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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
At Norfolk Commander Alden stepped ashore at the city’s commercial docks and was shocked to learn that his “private instructions” from the Secretary of the Navy had become public knowledge. “It was intended,” he said, “that no one else either about the [Navy] Department or elsewhere know of their existence …still, to my surprise, all Norfolk, seemed to be full of it.” Passing through the town, Alden was closely watched, “and the attitude of the people [was] threatening.” Prudently he destroyed his orders and reported to Commodore McCauley.
Alden faced the commodore squarely and, without equivocation, made the situation plain, “to have the Merrimack removed …to the Philadelphia Navy Yard with the utmost dispatch.” Isherwood, he continued, would arrive shortly “for the purpose of expediting the duty.” But Alden was in for a second surprise. The civilian yard workers, McCauley blandly informed him, had all gone home!
Isherwood arrived at the yard on Sunday, April 14, the day after Fort Sumter’s surrender. He was met by Danby, and the two engineers immediately made a thorough inspection of the Merrimack’s machinery. It was not an easy task, for not only were her engines dismantled, but they were scattered—iron and brass, nuts and bolts, bits and pieces—throughout the shops and forges of the yard. Nevertheless, the two men estimated the engineering plant could be patched together for at least temporary steaming in three days. By Monday morning they had rousted enough mechanics to begin work. Isherwood divided the men into three gangs for round-the-clock shifts, with himself and Danby alternating supervision every twelve hours. He told Welles the Merrimack would be ready for sea on Thursday, April 18.
Welles wanted certainty and on Tuesday, the sixteenth, he sent the Navy’s senior line officer, Commodore Hiram Paulding, to Norfolk to prod McCauley along. The commandant was instructed to “defend at any hazard, repelling by force if necessary, any and all attempts to seize them,” to provide Isherwood all assistance, and to load “the more valuable public property, ordnance, stores, etc., on shipboard so that they can at any moment be moved.”
Danby and Isherwood begged to set sail. But McCauley refused.
As for the Thursday departure of the Merrimack, Welles dangerously hedged. “It may not be necessary,” he needlessly cautioned McCauley, “that she should leave at that time, unless there is immediate danger pending.” Fortunately, the nagging problem of finding a crew had been solved. As a buttress of trust for the Virginia Unionists, there arrived at the yard for scheduled repairs Commodore Garrett Pendergrast and his Home Squadron flagship, the fifty-gun frigate Cumberland. Should the New York draft be delayed, Paulding was instructed to take men from the Cumberland and get the Merrimack out.
Paulding landed at Norfolk City on the seventeenth and was not reassured by his first impressions. “A threatening and hostile spirit,” he reported, “seemed to pervade the vicinity of the yard, and the public property seemed in some jeopardy.” In conference on board the Cumberland, six navy yard officers, all Southerners, men Paulding “had known and esteemed for their honor from boyhood,” informed him “that although they were painfully situated they would defend the public property to the last.” But later in McCauley’s office one commander pleaded with Paulding to “say to the Secretary of the Navy that it was very desirable to them to be relieved.” Paulding returned to Washington and made his report to the secretary and President. Lincoln, with good foresight, put no faith in the pledges of loyalty and ordered all wavering officers replaced by “reliable northerners.”
Events, however, moved too quickly. The Virginia convention, asserting that Lincoln’s call for seventy-five thousand volunteers was tantamount to a declaration of war, joined the Confederacy. Nearly to a man, the navy-yard officers resigned their commissions. Old McCauley shrank from confrontation, and he became a prey to shadows and phantoms.
That day, at 4:00 P.M., Wednesday, the seventeenth, Isherwood and Danby, exhausted from their labors, presented themselves to the commandant. With great effort they had managed to put the Merrimack’s engines in a fit state for steaming to Philadelphia. Isherwood had engaged forty-four firemen and coal heavers for the passage and requested immediate permission to fire the boilers. But McCauley, “seemingly startled by the suddenness of the preparations,” refused; “tomorrow,” he told the engineers, would be time enough. They returned to the ship and passed the last hours of the day in teeth-grinding impotence.