- 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
But more important than the guns and facilities, more vital even than the Merrimack, the real prize of the navy yard was the great granite dry dock. Without it any hope the Confederacy had of salvage, repair, and construction for its yet unborn navy was out of the question. “If the Government are not sure of holding the Gosport navy yard,” wrote a concerned Buffalo, New York, citizen to Gideon Welles, “for God’s sake mine and destroy the dry dock.” The crucial work fell to Commander Rodgers and the Army’s Captain Wright, assisted by forty soldiers and a few bluejackets. In pitch-darkness a ton of black powder was lowered into the dock’s pumping gallery. Powder trains were snaked to the stone steps, and four slow match fuses made ready.
It did not take the Rebels long to get the yard working again.
In the Confederate camp General Taliaferro seethed at Paulding’s actions, but he was powerless to intervene. With high temerity he sent a flag of truce and offered Paulding the opportunity to depart “unmolested” with the Pawnee and Cumberland if he at once stopped the destruction. Paulding’s initial reaction has gone unrecorded.
By 2:00 A.M. on Sunday all was ready, and Wilkes ordered the troops and Marines back to the ships. At the landing he and Lieutenant Wise stood by in the last longboat to take off the demolition gangs. Now when all awaited the signal to set alight the fuses, Commodore McCauley chose to play out his final role in the sad affair. Clambering up the Pawnee’s side came the ex-commandant’s youngest son, “tears streaming down his cheeks.” To Hiram Paulding he reported that the old man refused to leave his post, preferring to die in the flames that would soon sweep the yard. With the tide running, Paulding had no time for histrionics, and he sent Alden ashore with orders to get McCauley out. What transpired in the commander’s office Alden never said. But, Wilkes reported, “he was induced, with great reluctance, to remove to the Cumberland.”
At 3:30 A.M. on Monday the tug Yankee arrived with the flood tide, warped the Cumberland out, and took her in tow. In less than an hour it was high water, and the Pawnee, Yankee, and Cumberland, guns shotted, armed Marines at the rails, slowly headed down the Elizabeth. Just as the Pawnee’s screw bit the river, Paulding ordered the signal rocket fired, its high, arching red tail calling down the cataclysm on the navy yard.
Ashore the slow matches were lit, and the last of the sailors raced for Wilkes’s boat. “At 4:20 [ A.M. ],” he noted in his report, “the signal was made and the torch applied, in a few minutes the whole area of the yard was one sheet of flame—the two ship houses and the whole line of stores, as well as the Merrimack .…The Merrimack lay close astern of the Germantown and the fire soon reached her rigging and spars. …The conflagration was rapid, in vast sheets of flame, and dense smoke. At this time the masts and spars of the Germantown were on fire, and portions of her hull enveloped in the flames from the Merrimack.”
At the dry dock the lit fuses smoldered toward the powder trains when Rodgers and Wright made their break. So intense were the fires from the barrels of pitch, tar, and turpentine from the burning ship houses that it was impossible to see, and they assumed Wilkes had already pulled away. But the old polar explorer—he was sixty-three—was of stern stuff. “Our own safety,” he said, “was not thought of until all hope or chance of their joining us was at an end. Then, and with great reluctance, I gave the order to shove off…the large flakes of fire falling around us.”
Rodgers and Wright were trapped in the yard. But they managed to make a run through the burning main gate, where they seized a boat on the Elizabeth. Their way downstream, however, was blocked by sniping Rebels, and rather than risk death to no end, they landed on the Norfolk side and, as Wright penned, “deliver[ed] ourselves up to the Commanding General of the Virginia forces.”
On board the retiring ships ears pitched for the great explosion of the two thousand pounds of powder in the dry dock; but nothing happened, and to this day no one knows why. Some accounts treat it as ill luck or faulty materials. Others refer to water in the dock that might have snuffed the powder trains. One historian puts the blame on “a considerate Union petty officer,” who broke the slow match to protect the nearby homes of his friends. A Confederate naval history credits Lieut. Charles Spotswood, lately of the United States Navy, who “promptly directed the opening of the [dock] gates, and thus saved [it] from destruction.”