- 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
Part of the odious work had fallen to Lieutenant Selfridge. “It seemed an impossible task,” he remembered, “with my small force of only a few boat crews, and we were compelled to limit the work to the spiking of a number of guns, and other minor measures short of setting fire to property. The Germantown …happened to be berthed under the big sheer-legs. We pulled out the main supporting pin …and allowed them to drop on the ship, with the result that her masts and hull were badly shattered. It was difficult to decide what to do with the Merrimack. …Orders were received to sink her by opening the sea valves, which to me seemed a great pity. I represented to Captain Marston that she should be left afloat so long as there remained a possibility of our being able to take her out. …[But] the orders were carried out and the Merrimack slowly sank until she grounded, with her gun deck a little above water.”
Captain Wilkes raced from the commandant’s office and ordered boarding parties into the scuttled ships to ascertain if they might be saved by some quick action. Lt. Henry Wise rushed down the Merrimack’s ladders to her berth deck. She was sinking fast, and Wise knew it; the splash of the block he threw down the hatch told him the water was already over the orlop. Taking a boat to the Pawnee, Wise reported that unless a diver could be sent to close the seacocks, the Merrimack was lost. But there were neither divers nor gear, and the Merrimack, once the pride of the fleet, groaned slowly into the mud.
Commodore Paulding was now faced with some critical choices. His primary mission, as he saw it, was to save the shipping at the yard; because of McCauley’s stupidity, that was no longer possible. The next option that presented itself was to hold the yard until reinforcements arrived. Paulding commanded roughly a thousand men, half of them fully equipped infantry and Marines. At their backs were the looming broadsides of the Cumberland and Pawnee. The ships’ guns not only would have kept the Confederate troops at bay and prevented further construction of channel blocks but could also, if need be, have demolished the city of Norfolk. Paulding’s orders from Secretary Welles clearly charged to “repel force by force,” and he knew that the Keystone State’s reinforcements were en route.
But Paulding was swayed by peripheral considerations, chiefly that the 3rd Massachusetts was only temporarily, and grudgingly at that, attached to his command; the Pawnee must also quickly return up Chesapeake Bay for the defense of Washington. For whatever reason, Commodore Paulding, like McCauley, Alden, and Isherwood, shied at the end from taking the bold step; he ordered the navy yard put to the torch. Wilkes, charged with commanding the foul labor, was instructed to take care in not destroying private property, “or anything that in any way could be construed as an aggression on individuals or their property.”
The capable Lieutenant Wise got the job of burning the ships.
The capable Lieutenant Wise got the job of burning the scuttled ships. Into a longboat he loaded “a number of powder tanks filled with spirits of turpentine and cotton waste,” then ordered his crew to pull for the Merrimack. The frigate was now riding very low, and the combustibles were heaved over her rail with a will. Wise’s men dumped piles of cordage, ladders, gratings, hawsers, and anything else that would take fire in a V shape, its apex at the base of the ship’s mainmast and reaching forward along the main deck. Atop were laid ropes of cotton waste soaked in turpentine, while more tanks of the stuff were stove in and liberally splashed over the Merrimack’s decks and beams. Lengths of match fuse were layed out over the side, and Wise and his crew jumped into their boat and pulled for the Germantown to continue their work.
Only the ancient Delaware, which lay too distant, and the rotting United States, which, Wilkes reported, “was in so decayed a condition that it was deemed unnecessary to waste the material of turpentine upon her,” were spared. From the opposite shore, random Confederate sniper fire began pinging the water.
While the ships were readied for the bonfire, gangs of bluejackets and soldiers, armed with eighteen-pound sledgehammers, set up a terrific din at the ordnance wharf. It was impossible for the artillery to be removed from the yard, and the three hundred latest-pattern Dahlgren guns must in no way fall intact to the Rebels. But try as the men might, the sturdy barrels didn’t give a fraction. “One hundred men worked for an hour with sledge hammers,” Paulding reported, “and such was the tenacity of the iron that they did not succeed in breaking a single trunnion.” The men had to settle for spiking the guns and dumping them into the river. The ship houses, shops, and marine barracks were all packed with barrels of powder, and slow match fuses were laid.