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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
By dawn Thursday there was no mistaking that Isherwood and Danby had done their jobs. At pier side the Merrimack sat thumping with life, a huge, dirty brown column of coal smoke pouring from her funnel. At 9:00 A.M. Isherwood made the short walk to McCauley’s office and reported the engineer force on board, steam up; only McCauley’s order to cast off was needed. But the commodore was not up to it. Isherwood pleaded in vain, then called McCauley’s attention to Welles’s peremptory orders. Still the commodore would not budge; he would give Isherwood his decision in a few hours. “He sat in his office immovable,” the chief engineer said, “not knowing what to do …I could not get him to do anything.”
Through the morning and early afternoon, the Merrimack lay with steam up, and Isherwood by his own exertions had managed to get enough coal on board for a passage across Hampton Roads to either Newport News or Fortress Monroe; without a crew Philadelphia was no longer an option.
Another confrontation now heated up in the commandant’s office. With Isherwood’s preparations complete, Alden also reported the Merrimack ready to sail. He got support from Pendergrast and Capt. John Marston of the Cumberland, both of whom were present. But McCauley remained paralyzed.
In the strongest terms Pendergrast and Marston urged that the Merrimack, with the Germantown in tow, be removed immediately to Fortress Monroe; thirty of the Cumberland’s sailors were already detailed as a skeleton crew. For a moment McCauley seemed to waver. Alden pressed the advantage and received permission to load two field guns into the ship as a token battery. He sped from the office and ordered one of the Cumberland ’s officers to offer a thousand dollars to any civilian pilot willing to take the Merrimack across the roads, “and twice that sum, together with a place in the Navy for life, if we succeeded in getting the Germantown out also.” With high optimism Alden ran to the ordnance wharf for his two guns.
Meanwhile, Isherwood and Danby had managed to scrape up a crew of their own; with promises of lavish pay, enough firemen, oilers, and coal heavers agreed to work the ship as far as Newport News. Isherwood replaced the ship’s chain moorings with hemp cable and stationed axmen at the bitts to cut the lines upon his order.
At the ordnance wharf Alden met with nothing but obfuscation; no one would cooperate. In disgust he returned to the Merrimack to supervise the final preparations for her departure. En route he fell in with Commander Robert Robb. Alden requested a party of men to warp the ship into the fairway and turn her downriver. Robb, who would soon resign his commission, refused. It was no longer necessary, he said. McCauley had ordered Isherwood to draw the fires. Stunned and “unwilling to believe in the correctness of Commander Robb’s statement, whose loyalty I had begun to doubt,” Alden burst into McCauley’s office “and found it was too true. The fatal order had been given.”
Even more surprising was Alden’s acceptance of the decision in contravention of his own orders from the Secretary of the Navy. Isherwood had gotten the ship ready for sea, and Alden was completely justified in taking her out then and there. But his confidence collapsed. He considered his duty done and, leaving Isherwood in the lurch, boarded the Baltimore steamer and returned to Washington. Alden later proved himself in the hottest actions, but at the moment, “at Norfolk,” wrote Secretary Welles, “all his heroic drawing room resolution and good intentions failed him.”
It is also not clear why McCauley issued the “fatal order.” Many years later, and with several axes to grind, Isherwood wrote: “The Commodore was in a state of complete prostration. …He was weak, vacillating, hesitating, and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of his position. He behaved as though stupified. …” The ship, McCauley told the engineer in chief, would be kept to defend the yard, and he ordered the fires drawn.
Isherwood returned to the ship for the last time and shut down her plant. “As I witnessed the gradual dying out of the revolutions of the Merrimack’s engines at the dock I was greatly tempted to cut the ropes that held her, and to bring her out on my own responsibility.” But like Alden before him, he gave way. The rules of the service were too ingrained. He was an engineer, not a line officer, and thus precluded from holding command afloat. “With great sorrow,” he wrote, “I dismissed my men, waited until the engines made their last revolution …[and] left the yard.”