard ships of the fleet, the strength of the guard detachments was drastically reduced; but the number of posts remained the same, thus placing an almost impossible burden on the remaining men. The lot of the navy yard guards became so hard that Commandant Charles Heyward was moved to request an increase in the overall strength of the Corps. "It is not an unusual occurrence," he remarked, "for the enlisted men to be forty-eight hours on guard consecutively, with but twenty-four hours off, thus allowing them only one night in three "sleep in.'" Discouraged by this situation, many an old soldier was leaving the Corps.41 Gradually, however, the injustice was corrected; and by 1894 nearly every detachment was enjoying two days off for every day on guard.42
41 Ibid., 1891, p. 615.
42 Ibid., 1894, p. 639.
Although living conditions slowly were improving, the health of the guard at Norfolk continued to be menaced by the usual intestinal complaints and by an occasional outbreak of typhoid fever. The chief factor contributing to these waves of illness appears to have been the sewer leading from the Marine barracks. This single conduit was called upon to carry sewage from the kitchen and from the barracks proper as well as to drain the rain water from the grounds near the building. When overburdened, which was often, the sewer gave off a unique fragrance noticeable several feet from its inlets.
An especially fiendish torture was reserved for those who worked in one of the office buildings. This was its latrine. Located exactly 639 feet from the building it was designed to serve, the sagging structure perched defiantly over the water. During the summer, the latrine abounded in mosquitoes and exotic odors; and in winter, with the temperature dipping into the low thirties, it would creak and groan against the force of the gale. All in all, the place was not conducive to lingering.43
43 Ibid., 1893, "Report of the Chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery," p. 74.
In the spring of 1898, while "showing the flag" in war ravaged Cuba, the American battleship Maine exploded and sank beneath the waters of Havana harbor. An angry American public resolved to hang "Butcher" Weyler, a Spanish general, from a sour apple tree (Jeff Davis was long dead by then); a thousand brass bands proclaimed that there would be a hot time in the old town; and an obliging Congress declared war on Spain. As in every previous emergency, the Norfolk detachment again was called upon to furnish men for an expeditionary force. From each post and receiving ship along the eastern coast, Marines were summoned to New York City, equipped, and assigned to a battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington. One of the six companies was an artillery unit armed with four rapid-fire 3-inch guns. The hastily organized battalion saw action at Guantanamo Bay and at Manzanilla before the brief campaign ended. On 18 August the unit sailed from Cuba for the United States.44
44 Ibid., 1898, pp. 822-826.
Shortly after the close of the war, the first electric lights were installed in the barracks; but little else was done to halt the decay of the building. An outbreak of diphtheria brought about the repair of all sewer lines, the remedy to a long-standing evil. At last on 1 July 1902, Congress, taking note of the fact that the barracks had twice been condemned, appropriated $100,000 for construction of fireproof quarters. No sooner were these barracks completed than the Commandant in 1908 requested the sum of $150,000 for additional buildings.45 The increased emphasis upon the Norfolk site was due in part to the fact that Brigadier General George F. Elliott, Commandant of the Corps, hoped to establish there a force of 300 to 600 men which could move quickly to meet any future emergency. Furthermore, Norfolk had become the most important naval installation along the South Atlantic coast.46
45 Ibid., 1899, p. 908; 1903, p. 1214; 1908, p. 987.
46 Ibid., 1904, p. 1182; 1908, p. 987.
Late in 1911 the headquarters and two companies of the small Marine Corps Recruit Depot, activated that same year at Parris Island, South Carolina, were transferred to Norfolk when the Navy took over the Parris Island buildings for use as a disciplinary barracks. Along with the recruits came the entire complement of the Marine Corps Officers School which also had been located there. The training of recruits at the navy yard was ended in 1915. The return to Parris Island was a welcome move, since the attempt to mix indoctrination with guard duties had not proved successful.47
47 Ibid., 1911, p. 526; 1915, p. 567.
A few months before the Norfolk Recruit Depot was abandoned, the British passenger line Lusitania came within range of a German submarine, was torpedoed and sank with a loss of almost 1200 lives. Among those killed were 128 Americans. Next the British government released a report accusing the German army of a series of horrible atrocities, committed upon the defenseless citizens of occupied Belgium. There followed months of diplomatic sparring; but a last on 6 April 1917, the United States declared war upon Imperial Germany.48
48 Harvey Wish, Contemporary America (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1945), p. 202ff.
War, of course, meant numerous changes at Norfolk. The Marine Corps Officers' School, temporarily out of session when war was declared, hastily reconvened on 10 April. The Corps, however, grew so rapidly that Norfolk was unable to accommodate this ever-expanding organization; and in July the school was transferred to Quantico, Virginia. Since the two recruit depots at Mare Island and Parris Island were being overwhelmed by the tide of volunteers, a barracks capable of housing 250 recruits was built at Norfolk. Also a Quartermaster School was opened at the Marine Barracks. During the course of the war, the aggregate strength of the Norfolk detachment rose from 237 on 6 April 1917 to 507 on 11 November 1918.49
49 Annual Report of the SecNav, 1917, pp. 837-841; Historical sketch found in Subject File "Norfolk".
All in all, the years immediately following the war were fairly quiet. A second Marine Barracks was established in 1920 at the Naval Operating Base, Hampton Roads. The officers and men of the new command came either from Philadelphia or from Marine Barracks, Norfolk.50 The Sea-Going Depot, transferred from Parris Island to the Norfolk Barracks, was established at Portsmouth on 21 February 1921. Redesignated the Sea School Detachment on 15 November 1923, it gave a two-week indoctrination course during which a handful of skilled instructors, veterans of Marine ships' detachments, attempted to convince men fresh from boot camp that they could not go "upstairs" or walk on a "floor" when serving in a battleship or cruiser.51
50 Muster rolls, Marine Barracks, Naval Operating Base, Hampton Roads, Norfolk, Virginia, July 1929.
51 History cards, Unit Diary Section, HQMC; Henry C. Davis, "The Sea School," Marine Corps Gazette, v. 10, no. 2 (Sep
1925), p. 103
During these formative years, instruction at the Sea School was devoted for the most part to the fundamentals of life aboard ship, naval terminology, and the traditions of the sea. The staff did its best, but the raw material was not always there. Investigations by the Barracks Commandant revealed that many of the trainees had been selected according to the whims of their squad leader without regards to their abilities. Dullards, illiterates, and some men with physical defects had been dumped on the Sea School; but gradually the needed reforms were made. To permit intensive work with those who were dull but willing, the period of instruction was lengthened to three weeks. Also larger quotas were established so that the instructors might weed out the incompetent. In spite of these initial difficulties, the Sea School took root and flourished.52
52 Henry C. Davis, op. cit.
By 1925 Norfolk could boast of two large barracks, two apartment houses for officers and their families, and seven sets of officers' quarters. Included in the command were the Barracks Detachment with a guard platoon, a Quartermaster Detachment with a garage force, and the Sea School Detachment.53
53 Historical sketch, loc. cit.
With the establishment at Quantico of a mobile expeditionary force along the lines of that which General Elliot had hoped to create at Norfolk, the Marine Barracks, Norfolk, slowly declined in importance. The year 1927, however, once again thrust the navy yard detachments to the forefront. In January of that year, Sandino and his bandits burst like a hurricane on the sleepy villages of Nicaragua, thus forcing the Marine Corps to rush reinforcements to Central America. The following month saw a Chinese army threatening the existence of Western interests poised to strike at Shanghai, and once again Marines were called upon to protect American lives and property in the Orient. Immediately the 4th Marines was ordered to China; but the situation remained dangerous. To reinforce this lone regiment, the 6th Marines was reorganized, drawing its strength from the various posts and stations along the eastern seaboard. From Norfolk came Colonel Henry C. Davis, six of his officers, a warrant officer, and numerous enlisted men.54 As in 1846 and 1898, the guard detachment had proved itself ready to meet the emergency.
54 Metcalf, p. 418ff.; muster rolls, Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, Norfolk, Virginia, March-April 1927.
Shortly after the China expedition, on 30 January 1929 to be exact, the Marine Barracks, Navy Yard, Norfolk, Virginia, was redesignated Marine Barracks, Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia.55 On 1 July 1932, the Marine Barracks, Naval Operating Base, Hampton Roads, Virginia, became known as the Marine Barracks, Naval Operating Base, Norfolk, Virginia.56 These two changes had no effect on the responsibilities of either organization; the Sea School, for example, remained at Portsmouth. Ironically, however, the relatively new Hampton Roads Barracks now was known as the Norfolk Barracks; while the venerable Norfolk detachment, whose heritage dated back to 1802, came to be called as Portsmouth.
55 Muster roll, Marine Barracks, Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia.
56 Muster roll, Marine Barracks, Naval Operating Base, Norfolk, Virginia.
During the 1930's the Marine Corps was relieved of the mission of maintaining law and order in Central America; but on two more occasions it was necessary to send Marines to China. Both in Europe and the Orient, the cauldron of war boiled ominously, threatening at any moment to overflow and engulf the Americans.
Marines, most of them recent graduates of Parris Island, continued to receive specialized instruction at the Sea School. After two days processing, they spent 25 days studying military courtesy, weapons, and the other subjects which might prove of value aboard ship. A cutter was available for practice in boat handling.
Although the 5-inch 51 broadside gun and the 5-inch 25 antiaircraft gun received the most emphasis, Major Prentice S. Geer, officer in charge of the school, felt that more attention should be paid to the lighter antiaircraft weapons, caliber .30 and .50 machine guns. The major was convinced that "in the next war this protection will jump to more formidable proportions than we today are preparing for. Desperate and fierce air attacks will take place over the sea and ships, long before the ship themselves engage."57 Events proved him correct.
57 Prentice S. Geer, "The Sea School," Marine Corps Gazette, v. 21, no. 1 (Feb 1937), p. 15.
The Sea School was typical of many aspects of the peacetime military establishment. There a cadre of skilled professionals, 2 officers and 15 enlisted Marines, did their best with outmoded facilities. Neither equipment nor material was up to date; and the gun shed which housed both weapons and loading machines was an abomination, ready to collapse at the touch.58 Like the Army and Navy, the Marine Corps was doing the best it could with what was available.
58 Ibid., p. 11.
On September 1939, one week after the German invasion of Poland, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proclaimed a state of limited national emergency. Mobilization of the reserves brought a thorough reorganization Marine Barracks, Norfolk; and there were changes at Portsmouth as well, especially in the curriculum of the Sea School. Disbanded on 10 December 1941, the school was reopened on 20 January 1942.59 Japanese success in blasting the anchored American fleet at Pearl Harbor and in sinking the British battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse off Malaya had revealed glaring weaknesses in shipboard antiaircraft armament, Just as Major Geer had predicted, the emphasis was shifted to quick-firing antiaircraft guns, the dual purpose 5-inch 38 gun and the automatic 20mm and 40mm weapons.60
59 "Sea School, USMC," Leatherneck, v. 26, no. 12 (Dec 1943), pp. 21-22.
60 History cards, Unit Diary Section, HQMC.
At the close of World War II, the Portsmouth detachment underwent two changes of designation. On 27 November 1945, it became Marine Barracks, Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, and effective 19 December of the same year, Marine Barracks, Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Portsmouth, Virginia.61
Throughout World War II and the Korean War, Portsmouth Marines have continued to fire the traditional 2100 gun, a custom dating back to 5 September 1866. It may be that the firing of the cannon originally signaled a curfew clamped on the city during the era of reconstruction. Possibly the gun first boomed to warn tavern keepers to aim erring sailors and Marines toward the nearest exit, thus giving them a fighting chance to reach the yard before lights out. Whatever its origin, the custom was officially suspended just once. In 1907 Admiral E. D. Taussig, Commandant of the Yard, silenced the gun to spare the eardrums of a child living at the base. Once the admiral was transferred, the tradition was resumed.
Over the years the firing of the gun has become the subject of countless legends, none of which can be authenticated. Many a parent has claimed that his child could not sleep unless the gun roared promptly at 2100. It is said that on one evening the cannon, an ancient three-pounder, was fired a second time to quiet a squalling child who did not hear the first report. Most popular story is the account of the night that a band of carefree Marines rammed a dozen or so golf balls into the muzzle of the gun. An unsuspecting sentry fired the piece, turning the shipyard into a driving range. Fortunately no damage was done except for a few broken windows.62
62 Paul Sorokin, "Portsmouth, Va.," Leatherneck v. 37, no. 1 (Jan 1954), pp. 23-24..
At the time of the Korean armistice, some 200 Marines were serving at Portsmouth. In addition to guarding the shipyard and directing the East Coast Sea School (in 1956 redesignated the Sea School/Sea Pool), the men of Portsmouth provided security for the Naval Ammunition Depot at St. Julien's Creek, Virginia.63
63 Ibid., p. 25.
In the century and a half since the establishment of the Barracks at Gosport, Portsmouth's Marines have served in Florida, on the Spanish Main, in Cuba, and in China. Throughout both World Wars, the detachment helped protect a vast industrial and military complex from accidents and sabotage. Whatever the task, Marines stationed in the Norfolk area proved themselves always faithful.