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  • Writer's pictureGordon Thorsby

The Great Disaster at Norfolk 1861.

by Gordon Thorsby

Courtesy of the Mariner's Museum of Norfolk

The surrender of Ft. Sumter on April 14 was a disappointment for the North. The loss of Norfolk Navy Yard just six days later was a monumental disaster. The impact reverberated through most of the war and changed naval history forever.

President Abraham Lincoln was in office only one month when the troubles at Norfolk began. His had to prevent the country from dividing and he failed. Gideon Welles, his Secretary of the Navy was in office less and his priority was securing his ships against Confederate seizure. Norfolk was his measure of success or failure. He recognized the Gosport Navy yard was in peril and the steam ironclad frigate USS Merrimack along with several other ships were targets for pro-secessionist Virginians.

The port Commandant was Charles S McCauley (1793-1869), a veteran of the war of 1812 on the U.S.S. Constellation. At 68, he commanded the most important yard for American Naval shipping and where the Merrimack was under repair. Welles knew that when he couldn’t get troops to defend the yard, trouble loomed. He started a flurry of communications ordering ships and supplies to be removed to protected locations. In one telegram, Welles made a grievous error when he “advised McCauley that he must show great vigilance in protecting the yard” and to “do nothing to upset the Virginians and to use his best judgment in discharging his duties to protect Gosport.” The contradictory statement generated confusion. McCauley delayed and delayed so Welles fired off another telegram.

NAVY DEPARTMENT, April 12, 1861.

SIR: The department desires to have the Merrimack removed from the Norfolk to the Philadelphia navy yard with the utmost dispatch.

I am, sir, respectfully, your obedient servant,


Welles’ message was unequivocal. Get the Merrimack out of Gosport. On April 14, the next day, Ft. Sumter officially surrendered. On April 15, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops. McCauley responded to Welles Apr. 12 telegram with:


Navy Yard, Gosport, April 16, 1861.

SIR: I have the honor to inform the department that the steam frigate "Merrimack" may now be taken and used for temporary service as soon as the necessary equipment can be put on board; all that is required to be done to the hull, for temporary service, will probably be completed by to-morrow evening.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,


McCauley contended that Merrimack’s engines were in disrepair and could not be fired up and moved. Welles realized disaster was not possible. It was imminent. Welles ordered McCauley: “no time should be wasted in getting her (Merrimack’s) armament on board.” Welles added in the letter that the "vessels and stores under your charge you will defend at any hazard, repelling by force, if necessary, any and all attempts to seize them, whether by

mob violence, organized effort, or any assumed authority.” The message warned that McCauley would be responsible. It still did not get action. What Welles did not know was that all of McCauley’s staff officers had resigned and telegraph communications going to and from Ft. Monroe or Washington City were compromised.

On April 17, Virginia voted to secede from the United States and joined the newly formed Confederacy. With Virginia’s secession, former Governor Henry A. Wise moved to take the Gosport Navy Yard. On Thursday, April 18, in great frustration Welles ordered Captain Hiram Paulding, a 50 year-old veteran in U.S.S. Pawnee to go to Norfolk and get everything out of the yard including Merrimack at once.

Meanwhile, McCauley was still not moving vessels out of the yard. His explanation was fear of alarming Southern officials. He simply decided not to decide. Meanwhile, Engineers on the Merrimack were not idle. Benjamin Isherwood completed repairs to Merrimack on April 17 and reported that she was ready to leave port on the 18th. However, McCauley informed the ship’s captain to remain in port. This gave Southern Major General William Taliaferro in command of Virginia militia to begin negotiations with McCauley. McCauley and Taliaferro agreed that no shots would be fired on the yard and that no ships would leave port.

The next day, on April 20, around noon McCauley sensing the inevitable coming, ordered ships scuttled and property destroyed. McCauley’s move caught Taliaferro off guard. By mid-afternoon, only two of the sixteen ships were not burning, Cumberland and the old frigate United States. The ships-of-the-line, 120-gun Pennsylvania, 92-gun Columbus, the frigates Columbia, Merrimack, and Raritan, the gunboat Delaware, and sloops Dolphin, Germantown, and Plymouth, were scuttled.

The Elizabeth River where many ships were anchored was shallow and scuttling efforts were poorly executed due to the shallow depth of the water. When Commodore Paulding steamed into view almost the entire yard was laid waste so Paulding ordered his men to speed the destruction.

Soldiers of the 3rd Massachusetts Infantry landed and stood ready to defend against an angry mob outside the Yard’s gate. Around 4:30 AM, Paulding ordered everyone to board the remaining ships to depart the Navy yard. McCauley was in tears. His son had to help him board Cumberland. McCauley preferred to be left behind, but he was ordered aboard by Paulding. By dawn, the Gosport Yard was smoldering as three ships steamed to Ft. Monroe. The Virginia militia occupied the Gosport Navy Yard the next day.

Destruction of Gosport Navy Yard, J. Rogers, engraver, ca. 1861. Mariners’ Collection

A moment in history was made with the loss of Gosport Navy Yard. It was taken without firing a shot. The rewards for the South were significant. The first ironclad frigate was lost. Thirteen other ships were sunk and/or destroyed (four would be rebuilt as Confederate). C.S.S. Virginia became one of many Confederate ironclads of similar design that would hinder the Union blockade. Over 2000 cannon, 52 smoothbore Dahlgren guns among them (considered super weapons of the time), 300,000 pounds of gunpowder, and a dollar sum worth $7,307,000 made the haul from the capture was possibly the largest of the entire war.

The ironclad Virginia would meet Monitor in March 1862 and naval warfare changed forever. The Cumberland that escaped the destruction in the Navy yard was sunk eleven months later by the C.S.S. Virginia. The Dahlgren smoothbores recovered at Norfolk were used for the entire war throughout the south and the gunpowder recovered was used by Confederate forces at First Manassas that July.

The capture of Norfolk and the Merrimack was actually considered a success by Gideon Welles. The Confederate Government also thought it a success. Seven days later, Lincoln ordered the blockade of the Confederacy. McCauley was quietly placed on the retired list on December 21, promoted to commodore and he passed away from natural causes in 1869 in Washington, D.C.

There is the nagging question. What would have happened if Norfolk had never been abandoned?


"Southern subterfuge spurs anxious Yankees to abandon Norfolk Navy Yard," by Mark St. John Erickson,, Apr 20, 2018.

War on the Waters, by McPherson, James M., University of North Carolina Press, 2012, PPG 29-30.

"CSS Virginia: Sink Before Surrender," by John V. Quarstein. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012.

"United States War Department, War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records" of the Union and Confederate Armies. Series 1 – Vol. 2. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1880-1902.

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