Capture of Norfolk

April 20, 1861

In 1861, as seven Southern states began their secesionist actions, the nation was poised in a "wait-and-see" stance -- could the slaveholding South be reconciled with the North without the bloodshed of war? After the fall of Fort Sumter, President Abraham Lincoln's call for 75,000 volunteer militiamen to come to the aid of the rapidly dividing country seemed to settle the question of waiting -- action was needed and bloodshed was not to be avoided.

Virginians responded immediately and passionately to Lincoln's enlistment order; they welcomed the chance to fight for Virginia's autonomy and status as a slave state. It's governor, John Letcher, led the way in aggressive action against the federal government. The U.S. arsenal at Harpers Ferry was was taken by a Virginia militia unit led by Capt. Turner Ashby. And although Union troops at Harpers Ferry set fire to 15,000 weapons before they retreated in haste to Maryland, the Virginians still were able to capture 5,000 usable rifles and the armory's rifle-making machinery and equipment.

Continuing in their countermoves against the North, the Virginians advanced on Gosport Navy Yard near Norfolk, Va. When the Union commander there, Gen. Charles S. McCauley, heard of the Virginians' impending arrival, he immediately ordered all ships to be burned or scuttled. Three ships survived and others, charred and broken, sank into the shallow waters of the Elizabeth River. One burned-out hulk, the USS Merrimack, was salvaged by the resourceful Rebels and was resurrected as the CSS Virginia, to be used against its Union makers.

Because Union troops did not completely destroy the Gosport Navy Yard, the Confederates were able to take over more than 1,000 heavy naval guns, which they immediately distributed throughout their territory. In a sense, the federals also gave away, without a fight, the immensely valuable facilities of the naval yard itself -- one of the best stations in the country.

Fascinating Fact: After Union troops botched the job of destroying the Gosport Navy Yard, an article in a Southern newspaper, the Richmond Daily, joyfully stated: "We have material enough to build a Navy of iron-plated ships."