Paul Adam Nixon
History of Gosport
The conversion of the USS Merrimack to the CSS Virginia was completed at the Gosport Naval Shipyard in 1862. But the history of the Gosport yard predates the creation of the United States. Gosport, Virginia, was located on the bank of the southern branch of the Elizabeth River opposite the town of Portsmouth. In 1767, a Scotsman named Andrew Sprowle, the British naval agent in Virginia, built a shipyard at Gosport. Between 1767 and 1775, Sprowle became a wealthy man supplying and repairing Royal Navy and British merchant ships. However, the coming of the American Revolution ended Sprowle's prosperous business. An ardent Tory, Sprowle left the Virginia Peninsula along with Virginia's Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, and took refuge at Gwynns Island, Virginia, where he died.
Virginia took possession of Sprowle's shipyard after the evacuation of the Tories, and began using the yard to construct ships for the Virginia State Navy. Colonial operations at Gosport were successful until 1779, when a British force under the command of Admiral Sir George Collier made a drive up the Elizabeth River to seize the shipyard. Forced to evacuate their position, the Americans set fire to Gosport and abandoned the shipyard and several uncompleted ships. In 1780, Virginia took official control of the shipyard when public auctions of Tory property were conducted throughout the state. However, with the end of the Revolutionary War the Virginia State Navy was disbanded. There was no further ship construction in Gosport until 1794, when the U.S. government authorized the construction of six frigates to combat the threat of the Barbary pirates operating against American shipping in the Mediterranean Sea. One of these frigates, the USS Chesapeake, was contracted to be laid down at Gosport. By 1795 Josiah Fox, the naval constructor assigned to Gosport, had finished laying the Chesapeake's keel. But complications in American foreign affairs and budget cuts delayed the completion of the Chesapeake until 1799. When launched, the Chesapeake became the first vessel of the United States Navy to be completed at the Gosport Naval Yard. The growing need to maintain a standing navy dictated that permanent naval shipyards be established by the Navy Department. In 1801, the Gosport yard comprising approximately 16 acres was transferred to the Navy Department for the sum of $12,000.
Between 1801 and the War of 1812, the Gosport Naval Shipyard served as a repair and provisioning base for the various squadrons of the navy, particularly those serving in the Mediterranean Station. During the War of 1812, Norfolk was blockaded by the British, and though Gosport remained in American hands, the base provided little support to the navy.
The postwar period saw enlargement and improvement at Gosport. Additional land was added to the facility, and brick structures replaced the old wooden ones that had begun to deteriorate. Gosport's contribution to the expanding American fleet included the ships of the line Delaware (whose keel was laid in 1817) and the New York (whose keel was laid in 1818). Ironically, both ships were destroyed by the navy at Gosport during the evacuation of the shipyard in 1861.
Perhaps the most significant event to occur at the Gosport Naval Shipyard before the Civil War was the decision to construct a granite dry dock there. Completed in 1833, the dry dock was one of only two then existing in the United States. This addition greatly enhanced the importance of the Gosport facility to the navy, and began a period of heavy usage of Gosport for the repair and building of naval vessels. This same dry dock would later become the cradle of the Confederate Navy's ironclad program when the wreck of the Merrimack was converted into the Virginia there in 1861. On the eve of the Civil War Gosport was the largest naval station in the country. Besides its extensive warehouses and boatbuilding facilities, the shipyard maintained a store of nearly 2,000 cannon of various caliber (300 of which were the navy's newest smooth-bore Dahlgrens) with thousands of rounds of ammunition and tons of powder. Also present at Gosport in 1861 were 11 ships of the United States Navy, from the old Pennsylvania (which had been converted into a receiving ship) to the Merrimack of 40 guns down to the brig Dolphin bearing four guns. Following the cession of Virginia from the Union on April 17, 1861, efforts were made by the United States Navy to evacuate the Gosport Yard. However, as Virginia State troops made moves to take control of the base on April 20, Federal forces set fires to the yard and its buildings. Further, several ships of the navy at Gosport, that were not seaworthy were put to the torch. Among those ships set afire, and allowed to sink at Gosport was the United States Steam Frigate Merrimack. The Confederate forces took control of the badly damaged navy yard, and began the process of rebuilding it to provide defenses for their new nation.
Paul Adam Nixon
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