The Federal Navy Evacuates Norfolk
One week after the bombardment of Fort Sumter the public tone in the state of Virginia was growing hostile towards everything and anything representing the national government. The United States Navy was having the difficult task of protecting the public property which made up the Norfolk Navy Yard.
The Secretary of the Navy sent Commodore Hiram Paulding in mid April to confer with his naval officers on a course of action. Virginia had just sided with her sister states of the south and voted an ordnance of secession leaving Gideon Welles very little choice in the matter.
Paulding's counsel was a representation of all southern officers who had resigned their commissions while he was enroute back to Washington City to report to the President. The order to mount guns onboard the Merrimack was countermanded in an effort to avoid further hostilities between Yard personnel and those residents of the community.
The Commodore returned to Norfolk on the 19th of April with the Pawnee, an eight gun war steamer. Upon his arrival and to his astonishment, he found the Plymouth, Germantown, and Dolphin scuttled and sinking in the harbor. The federal officers reacting to events gave the order to avoid having them fall into the hands of the rebels. The only vessel that managed an escape along with the Pawnee was the Cumberland. Seeing the urgency of the order to destroy all property, this Navy Department representative gave his blessing and all sailors loyal to the flag made a hasty evacuation.
Virginia Governor John Letcher dispatched Major General William Taliaferro the night before to take command of all militia troops in the Norfolk area and bring some sort of order to the seaport. After assessing the state of affairs, he elected to bring on batteries to command the ninety acres of land that made up the Navy Yard.
Guns of larger caliber were ordered in and the area made ready for defense on the night of the 20th when the sloop of war Pawnee sailed into the harbor and all the vessels that could not be rescued were scuttled. The final act before the last of the federal sailors escaped was setting a slow powder fuse leading to the dry dock, however, it burned too slowly and before it could blow, Taliferro's men had saved the dry dock along with the Merrimack.
With the abandonment of the Norfolk Navy Yard by the Federals, Washington could only speculate now as to how the rebel forces would use those war facilities against them. Virginia had in her possession a dangerous weapon, a dry dock that could be used against the blockade anchored in Hampton Roads. In just a few short months these ships would witness for themselves sea power taking a sharp turn towards modern naval warfare.
Editors Note: Mr.Moran is a feature writer on the US-Civilwar.com writers staff. He may be contacted with your questions, ideas and requests at firstname.lastname@example.org