By Clare Beverley Whitehead
Publisher: Printcraft Press, 1942.



The Norfolk Navy Yard has the unusual distinction of having been under five different flags—British, Virginia Colonial, United States, State of Virginia and Confederate States.

"I must go down to the seas again
To the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I want is a tall ship,
And a star to steer her by."

—John Maesfield

First national ship to enter a dry dock in the United States, June 17, 1833.

* * * * * *


By Clare Beverley Whitehead

THE NORFOLK NAVY YARD has always been one of the leading navy yards of our country, and has been the building site of ships of all types. It has built galleys, frigates, gunboats and minesweepers, ships to defend us against the Barbary Corsairs and the Mediterranean pirates.

The U. S. S. Chesapeake launched December, 1799; the U. S. S. Delaware launched in 1833 and the Merrimac renamed the Iron-Clad Virginia to defend our Confederate States in that great struggle which drenched our country in the blood of its youth and swept away so much of the beauty and culture of the old South. The Navy Yard has built submarine chasers but no submarines, called by the Germans "unter-zee-boots" and shortened to U-boats.

And now with the finest and most modern equipment it is turning out the biggest and best destroyers and battleships afloat.

The Navy Yard is rated as the largest of the United States, and for many years has done a large amount of the repair work for the Navy. It manufacturers large quantities of things needed by the Navy and is the principal center of turbine blades, Diesel engines and various gases for industrial uses. There are at present approximately 25,000 civilian employees in the Yard. About one year ago, there were approximately 12,000 employees in the Yard, this number having been increased to 25,000 at the present time, with an anticipated jump to 40,000 by July, 1943.

Within the last two years a $1,700,000 pier, one of the largest structures of its kind in the world, has been built, and is now in use.

At the present time, a $13,000,000 dry dock is under construction and will be completed in about one year.

The steady increase in employment in the Navy Yard of Portsmouth, is largely due to the giving to this yard of a contract for the construction of the battleship, Alabama, whose keel was laid on February 1, 1940. Construction of this vessel necessitates the employment of several thousand additional workmen, and under the able command of Rear Admiral Felix X. Gygax, the present commandant, the Navy Yard here, bids fair to take its place as our biggest and best. It is also of importance historically.

The exact date of the establishment of the yard is not known but it was started by the British prior to the Revolutionary War and named by them Gosport, the name by which it was known until after the War Between the States. In 1775 a British guard house or prison was established at Gosport where armed men wearing the king's dress stood guard.

The name Gosport was taken from the fortified English seaport adjoining the City of Portsmouth, England, and a letter written by Miles King, United States Navy agent, 1824, and on file in the Bureau of Yards and Docks, Navy Department, states: "Having selected this point, after a careful survey of all the ports within its dominion in North America, the British found this as the most eligible situation for a naval station." Mr. King also states in his letter that a short time after the British commenced the work the Revolutionary War began and the yard and the property adjoining it belonging to Andrew Sprowle, British Navy agent, was confiscated by the State of Virginia. When the yard was seized by the Virginia Colonies the flag of Colonial Virginia was raised over it and Virginia immediately commenced work to establish a navy.

Records show that the Virginia Convention directed the Colonial Virginia commissioners to take measures to improve the yard and to secure materials necessary to build two frigates and four galleys and to enlist crews to serve a three-year enlistment beginning March 1, 1777. It was estimated that 100 oak and 150 pine trees would be used to build these vessels. The Virginia Navy had among its officers Commodore Barron and his two sons, Captains James and Samuel Barron, and Richard Dale. Another officer, Captain Cunningham, who commanded the schooner Liberty was taken prisoner by the British and was held in confinement in Portsmouth. He eventually escaped by swimming at night the branch of the Elizabeth River at the south end of the Navy Yard.

It was Captain James Barron who wounded Commodore Stephen Decatur, the brilliant naval officer of Tripoli fame, in a duel on March 22, 1820. Although wounded in the right side Barron recovered and lived to make for himself a distinguished record in the United States Navy. He died at the age of 83, and is buried in the old churchyard of Trinity Church in Portsmouth, Va., and today amid the tramp of feet on busy city streets the officers and men of our great and modern Navy may pause and read the simple inscription:

"James Barron of the United States Navy
Born Hampton, Virginia, September 8, 1768
Died in the City of Norfolk, April 21, 1851."

Much credit is given to the Colonial Virginia Navy for its cooperation with the army of General Washington and through its efforts helping to bring about the surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown and victory for the colonies.

In May, 1777, Sir George Collier sailed into Hampton Roads with a squadron of British ships and recaptured the Navy Yard and the Town of Portsmouth. He sacked and burned the yard, Norfolk and Suffolk, but for some unknown reason did not destroy or burn Portsmouth. The British rule was short lived, for in a month's time, the yard was again under the flag of Colonial Virginia and remained so until the close of the Revolutionary War.

From then until 1794 it cannot be ascertained what status the yard had. The property belonged to the State of Virginia but it is not known if the Colonial Congress continued to authorize its use. In 1785 the General Assembly of Virginia authorized the sale of much of its public lands but deemed it advisable to retain the Gosport Navy Yard for the use of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The yard was comparatively inactive until 1794, when it became urgent and necessary to protect our commerce and break up the seizure of our ships by Barbary pirates. It was decided to build six ships to protect our interest in the Mediterranean and among them was the frigate Chesapeake originally designed as a 44-gun vessel, completed as a 36-gun vessel. It was launched in 1799.

The State of Virginia loaned the Gosport Yard to the Federal Government and they continued to use it until June, 1801, when it was purchased by the United States through James Monroe then Governor of Virginia. The price paid was $1,200 and the land then consisted of 16 acres. It has been increased until it contains at the present time approximately 425 acres. The original deed for this property is now on file in the Navy Department, Bureau of Yards and Docks. The committee on naval affairs expressed the opinion that the price was exorbitant but the Gosport Yard had become so important to the Government and so well established that the Secretary of the Navy had determined to make it one of the permanent Navy yards.

Soon after the United States purchased the yard a squadron was fitted out there under Commodore Dale. Stephen Decatur was sent to the yard to supervise the command of four gunboats. There was no commandant officially appointed to the yard until 1810, when Commandant Samuel Barron took command. Since that time the Norfolk Navy Yard has had as its commandants some of the most brilliant and well-known officers our country has ever produced.

In the War of 1812 while the British maintained a blockade at Hampton Roads no attempt was made to take the Gosport Yard or any of the surrounding cities. The keel of the battleship Delaware was laid, 1817, and the ship launched in 1820. Dry dock No. 1 was built in 1827 and on the seventeenth of June, 1833, the Delaware, while still uncompleted was docked in this dock, this being the first ship to enter a dry dock within the United States. A school for midshipmen had been established in 1821 with Chaplain David P. Adams in command and the frigate Guerriere was used as a training ship. The yard was rapidly expanding and growing.

The Town of Gosport about this time was the center of fashion and society. A number of elaborate and fine houses had been built there and a few, although fallen into decay, remain still as if to keep a ghost-like vigil over the old town, and to remind one when they rang with the merry voices of distinguished guests and gay parties. One of them was the elegant mansion of Captain William Dickson, a wealthy merchant, who was the owner of a number of ships in the West Indies trade. His house and four large warehouses occupied a whole block. Another handsome house which still stands on First Street was the home of Mr. James Young. It is now in a state of dilapidation, which makes it uninhabitable, but for many years was used as a boarding house for naval officers and their families. A beautiful residence was on Henry Street and was the home of Captain Samuel Davies, a retired British sea captain. He was a gentleman of great culture and many social graces and many of the elaborate entertainments given by him were in the fashion of old England.

Built about 1824 with the first money the Government ever appropriated
to the Navy Yard.

In Gosport about this time lived the beautiful Jeanette Taylor, niece of John Paul Jones, the famous naval hero who died in Paris July 18, 1792. He bequeathed a large share of his property to his sister, Mrs. Taylor, mother of Miss Jeanette Taylor. Mrs. Taylor died before receiving her share and on January 9, 1839, Miss Jeanette Taylor appointed the well-known and able lawyer, Mr. William Lambert of Richmond, to act as her attorney to secure her share of the estate of her famous uncle. After a long legal struggle it ended in victory for Miss Taylor of whom it was said that she "gave up the pleasures of her youth to secure the comforts of her old age."

St. Helena had been purchased by the United States and added to the Navy Yard in 1846. A year later the yard and Town of Gosport were swept by a severe plague of cholera and smallpox. These diseases were thought to have been brought in by some of the ships from foreign ports and many of the people died in a short time. Because of the epidemic they were immediately and hastily buried where the Simpson wooden dry dock now stands. The bodies remained there until 1889 when it was necessary to move them to make room for the dry dock.

In 1855 the yard and surrounding cities, were the victims of yellow fever. Very little was known about the disease at that time, the general opinion being that it was contracted through food or drinking water. As a result many officers and members of crews of ships in the yard died and their graves may now be seen in the cemeteries of the vicinity.

The Government, realizing the value of the Gosport Yard, voted money for its improvement and expansion, spending large sums for building warehouses and officers' quarters, installing gas for lighting purposes and making many up-to-date improvements.
We now come to one of the most important events ever to take place at the Gosport Yard. On the morning of April 20, 1861, Commodore Charles S. McCauley, commanding the yard, was informed that a committee of gentlemen from Richmond, Virginia, wished to see him at the main gate. This committee was composed of Major Henry Taylor, General Taliaferro and some officials of the Norfolk Customs House. The steamer Yankee was tied up in the yard and the Governor of Virginia had authorized the committee to take possession of her. Her papers were not in order and she had gone to the Navy Yard for safety. Commodore McCauley refused this command and immediately called out the Marine Guard to protect the entrance gate. The U. S. S. Cumberland and the U. S. S. Pennsylvania were at the yard and the commodore ordered them to fire on the Yankee should she try to leave the Navy Yard.

A clever stratagem of General William Mahone (later the hero of the Battle of the Crater) caused Commodore McCauley to believe that troops were arriving in Portsmouth by train and the commodore decided to evacuate the yard. The trains were practically all empty but continued to run as fast and often as possible with only a few men on them who showed themselves on approaching Portsmouth. The Federals did not wish to leave for the enemy the large storehouses full of valuable supplies of food, ammunition and naval equipment, and after a hurried conference with his officers Commodore McCauley made plans to abandon the yard and set it on fire. He had counted on the support of his officers, who, although Southern men, he thought would remain with the Union. Much to his surprise practically in a body they walked out of the yard and joined up with the Virginia troops and although they had sworn allegiance to the United States, perhaps they felt like General Lee when upon being offered command of the United States Army, he said, "I can never fight against the South and my beloved Virginia."

The principal buildings and storehouses were set on fire—the frigates Raritan, Columbia and Merrimac were burned. The Germantown, Plymouth and the line of battleships Delaware and Columbus were scuttled and sunk. As much damage as possible was done in the short time available and an unsuccessful attempt was made to destroy the stone dry dock. Large quantities of gun powder were found placed under various parts of the dock. The fire apparently went out, for the powder never ignited, thus saving the almost complete destruction of the Gosport Yard and surrounding towns and perhaps a heavy loss of life among the civilian population.

Commander McCauley was assisted in his work of destruction by Captain Rodgers who attempted to escape the next day. He was captured in Norfolk by the Confederates and taken under guard of an officer to Richmond. He stayed in the home of the Virginia Governor whom he said treated him with the greatest courtesy and kindness. After a few days he was sent to Washington. Commodore McCauley, with the few remaining officers of the yard, boarded the U. S. S. Cumberland which went out escorted by the Pawnee and the Yankee. As these ships sailed out the cheers of the crews and the strains of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "All Hail to the Chief" rang through the yard as the Confederates marched in.

This splendid yard which had cost the Government many millions was a scene of waste and destruction. Where big ships had formerly stood now could be seen only charred ruins. Much pillaging was done by the surrounding population who had come in to help put out the fires. Quick organization was badly needed and on April 21 command of the yard was taken by Captain Robert Pegram of the Virginia Navy, formerly of the United States Navy. A large amount of valuable supplies and ammunition were found to be intact and were immediately secured by the Confederacy. Also some valuable guns were found and were later proven to be of great value in the defense of the South. As many of the burned ships as possible were salvaged and from the ruins of the Merrimac the Iron Clad Virginia was built and went out on the morning of March 9, 1862, to fight that historic battle with the Monitor in which she made a gallant showing. The Confederacy quickly realized the value of the yard and, quoting from an article in the Virginia Daily Transcript published at Portsmouth, Virginia, December, 1861, "There is no place in the Southern Confederacy that the Yankees so much desire as the Gosport Navy Yard and the loss of which would cause us so much injury. To the Confederacy its value cannot be estimated in money. The importance and value of certain cities, however great their importance, is but trivial to the Confederacy in furnishing material aid in the common defense when contrasted with that of the Gosport Navy Yard."

The Confederates built the Lady Davis, named for the wife of President Jefferson Davis, also the gunboats Norfolk, Richmond and Portsmouth. The Plymouth and Germantown were raised and refitted and the Confederacy had a fairly sizeable navy. They held the yard for a year.

Realizing because of the advancing Federals they would have to abandon the Navy Yard they moved out what stores they could and set fire to the yard with the exception of the officers' quarters, in which were living women and small children. These officers' quarters stand today and are being lived in by officers and their families. The architecture of some of them is interesting and worthy of mention, especially the commandant's house, which was built about 1824 and is a stately, beautiful old mansion. This house was built with the first money ever appropriated to the yard by the Government. Many famous officers have occupied this dwelling and with its air of gracious charm it stands proudly as an example of the fine old houses of its day.

The Federal troops moving in found the yard practically destroyed. Commodore John Livingston was put in command and the Stars and Stripes once more floated over the Norfolk Navy Yard. During his regime, which lasted several years, a strained feeling was maintained between the people of the vicinity and those so called "Yankee officers." Commodore Livingston, however, managed the yard with great efficiency and was largely responsible for the rebuilding of the warehouses and had the wrecks of the old ships raised and removed.

The land on which the Marine Barracks stands was purchased in 1907. This was important, as space was badly needed for larger and more modern shops.

In 1915 the two German raiders, large, armed passenger liners, Kron-prinz Wilhelm and Prinz Eitel Friedrich, were interned at the yard.

The yard played an important part in the World War, and it was then that funds became available for building dry dock No. 4, which can dock the largest ships now in use. Sixty submarine chasers were also constructed. A new chapel has recently been built at the yard, where the officers and men of the service may worship. In 1827 the Government built at Portsmouth a large hospital, which is now one of the largest and best-equipped in the country. It has space for 1,298 patients and a staff of 67 doctors and 83 nurses are assigned for duty.

Launched Norfolk Navy Yard, 1941.

Since the World War the work of the yard has mostly consisted in repairing the ships of the fleet and of building destroyers.

However, the great battleship North Carolina was constructed to a point within 60 per cent of completion and after approximately $20,000,000 had been spent on her she was cut up at the Navy Yard for scrap and sold for junk and the price paid was $50,000. This was done in accordance with the famous disarmament treaty of 1922.

After the scrapping of the North Carolina the yard constructed a large number of very fine modern destroyers.

When the battleship Alabama is completed in 1943 she will have a beam of 108 feet and will be 666 feet long. A 35,000-ton battleship, one of the largest and best afloat, an example of the fine work of the Norfolk Navy Yard — which with its efficient officers, highly trained workmen and splendid facilities is able to give to our country all that it should need in an emergency now or in the future.


Of 23,000 tons displacement and 735 feet long. The vessel was completed by the British in 1940, and normally carrying a crew of 1,600 officers and men. The Illustrous was damaged in a fierce naval battle with the Germans in the Mediterranean on January 10, 1941. Repeatedly attacked by dive bombers, she was badly battered and 80 of her crew were reported killed. The Illustrous is the first British vessel to berth at the Navy Yard for major repairs.


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