- 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
That Friday evening the Pawnee cast off her lines and headed down the Potomac into Chesapeake Bay. She had on board several key officers slated to take command of the ships at Norfolk. The senior was the noted Antarctic explorer Capt. Charles Wilkes, assigned to the Merrimack. His associates included Commanders William Walker, John Rodgers, and James Alden for the Germantown, Plymouth, and Dolphin. From the Army came Capt. H. G. Wright of the engineers, charged with organizing the yard’s defenses and, if necessary, its demolition.
Gideon Welles’s efforts to rush reinforcements to Norfolk were having mixed results. Breese at New York could find only about two hundred recruits. Sailing by commercial steamer, they could arrive no earlier than Sunday, the twenty-first. At Philadelphia, Commodore du Pont had chartered the steamer Keystone State at one thousand dollars per day. But her engines broke down in the Delaware. Du Pont ordered out his tugs, and “by extraordinary exertions [she] was towed to the yard [at Philadelphia], the work on the machinery going on all the time.” By sunset Friday the sailors, Marines, artillery, ammunition, seven days’ coal, and two weeks’ provisions were loaded on board, and she belched off for Norfolk at first light the next morning.
But in a Baltimore rife with secessionist passions, the skipper of the navy’s receiving ship found it impossible to get his fifty recruits passage to Norfolk.
In midafternoon, Saturday, April 20, the Pawnee rounded Old Point Comfort, steamed into Hampton Roads, and anchored under the great guns of Fortress Monroe. Her officer at the watch penned in the log, “At 5:15 [ P.M. ], the Third Massachusetts Regiment …marched out of Fortress Monroe and embarked on this ship to the number of 349, rank and file.” These were fresh recruits, undrilled save for the very basics and armed with old-fashioned smoothbore muskets. But the Bay Staters were keen to face any foe, and their strong backs would relieve the sailors of the chore of unloading the reinforcing vessels soon to arrive.
At dusk the Pawnee heaved in her anchor and set out across the final eighteen miles of Hampton Roads and up the Elizabeth to the navy yard. As she rounded Sewell’s Point and entered the river’s mouth, the marine drummers beat to quarters, and the Pawnee cleared for action, her eight 9-inch smoothbores loaded and run out.
On board the Cumberland Lieutenant Selfridge passed an uncomfortable quarter-hour. “At about 8 P.M.,” he wrote, “the drums unexpectedly beat to quarters, and I rushed to my 10inch pivot gun on the forecastle. We could make out a large steamer standing towards us from seaward. It was manifestly important that, if hostile, she should not be allowed to approach too near, since …we might be boarded before sufficient gunfire could be directed against her. I had laid the pivot gun …and taken the lock string myself, for fear that the gun captain might misfire from excitement. Finally, when no answer was received to our several hails, I sang out to the Captain, ‘Shall I fire, Sir?’ He replied, ‘No, we will hail her once more.’ This was done and from the … Pennsylvania, lying just below us, came the reply, ‘Do not fire, it is the Pawnee.’ A moment more and a ten-inch shell would have swept decks crowded with soldiers.”
“With a hurricane of heartiness,” the Cumberland’s bluejackets packed the rigging to cheer in the Pawnee, the welcome being returned in equal measure. But it might as well have been a funeral dirge, for in a moment Hiram Paulding learned the awful truth. One of the very few loyal yard officers boarded the Pawnee and reported aft to the commodore. “Greatly to my regret,” Paulding later said, “I found that these vessels [less the Cumberland] had all been scuttled about two or three hours before my arrival, and were sinking fast.” Paulding immediately landed his infantry and Marines, who deployed in defensive positions around the yard. Thousands of armed Rebels were said to be in the neighborhood, but he could see none “nor any hostile demonstration.”
Captains Wilkes and Wright were sent to McCauley’s office, and pathetically the old man explained his actions. Colonel Heth, McCauley explained, had given his word regarding the work on the Confederate batteries, and thus assured, “I then commenced scuttling the Germantown, Plymouth, Dolphin, and Merrimack. …My officers, with a few exceptions, had all deserted me; even the watchmen had thrown off their allegiance and had taken part with the secessionists.”