- 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
By the light of the raging holocaust, the Pawnee, Yankee, and Cumberland steamed downriver. The Cumberland dropped anchor to await Wilkes and the boats, while the other ships continued across the roads to Fortress Monroe. Just as the Pawnee reached her mooring, there hove into view the Keystone State , crammed with the Marines, field artillery, ammunition, and stores from Philadelphia. Had Paulding waited just a half day longer, these reinforcements would have scotched any excuse for abandoning the yard.
At dawn the Rebels swarmed in, and at first sight the damage wrought by the demolition parties seemed monumental. “The most abominable vandalism at the yard,” reported a Confederate officer. Two ship houses were burned to the ground. The rigging and sail lofts were gone, as were the rope walk and gun carriage depot with all its wooden carriages in store. Resting in the mud were the charred hulks of the Merrimack, Germantown, Plymouth , and Dolphin , and the relic ships-of-the-line and frigates, a mighty would-be nucleus for the Confederate navy. General Taliaferro called Paulding’s action “one of the most cowardly and disgraceful acts which has ever disgraced the Government of a civilized people.” But he had little real cause for complaint. With hardly a shot fired, his militia companies had taken the United States Navy’s largest shore facility, complete with intact dry dock, and 1,195 pieces of heavy ordnance. Into his lap, too, had fallen the arsenal at Fort St. Helena, with all its arsenal machinery in perfect working order.
It didn’t take long before the Rebels got the yard back into operation. Under its new commandant, Flag Officer French Forrest, late of the United States Navy, salvage and repair were taken in hand. The guns were fished up from the river bottom and unspiked. The older pieces provided batteries along the whole of the Confederate coast. Most of the modern Dahlgrens, however, were converted into excellent rifled, shell-firing pieces for service afloat.
But the most noteworthy effect on the Confederate cause was the conversion of the Merrimack into the ironclad CSS Virginia . On May 30, a bare six weeks after the fall of the yard, Forrest wrote to Robert E. Lee, “We have the Merrimack up and just putting her in dry dock.” On March 8, 1862, this vessel, completely transformed from the graceful forty-gun frigate, sank the Cumberland and captured the frigate Congress. The next day she met her match with the little Union Monitor , in the world’s first clash between iron ships.
The Rebels held the Norfolk Navy Yard for little more than a year, and so long as Union forces garrisoned Fortress Monroe, key to Hampton Roads, there was no hope of their minuscule navy’s breaking out. Nevertheless, the yard in Confederate hands forced the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron to send its ships for refit and replenishment far from the war zone to Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. The old Merrimack , while still in dry dock for her transformation into the iron monster CSS Virginia , struck fear into the heart of the Union general in chief, George B. McClellan. She could hardly wheeze her way down the Elizabeth River and the tenmile stretch of Hampton Roads, much less take the open sea, but her very existence posed the threat of a “fleet in being” and delayed McClellan’s Peninsular campaign by nearly three months. This at a time when Union forces might have captured the Rebel capital at Richmond and possibly ended the war in the first months of 1862.
The Navy convened neither general courts-martial nor a board of inquiry into the facts of the Norfolk debacle. Charles McCauley immediately went into retirement. The Senate, however, called a special committee under John Hale of New Hampshire to investigate the “Surrender and Destruction of Navy Yards.” Its conclusions, released in April 1862, found Commodore McCauley’s conduct and actions “deplorable.” Service sentiment was generally expressed by Commodore Samuel du Pont. “If a person of his feebleness could be held as a responsible being,” he noted in a letter to a friend,“in England or in France he would have lost his life—he would have been hung. …” As for Commodores Paulding and Pendergrast, the Senate report condemned “the inconsiderate haste, if not the timidity and want of nerve, under which they acted …exhibiting none of the energy and resolute spirit which had hitherto distinguished the American Navy.”
On May 10, 1862, a bare three weeks after the release of the Senate report, Federal forces, spearheaded by two hundred Marines, recaptured Norfolk’s navy yard.