- 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
On Friday, the nineteenth, Welles, too late, relieved McCauley of his command and rushed whatever reinforcements were at hand to Norfolk. He ordered the skipper of the receiving ship Allegheny at Baltimore to enlist and dispatch fifty raw recruits by commercial steamer. At Philadelphia Commodore Samuel du Pont received secret orders to charter the fastest available steamer and pack it with fifty Marines, fifty seamen and landsmen, plus artillery, ammunition, and provisions for immediate service. At the Washington Navy Yard one hundred Marines marched on board the screw sloop Pawnee; “be prepared to sail without delay,” read the orders to her skipper, Stephen Rowan.
Welles appointed Hiram Paulding with “full powers to command the services of the entire naval force,” ashore and afloat. He charged him to “repel force by force,” to prevent anything from falling into Rebel hands, and, “should it finally become necessary,” to destroy the navy yard. Toward that catastrophic eventuality Pawnee’s bluejackets loaded into her hold 40 barrels of gunpowder, 11 tanks of turpentine, a dozen bales of cotton waste, and 181 port fires.
At Norfolk Captain Marston of the Cumberland readied his ship to defend the yard, while on the Rebel side that Friday morning Maj. Gen. William Taliaferro arrived from Richmond to command all Virginia troops in the area “and endeavor,” read his orders from Gov. John Letcher of Virginia, “by a rapid movement, to secure the navy yard.” For the task, Taliaferro found a motley collection of local militia companies, about three hundred men, most without weapons, and “a few 6-pounder field pieces” for artillery. The general found that storming the navy yard was out of the question. True, the “trifling brick wall” on its landward side could be breached, and the yard’s minuscule Marine detachment thrown back. But so long as the Cumberland’s grape-shotted guns bore on the landward approaches, any attempt would result in slaughter.
At last Isherwood returned to the ship and shut down her engines.
But Confederate reinforcements gathered. Governor Letcher wired Jeff Davis that five thousand troops were needed to capture the yard. Davis agreed to send what he had. Two regiments of South Carolina infantry and four companies from Georgia, in all about twenty-five hundred men, were ordered north up the Seaboard Railroad.
These troops arrived too late to materially influence events, but McCauley took fright. One of his “spies” had just reported troops massing in the city, along with feverish Rebel work, throwing up earthen batteries at St. Helena, commanding the seaward approaches just across the river. Commodore Pendergrast, who lived in Norfolk, going home to bed each night, watched a good deal of parading by the militia, but nothing near the hordes counted by McCauley’s agent. In fairness, McCauley had been duped by an elaborately successful ruse de guerre perpetrated by the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad. All day it ran empty trains a few miles down the line, where it loaded some civilians before returning. Then, as a Confederate naval officer said, “with every man yelling with all his might [it created] the desired impression of large reinforcements pouring into the city.” But the earthworks, though toothless, were probably real enough. Some Confederate historians hotly deny their existence, but they had been spotted by Cumberland’s lookouts. Lieutenant Selfridge went ashore to report and suggested he be sent into Norfolk, under a flag of truce, and inform the Confederate commander that if work on the batteries continued, the Cumberland would fire on the city. Surprisingly, McCauley “liked this plan and directed that it be carried out.”
Escorted by a just-resigned naval officer now serving as Taliaferro’s provost marshal, Selfridge confronted the Confederate general and delivered his message “in very forcible terms.” Taliaferro took offense. It would be “a terrible thing,” he said, to open fire on an undefended city. It would also be “a terrible thing,” Selfridge replied, if the yard and warships were destroyed by Rebel artillery. For the moment Selfridge held the aces, and on Taliaferro’s orders, Col. Henry Heth (who later commanded the Rebel division that opened the Battle of Gettysburg) crossed the river with him to the navy yard. The batteries were empty, he told McCauley, because other than their few little six-pounders, the Virginia militia had no artillery. Nevertheless, Heth gave “effective assurances” that work on the earthen revetments would cease.
Taliaferro, however, did not remain idle. He moved his militia companies to the unguarded powder magazine at Fort Norfolk and seized it without a shot; twenty-eight hundred barrels of Yankee gunpowder passed to the Confederacy. Half the powder Taliaferro loaded into barges and sent up the James River to Richmond; the remainder he prudently moved inland, beyond the range of the Cumberland’s guns.