Marcus W. Robbins, Historian & Archivist
Copyright. All rights reserved.


Blog #1. January 31, 2011.


A few weeks ago Jennifer Zingalie, a Public Affairs Specialist working in the NNSY Public Affairs Office (PAO), asked me if I would be interested in creating and maintaining material for a consistent historical look at our shipyard's history for posting on NNSY's Facebook page. Well, it did not take me long to positively respond, as if any of you know me personally, history within the walls and gates of this Navy Yard in the last few years has become my passion. We have a great story to tell. I am a firm believer and have said many times "you must know where you came from in order to know where you are going". My friends, this will be the first of many postings to share Norfolk Naval Shipyard's rich and interesting historical heritage.

It will be a journey that expands on unique little known facts taken and explored from the larger story of this great institution, our Norfolk Naval Shipyard. It will be a journey to gain insight of the people, the facilities and the vast waterfront that has served our country for the last 244 years from its humble beginnings on the banks of the Elizabeth River when first founded 1 November, 1767. Today we walk over history, we work under the roof of history, and we owe it to future generations to tell the story.

To honor those that have recorded the story about our shipyard's history, beginning with published accounts going back into the 19th century, I will bring together facts and various quotes from the writings of those great authors that have gone before me, chiefly being Commander Edward Lull, Lieutenant Commander Simon Barksdale, Technical Librarian Marshall Butt and Public Affairs Officer Joe Law. Their collection of works and reference materials document our earliest beginnings and will provide unlimited opportunities. I too shall provide unique insight and materials from my own personal collection of newspapers and periodical materials that document our work establishment environment, especially the 18th and 19th centuries. My emphasis mostly shall focus on the old Gosport Navy Yard (from late 1700's) to the end of the Norfolk Navy Yard period (mid 1940's).

Who am I and what creditability do I have to speak on our history? My name is Marcus W. Robbins and I was born and raised locally in Norfolk Virginia. Upon graduation from Norview High School I found myself in Public Works, Shop 07 with an apprenticeship being trained as a Welder in the fall of 1977. After 4 years of waterfront time and trade theory with Shop 26, my career has been involved around Public Works either working with my tools as a Journeyman Welder, serving as a Planner & Estimator, serving as an Engineering Technician in the Facilities Support Contracts Division, serving staff to the Public Works Officer as a Facilities Maintenance Specialist and most recently my career has lead me to NNSY Code 1100 as the Command Facilities Program Manager.

The reoccurring theme of "my work life" is our NNSY facilities. I know these grounds and facilities well, along with how they have historically performed their functions by personal observation these 33 years.

Our people do a good work and I have seen many changes at this establishment over the years. Our people have a story to tell, your family members have a story to tell. Together I want to help tell their story because, "history matters".

Photographer: Gardner. Circa 1864.
Norfolk Navy Yard ruins, looking north from
Drydock 1. Ex-building 18 in the near view,.


Blog #2. February 17, 2011.

Building M-22 & Gosport's Marine History

The other day I was asked to speak at an all-hands function for one of our newest tenant commands (SURFMEPP) that is going to eventually house over 200 employees in Building M-22. I also volunteered to bring over some picture artifacts of the NNSY Marine compound area that would help enlighten their work force of the grand historic area that they are moving into.

The following is a rough timeline of our local Marine Corp events, touching on facilities challenges from the early beginnings up until the closing of the post in 1978. In these last 90 plus years Building M-22 played an important role first for the Marines and more recently as an administrative support facility for the shipyard. Now our story --

A new era of Federal ownership and operation began for the Gosport Navy Yard in 1801. It was during this period that lands were purchased and plans were made to improve the yard. A growing need for security of materials, tools and ships resulted in October 1801 by a Marine guard force being ordered to Gosport. Their original mission was "guard the property of the United States deposited in the Navy Yard".

As today, priorities of security details are subject to change and on August 6, 1804, the Marines were ordered to detach and were sent to Washington to support operations against the Tripolitan pirates. Returning in November of 1807 the Gosport Marine presence has remained continuously and served our nation as the country's second oldest post, only to Washington, until it closed on September 30, 1978.

Our Marines were first housed and operated out of barracks of wood, then brick, within several different areas of the shipyard. These wooden accommodations in the early 1800's were described as "miserable huts of wood, wanting much repair". It is reported that the Officer's toilets were in a detached building with the seats hanging out over the water and exposed to mosquitoes in the summer and icy winds in the winter.

By the later part of the 1880's, plans were made to construct permanent barracks, being a large brick structure along Third Street, currently at the location of our current swimming pool and tennis courts. Despite this more modern brick facility, it was still lacking for adequate space and mission support qualities (sound familiar?).

Congress approved monies in 1902 to construct our current M-32 structure and other supporting Marine officer housing all of brick (only structure M-1 survives) focused around a large parade ground on the recently purchased Schmoele tract as the shipyard expanded west. Years later, in response to world events and the eventual outbreak of World War I, saw further increase of Marines at Norfolk.

Building M-22 was constructed in the 1917-1919 timeframe to house 250 Marines. The Marine Officers School for Service Afloat, the only one of its kind in existence, began in 1918 to teach young officers seamanship, ordnance, naval law, navy and shipboard organization, hydrography and history.

Building M-22 has served our country and supported Marines during World War I & II, Korea and Vietnam. In 1957 Marine Barracks, Norfolk, Virginia, consisted of 30 acres and 22 buildings. One of the more colorful and popular was found right next door, Building M-23, otherwise known as the little Tun Tavern. Most of our current employees know this location as the old McDonalds eatery, currently scheduled for demolition in 2011.

The Marine Corps color detail lowered the flag in front of building M-32 for the last time on 30, September 1978. Building M-22 Marine Corp's barracks and training support also came to a close that day. Building M-22 continues to serve Norfolk Naval Shipyard and its tenant activities in administrative roles, being very proud of its Marine Corps past because, "history matters".

Building M-22 from a privately obtained personal photo,
dated by the person in the view on the porch, July 2, 1926.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)


Blog #3. March 14, 2011.

100 Years Ago, March 1911 - The Sinking of the former U.S.S. TEXAS

The Norfolk Navy Yard can claim many first accomplishments and one of our finest was the construction of the Navy's first Battleship, the U.S.S. TEXAS built 1889-1892.

Recently a new age in ship construction had arrived here on the shores of the Elizabeth River with the passing of wood and sail to the new age of iron and steam when this shipyard converted the steam-frigate Merrimac into the CSS Virginia three decades prior. As revolutionary as this radical change in naval construction was, the construction of TEXAS marked the beginnings of the modern navy and even more advanced design changes.

The TEXAS was authorized August 8, 1886, laid down June 1, 1889, with commissioning on August 15, 1895.

TEXAS shown alongside of ex-Building 28
Location is modern Berths 7 & 8
Circa 1905 Postcard
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The site of this amazing feat of construction of such a large vessel was actually on the former site of ship-house "B" just north of our Hammerhead Crane by utilizing the granite building ways incline first laid down in 1820. I am currently gathering construction photos and will be making a future display to document the construction progress. The battleship came to life one rivet at a time and we have some actual shipyard photos to prove it!

Both the TEXAS and the MAINE were actually prototypes of the entire battleship class to come; thus they are not represented by the traditional "BB" hull designations. Each ship was slightly different in design to prove different construction techniques. Plans were actually from an English shipbuilder who won $15,000 in prize money after competing amongst other naval architects.

The main battery consisted of two 12 inch breach loading rifle guns set in turrets, placed "in echelon" which is to say that they are not on centerline with the ship. TEXAS had its forward gun on the port side and its stern gun on the starboard side both in the amidships area. This design was reversed for MAINE but again this was the age of experimentation. Protection came from her belted armor design some 12 inches thick, running a length of one hundred and fourteen feet down each side and six feet wide, showing only two feet above the waterline.

If you visit the Naval Museum on High Street you can see a part of this actual armor belt outside the front door along with one of the TEXAS anchors. After you stand upon these items for a photograph to remember your visit, you will come away with a different appreciation of how we could accomplish constructing such a huge ship using 19th century lifting devices and essentially assembling the hull in an open field before the slide launching.

TEXAS served her country well in the Spanish American War obtaining revenge for the sinking of the MAINE in Cuba, which is another story. TEXAS participated on June 16, 1898, with the bombardment of Guantanamo Bay and on July 3, 1898, as part of the Flying Squadron at the Battle of Santiago de Cuba. After the war, TEXAS operated out of the Norfolk Navy Yard as the Flagship of the Atlantic Coast Squadron till 1908.

ex-TEXAS ~ Before the Shelling
Location is Chesapeake Bay, Virginia
Circa 1911 Photogravure by Clarke & Muller
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Then seeing service as the station receiving ship at Charleston from 1908-1911, our once glorious ship saw its days numbered. Our second class battleship TEXAS was renamed SAN MARCOS on 16 February 1911 to allow for the future BB-35 to now claim the name TEXAS, but the old girl still had one more bit of service to give to her country, going out with style and honor.

100 years ago this month in March 1911 the ship was towed out into the Chesapeake Bay near Tangier Sound to be used as a target ship for the USS NEW HAMPSHIRE BB-25. The end result was a deliberate sinking in the shallow waters, all the while providing useful visible evidence of the effectiveness new Navy's long range guns.

In the end, ultimately TEXAS gave its very life for the good of our country, because – "history matters".

ex-TEXAS ~ After the Shelling
Location is Chesapeake Bay, Virginia
Circa 1911 Photogravure by Clarke & Muller
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Blog #4. March 18, 2011.

Gosport, Before the Powder Exploded – 150 Years Ago

In 1861 the Gosport Navy Yard (GNY) was the premier Naval Station for Uncle Sam here along the banks of the Elizabeth River, but in March of 1861 the winds blew with an uneasiness that the images below can not capture. Ultimately, on April 21, 1861, things were about to drastically change the very landscape we work at today, but I will save that till next month to tell.

Plan of the Harbor (Partial Section) of Norfolk and Portsmouth
by Chas. E. Cassell, March 1, 1861.
(Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Collection)

On February 18th, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated at Montgomery, Alabama, as President of the Confederate States of America. On March 4th, 1861, Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President of the United States. The atmosphere hung heavy with the dark clouds of a civil war coming on. Newsprint of the time was full of speculation of Mr. Lincoln's recent call for arming of troops. Likewise the South began to establish a formal military structure. Sides were being drawn and soon talk of secession was in the air throughout the South. With the April 12, 1861, action at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, the die was cast for the ultimate direction that Virginia would take: succeeding from the Union on April 17th, 1861.

But now back to life at GNY before the late unpleasantness –

I want to paint a mental image for you what Gosport was like and will cover our canvas with a collection of statements contained in 36th Congress, 1st Session, House of Representatives, Document Number 34 of March 2, 1860, that was really an investigation report on all the Navy Yard conditions at the time. Also, with a look back using 37th Congress, Senate, Document Number 37 of April 18, 1862, that provides colorful background before the destruction of Gosport, this document frames an accurate written account of the physical shipyard appearance and shipbuilding infrastructure leading up to the raging inferno yet to come.

Upon the date of the visit of June 20, 1859, in the first mentioned document the following lead statement was made that reads in part, "It is the largest and most important yard in the United States" . . . Later within this document is found "The general appearance of the yard is good, and the buildings in pretty good order, with the exception of the ship-houses". Writer's note -- the large ship-house structures you see in the below engraving were erected in 1820 overtop of the stone building ways, so being constructed entirely of wood and with dirt floors, forty years later they must have been a sight to see. It is at this location, just north of the iconic Hammerhead Crane today we have a large parking lot. So just under our feet remain the granite ruins of both ship-houses "A"& "B".

Gosport - The Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia.
Harper's Weekly, March 16, 1861.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Found within the Senate review, a detailed narrative of Gosport is given. "This yard was one of the oldest naval depots in the country, and since its original establishment had been very much enlarged in area. At the time of its abandonment, on 20th of April, 1861, it was about three-fourths of a mile long and one-fourth of a mile wide, being by far the most extensive and valuable yard in the possession of the United States. There was connected with it a dry dock of granite like the Charlestown dry dock. The yard was covered with machine shops, dwelling-houses for officers, and storehouses of various kinds. There were in it two ship-houses entire and another in progress of erection, marine barracks, sail loft, riggers' loft, gunners' loft, numerous smith shops and sheds, carpenters' shops and sheds, machine shops, timber sheds, foundries, dispensary, saw-mill, boiler shop, burnetizing-house, spar-house, provision-house, numerous dwellings, and a large amount of tools and machinery. There were also great quantities of material, provisions, and ammunition of every description".

All of this was about to change, Gosport Navy Yard would never be the same because – "history matters".

Blog #5. March 26, 2011.

Gosport, Before the Match Was Lit – 150 Years Ago

Picking up from my last writing which gave a quick summary of sides being formed, North and South, the mood both inside and outside the gates of Gosport were, in a word, apprehensive. The clouds of potential civil war were building yet Gosport continued to be a firm anchor as it is today providing employment for about 1,500 locals by constructing and repairing ships for the country. As described by official reports, an overall narrative view of Gosport and its national importance before the outbreak of the war was presented in my last blog.

In order to really appreciate our shore-based history today, I want to now share of what buildings and facilities were in place before our shipyard suffered its second of three major fires, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the inferno. Gosport would soon become a smoldering victim of the match under the Union force's evacuation on April 21, 1861.

Wood by its very nature is temporary; thus buildings become wounded by decay or completing their circle of life in a few decades and are in time replaced by other structures. Brick, a more permanent and lasting material is generally found devoted to more important structures depending on the application and can under the right conditions mark their age by a century or more. Any building can be damaged by the external forces of nature - rain, wind and flood such as are found on the shores of the Elizabeth yet nothing is completely safe from FIRE.

In all of my readings the definitive civil record and history of this establishment are captured in an 1874 document by Commander Edward P. Lull – History of the United States Navy-Yard at Gosport, Virginia, (Near Norfolk). Attached is Plate map 2 from this document which shows in very graphic relation the civil layout of this shipyard in November 1860. Additional planed buildings are overlaid on this map and if one looks carefully at the water's edge line in the tracing you can see the great improvements yet to come along by our quay walls.

Plan of the U.S. Navy Yard,Norfolk,Va.
showing conditions November 1860
Lull – History of the Gosport Navy Yard, 1874
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The Drydock was completed by 1834, as was the brick boundary wall, both of which survive today. The Timber Dock was begun in 1835 and completed in 1854, providing safe a harbor out of the main channel and we know this structure today as Wet Slip 1. A series of brick structures both to the north and south of the Timber Dock were constructed in the from 1840's to 1860's serving as a mast house, a foundry, timber sheds, machine shops, ordinance and various stores. Some of these buildings are known to us today by our current numbering assignment being – 3, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33 & 36. Both ex-Building's 28 and 36 became demolished victims in the 1980's, yet witness proof to the fine qualities of brick construction by having walls 16 inches thick. I witnessed their last fight, slowly crumbling under the modern day wrecking ball.

Officer quarters were provided the Shipyard Commander and other Navy Yard Officers in a place of private residence on station. Quarters - A, B, C, D & E were all constructed in the 1830's. For untold reasons lost to time, neither side in 1861 or 1862 set fire to these grand architectural structures of which we can be thankful for today.

A grand entrance gate was constructed in 1851, flanked by an imposing set of wings, along the northern face of the yard. Today we know this area as Buildings 19 and 51, and the main formal center structure survived till the outbreak of World War 1 to later become what we know as Gate 3. Take time, walk Lincoln Street and observe the effects of fire damage to the upper brickwork as the wood roofs burnt off each of these buildings.

Towering along the waterfront were the massive ship houses "A" and "B" of which there are no known photographs, but are shown in their pre-destruction service in an 1861 engraving contained in my prior blog. Soon they were also wrapped in flames that were seen for miles, marking a new chapter in Gosport's rich story.

Please consider attending the Naval Shipyard Museum's program on Saturday April, 2, 2011 entitled – "Gosport Burning" from 10pm – 5pm to learn more of these 1861 events, as there shall be special exhibits and you can learn more about our shipyard's eventful past because - "history matters".

Blog #6. April 9, 2011

Gosport, Facilities Worth Fighting For – 150 Years Ago

In 1861 sides had been drawn and the great Civil War conflict began in South Carolina at Fort Sumter on April 12. Virginia voted for succession from the Union on April 17 and as they say – "the rest is history".

If the events of the afternoon of April 20 and well into the night had not happened here at Gosport like they did with the Union's self inflicted burning of the shipyard and scuttling of 11 vessels to avoid falling into the hands of the secessionists, the entire timeline of the Civil War would have been altered. The events at Gosport influenced the outcome of the Civil War! Amazingly, Gosport was lost without a single shot being fired, only lost by the flame of the Union's lit match.

Gosport's flag changed from that of the United States Union to the rebel flag of Virginia, flying over the smoldering devastation by sunrise on April 21, 1861, a day that marked the birth for the infant confederate shipbuilding industry. Captain Robert Pegram was immediately ordered by Virginia's Governor Letcher as Commandant of Gosport pending the arrival of Captain French Forrest on April 22, both men now representing the newly formed Virginia State Navy, VSN. They had both recently resigned their commissions in the U. S. Navy. Later each would become commissioned in the Confederate States Navy, CSN, and by July 1, 1861, the Confederates States flag was hoisted over Gosport.

No other location in the newly formed Confederate States provided a ready made industrial base like Gosport. As discussed in my last blog, the great stone drydock, the immense ship houses built upon massive granite stone inclined ship ways, the brick stores, supply houses, stables and shops of all sorts were aligned in a grid fashion to both the north and south sides of a great deep water timber basin. Travel the historic north end of today's shipyard as detailed in the my last blog to observe those same surviving structures as we continue to occupy and operate supporting our modern 21st century Navy from their solid brick and stone cores. Gosport was built to transcend time by the quality craftsmanship given to these same facilities from the early to mid 19th century.

Why was Gosport important? That answer is surprisingly short and can be summed up in one word – facilities.

Facilities worth fighting for, yet the South was handed such a prize without bloodshed that enabled them to send powder, ammunition and cannon west to the Mississippi River and into the deep south along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean shorelines in order to supply fortifications supporting campaigns in the long years to follow.

Give pause and reflect that Gosport's loss indeed influenced, if nothing else, the duration of the Civil War.

Gosport also had strategic advantages of a protected harbor, nearby railroad services, a center of commerce with the established towns of both Norfolk and Portsmouth that also provided an immediate and skilled workforce. Both worker and officer loyalty and the way that Commander McCauley dealt with same will be explored later.

This blog installment concludes the land based naval configuration of Gosport. The 1860 conditions map I presented last gives an overall appreciation of the immense industrial base that Gosport represented at the outbreak of hostilities. Also now please observe an attached small section of an 1857 Norfolk Harbor map by the U.S. Coast Survey Office. While this map is not all inclusive showing the entire of Gosport's facilities, it provides a transition to where we will explore next, the waterfront.

Norfolk Harbor Map – 1857 (partial section)
U. S. Coast Survey Office
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

The very name of our establishment, Gosport Navy Yard, begs now to explore the "Navy" side. What ships were in the stream? To the edge of the quay wall and looking out into the southern branch of the Elizabeth River, we will venture next because - "history matters".

Blog #7. April 18, 2011.

Gosport, Suspense & the Ships in the Stream – 150 Years Ago

As the morning of April 18, 1861, dawned 150 years ago today, Virginia had the day before voted for succession from the Union. The storm clouds of uncertainly cast upon the local population of what was to come next was like that of a great massive thunderstorm building and you know it is going to rain and rain hard. The suspense is in that you don't know exactly when the first bolt of lighting will strike.

The Gosport Navy Yard existed for the purpose of constructing and repairing ships of the United States Navy, but now, what was to become of this the most important of all the naval stations? It now finds itself on the soil of a state that has voted to withdraw from the Union. As a steady place of employment and a provider of commerce for the communities of Gosport, Portsmouth and Norfolk, the Navy Yard became central to events both within its walls, along its waterfront and in the surrounding communities. The work force and officers had a choice to make and make soon. Commander Charles S. McCauley had about 800 mechanics and laborers. "In the beginning most of them appeared to be loyal, but none of them at the end, after the State of Virginia had gone out of the Union."

The official Senate investigations held in November 1861 affords a glimpse back on certain events as all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place leading to Gosport's demise. Actions were being taken to sink lighter boats full of stone in the narrows of the channel beyond Fort Norfolk as a means to keep the Gosport fleet from leaving to the safety of Fortress Monroe. There were also reports of batteries being thrown up under the heavy pine woods on the St. Helena side of the river and near Craney Island. The powder magazine at Fort Norfolk had been recently taken, the night air was thick with the sounds of train whistles and a force of insurgents reported to be between two and three thousand strong arriving from Richmond and Petersburg and other places in the vicinity of Norfolk. Some events were real, some a clever ruse to fool, which worked well. The trains were but empty cars circulated over and over, with local citizens making great noises upon arrival and creating the impression of a massive gathering of secessionist troops arriving by the train load.

McCauley was dependant on getting his information from messengers he sent from the yard to obtain the mail and from officers who went out into Norfolk and Portsmouth to obtain a feeling of what was happening beyond the walls of the Navy Yard. He later states in official testimony "… from messengers and other sources which at the time I deemed perfectly reliable. I do not know that these messengers were disloyal; their statements were corroborated from other sources".

McCauley also received naval visitors, dispatched under official orders from Washington to effect repairs on Merrimac along with written communication from the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles to "… impose additional vigilance and care in protecting the public property under your charge, and placing the vessels and stores, if necessary, beyond jeopardy". In closing his April 16 letter Welles states. "The vessels and stores under your charge you will defend at any hazard, repelling by force if necessary, any and all attempts to seize them, whether by mob violence, organized effort, or any assumed authority."

There were at the Navy Yard at that time, the sloop-of-war Cumberland, 22 guns, in commission, with a full complement of officers and men on board; the sloops-of-war Plymouth, 22 guns, and Germantown, 22 guns, and the brig Dolphin, 6 guns, almost ready for sea; the steam frigate Merrimac, 40 guns, almost ready for sea and undergoing repairs; the line of battleship Pennsylvania, 120 guns, in commission as a receiving ship, with considerable crew on board, and the 74-gun ships Delaware and Columbus, and the frigates Raritan, Columbia and United States, dismantled and in ordinary. The force of sailors and marines on the various vessels and at the Navy Yard was probably about 600, well armed and abundantly supplied with ammunition. The Plymouth, Germantown, Dolphin and Merrimac were lying alongside the wharves and men working on them. The Delaware and Columbus were at a wharf at the southern end of the yard, and might have been considered in "Rotten Row" a term applied to vessels for which the Government no longer has any use.

The above paragraph taken from John W. H. Porter's 1892 book History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 gives a fitting description of the ships in the stream as it perfectly describes the pre-fire setting at Gosport because - "history matters".

Harpers Weekly engraving of April 6, 1861.
Pennsylvania, Columbia, Raritan & United States,
also Steam Frigate Merrimac at Gosport.
(Courtesy of Sargeant Memorial Collection)

Blog #8. April 20, 2011.

Gosport, Union - Evacuation, Destruction & the 2nd Burning – 150 Years Ago

The paragraph below is taken from the H. W. Burton's 1877 book – The History of Norfolk Virginia.

On Saturday night, April 20th, 1861, the Gosport Navy-yard was evacuated by the U. S. Government troops. General Taliaferro, commandant of the Virginia militia at this place, made a demand upon Commodore Macauley for a surrender of the Government property at the yard, which was refused – the Commodore assuring General T. that nothing would be removed and no vessel should leave the yard without due notice being given him. This assurance quieted our people for a while; but in short time it was observed that the hands in the yard were engaged in "cutting down the shears, (which fell across the Germantown), scuttling the vessels, spiking the guns and destroying everything they could lay hands upon."

The following provides summary as given in testimony to the select committee of the Senate appointed by resolution of the 25th of July, 1861, that was formed to inquire into the circumstances attending the destruction of the property of the United States at the Navy Yard at Norfolk.

On the 18th of April, Captain Paulding was sent to Norfolk with written instructions to take command of all the naval forces there afloat, to defend the property of the United States, repelling force by force, and, if necessary, to destroy the vessels and property there to prevent them from falling into the hands of the insurrectionists, or those would wrest them from the custody of the government.

He arrived at the navy yard at about 8 o'clock in the evening of the 20th of April; he had at his command all the vessels of war belonging to the United States, and fully one thousand effective men, viz: one hundred marines, taken at Washington on board the "Pawnee" in which vessel he went to Norfolk, the crew of the "Pawnee" of one hundred men, Colonel Wardrop's regiment of Massachusetts volunteers, consisting of three hundred and fifty men taken on board the "Pawnee" at Fortress Monroe, three hundred and fifty men on board the "Cumberland," and at least one hundred and fifty marines and sailors at the yard on the receiving ships.

Captain McCauley was highly censurable for neglecting to send the Merrimac from the yard as he was ordered, and also for scuttling the ships and preparing to abandon the yard before any attack was made or seriously threatened, when he should have defended it and the property instructed to him, repelling force by force, as he was instructed to do if the occasion should present itself.

In quick fashion summary, as many reams of paper have been written by others before me, the following events transpired over the evening of April 20 and into the morning of April 21, 1861. Gosport would now fall victim to the match for the second time. The flag would change from the Union stars and stripes to that of the state of Virginia by daylight of the 21st, all without a single shot being fired.

Crews of men were scatted upon the yard with the sole purpose to destroy anything of value to prevent it falling into the hands of the secessionist. Machinery and supplies and the facilities protecting them were not ignored. The mighty shear (the large crane to load cannon upon vessels) located between the ship houses, "A" & "B" had been cut down and fell across the Germantown earlier in the afternoon. The ships in the stream were scuttled and began to sink in place. Guns were spiked, that is to say having rat tail files or nails driven into their touch-hole to render ineffective for a short time, unsuccessful attempts were also made to break trunnions with sledgehammers to render the vast number of cannon useless. The great granite drydock was mined with enough powder to destroy everything in the southern end of the yard but the match failed somehow. Trains of powder were laid upon the decks of the ships in the stream, the mighty ship houses and certain of the buildings on the yard in order to ignite the turpentine and cotton wastes carefully placed to insure that sheets of flames would reach up into the heavens once the order was given.

At 4 o'clock in the morning all was ready and the Pawnee slipped her mooring and took out the Cumberland in tow. At twenty past four the concerted signal was given by a rocket from the Pawnee, the torch was applied simultaneously at many points and in a few minutes the ships and their buildings in the yard were wrapped in sheets of flames and explosion as ammunition from the heavy guns burst as the intensive inferno raged. The countryside was illuminated for miles around, the roar of the flames must have been unbelievable as years of work and materials were consumed, useless for neither side now.

In the April edition of Norfolk Naval Shipyard's monthly publication, Service to the Fleet, I supplied a small snapshot of the interior view burn engraving featured below and gave the statement "learn about three of the buildings in this view which survived the fire and are still standing today".

The answer is - Buildings 3, 9 and 51 are all contained in the view shown below, they and many other north end facilities are survivors. Facilities built to stand the test of time, not just mere stone and brick structures but a testament to the quality construction techniques of Gosport's 19th century craftsman as these facilities continue to serve Norfolk and our modern Navy well into their second century because - "history matters".

Harpers Weekly double fold engraving of MAY 11, 1861.
Destruction of United States Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia,
by Fire, by the United State Troops, on April 20, 1861, &
Destruction of the United State Ships at the Norfolk Navy Yard, by Order of the Government.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Blog #9. April 28, 2011.

Gosport, A Rare Written Firsthand Report – 150 Years Ago

The spoken word is yet temporary but the written word lives on. Newspaper accounts while bare on feelings give relevant facts and depending upon what soil they were published always seemed to carry certain political overtones. Hand written letters on the other hand describe things seen by the author and most times give certain personal insights and feelings. Surviving letters penned by the very person involved in an historical event are indeed rare. I have in my personal collection what I consider a gem – a hand written letter by a solider that states …"at about 6 o'clock p.m. we were marched aboard the Pawnee for a pleasure excursion to Norfolk Navy Yard".

Below is the complete transcription of my letter which was recently featured in the Virginian Pilot’s series, Voices of the Civil War on April 10, 2011.

(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

[Page 1]
Fort Monroe, Virginia, April 28, 1861

Dear Sir:

As some of our boys promised to write you, and none of them have yet fulfilled their pledges, I thought I would spend a few moments in doing so. We all of us have so many correspondents that our letters are necessarily short and hurried and if critically examined would show many imperfections.

The Spalding landed us (the 3rd Regt.) at this fort about 11 o'clock a.m. Saturday the 20th, the 4th Regt. having been here 5 or 6 hours before we arrived. Our passage Friday being pretty rough, most of the men were suffering from the effects of sea sickness, but at about 6 o'clock p.m. we were marched aboard the Pawnee for a pleasure excursion to Norfolk Navy Yard. The Commodore of the Pawnee (Paulding) wished to take the 4th Regiment aboard as they had been ashore the longest and had had three rations served to them since landing, but Col. Packard objected saying his men were too tired. Hearing this Col. Wardrop exclaimed, "My G_d, my men can go!" and in reply to Com. Paulding's enquiry as to how much time was needed for preparation, he replied, "fifteen minutes." The [Page 2] result of our going you have doubtless seen in the papers long since. The Navy Yard was completely ruined, the ships and their houses completely destroyed, their magnificent dry dock, costing millions of dollars, blown up, and an immense quantity of guns, pistols, cutlasses, powder, shells, etc., put where it can never be of any use. It was a good streak of luck for Government, as it would have all been seized the very next day by the Succession Army, if we had not used it up so completely and the very guns we spiked and the ammunition we spoiled would have been directed against Fort Monroe. Our Regiment was favored by not being attacked, for so many of us were nearly dead from the fatigues from a sea voyage that we could have made little resistance, and huddled as we were, nearly 400 of us volunteers, we should have been decidedly worse than nothing, as we would have stood in the way of the Marines who manned the vessel.

The Rebels appear to be busy making preparations to attack us, but nearly everybody in the Fort doubts their making any demonstration. We have command of the river by having the Man-of-War Cumberland stationed here. She is one of the vessels we took up in Norfolk and towed down and has already proved very serviceable to us. Last Thursday she fired into a tug which was towing out toward Norfolk a schooner, and the [Page 3] shot taking effect upon her wheelhouse she was brought to, and we made prizes of the tug and schooner both. On bringing the schooner to the wharf she was found to be commanded by a sailor who only a short time since deserted from the Cumberland, and it is said he was hung by the Marines. The craft was completely loaded with all the munitions of war including guns, gun carriages, ammunition, provisions, etc., and proved to be quite a prize – the little tug has been pressed into Uncle Sam's service, and very useful she proves.

This Fort answers very well the description given of it in the Boston Post about the time we sailed. It is a beautiful place and the transition from the barren and snow-clad hills of New England to the luxuriance of spring as seen here is well worth a trip to see. Our parade ground is covered with green grass and the trees which border the walks are just leafing out. There is a capital Brass Band in the Fort and they give us every morning some of the best music I ever heard. So beautiful is the scene, that we can hardly realize that it is possible that all this loveliness may soon be a barren waste. One cannot truly imagine the change which the horrors of an actual war may cause to pass over the face of everything here. I hope we may not witness the sight, but I do believe that if compelled to fight, the 3rd will [Page 4] give a good account of herself.

I suppose there is an intense feeling in the North. Our Company have not had many letters, so all the news we get is from Baltimore papers, but even those represent a decision of purpose on the part of the North, and North West to stand by our "Father Abraham." We expect soon to have northern papers regularly, and they will seem nearly as good as a letter. I long to see some of the Boston dailies.

You must excuse the style, etc., of this letter as I don't have time to be very particular and to have to write just as it comes into my head. I would be pleased to hear from you, at any time, and trusting you will overlook all errors.

Very respectfully yours,
H. W. Poole

Cyrus Thompson, Esq.

Address: H. W. Poole
Care Capt. Harlen
Co. A 3rd Reg.
Fort Monroe,

Think about what we have just read, 150 years ago (today - April 28, 1861) this communication was born; ink upon paper.

Events are still fresh in this young man’s mind less than a week after he participates in the 2nd burn, evacuation and destruction of the Gosport Shipyard on the night of April 20, 1861. He further continues to tell of the Cumberland's actions the very next week, events never recorded by the news of the day. Woe to that deserter from the captured schooner off Fort Monroe after the Cumberland fired into it, "and it is said he was hung by the Marines".

While this simple four page letter was addressed to inform just one person, Cyrus Thompson of Boston pertaining to what the Massachusetts volunteer, H. W. Poole had just witnessed so far away in Virginia now fast forward to today. Realize that 150 years later with a just a few simple computer clicks this message can now be accessed around the world.

The written word is important because - "history matters".

Blog #10. June 22, 2011.

Gosport, A Grand Gift & Confederate Spoils of War – 150 Years Ago

 I have taken a little break after writing so much leading up to the 2nd burning of the shipyard on April 21, 1861, and in this space of time did some research on what exactly the North so readily handed the newly formed Confederate States. It proved to be a gift for the southern cause as not a shot was fired by them in attack as the yard was abandoned and attempted to be destroyed by the northern United States forces, but by the very fact the destruction was so incomplete the functions of Gosport’s industrial plant continued on immediately, just under another flag at the very next sunrise.

Instantly the secessionist gained an industrial base and as shall be discussed in later blogs, also a huge gift with the sunken and burned hulk of USS MERRIMAC in time to be raised and transformed into the CSS VIRGINIA.

In future months we shall explore details of the progress of that work. But, in brief reflection of this gift that changed naval warfare forever, please take note that today you can still stand right at the edge of what we call Berth 2, at the very location where USS MERRIMAC was scuttled and burned along the Elizabeth River. Take a short trip south down the modern waterfront and you can view the very drydock, our Drydock 1, where the conversion takes place into CSS VIRGINIA and of where she sails out early in March of 1862 to meet the northern ironclad MONITOR. It is also in this very dock her hulk is finally broken up after being removed as a navigation hazard off of Craney Island in 1876. Our drydock continues in service to this day. It also became a gift 150 years ago, as the Union unsuccessfully attempted to explode with kegs of black powder.

After Gosport is lost, the 37th Congress, 2nd Session, appoints a select committee to inquire on the destruction of the navy yard at Norfolk. I have a full original 1862 copy in my personal collection of these proceedings. What interesting reading! The following is a representative snapshot of these hearings that lends insight for us of what happened after the flames went out. Being questioned is Mr. Mifflin Pyle, age 24 years old, a boilermaker by trade, who witnessed the entire destruction, but I will only focus on the facilities portion:

Question. How much of the government property at the yard was destroyed on the night of 20th of April, and how much was left undestroyed?

Answer. The two ship-houses, the marine barracks, the sail loft, the rigging loft, the ordnance loft, the offices connected with that building, the ships "Pennsylvania," "Raritan," "Columbia," "Dolphin," "Germantown," "Plymouth," and "Merrimack," were destroyed, and all the guns were spiked. The ordinance department and the ordinance, the machinery department and the tools, the blacksmith's shop, carpenter's shop, boiler shop, provision houses and provisions, commandant's and other officers' dwellings, timber sheds, & c., were uninjured.

When this testimony is compared to Plate 2, a map of Gosport in 1860, it becomes very apparent that Commander McCauley did not have the resources to destroy the entire navy yard. While most of the ships and both of the grand ship houses "A"and "B" were consumed totally by the unforgiving inferno of the match, other of our brick buildings survived uninjured. If you look close enough from Lincoln Street, you can see the effects of the raging inferno that consumed and brought the upper parts of Buildings 19 and 51 down, yet to be rebuilt twice. You can still see the heavy metal stable hinges along the repeating brick arches of Buildings 9, 11, 13 and 17. There are numerous accounts of facility survivors, facilities today which are in excess of 160 years old.

Go take a walk. Look closely at the silent brickwork, it still speaks loudly today because - "history matters".

Plan of the U.S. Navy Yard, Norfolk,Va.
showing conditions November 1860
Lull – History of the Gosport Navy Yard, 1874
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

Blog #11. July 13, 2011.

Gosport: Summary of Destruction – 150 Years Ago

Numbers tell a story. Today in the age of the Internet, we can see that the page visit counters at the recently launched NNSY "History Matters" blog are approaching 600 hits after a few months and at my personal website of a couple of years now devoted to the old Norfolk Navy Yard (pre -1945) are approaching 6,400 hits.

I shall continue to be true to the reader by only using documented numbers, written works, publications, engravings and photos to properly put things in historic perspective without favoritism to either side in both of my Internet forums regarding the late unpleasantness. The Civil War continues to inspire a much spirited debate over 150 years later. We can learn from our past. We must continue to study the facts about Gosport.

As I said before, numbers tell a story. One of the most useful documents I have in my personal collection is an original 37th Congress, 2nd Session, of which the proceedings appoint a select committee to inquire on the destruction of the Navy Yard at Norfolk. Published in 1862 this document provides the following summaries of the destruction left by the Federal forces as they burned and evacuated Gosport on April 21, 1861. While not every line item will be repeated here it is interesting to note that the sub-line item dollar amounts cited are specific and deliberate. These people cared to the smallest degree of the items placed under their care. I dare say lessons could be learned today of their accounting methods.

The following are of various letters concerning the destruction of the Gosport Navy Yard (as formatted and presented) summarized under the APPENDIX. Navy Department, November 12, 1861.


Provisions………………….…… $55,148 25
Clothing………………………........ 71,678 75
Small stores………………….….....8,023 14
Contingent………………….….......3,643 62
Total......................................$138,493 93


Steamer Merrimac………………………… $600,000 00
Ship-of-the line Pennsylvania……………..275,000 00
Ship-of-the line Columbus………………... 185,000 00
Ship-of-the line Delaware…………………... 65,000 00
Ship-of-the line New York……………….. 220,000 00
Frigate Raritan…………………………….......155,000 00
Frigate Columbia………………………….......130,000 00
Frigate United States……………………….....30,000 00
Sloop-of-war Plymouth…………………......140,000 00
Sloop-of-war Germantown………………...140,000 00
Brig Dolphin……………………………….......... 40,000 00

Total value…………………………..............1,980,000 00

"Merrimac" Destroyed at the Burning of the Norfolk Navy Yard, April 19, 1861.
1906 postcard - Painting by B. A. Richardson.
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)


"….the whole value of the ordnance, ordnance stores, nautical instruments, &c., was $664,883 78."


Medical property on receiving ship Pennsylvania, $398 51
At the navy yard…………………………………................ 498 08
At the naval hospital……………………………............. 6,403 03
Total………………………………………............................ 7,299 89

MARINE CORPS – November 8, 1861

"…..The whole value of the clothing and marine stores at the yard, according to the schedule accompanying is $1,527 05."

BUREAU OF YARDS AND DOCKS – November 8, 1861

SIR: In compliance with your letter of the 6th instant, I transmit herewith an inventory of naval stores pertaining to this bureau at the Norfolk navy yard on the 1st of January, 1861 – the date of the last returns received prior to the destruction of the yard.

I enclose, also, a plan of the yard, showing, in black ink, the buildings, &c., which had been constructed or were in progress, and, in red ink, those which it was proposed to build, together with a statement of the expenditures for improvements and repairs of the yard, hospital, and magazine, as far as can be ascertained.

Navy yard……………………………………… $4,508,439 95
Hospital………………………………………........... 393,174 70
Magazine and ordnance works………………..204,562 53
Total.................................................................5,106177 18

As the report concludes, a line item concerning miscellaneous articles in the amount of $1,865,433 72 is listed.

The report now brings forward a grand total of $9,760,181 93 that was lost at the Gosport Navy Yard under the command of Captain Charles S. McCauley whom had been in command since the 7th of August,1860. If the walls of Quarters A could talk, we might have his insight to why the chain of events in April of 1861 began to reach a fever pitch leading up the final inferno that started with the striking of the smallest matches.

The result of Shipyard Commander McCauley's decisions 150 years ago resulted in numbers. Numbers that tell the story of the yard's 2nd burning, because "history matters".

Blog #12. July 20, 2011.

Gosport, Raising & Repairing the Ships – 150 Years Ago

Although the Federal forces at Gosport managed to render useless for the moment all of the ships found at the yard, I want to touch on each one briefly before we explore in depth the conversion of the most valuable of them all, the steamer MERRIMAC. Upon entry into the stone drydock, it would to the South evermore be referred to as the Confederate States Ship, CSS VIRGINIA, while the North would continually remain defiant by reporting its former name, MERRIMAC or MERRIMACK, depending upon the author.

To this day, these three interchangeable names exist in typeset, conversation and memorial with some degree of pride, depending on the storyteller or by some degree of confusion unless the receiver is familiar with the timeline. Remember, at Gosport begins the historic timeline leading up to the Battle of Hampton Roads, 1862.

As cited in the Burton's History of Norfolk Virginia, 1877, we find a reference recorded on October 28th of 1861 that states in part: "The large force of workmen at the Navy-yard made wonderful progress in manufacturing war implements and in repair the ships which the Federals had rendered useless".

In my last blog, I provided a table based upon the listing provided in a Navy Department letter dated November 12, 1861, that named each ship and its estimated value prior to its loss. Some of these ships went on to continue services, thus becoming reborn into a second life. At present I will focus only on their conditions as reported 150 years ago. The following quotes are compiled between Burton's History of Norfolk Virginia, 1877, John W. H. Porter History of Norfolk County 1861-1865 published 1892 and the 37th Congress, 2nd Session special report that examined THE SURRENDER AND DESTRUCTION OF THE NAVY YARDS ETC., published 1862.

MERRIMAC ~ "All I could see of the  Merrimack was her timbers and smoke stack; she was burnt to the water's edge."

MERRIMAC ~ "She had been raised by the Baker Wrecking Company on 30th of May 1861 and Mr. Porter, as Constructor at the Yard, had her put in the dry-dock and made a thorough examination of her."

(This view indicates an almost completed conversion - circa 1862)
(Courtesy of Marcus W. Robbins)

PENNSYLVANIA ~ "On the same day (October 28th 1861) divers examined the guns of the Pennsylvania, and found her sixty-eight pounders in good order; her 32-pounders were all burst."

COLUMBUS & DELAWARE ~ "They are sunk, near the mouth of the dry dock."

NEW YORK ~ In response to a question of what was destroyed on the night of 20th and morning of the 21st of April … "In the yard, the two ship houses, one of them containing the unfinished United States vessel New York … ."

RARITAN & COLUMBIA ~ (from a longer paragraph) … "Raritan, Columbia … were all destroyed, and the guns were spiked."

UNITED STATES ~ "The United States was still afloat. They had, as I understood, towed her down the river on Sunday morning, with a view to sink her for the obstruction of the channel. They didn't sink her, however, but brought her back to the yard for a receiving ship; she appeared to be uninjured."

PLYMOUTH ~ "I could just see the masts of the Plymouth; she was not burnt. I was told that she had been scuttled, and had sunk at the stern."

GERMANTOWN ~ "In going to the yard in a steam-tug, I saw the Germantown sunk under the shears.

DOLPHIN ~ "She was burnt to the water and sunk. They have raised her, but she was found to be burnt to a coal."

As it is our modern motto here at Norfolk Naval Shipyard - ANY SHIP, ANYWHERE, ANY TIME; look back 150 years ago. The Virginia secessionist movement became identified with the Confederate States flag flying over Gosport in July of 1861. The fire did not injure Gosport's basic industrial plant; men were working in the shops the very next day.

The South raised the huge gift from the river bottom being the ex-USS MERRIMAC.

Now, what would they do with their gift to be known as the CSS VIRGINIA? - because "history matters".

Continued on next page

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