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Norfolk, destruction of

The repulse at the Great Bridge, Dec. 9, 1775, greatly exasperated Lord Dunmore (q. v.), who had remained in safety at Norfolk, while his motley forces were greatly dispirited. The Virginians were elated, and five days after the battle they entered Norfolk in triumph, where they were joined by a North Carolina regiment under Col. Robert Howe. Dunmore had abandoned his intrenchments at Norfolk, after spiking his twenty pieces of cannon, and invited the loyalists of the city to take refuge with him on the fleet, for he had determined to destroy the town. The poor negroes whom he had coaxed into his service were left without protection, and many of them starved to death. [475] Parties sent on shore to procure provisions were cut off, and famine menaced the fleet, for the multitude of mouths to be filled increased. The vessels were also annoyed by firing from the shore. A British frigate arriving at that juncture emboldened Dunmore, and he sent a flag to Colonel Howe with a threat to burn the town if the firing did not cease and provisions were not sent to the fleet. A flat refusal was given. On the morning of Dec. 31 Dunmore gave notice that he should cannonade the town, so that women and children and loyalists might leave it. The cannonade was opened at 4 A. M. the next day, and marines and sailors were sent on shore to set fire to the city. The wind was blowing from the water, and the buildings being chiefly of wood, a greater portion of the most compact part of the town was laid in ashes. The conflagration raged about fifty hours, and hundreds of wretched people were left shelterless in the cold winter air. During the conflagration the cannonade was kept up, and parties of musketeers attacked shivering and starving groups of defenseless inhabitants. Strange to say, during the three days of horror not one of the patriot troops was killed, and only three or four women and children were slain in the streets. General Stevens, of the Virginia militia, remained on the spot until February, and, after

St. Paul's Church, Norfolk.

all the families were removed, he burned the rest of the town, that it might not afford shelter for the enemy. Thus a flourishing city was temporarily wiped out. Almost the only building that escaped the perils of that day of terror in Norfolk was the ancient St. Paul's Church, cruciform in shape and built of imported bricks. On the street front of the church, near the southwest corner, was left a large cavity made by a cannon-ball hurled from one of the ships during the attack.

In Civil War days.

What is known as the Norfolk navy-yard is at Gosport, on the bank of a deep and sluggish stream flowing out of the Great Dismal Swamp, and opposite the city of Norfolk. At the beginning of the Civil War this station was one of the oldest and most extensive belonging to the government, and covered an area three-fourths of a mile in length and one-fourth of a mile in width. In the river the largest vessels of war might float, and everything for building and finishing such vessels was seen there in greatest perfection. The quantities of arms and munitions laid up were enormous. There were at least 2,000 pieces of heavy cannon fit for service, 300 of which were new Dahlgren guns. It was estimated that the aggregate value of the property there was between $9,000,000 and $10,000,000. Besides this, several war-vessels were afloat there. The Buchanan administration, to avoid irritating the Virginia politicians, had left all of this public property to exposure or destruction. Even the new administration of President Lincoln was for a time very circumspect. When directing (April 4, 1861) Commodore McCauley to “put the shipping and public property in condition to be moved and placed beyond danger should it become necessary,” he was warned to “take no steps that would give needless alarm.” Meanwhile, the Virginia Confederates had proposed to seize or destroy all this property. As early as the night of April 16, two light boats of 80 tons each were sunk in the channel of the Elizabeth River, below Norfolk, to prevent the government vessels leaving the stream.

The government, alarmed, sent Capt. Hiram Paulding from Washington with instructions for McCauley to lose no time in “arming the Merrimac, and in getting the Plymouth and Dolphin beyond danger; to have the Germantown in condition to be towed out, and to put the more valuable property, ordnance and stores, on shipboard, so that they could at any mo- [476]

Burning of the Navy-yard in 1861.

ment be moved beyond danger.” He was also instructed to defend the property under his charge “at any hazard, repelling by force, if necessary, any and all attempts to seize it, whether by mob violence, organized effort, or any assumed authority.” Paulding caused the frigate Cumberland to be placed, with a full crew and armament on board, so as to command the entire navy-yard and then returned to Washington.

McCauley, apparently unsuspicious of treachery around him, neglected to carry out the instructions sent him until it was too late. His Southern-born officers deceived him by protestations of loyalty. “You have no Pensacola officers here,” they said to McCauley. “We will never desert you; we will stand by you until the last, even unto death.” On the day after the passage of the Virginia ordinance of secession, they deserted their flag and joined the Confederates. On the evening of April 18, General Taliaferro, commander of the forces in southeastern Virginia, appeared at Norfolk with his staff, and prepared to seize the navy-yard and the ships-of-war. The disloyal officers had corrupted the workmen in the navyyard, and these were also ready to join the Confederates. The military companies of Norfolk and Portsmouth were paraded under arms. Several companies of riflemen came from Petersburg, in number about 600, and a corps came from Richmond, bringing with them fourteen pieces of heavy rifled cannon, and plenty of ammunition. With these troops Taliaferro felt certain of success.

McCauley was now equally certain that he could not withstand so large a force, and to quiet the people of Norfolk, who were greatly excited by a rumor that the guns of the vessels were to be opened on the town, he sent word that he should make no movement except in self-defence. On the return of his flag from Norfolk, McCauley gave orders for scuttling all the vessels to prevent their falling into the hands of the Confederates. This was done [477] at 4 P. M. the Cumberland only was spared. Word had reached Washington of the remissness of McCauley, and Paulding was despatched in the Pawnee with 100 marines to relieve the commodore. At Fort Monroe he took on board 350 Massachusetts volunteers just arrived, but when he reached Norfolk the scuttling of the vessels was completed. They might all have been saved. Paulding saw the fatal error. He saw that more than scuttling must be performed to render the ships useless to the Confederates. He also perceived that with his small land force he could not defend the navy-yard; so, using the discretionary power given him, he proceeded to burn the slowly sinking ships, and to commit to the flames all the buildings and other inflammable property in the navy-yard. He sent 100 men under Lieut. J. H. Russell with sledge-hammers to knock off the trunnions of the cannon. The Dahlgren guns resisted the hammers, but those of a large number of the oldpattern guns were destroyed. Many were spiked, but so indifferently that they were soon repaired by the Confederates. All the men were taken on board the Pawnee and Cumberland, excepting those who were to commit the work of destruction.

Before dawn on the morning of April 21 the conflagration was started, but the destruction was not made complete. The vessels, with the men, immediately withdrew, when the Confederates took possession and saved all the buildings, provisions, and stores in the yard, except the immense ship-houses, the barracks, and rigging, sail, and ordnance lofts. A vast number of the cannon were uninjured, and played a conspicuous part in the war on the side of the Confederates. The money value of the property destroyed was estimated at $7,000,000. Two of the sunken vessels, the Merrimac and Plymouth, which were not consumed, were afterwards raised by the Confederates and converted into powerful iron-clad vessels of war. Norfolk, and Portsmouth opposite, and old Fort Norfolk, on the river-bank below, were taken possession of by the Confederates. The possession of these places and of Harper's Ferry were important acquisitions for the Confederates, preliminary to an attempt to seize Washington.

While stationed at Fort Monroe, in 1862, General Wool saw the eminent advantage of the James River as a highway for supplies for McClellan's army moving up the Peninsula, and urged the government to allow him to capture Norfolk, and so secure the free navigation of that stream. After the evacuation of Yorktown, President Lincoln and Secretary Stanton visited Fort Monroe and granted Wool's request. Having made personal reconnoissance, he crossed Hampton Roads with a few regiments, landed in the rear of a Confederate force on the Norfolk side of the Elizabeth River, and moved towards the city. General Huger, of South Carolina, was in command there. He had already perceived his peril, with Burnside in his rear and McClellan on his flank, and immediately retreated, turning over Norfolk to the care of Mayor Lamb. Norfolk was surrendered May 10, and General Viele was appointed military governor. The Confederates fled towards Richmond, first setting fire to a slow match attached to the Merrimac and other vessels at the navy-yard, which blew the monster ram into fragments. The Confederate gunboats on the James River fled to Richmond, closely pursued by a National flotilla under Commodore Rodgers, which was checked by strong fortifications at Drewry's Bluff, below Richmond.

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