In early spring 1861, events were at a boiling point in the United States. By February, six Southern states: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, had seceded and formed the Confederate States of America. It was an act newly inaugurated President Abraham Lincoln’s administration, and many others, saw as illegal and a rebellion against the constitutional order.
It was not a foregone conclusion that states in the upper south like North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia, or even Maryland would join this rebellion. In fact, the Virginia Secession Convention rejected calls for Virginia to leave the Union on April 4th by a vote of 88 to 45. In April, however, two things galvanized secessionists and radicalized moderates: the attack on Fort Sumter on April 12, and Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to “suppress the rebellion” three days later.
On April 17, the Virginia Secession Convention reversed itself and voted in favor of secession, 88 to 55, subject to a popular referendum to be held on May 23, 1861. Federal property in Virginia was now in the cross hairs, including the militarily valuable Harpers Ferry Armory, Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, and Fort Monroe. Secessionists, including former Virginia governor Henry A. Wise, argued they should be seized at once without waiting for the results of the referendum.
On the evening of April 18, Virginia militia marched on Harpers Ferry. Its small garrison put it to the torch and retreated, but the secessionists saved most of the arms manufacturing equipment. That same day, Virginia Governor John Letcher telegraphed Confederate President Jefferson Davis:
“Our object is to now secure the navy-yard at Gosport. The Merrimac, Cumberland, Pennsylvania, and perhaps other vessels are now there. The channel has been partially obstructed, and I have placed Major General Taliaferro in command. He left here this evening. It will require perhaps 5,000 men to take the place. We shall do our best to secure it.”
The naval yard was more heavily guarded than Harpers Ferry, however, and Confederate States Secretary of War LeRoy Pope Walker worked frantically to find reinforcements. He telegraphed Georgia Governor Joseph E. Brown on the 19th:
Governor Letcher, of Virginia, telegraphs for troops. Two thousand have been ordered from South Carolina, and I ask you to send two or three companies from Georgia. They must proceed to Norfolk and report to General Taliaferro. Unless they go at once they will be too late. Can you send them without delay?
After Harpers Ferry, Federal authorities grew worried. Gen. Winfield Scott sent Capt. Horatio Gouverneur Wright to Fort Monroe to organize a defense of the yard, but its commander could only spare 360 men. Dozens of desertions by Virginian officers and men made Commodore Charles Stewart McCauley’s position more untenable. On the evening of Saturday, April 20, McCauley, commander of the yard, ordered the ships in the harbor sunk to prevent their capture.
But the thousands of Confederate troops requested still hadn’t arrived. President of the Norfolk and Petersburg Railroad and future Confederate general William Mahone ran a single train in and out of Norfolk to deceive McCauley into thinking thousands of Southern troops were assembling. The noise and commotion worked.
After midnight on the 21st, believing Gosport Navy Yard to be all but lost, McCauley and Capt. Wright supervised its destruction. According to the New York Times, “the scene was indescribably magnificent, all the buildings being in a blaze, and explosions here and there scattering the cinders in all directions.”
Capt. Wright became separated from the boats and was captured making his escape. He was sent to Richmond where Governor Letcher treated him as a guest and personally escorted him to the train station for his return trip to Washington, DC.
Despite McCauley and Wright’s best efforts to destroy the navy yard, Virginia militia saved most of the arms and its large dry dock. They captured approximately 1,085 cannon of various sizes and 250,000 pounds of powder, which greatly aided in the Confederacy’s defense in the coming months.
Read primary sources from this dramatic event in American history:
- Apr. 17 Letter from J.M. Mason
- Apr. 18 Letter from Gov. John Letcher
- Apr. 19 Correspondence Between L.P. Walker and Gov. Joseph E. Brown
- April 19 Letter from Gen. Winfield Scott
- Apr. 22 Report of Captain Charles Wilkes, U.S. Navy
- Apr. 25 Report of C. S. McCauley
- Apr. 26 Report of Capt. H. G. Wright, U. S. Engineer Corps