- Historic Sites
The Fires Of Norfolk
At war’s outbreak a frightened commander was ready to give away the Union’s greatest navy yard
March 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 2
Ready and provisioned for sea, but lacking crews, were three sailing vessels, the 22-gun sloops Germantown and Plymouth and the 4-gun brig Dolphin. Even by 1861 standards the rest of the ships were better suited to a nautical museum. Three great ships of the line were led by the 120-gun Pennsylvania, the grandest, biggest three-decker ever built for the United States Navy. Now her keel rested securely in the mud, as she served out her days as the yard receiving ship. Moldering with her in retirement were the Columbus and Delaware , both 74s. In one of the ship houses reposed the skeletal hull of the never-launched two-decker New York, left to rot on the ways since 1816. The exhibits concluded with a trio of frigates: Raritan, Columbia, and the venerable United States, which had entered the Navy list in 1797.
Commanding the navy yard was Commodore Charles S. McCauley, an officer as antiquated as some of his ships. Commodore McCauley had served the Navy for fifty-two of his sixty-eight years. (He held the substantive rank of captain, the honorific Commodore being applied to those captains who held senior command afloat or ashore.) A Pennsylvanian, McCauley had led a relatively undistinguished career. He had entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1809, and except for those halcyon years of the frigate during the War of 1812, he spent his service in the first dark age of the old Navy, when officers had become old and gray by the time they rose to positions of responsibility. In July 1860 Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey chose McCauley to command the navy yard. It was a disastrous appointment. A staunch Unionist, but timid, vacillating, and too fond of drink, McCauley was utterly unfit to confront the emergency that was soon to burst about his head.
At McCauley’s immediate command were sixteen officers, something less than one hundred sailors, and sixty Marines. The officers, almost to a man, were Southern secessionists. One of the few officers at the yard loyal to the Union was the chief engineer, Robert Danby, whose principal concern was getting the Merrimack out of potential danger and to sea.
From the outset Commodore McCauley established impediments. At least one month was necessary, he told Danby, before the ship’s machinery could be set up and the boilers fired. This, in Danby’s opinion, was ridiculous. In a private letter to his departmental superior, the Navy’s vigorous, newly appointed engineer in chief, Benjamin Franklin Isherwood, Danby complained that one week would suffice. Isherwood received the letter on April 10 and immediately brought it to Welles’s attention. The secretary at once dictated a set of confidential instructions and sent them by special courier to Norfolk. “The steamer Merrimack,” he ordered, “should be in condition to proceed to Philadelphia or to any other yard …in case of danger from unlawful attempts to take possession of her.” Yet in his attempts to assure Virginia of the government’s trust, Welles inserted a fatal flaw. “It is desirable,” he continued, “that there should be no steps taken to give needless alarm.”
McCauley signed the receipt the next day and with commendable speed ordered the Merrimack warped under the ordnance wharf shears for the mounting of her guns. This brought forth strident and self-righteous protests from Norfolk’s secessionist populace and press. McCauley halted the work. Welles’s “needless alarm” stricture, coupled with false counsel from soon-to-be-turncoat officers, had taken its first toll at the navy yard.
When word of McCauley’s action reached Washington, Secretary Welles temporized no further. He ordered Isherwood and Commander James Alden, “without creating a sensation, but in a quiet manner,” to Norfolk. Isherwood would take charge of the Merrimack’s refit, and once it was done, Alden would assume command and get her safely to Philadelphia. But that was only half the problem; Welles still had to find her a crew. Fully manned, the Merrimack shipped more than six hundred sailors and Marines, and mustering even a skeleton force would strip the East Coast of every idle bluejacket. The secretary had little choice and ordered his commodore at the New York yard, Samuel Breese, to dispatch two hundred “seamen, ordinary seamen, and landsmen …and coal heavers” to Norfolk without delay. But Breese had only sixty three available men, hardly enough to get the Merrimack across Hampton Roads, much less to Philadelphia. Still, he informed the secretary, his recruiting officers were beating the bushes around New York’s waterfront, and he hoped to have at least part of the contingent sailing in about a week. The day he wrote, April 12, South Carolina troops fired on Fort Sumter; the Civil War had begun.