How trickery led to the fall of a famed Portsmouth shipyard and a longer Civil War
By ROBERT MCCABE | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: October 29, 2017
PORTSMOUTH, Va. — The USS Merrimack, in its heyday, was considered the most important ship at Gosport – what is today known as Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
Built at the Charlestown shipyard in Boston, it was a first-in-class steam frigate and state-of-the-art vessel when it was launched in 1855.
In April 1861, the month that included the bombardment of Fort Sumter, setting the Civil War in motion, as well as Virginia's secession from the Union five days later, shipyard commander Charles McCauley had been ordered to get the Merrimack out of the port to prevent its capture.
McCauley had been spooked, though, through a clever ruse devised by William Mahone, a railroad executive who built the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad and later became a Confederate general.
Mahone ordered an endless loop of a single train into the Norfolk area, blowing its whistle and making as much commotion as possible, according to Marcus W. Robbins, command historian and archivist at Norfolk Naval Shipyard.
At night, fires were set in the South Norfolk area to make it appear that large numbers of enemy troops were gathering for an attack.
"It was a convoy masquerading as an entire army," said Michael Brayshaw, a shipyard spokesman who has written about Mahone's exploit. "It was just one trainload and they just continuously ran it in a circuit."
McCauley, apparently, bought it.
On April 20, 1861, and into the next day, McCauley's forces abandoned the yard without a shot being fired on either side. The yard was burned to keep it from being captured, along with 11 ships, including the Merrimack, berthed at the south end of where the Hammerhead Crane stands today.
Explosives had been set to blow up Drydock 1, but they never went off.
This was the second time the Gosport yard was razed; the British burned it in 1779.
Though it had been burnt to the waterline, there was enough of the Merrimack left for Confederate engineers to raise it from the Elizabeth River on May 30, 1861, and move it to Drydock 1, according to Robbins.
Roughly 10 months later, on March 8, 1862, the new ironclad CSS Virginia left the Gosport yard and chugged up the Elizabeth River and entered the harbor where it first rammed the USS Cumberland, the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet, and then turned its guns on it, sinking it. The ship then fired on the USS Congress, which eventually sank as well.
Both ships went down in the vicinity of the north end of the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, taking the lives of 337 sailors.
The following day, in a four-hour shootout with the newly arrived ironclad USS Monitor that ended up a draw, the CSS Virginia helped set the stage for the new era of steel-and-steam warships, leaving their wood-and-sail predecessors in their wake.
Just a few months later, in May 1862, Union forces recaptured Norfolk. The Confederates, like their Union counterparts a little more than a year earlier, abandoned the Gosport yard and burned it, for the third time in 83 years.
Before dawn on May 11, 1862, the CSS Virginia, with no home to return to and a draft too deep to allow a run up the James River, was scuttled off Craney Island.
A few hours later, President Abraham Lincoln, aboard the USS Baltimore, sailed up the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River to survey the damage at Gosport, accompanied by the USS Monitor.
In 1876, the CSS Virginia, considered a navigation hazard, was raised from its grave off Craney Island and taken back to its birthplace, Drydock 1, where it was broken apart.
The shipyard would wait more than 25 years for its next starring role: as the Navy's launch pad for the "Great White Fleet," a round-the-world voyage by 16 U.S. battleships, conceived by President Theodore Roosevelt as a way to show off – diplomatically – America's naval power.
On Dec. 16, 1907, the 16 battleships – all with a fresh coat of white paint except for the bows, painted a gilded gold – passed by Roosevelt, who was in a yacht off Old Point Comfort, near Fort Monroe, according to Robbins.
The shipyard in Portsmouth had prepped three of the battleships for the journey.
"That was our coming-out party, if you will," said Edward J. Marolda, a naval historian affiliated with the Annapolis, Md.-based U.S. Naval Institute. "The U.S. Navy's coming-out party on the global stage started at Norfolk."
Today, as it prepares to enter its 251st year, Norfolk Naval Shipyard is reflecting not only on its past but the challenges that lie ahead.
"Honored, humbled" – those are the words that Capt. Scott Brown, who became the yard's 107th commanding officer in 2014, chooses to describe what it's like to oversee such a history-rich operation.
"If you think of all of the firsts that have happened here – it's incredible," he added.
Festivities are planned on Wednesday – the yard's birthday – including a concert at the Portsmouth Pavilion. That same day, graduation ceremonies will be held for the yard's apprentice school.
On Nov. 2, the yard – which including its annexes encompasses more than 1,350 acres – will roll up its sleeves and begin its next chapter.
"Our waterfront is full," Brown noted, underscoring the fact that the yard remains a key national asset.
Yet there have been some challenges recently. Last week, citing a 2014 Naval Sea Systems Command investigation, The Pilot reported that for more than a decade after the 9/11 terror attacks, the yard wasted up to $21 million on an unauthorized armed police force.
The shipyard is one of four public ship-repair and maintenance yards owned and operated by the Navy, unlike private facilities owned by contractors such as Huntington Ingalls Industries, General Dynamics and BAE Systems.
The four Navy shipyards – Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine; Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash.; and Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, in addition to the yard here in Hampton Roads – were all built at least a century ago, designed to deal with vessels from other eras, reducing their efficiency in handling modern ships, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released last month.
Earlier this month, overhaul work that was supposed to have been done at Norfolk Naval Shipyard on the submarine USS Boise was moved to Newport News Shipbuilding, according to a Navy spokeswoman.
And the GAO's report states that four of Norfolk Naval Shipyard's five drydocks "face flooding threats from extreme high tides and storm swells and average one major flooding event per year."
Asked about the flood risks, in particular, Brown said that the shipyard has plans in place to address those problems, including temporary walls around the drydocks, as well as plans to modernize the entire facility, which at 250 years old, he acknowledged, is "kind of aged."
"There's a lot of pressures on us to accomplish our mission, but I've got a team of over 10,000 people helping me out," he noted.
Farrington, with the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, said the recent GAO report isn't really anything new. He cites the case of the building of the USS Chesapeake at the shipyard, one of the nation's first six frigates, in the 1790s.
Construction was halted halfway through, after the country made peace with Algiers, only to resume later when a conflict with France began.
"I see that as indicative of a long-term problem," Farrington noted, adding that shipyards are "not at the forefront of people's minds.
"You think about warships and the great battles that they've been in, but even historians don't give very much due to the shipyard workers, the thousands and thousands of shipyard workers whose livelihoods have depended upon the vagaries of history."
Eric Wertheim, a columnist for the "Proceedings" journal at the U.S. Naval Institute, sees Norfolk Naval Shipyard as a pivotal player in the nation's and the Navy's history. As the country faces budget crises and questions about whether it can afford the Navy it needs, the shipyard faces those, too, in the form of backlogs and maintenance challenges, he said.
The shipyard has always grown and contracted, depending on what's required of it, but there's no question about its place in history, he noted.
"The United States is a maritime nation and it has always been a maritime nation," he said, adding that its growth is attributable to having a strong Navy. "The strength of the Navy can trace itself back to the birth of this shipyard; every step of the way, the shipyard has been there as a link to our past and our future."
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