The Fires Of Norfolk

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The calamity was already full blown when Abraham Lincoln took office on March 4, 1861. South Carolina had left the Union three months back, and six states had followed her out. By early February a secessionist congress had convened in Montgomery, Alabama, declared a provisional government, and voted Jefferson Davis president of the Confederate States of America. Lincoln was facing the gravest presidential crisis in the nation’s history: the collapse of the Republic.

At the moment there was hardly anything Lincoln could do to prevent it. The United States Army in the spring of 1861 was a tiny organization of some 16,000 regulars in dusty, isolated posts cast along the Western frontier and behind the ramparts of coastal forts; 322 of its 1,108 officers had already resigned their commissions and decamped 58 south. The concentration of even one mixed brigade for immediate service against the Rebels was impossible.

The situation afloat was equally daunting, as was quickly discovered by the unlikely new Secretary of the Navy. The fussy, long-bearded, bewigged former postmaster and newspaper editor Gideon Welles had arrived in Washington expecting the portfolio of Postmaster General. Instead Lincoln gave the man he came to call Father Neptune the Navy, and an excellent appointment it proved.

When Welles ran down the Navy list, he counted an eclectic assortment of ninety wooden ships, forty of which were fairly modern steamers, equal, if not superior, to any man-of-war afloat. But the numbers were deceptive. Fully half the fleet, including its five newest, most powerful steam frigates, was out of commission—“in ordinary”—or ludicrously obsolete and unfit for service. The remainder cruised the globe in their overseas squadrons, leaving only four active vessels in home waters on the day of Lincoln’s inauguration.

The yard’s commander was a Unionist; his officers were for secession.

The mixture of personnel numbered a top-heavy 1,457 line and staff officers and 7,600 bluejackets (plus about 1,400 Marines). With the defection of the Southern states, 259 officers tendered their resignations, which Welles refused to accept, opting instead to dismiss them from the naval service.

The navy yards were sinkholes of political corruption. Civilian workers received their jobs on the basis of party affiliation and were routinely assessed “contributions” by the district congressmen. When a new presidential administration took office, the wholesale replacement of the yard work forces inevitably followed. Lincoln, moving cautiously, temporarily halted the practice. Not wishing to antagonize wavering slave states, especially Virginia, whose Norfolk yard was the Navy’s largest, he ordered Welles to refrain “from all unnecessary exercise of political party authority.” It proved, at least in March 1861, a grave error; the nearly one thousand civilian workers at the Norfolk Navy Yard remained Democratic in politics and Southern in sympathy.

The three-quarter-mile-long yard actually lay opposite Norfolk at Gosport, on the west bank of the Elizabeth River where it emptied into Hampton Roads, the gateway to Chesapeake Bay and the waters leading to Washington and Richmond. By the standards of the day the yard was a first-class establishment. Two huge, slat-sided ship houses, with a third under construction, dominated the riverfront. They were completely equipped for building the largest and most modern warships, and five steam vessels had already gone down their ways. The yard was chockablock with foundries, machine and boiler shops, sawmills, spar, sail, and riggers’ lofts, a rope walk, carpenter shops—every facility for constructing and servicing a steam-driven wooden fleet.

The yard also housed the Navy’s largest arsenal and reserve store of guns, nearly two thousand pieces of heavy ordnance. True, many were relics from the War of 1812, but there were also three hundred modern Dahlgren smoothbore cannon, the famed “soda bottles,” fifty-two of them potent, heavy nine-inchers.

Norfolk’s most valuable asset was the new granite masonry dry dock. One of only two in the nation, it could berth any vessel in the fleet. Opposite the yard, on the east bank of the Elizabeth River, lay two important outworks. The powder magazine, Fort Norfolk, was to the north of the city, and the gun carriage works at old Fort St. Helena was to the southeast. To placate a still-wavering Virginia, whose legislature was at that moment in convention considering secession, both were left unguarded.

Tied up at the navy yard in varying degrees of unreadiness lay the vessels of a potentially strong squadron, chief among them the forty-gun, three-masted steam frigate Merrimack. Probably the best vessel in the fleet, she was, when commissioned in 1856, the most powerful warship afloat in any navy. But now she was laid up in ordinary with guns unshipped and engines dismantled and condemned.