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[25]

Chapter 2: bombardment and fall of Fort Sumter.--destruction of the Norfolk Navy Yard by the Federal officers.


At thirty minutes past 4 o'clock, on April 12, 1861, the first gun of civil war was fired, the battery on James Island discharging the first howitzer shell, which fell inside Fort Sumter, blowing up a building; this was almost immediately followed by another shell, which scattered destruction all around.

Fort Moultrie then took up the assault, and in another moment the guns from the gun battery on Cummings Point, from Captain McCready's battery, from Captain James Hamilton's floating battery, the enfilading battery, and every other point where a gun could be brought to bear on Sumter, opened in succession; and the guns poured forth their wrath as if the fort standing out in the bay had been some vengeful foe on which they desired to wreak their vengeance, instead of considering that it had been placed there for their protection against all foreign enemies.

It was well understood by all those in that beleagured fort what would be the result of building all those earth-works, and that it was only a matter of a few days or perhaps hours, ere the South Carolinians would proceed to extremities — had they waited until the 15th of April the garrison would have been starved out, and obliged to surrender for want of provisions. But that would not have suited them; they wanted to strike a blow that would make separation inevitable. and one that would unite the whole South in the measures then pending to form a Southern Confederacy, or whatever kind of government they might finally drift into.

Major Anderson, the Commander of Sumter, received the first shot and shell in silence; the batteries at regular intervals continued to belch forth their deadly missiles, and still no answer was returned by the besieged, until about an hour after the firing commenced, then two shots were fired from Sumter and glanced harmlessly from the face of Fort Moultrie. Sumter fired no more until between six and seven o'clock when, as if enraged at the onslaught made upon it and kept up with increasing vigor, it then opened from casemate and parapet a hail of shot and shell on Moultrie, steam iron battery, and the floating battery, that fairly made them shake. This was returned [26] with great vigor by the South Carolina gunners. There were good soldiers on both sides, men trained to arms and neither to be daunted by a few shot and shell. The story of that day is known to all who read history, and it is not necessary to further refer to it, excepting in connection with the naval expedition which was fitted out in the earlier part of April to go to the relief of Sumter, the history of which will appear further on in this narrative.

Secretary Welles, with a decision worthy of the occasion, did fit out an expedition for the relief of Sumter, the last vessel of which sailed from New York on the 9th of April, but owing to various reasons did not reach Charleston harbor in time to be of any use, and the attack on the fort commenced soon after the leading vessels showed themselves off the bar. A number of the smaller vessels never arrived at all, and under the circumstances could have been of no use had they arrived twenty-four hours before the attack. The expedition arrived only to see the declaration of war between the North and the South, which was promulgated by the thunder of cannon and the hissing of the shot and shell, as they carried death and destruction to those who had been united by the strongest bonds of love and friendship. Those who from the ships witnessed the fiery shells as they crossed each other in the night, knew that this was war that would never cease until one or the other of the contending parties were deprived of the resources to carry it on; war that would oblige the Government to call forth large armies to put down rebellion on the field of battle, and to build and equip large fleets to blockade the insurgent's ports, and bombard the heavy forts the enemy had snatched from the hands of their lawful owners. The men in that fleet of succour to the besieged Sumter knew then that ten times the number of vessels could not have rendered aid to the fort in face of that terrible fire, and that their missions might better have never been undertaken. They started homeward to carry the news to the startled North, but the telegrams far out-traveled them, and as its messages on the wires were announced to an indignant people, there was but one general feeling, namely, to resist the audacity of the insurgents and bring them back to reason, if it took every man in the country to do it. The rebellion was a dreadful thing to inaugurate, to be sure, and those who undertook to bring it about must have been imbued with some other ambition than was apparent, or the desire to escape from a form of government which had so far proved the best yet known to man: there must have been greater inducements to break up this most beneficent union than has ever appeared on the face of events.

The South was a great oligarchy, holding their millions of slaves, and they aimed to be recognized by the world as a power above the gift of the people. Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to this great country was the firing on Fort Sumter with the guns of Moultrie and other forts. Who can say that we are not a greater nation to-day, with freedom throughout the land, than we were in the days of the errors and follies of the South, and the anger and prejudices of the North, which embittered one against the other, and made the great Council Hall of the nation a place of violence and discord? All that has been swept away with the fall of slavery, and instead of it has come a union of all the States, more earnest and fraternal than before, with the Southern section of the country growing more prosperous and more happy under free labor and equal rights for all those who live in the South. In another generation people will likely bless the day when James Island and Moultrie opened their guns on Sumter, and caused to be wiped out that dark blotch on our escutcheon, which the whole world were pointing at and asking us how we could call ourselves a free country while four millions of people were held in bondage. Who knows what we might have been but for that long war, which brought so much sorrow and desolation to so many homes? Slavery, with its seductive influences, might have led us all away, and in the course of a century our country might have become a land of slaves.

Let this country not forget, then, the men who so nobly risked their lives in the cause of freedom, and let them erect monuments to those who died that this union of States might live to be an asylum for all time to come for those who love not despotism, and love liberty.

The Navy had a large share in bringing about the happy results which grew from the war, and many on both sides do not hesitate to say that, but for the Navy the South never would have been brought back into the Union--and yet, who is there that has taken the trouble to erect a monument to the sailors?

As this narrative continues people will learn with surprise that the Navy did so much towards putting down the rebellion; yet the author will scarcely find time or space to give a fair account of all the Navy did do, and must leave untold many events to be related hereafter by some more graphic historian. As years pass on, people who have been born long after the great War of the Rebellion, will long to know of [27] the great battles by land and sea. which took place from 1861 to 1865, and it is to be hoped that by each one contributing his mite, in the course of time a true history will be written. The best of efforts will be made in this history to make it a true if not an interesting one.

When President Lincoln entered upon the duties of his office, his position towards Virginia differed somewhat from that which he assumed towards the States farther South. It was deemed desirable that the Administration should do nothing to wound the sensitive feelings of the Virginians, and General Scott, the General-in-Chief of our Army, was particularly solicitous that the Government should give the State of Virginia no excuse to secede.

There were several reasons for this extra tenderness towards Virginia--one of the principal navy yards, filled with Southern officers, was within the limits of the State. The commanding officer, Commander McCauley, was considered loyal, and had in his day stood high in the service; but he was now old, and at a time when he should have maintained his self-possession he appears to have completely lost his head.

The Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Welles, had not yet made himself familiar with the conditions of affairs in his department. His position was a difficult one for a man advanced in years, for the duties were complicated, and such as only an expert could be expected to fathom in so short a time.

Mr. Welles was surrounded with officers and clerks, some of whose loyalty was doubted, and one bureau of the Department in particular, presided over by an officer of Southern birth and of national reputation, was the headquarters of naval officers who were plotting the downfall of the country to which they owed their position and whatever importance they possessed.

It was bad enough for officers to openly desert their flag, but far worse treachery to continue holding positions in order to hamper the Government and betray its secrets. Every official act in the Navy Department was known at once to these plotters, and immediate steps taken to render it abortive. Officers with pleasant faces, but with treason in their hearts, assembled in conclave in the Department to devise plans for the overthrow of the Government.

A short time before Fort Sumter was fired upon, the commandant of the Washington Navy Yard gave a large party at his quarters, on the occasion of the marriage of his daughter, to which the President and his cabinet were invited. A number of disloyal naval officers were present, and the house was everywhere festooned with the American flag, even to the bridal bed; yet just after Sumter was fired on, the Commandant, with most of those under his command, including his new son-in-law, resigned their commissions and left the Washington Navy Yard to take care of itself.

At that very time the secession of Virginia had been resolved upon, which was known to these disloyal officers, although not to the Government; for the action of the Secessionists had been delayed and kept secret, so that the blow would be more decisive and enable the conspirators to seize the public property at Norfolk and elsewhere, to help them carry out their designs.

At one time it was even thought doubtful if Washington could be held, as the people at the North, unprepared for such an emergency, were slow in getting troops to the Capitol.

Those who had been plotting against the Government in the Navy Department, felt sure that the Norfolk Yard must fall into the hands of the Secessionists, as everything possible had been prepared for that event. They lost no opportunity to impress upon the mind of the Secretary of the Navy the importance of doing nothing to offend the State of Virginia and give it an excuse for seceding from the Union on the ground of invasion of “State rights;” which meant that the Government should exercise no authority over its own property within the limits of a seceding State. The Naval Department at that moment seemed powerless to preserve the public property at Norfolk against the rebel troops then assembling in Virginia. General Scott threw cold water on every attempt to hold the Norfolk Yard, on the ground that he had no troops to spare, as he could not deplete Fortress Monroe, which must be held at all hazards.

It seems a pity that the Secretary should not have selected some loyal and energetic officer, placed him in command of a few gunboats and armed tug-boats and sent him to Norfolk with orders to bring all the vessels away, and even put the Commandant under arrest if he should interpose any obstacles. A guard of fifty marines would have been sufficient to overawe all malcontents. These proceedings would not have influenced the secession of Virginia, which was already decided upon.

The Secretary of the Navy, finding himself unable to cope with the difficulties of the situation, summoned to the Navy Department Commodore Hiram Paulding, a loyal officer, but who was now declining in years and not equal to a position which required not only energy of mind but great bodily vigor. Commodore Paulding broke up the conclave which was in the habit of meeting in the Bureau of Ordnance, for he [28] felt that these officers were inimical to the government, and he recommended the Secretary of the Navy to change the suspected Chief of Bureaux for another known to be loyal.

Frequent accounts reached Washington of the hostile attitude of the people in Norfolk and Portsmouth towards the government, and their determination that the Navy Department should not remove a ship or a gun from the station. Large bodies of troops were reported moving towards Norfolk to enforce this decision. In fact, Norfolk, which had for many years lived on the bounty of the government and flourished by the appropriations for the support of the Navy Yard, was now the very hotbed of secession.

Commodore Hiram Paulding.

The Southern officers could hardly restrain their impatience until the State of Virginia should secede, so anxious were they to show their gratitude to the United States Government, which had conferred upon them whatever importance they possessed, by pulling it to pieces, and endeavoring to dim the glory of the flag under which they had served from boyhood.

Most of the officers of the Navy Yard were Southern men whose honor had heretofore been unquestioned, but their heads were now so turned that they were as wild as the sans culottes of the French Revolution.

Commodore McCauley, who commanded the Navy Yard, had long and faithfully served the government, but was now advanced in years and no match for the wily secessionists about him, who so hampered and bewildered him, that he for a time rested under the suspicion of being lukewarm in his allegiance.

At this time there were lying at the Navy Yard the following named vessels:

The steam frigate Merrimac, of 40 guns, the same vessel which, after being converted into an ironclad by the rebels, made such havoc among our ships at Hampton Roads; the sloop of war, Germantown, 22 guns; sloop of war, Plymouth, 22 guns; brig, Dolphin, 4 guns. All these could have been prepared for sea in a short time.

There were also the following named old ships which were of no great use, but they had been associated with the history of the Navy and were dear to the country. These were the Pennsylvania, United States, Columbus, Delaware, Raritan, and Columbia.

There was also an unfinished ship-of — the line, the New York, in one of the ship houses.

The sloop-of-war Cumberland, was moored at the Navy Yard. These vessels were valued at about two millions of dollars.

Any one to see these ships lying quietly at their moorings, the officers and men going to and fro about their duties, the sentries pacing up and down guarding public property and preserving order, would have supposed that the interests of the United States Government were being well taken care of; but this was merely the calm which precedes the storm — the fearful storm which was soon to burst upon the country, when “Hope for a season bade the world farewell,” and truth and honor hung their heads with shame.

Early in April the Navy Department began to get very uneasy for the safety of the Navy Yard, for it was by this time well understood that the Secessionists would make an aggressive movement on the first favorable opportunity.

The Department was most anxious to get the Merrimac away from the yard to a place of safety, but was informed by Commodore McCauley that it would take a month to put her machinery in working order.

The department did not seem to reflect that a few armed tow-boats with marines on board, could have been sent from New York to tow all the vessels under the guns of Fortress Monroe. One tug with a twenty four pound howitzer on board, properly handled, would have been master of the situation, and if the Navy Department had displayed a little forethought in this emergency, the government would have been saved deep humiliation and a loss in ships, guns and stores not easy to repair.

On the 31st of March 250 seamen and landsmen were ordered to be transferred from the New York Navy Yard to Norfolk, and fifty seamen were transferred to the [29] revenue steamer Harriet Lane, which vessel was ordered to proceed at once to Norfolk. It shows the miserable condition of the Navy when the department had nothing but a revenue cutter to depend upon.

Days went by before anything else was attempted. On the 11th of April Commodore Jas. Alden was ordered to report to Commodore McCauley to take command of the Merrimac, and Chief Engineer Isherwood was sent to Norfolk to get the ship's engines in working order as soon as possible.

On the 14th the work was commenced, and on the 17th the engines were in working order — so much for the Commandant's assertion that it would take a month to get the ship ready to move, as he was made to believe.

It is no wonder, under these circumstances

The steamer Harriet Lane.

that the loyalty of the Commandant should have been questioned, yet he was simply influenced by officers whom he trusted and who were desirous that the Merrimac should be retained for the future navy of the Southern Confederacy.

In a majority of instances when Southern officers had determined “to go with their States,” they turned over their commands or trusts to the government and went away with clean skirts, but in the case of navy yards this rule did not seem to hold good, as was shown at Pensacola and Norfolk; and every impediment was thrown in Commodore McCauley's way by his own subordinates to prevent his carrying out the orders of the department.

The disloyalty which existed to such an extent among the officers did not at that time extend to the mechanics, for they worked night and day until the Merrimac's machinery was repaired.

Then forty-four firemen and coal-heavers volunteered for the service of taking the Merrimac out.

The work was all done with the consent of Commodore McCauley; but when he was informed that everything was ready to fire up, he replied that next morning would be time enough. At midnight the fires were started and the engines worked at the dock, and were found to be in good order.

Next morning the Commandant was again informed that everything was ready, but he replied that he had not decided to send the Merrimac out. It was in vain that he was reminded of the peremptory character of the order which Mr. Isherwood had brought from the Secretary of the Navy to get the Merrimac out at the earliest possible moment. He only replied that he would let his decision be known in the course of the day. He gave as a reason the obstructions that had been placed in the channel, but when assured that they could be easily passed, and that every moment increased the danger, he gave orders to haul the fires, and thus the noble Merrimac was finally lost to us.

It is difficult at this late date to tell all the motives that influenced the Navy Department and the Commandant at Norfolk. Indecision seemed everywhere to exist, and some of the best officers in the Navy were apparently quite dazed at the course which events were taking. Commodore McCauley at one time was master of the situation, and with promptness and decision might have saved all the ships, guns, and stores, even if he judged it advisable to abandon the Navy Yard.

The Commodore probably thought that by retaining the Merrimac and her battery he would have a strong force to repel any attack that might be made from the outside. The old Commodore, who had fought gallantly for his country in former days, was completely acquitted of anything like disloyalty by the officers who were sent down to take the Merrimac away from [30] Norfolk, but it is unfortunate that he did not show more decision of character when the crisis came upon him.

Every officer connected with the destruction of the Norfolk Navy Yard came in for a share of censure, which is not to be wondered at when it is now known that every ship and gun could have been saved. The broadside of the Germantown, which was all ready for sea and only waiting a crew, or the Plymouth, in the same condition, would, with a few men on board, have saved the Navy Yard against attack, overawed Norfolk and Portsmouth, and prevented the channel from being obstructed by the Confederates.

Even when the yard was abandoned and the buildings set fire to, the work was done in a panic in which the coolest persons seem to have lost their heads. The destruction took place when the yard had been re-enforced by a regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers under Colonel Wadsworth, while the Pawnee of fifteen guns had brought Commodore Paulding from Washington with instructions “to save what he could and act as he thought proper.”

When Commodore Paulding arrived at the Navy Yard he found that all the Southern officers had sent in their resignations and abandoned their posts. The mechanics, following their example, had left the yard in a body, and persons had even come in from outside and possessed themselves of the Government arms. It was reported that several thousand men were organizing for the purpose of seizing the yard. The powder had been taken from the Government magazine near Norfolk, and batteries were being erected along the approaches to the Navy Yard, and hulks sunk in the channel near Craney Island and Sewell's Point, three light boats having been used for the purpose; and this was done, notwithstanding the Commandant of the yard had ample force to have prevented it. Actual war existed between the Government and the inhabitants of Norfolk, who were doing all in their power to destroy public property and obstruct the public highway. Worse than all, the Merrimac, Germantown and Plymouth had been scuttled by orders.

All the guns in the Navy Yard had been spiked, with the exception of some two hundred, as well as those on shipboard, except five heavy guns on a side on board the Pennsylvania, which sturdy old castle commanded the whole yard; and fifty good seamen on board could have bid defiance to 5,000 Confederates in arms, and held Norfolk and Portsmouth under her guns until every ship was hauled out of harm's way.

After the arrival of the Pawnee had made the yard doubly secure, the shells were drawn from the Pennsylvania's guns and the guns spiked!

The whole thing looked so hopeless to Commodore Paulding that, in view of the orders he had received from the Department not to let anything fall into the hands of the Confederates, he determined to destroy everything.

It must have been a painful alternative to that faithful old officer, Commodore Paulding, who abhorred everything in the shape of rebellion, to be obliged to apply the torch to the historic ships of the Navy, and destroy the other valuable property the Government had been so many years accumulating; especially since he was aware that most of the destruction might easily have been prevented, had not so many days been lost in deciding what to do.

But the fiat had gone forth, the mania for destruction had seized upon every one, as we see boys go mad over the burning of a hay-rick, which they have set fire to in wanton sport.

All the ships, except the Cumberland, were well filled with combustibles, and the whole saturated with oil and turpentine. The ship-houses and other buildings were prepared in the same manner, and nothing left to chance so that the rebels could derive any benefit from what was left behind. The fine dry-dock that had cost millions to build was undermined, and a hundred men ran to and fro with heavy hammers trying to knock off the trunnions of the heavy guns, but with a few exceptions these attempts were failures.

It was a beautiful starlight night, April 20, when all the preparations were completed. The people of Norfolk and Portsmouth were wrapped in slumber, little dreaming that in a few hours the ships and public works which were so essential to the prosperity of the community would be a mass of ruins, and hundreds of people would be without employment and without food for their families.

The Pawnee had towed the Cumberland out of the reach of the fire, and laid at anchor to receive on board those who were to fire the public property. Commodore McCauley had gone to bed that night worn out with excitement and anxiety, under the impression that the force that had arrived at Norfolk was for the purpose of holding the yard and relieving him of responsibility, and when he was called at midnight and informed that the torch would be applied to everything, he could hardly [31]

The burning of the Norfolk Navy Yard, the frigate Merrimac, and other vessels, April 21, 1861.

[32] realize the situation, and was chagrined and mortified at the idea of abandoning his post without any attempt to defend it.

At 2:30 A. M., April 21st, a rocket from the Pawnee gave the signal; the work of destruction commenced with the Merrimac, and in ten minutes she was one vast sheet of flame. In quick succession the trains to the other ships and buildings were ignited and the surrounding country brilliantly illuminated.

The inhabitants of Norfolk and Portsmouth, roused from their slumber, looked with awe at the work of destruction, and mothers clasping their children to their breasts bewailed the fate that cut them and their offspring off from their support. Yet this was but a just retribution for the treason which the inhabitants had shown towards the best government on earth. They had killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

As the boats containing the firing party moved off down the river to the Pawnee and Cumberland, the rebels from Norfolk and Portsmouth rushed into the Yard to save what they could from the flames, and were more fortunate than they expected to be. The dry-dock was not materially injured, some of the work-shops and officers' quarters were preserved, and the frigate United States was not much damaged. Even the Merrimac, though burned to the water's edge and sunk, was afterwards raised and converted into the powerful ironclad which wrought such havoc in Hampton Roads and carried consternation through the North.

The loss of the Navy Yard at Norfolk was felt all through the North to be a great calamity. Misfortunes seemed accumulating, and people began to doubt whether the administration had sufficient vigor to meet the emergencies that were continually arising. The destruction of the Navy Yard seems now to have been the result of a panic which was not justified by the facts of the case, but the actors in that scene believed they were consulting the best interests of the Government. No one can doubt the loyalty of those gallant old seamen, McCauley and Paulding, for undoubtedly they had the best interests of the country at heart, and acted with good intent.

In the midst of our other misfortunes the loss of the Navy Yard was soon forgotten. It was abandoned by the Confederates after the defeat of the Merrimac by the Monitor in a panic quite as causeless as our own, and has not yet risen like the Phoenix from its ashes, its reconstruction progressing very slowly.

Congress has apparently viewed with distrust appropriations made for this yard, scarcely yet realizing that the people employed there are worthy of confidence in consequence of their past acts of rebellion, which caused the destruction of the most important naval station in the United States.

The greatest misfortune to the Union caused by the destruction of the Navy Yard, was the loss of at least twelve hundred fine guns, most of which were uninjured. A number of them were quickly mounted at Sewell's Point to keep our ships from approaching Norfolk; others were sent to Hatteras Inlet, Ocracocke, Roanoke Island and other points in the sounds of North Carolina. Fifty-three of them were mounted at Port Royal, others at Fernandina and at the defences of New Orleans. They were met with at Fort Henry, Fort Donelson, Island No.10, Memphis, Vicksburg, Grand Gulf and Port Hudson. We found them up the Red River as far as the gunboats penetrated, and took possession of some of them on the cars at Duvall's Bluff, on White River, bound for Little Rock. They gave us a three hours hard fight at Arkansas Post, but in the end they all returned to their rightful owners, many of them indented with Union shot and not a few permanently disabled.

Had it not been for the guns captured at Norfolk and Pensacola, the Confederates would have found it a difficult matter to arm their fortifications for at least a year after the breaking out of hostilities, at the expiration of which time they began to manufacture their own ordnance, and import it from abroad. Great as was, therefore, the loss of our ships, it was much less than the loss of our guns.

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