Apr. 22 Report of Captain Charles Wilkes, U.S. Navy

U.S.S. Pawnee, April 22,1861.

Sir: Agreeably to your orders, I submit the following report of the circumstances and events which have taken place under your orders of the 20th for the relief of the frigate Cumberland and the vessels of the Navy at the Gosport [Norfolk] navy yard. In the first place, I must state that the instructions given by you relative to the destruction of private property, or anything that in any way could be construed as an aggression on individuals or their property, was fully impressed on your whole command, and it affords me great pleasure to state that all acted up both to the spirit and literal construction of these orders; and it was expressly understood that in no event were hostile measures to be resorted to unless initiated by the authorities and people. On the information possessed of the actual situation of the vessels and force at the Gosport [Norfolk] navy yard, the following detail of officers for. the duties was made. The vessels known to be under repairs and serviceable were the following, with the officers who were to be attached to them, and whose duty it was to prepare them for immediate departure, viz:

Steam frigate Merrimack—Captain [Charles] Wilkes, Commander [B. F.] Bands, Lieutenants [H. A.] Wise and [A. W.] Johnson, Chief Engineer [J. W.] King.

Sloop of war Germantown—Commander [W. M.] Walker, Lieutenants [S. L.] Phelps and [G. U.] Morris.

Sloop of war Plymouth—Commander [John] Rodgers, Lieutenants [William] Gibson and [C. P.] McGary.

Brig Dolphin—Commander [James] Alden, Lieutenant J. H. Russell.

The men were apportioned to these vessels as follows, viz: Merrimack 50; Germantown, 40; Plymouth, 30; Dolphin, 20; besides the marines to be detailed.

At 6:45 p. m. we left Fortress Monroe, having taken on board the Massachusetts regiment, Colonel Wardrop, 360 strong, who had previously arrived, and stood up for Norfolk. Off Sewell’s Point we easily passed the obstruction which had been sunk to prevent the exit of our war vessels. If we had adopted the same means (which it was abundantly in our power to have done, by sinking in the channel the large vessels in ordinary) we could have annihilated the harbor of Norfolk for fifty years. The Pawnee reached the navy-yard wharf without any opposition or disturbance whatever. The crews of the Pennsylvania and Cumberland received us with many hearty cheers, which were patriotically returned from those on board the Pawnee.

In obedience to your order, I waited upon Commodore McCauley, with Captain Wright, of the Engineer Corps of the Army, reported your arrival with assistance, and introduced Captain Wright as the officer charged with the defense of the yard. Commodore McCauley informed me that he had been deserted by all his officers, including an officer of marines, and that the yard was without defense; that he had no one to rely upon, and desired me to report that he had scuttled all the ships about 4 o’clock p. m. and had destroyed a large amount of property to prevent them from falling into the hands of the disaffected, led on by the same officers who had left him. This caused an immediate change in your orders to me, and an endeavor to stop the sinking of the vessels and their further destruction. Commander Walker, with other officers, was directed to make the examination, with the aid of the carpenter of the Cumberland, report their condition, and if their sinking could be prevented; but in all except the Dolphin it was found to be impossible. The leak in the lat- ter was arrested, when your orders followed to prepare for the destruction of the property. Officers were detailed immediately to carry it into effect. One hundred men were sent by Commodore Pendergrast from the Cumberland to assist, divided into several gangs, to render the new guns unserviceable; but after some time spent therein it was found that the metal of the guns was so superior as to resist all and the most powerful efforts to break off the trunnions. They were spiked and rendered, as far as the time would permit, unserviceable.

Commander Rodgers and Captain Wright, of the Engineer Corps, volunteered for the destruction of the dry dock, and the powder and necessary tools were transported by a detachment of forty men- of the Massachusetts troops, detailed by Colonel Wardrop for this purpose. Lieutenant Russell was sent, under orders of Commander Rodgers, to act as his aid, by which communication could be kept open. Mr. King, engineer in chief, also volunteered for this service. Commander Alden was directed to prepare for the destruction of the storehouse, shops, buildings, etc., around the yard, including the barracks; Commander Sands, to prepare for the destruction of the ship houses and their contents, and, when ready, to report; Lieutenants Wise, Phelps, Gibson, McGary, and Morris, to prepare the several vessels of the Navy for destruction and to distribute the material provided for that purpose on board the several vessels designated by you; and trains were laid on the Plymouth, Merrimack, Germantown, Raritan, Columbia, brig Dolphin, and Pennsylvania, in the order in which they lay moored. The ship Delaware was left out in consequence of the distance she lay off, and the frigate United States was in so decayed a condition that it was deemed unnecessary to waste the material of turpentine upon her.

At 1:45 a. m. it was reported to me by Commanders Rodgers, Alden, and Sands that all was ready, and directions were given that all the men that could be spared should be sent on board immediately, retaining only those necessary to ignite the material, and that the signal would be a rocket from the Pawnee, to be ordered by yourself. The troops and marines were rapidly embarked, when it was reported to you by the youngest son of Commodore McCauley, tears streaming down his cheeks, that his father refused to vacate his post, and declined all inducement to do so. Commander Alden was selected by you to make the endeavor to induce him to yield, and to state that it was your intention speedily to fire the buildings and his life must be lost. This last effort succeeded, and he was induced, with great reluctance, to remove to the Cumberland. All the shore parties having been withdrawn, two boats belonging to the Cumberland were alongside. One was put under the direction of Lieutenant Wise, with Lieutenant Phelps, to fire the trains on the appointed signal being given. The other I embarked in with Lieutenant Russell to await the signal and bring off those who were left, viz, Commander Rodgers and Captain Wright, of the Engineer Corps, and John Reynolds, ordinary seaman; Commander Alden and Samuel Williams, Commander Sands, Samuel Watson, and John Noble; in all, eight persons. The rendezvous was carefully pointed out and made known to all of them.

The Pawnee left the wharf at 2:25 a. in., winded, and hawsers were passed from the Cumberland for the purpose of towing her out. At 4 o’clock, after a detention of nearly two hours, the Cumberland slipped her moorings, and both vessels stood out and down the harbor. At 4:20 the signal was made and the torch applied, and in a few minutes the whole area of the yard was one sheet of flame—the two ship houses and the whole line of stores, as well as the Merrimack. The marine barracks had by some accident caught fire at an early hour, but we purposely avoided any attempt to extinguish the flames, fearful lest the fire might communicate with the ship houses, and thus involve both the Cumberland and Pawnee in destruction. The station I had chosen for the boat was just ahead of the Germantown and at the end of the eastern ship house. The Merrimack lay close astern of the Germantown, and the fire soon reached her rigging and spars. In a few minutes Commander Alden and his man and Commander Sands and his two men joined me. The flames were making rapid progress, and all attention was turned toward the direction from whence Commander Rodgers and Captain Wright were to come. The conflagration was rapid, in vast sheets of flames, and dense smoke, which enveloped us from the Merrimack, soon made it evident that it would be impossible for anyone to pass through it; yet they might have made the attempt to reach us. It was a painful anxiety to see every moment the chances of their escape diminishing. Our own safety was not thought of until all hope or chance of their joining us was at an end. Then, and with great reluctance, I gave the order to shove off.

As we emerged from the smoke we caught sight of Lieutenant Wise’s boat, which appeared as if passing through the flames. At this time the mast and spars of the Germantown were on fire, and portions of her hull enveloped in the flames from the Merrimack. I directed the boats to pull out, and was followed by Lieutenant Wise, the large flakes of fire falling around us. We had scarcely got beyond the ship Pennsylvania, which was the lowest vessel, when the flames from the lower ship house, under which we had been lying, reached her sides, and shortly after she was enveloped in flames. The boats followed the vessels, and did not reach them until off Craney Island, when I reported to you the service performed, and the absence of Commander Rodgers and Captain Wright and the man Reynolds, and with this exception the return of the whole party without accident or injury. In the performance of this duty it affords me the highest gratification to bear witness to the zeal, coolness, and energy with which the officers placed under my orders have behaved, and the devotion exhibited to the country and Union. Much of the successful accomplishment of the duties are due to the assistance and arrangement of Commander Rowan and his officers, to whom I feel also personally greatly indebted for his hospitality and attentions. I must not omit to bring to your notice the alacrity with which the detachment from Colonel Wardrop’s regiment performed the duty for which they volunteered. I enclose you the names* of the three men whose conduct has been reported to me by their officers as deserving notice for their conduct under the exciting duty they had to perform.

Believing that I have given you a full detail of all the circumstances which passed under my notice, and the performance of the duties with which you intrusted me, I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

Charles Wilkes,
Captain, U.S. Navy.

Flag-Officer HIRAM PAULDING, U.S. Navy.


Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion. Series I, Vol. 4. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1896.