Doc. 148.-destruction of Norfolk Navy-yard.
Letter from Commodore Paulding.
Navy-yard, New-York, April 25.it is a part of the history of the times in which we live that in April last I was sent from Washington to the Navy-Yard at Norfolk on a special duty, the performance of which has recently been made a subject of investigation, and I have considered it of sufficient importance to myself and interest to my friends that I should convey, through the public press, such a statement as may enable those who are unbiassed to arrive at just conclusions. With no other object in view, I beg that you will be pleased to give a place in your columns to the following, which will illustrate the whole proceeding: On the sixteenth of April last I was filling a place in the Navy Department, when I was informed by the Secretary of the Navy that it was deemed of great importance to remove the ships of the Government, then in a condition to be manned, from the Navy-Yard at Norfolk to a Northern port. At the same time he indicated his wish that I should perform that service, and destroy what public property I could not secure from falling into the hands of an enemy. Whilst my instructions were being prepared I sent officers to New-York and Philadelphia for steamers, and named the officers available in Washington to command and officer the ships to be removed. At this time the capital was almost defenceless,  and it will be recorded as the darkest period of the republic. The Department and the President consented with reluctance to the absence of the Pawnee, the only available steamer for the service, her presence being necessary for the defence of Washington; and it was especially enjoined upon me to return with the least possible delay consistent with the service to be performed. On the day following my departure from Washington, April seventeenth, I arrived at Fortress Monroe in the Pawnee; at four P. M. took on board a detachment of volunteers, and sailed at six P. M., arriving at the Navy-Yard at eight P. M. To my great surprise the ships I had been sent to remove had been scuttled, and were so far filled with water that they could not be saved. They had been scuttled two hours after my arrival at Fortress Monroe, and the great shears of the Yard cut away — just about the time that information could have been conveyed to the Navy-Yard of my arrival at Fortress Monroe, which is not the least remarkable part of the transaction. One principal object of my visit to the Navy-Yard was in this manner defeated, and it remained for me to consider what I was to do under my orders to destroy the property of the Government that I could not prevent from falling into the hands of the enemy. The channel in its narrowest part, at two places, some ten miles distant from each other, was already partially filled by obstructions, and the work of filling the channel was still going on, as I was informed, under orders from the Governor of Virginia. Was I to wait and defend the Navy-Yard for an indefinite time without a definite object, having, as everybody must know, not the slightest prospect of further interference or aid from the Government,and without the least prospect of permanent good or of ultimately saving the public property from the hands of the enemy; have the channel closed against the departure of the Cumberland and pawnee, disregarding the injunction imposed upon me to return for the defence of the capital, the necessity of which I well knew? or was it not my imperative duty to destroy the property that must otherwise fall into the hands of the public enemy, take the Cumberland to a place of safety and useful service, and report the Pawnee at Washington as quickly as I could? I determined to destroy the property and return to Washington. My mind has dwelt upon it since, and I have always arrived at the conclusion that I had obeyed my orders and discharged my duty in the best manner for the good of the country. I conferred with Commodores McCauley and Pendergrast as far as any conference could answer any useful purpose. What information could they convey to me to control my action in regard to the public property, having just destroyed the ships they virtually confessed they could not defend? All necessary orders were given, and in every thing relating to this service I claim to have performed my duty as a naval officer with the judgment and intelligence the occasion called for, and have had every reason to suppose that my whole course of proceedings was approved by the President and Secretary of the Navy. I will state, in conclusion, that the Cumberland grounded in passing Sewell's Point, and hung for four hours before she could be relieved by the aid of two powerful tugs. Another day and the barrier would probably have been completed. A procrastinated defence of the public property might have been made, but no one capable of forming a judgment on the subject will, with the facts here stated, suppose that I could have been justified in such a proceeding. After a lapse of a year, and our giant strength has been put forth, it seems a grateful task for men who withheld their counsel to the Administration, and their presence from the beleaguered capital to slander those who, in the hour of our greatest danger and suffering, were prominent and foremost in providing for the great necessities of our Government.
H. Paulding, Commandant.