Long before Virginia left the Union on April 17, 1861, newly appointed Navy secretary Gideon Welles worried over the fate of his biggest and most important ship yard.
Nearly three weeks before, he'd tried to raise reinforcements for the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth. And when that effort sputtered, Welles fired off a telegram to the commander — Capt. Charles S. McCauley — urging him to repair the dismantled engines of the USS Merrimack and make the powerful warship ready to sail.
Then he added a fatal contradiction, ordering "that no steps should be taken to raise needless alarm" in Virginia, which was still resisting the call to leave the Union.
Two days after the fall of Fort Sumter, however — and the day after President Lincoln called for 75,000 volunteers — Southern sympathizers sank several small boats in an attempt to block the Elizabeth River.
Gloucester lawyer and Virginia militia commander William B. Taliaferro received his own orders the day after his state withdrew, leaving to demand that the sprawling yard surrender to the "Sovereign State of the Commonwealth of Virginia."
With 14 warships, a giant granite dry dock and an arsenal of more than 2,000 cannon and 300,000 pounds of gunpowder, Gosport was a prize of unparalleled importance. Just as crucial to the industrially impoverished South were its foundries and machine shops.
"Gosport was a huge resource. You can't underestimate it," says J. Corey Thornton, curator of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum. "And everybody on both sides knew it."
What ensued over the next 48 hours was a battle of ruses and nerves in which the 68-year-old McCauley — a veteran of the War of 1812 — felt increasingly cut off from hope of saving his command.
Inside the yard, nearly all his staff officers resigned. The 1,400-man work force teemed with sympathizers and spies. So insecure were the telegraph lines to nearby Fort Monroe and Washington, D.C., that communications faltered.
Outside the brick walls, McCauley could hear the whistles, whoops and cheers as train after train rolled into Portsmouth and came to a stop with yet another contingent of Virginia volunteers. Then a lookout from the USS Cumberland reported the removal of the channel markers and the construction of an earthwork commanding the river.
Groups of armed men roamed the streets, fueling the tension. So when chief Navy engineer Benjamin F. Isherwood reported that he had not only reassembled and fired up the Merrimack's engines but also formed a ragtag crew, the old sailor — heeding Welles' instructions — hesitated.
"'McCauley's Folly,' I like to call it. If he hadn't lost his nerve — they might have held onto the yard," Thornton says.
"But the fact is he wasn't completely out of his mind. He had a lot to worry about."
Unbeknownst to McCauley, the head of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad — William Mahone, who later became a hero at the Battle of the Crater — had been bringing in his trains again and again with the same small group of wildly cheering men.
Instead of an estimated 5,000 troops, Taliaferro commanded fewer than 500 — and he was prepared to wait on reinforcements because of the overwhelming firepower trained on Norfolk by the guns of the Cumberland and USS Pennsylvania.
No militiaman raised a hand when — at McCauley's command — the Unionists began scuttling ships, spiking guns and preparing the dry dock and shops for destruction. They also failed to resist when the USS Pawnee steamed in later that night with nearly 100 Marines from the Washington Navy Yard and some 350 Massachusetts infantrymen from Fort Monroe.
At first the relief force led by the Navy's senior line officer — Commodore Hiram Paulding — hoped to stop the devastation and hold the yard. But the work was too far gone to be interrupted. So they redoubled the effort to destroy the ships, buildings, ordnance and supplies, torching the scuttled hulks and giant ship houses before mining the dry dock with 2,000 pounds of gun powder.
When they left with the Cumberland and steam tug Yankee early the next morning, the 3/4-mile long waterfront was enveloped in towering flames. Nearly a dozen ships burned just as brightly. But the dry dock survived after a Southern officer flooded the basin in the nick of time. So did all the powder and cannon.
Within weeks, the rebels used those same guns to fortify not just the James River, Hampton Roads and the North Carolina coast but also dozens of rebel strongholds as far away as Charleston, Savannah and Memphis. The powder helped the Army of Northern Virginia defeat Union forces at the first Battle of Manassas.
In less than a year, Gosport's dry dock, foundries and machine shops would transform the salvaged hull of the Merrimack into the CSS Virginia, leading to the historic first battle between ironclad ships and — just off Newport News Point — the worst U.S. naval defeat until Pearl Harbor.
"The South was able to take Gosport without a shot," shipyard historian and archivist Marcus W. Robbins says.
"If they'd failed, the outcome of the war — or at least its duration — would have been a lot different."
Online: Go to dailypress.com/gosport to see a video and Civil War images of the navy yard.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun