The Civil War Connections Blog

Gosport Burning!

The Burning of Gosport

Today kicks off the Civil War sesquicentennial for our own particular story here at The Mariners’ Museum. We begin with the USS Merrimack…..

150 years ago today, Union forces abandoned Gosport Navy Yard – (we know it better today as Norfolk Navy Yard) in Portsmouth, VA following the secession of Virginia from the Union a few days before. Although a great deal of work had been done to rescue as much as possible, ultimately the plan shifted to one which would destroy the Yard and its drydock so that the Confederates could not use these assets against the Union. Because of the hesitation of the Yard’s commanding officer, Charles Stewart McCauley (and conflicting orders from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, and elaborate ruses carried out by the local citizenry, and the resignation of most of his senior officers, and the desertion of most of his yard workers, and maybe because he was drinking too much….), ships that had been nearly ready for departure were instead scuttled and burned to keep them out of Confederate hands. Though Union naval officers tried their best to ensure the utter destruction of the Yard, the two men tasked with blowing up the drydock were captured and the kegs of powder they had planted rendered useless. In any event, the Yard was damaged, but not destroyed.

The USS Merrimack – which was undergoing repairs there, was burnt to the waterline. Her hull sank to the bottom of the Elizabeth River. There she lay until a local diving company – Baker & Co. of Norfolk – raised her hull in May of 1861. This hull and the ship’s engines would become the ironclad CSS Virginia. But I’m getting ahead of myself……

So – of the major ships at Gosport that day, the USS Pennsylvania, Germantown, Raritan, Columbia and Dolphin were burned; the USS Delaware, Columbus, Plymouth and Merrimack were burned and then sunk. The USF United States was abandoned (she would become the CSRS Confederate States) but the USS Cumberland was towed to safety under the eerie light of the burning Yard.

And what of McCauley? Despondent, he refused to leave Quarters A and had to be bodily removed and placed on board the Cumberland. By the end of 1861 he was retired – having been promoted to the rank of Commodore. McCauley never got over this event in his life. He recalled “I could not believe it possible that a set of men, whose reputations were so high in the Navy, could ever desert their posts, and throw off their allegiance to the country they had sworn to defend and protect.”

His obituary is a sad testimony to the bitter end of a once glorious career. In the May 23, 1869 edition of the New York Times a brief notice was posted about McCauley’s death. It reads: The Congressional Committee appointed to investigate the affair failing to exonerate him entirely from blame in the matter, he felt that his honor as an officer had been wounded, his reputation blemished, the effect of which was to plunge him into the deepest melancholy, and causing disease of the heart, of which he died.
The war would have many casualties who did not die in battle. McCauley was one such.