Report of Capt. H. G. Wright, U.S. Engineer Corps.
APRIL 20, 1861. Expedition to the Norfolk navy-yard, Va., and attempt to blow up the dry-dock.
April 26, 1861
Lieut. Col. E. D. TOWNSEND,
Asst. Adjt. Gen., Hdqrs. of the Army, Washington, D.C.
COLONEL: I have the honor to report that, in obedience to the instructions [following] received from the headquarters of the Army on the 19th instant, I proceeded on the evening of the same day, on the United States steamer Pawnee, to Fort Monroe, where we arrived the next day at about 2 o'clock p.m., and communicated with commanding officer, Colonel Dimick. The object of the expedition was to secure to the United States, if possible, the navy-yard and property at Norfolk, with the ships of war then in that harbor; and, in furtherance of that object, my instructions authorized me to call upon the commanding officer at Fort Monroe for such force, to the extent of one regiment, as he could spare from the garrison without jeopardizing the safety of the fort. He accordingly assigned to the expedition one of the two regiments which had that morning arrived. This regiment, about 370 strong, under Colonel Wardrop, was promptly marched on board, and late in the afternoon the steamer proceeded to Norfolk, where she arrived some time after dark the same evening, the 20th instant.
On reaching the yard it was found that all the ships afloat except the Cumberland had been scuttled, by order of Commodore McCauley, the commandant of the yard, to prevent their seizure by the Virginia forces, and that they were fast sinking. One of the objects of the expedition--that of removing those vessels and taking them to sea--was therefore frustrated.
On reporting to the commodore of the yard, I found him disposed to defend the yard and property to the last, and the troops were accordingly landed and some dispositions for defense taken. It was soon determined, however, by Commodore Paulding, who had come on the Pawnee from Washington, to finish the destruction of the scuttled ships, to burn and otherwise destroy, as far as practicable, the property in the yard, and withdraw with the frigate Cumberland, in tow of the Pawnee and a steam-tug which was lying at the yard.
To Commander John Rodgers, of the Navy, and myself was assigned the duty of blowing up the dry-dock, assisted by forty men of the volunteers and a few men from the crew of the Pawnee. The dock, which is a massive structure of granite masonry, has a pumping gallery running along the back of one of the side walls, entering from the level of the bottom near the entrance gate, and terminating, as is understood, in the pumping-house, near the further end of the dock. Under the circumstances of want of time for preparation and the darkness of night this gallery offered the only means for the establishment of a mine. Had the dock been full of water this advantage could not have been availed of, but we found in it a depth of only about two feet. We accordingly proceeded to construct in this gallery a platform of such materials as could be collected to a height above the surface of the water, and on this we placed the powder (2,000 pounds) which we had brought from the ship, established a train from the gallery to the outside, and connected with it four separate slow matches.
Everything being arranged, all the men were sent to the ship, except one of the crew of the Pawnee, who was retained to watch for the signal from the commodore for lighting the matches and returning to the ship. On the signal, the matches were lighted by Captain Rodgers and myself, and we made the best of our way towards the landing, but before we could reach it the flames of the burning buildings had become so intense, that the boats had undoubtedly been driven off, and, indeed, we could not approach it. After some delay we succeeded in getting out of the yard through the burning gateway, and seized a boat, in the hope of making our escape by the river. We had proceeded but a short distance, however, when several shots were fired at us from the Portsmouth side, and as the armed force was rapidly accumulating against us at a point below, where the river was narrow, and where we should have had to pass within effective musket range, we concluded to land on the Norfolk side and deliver ourselves up to the commanding general of the Virginia forces. He received us very kindly and courteously, and on giving him our parole he provided us with comfortable quarters at the Atlantic Hotel. This was on Sunday morning, about 6 o'clock. On Monday, at noon, he sent us with an officer to Richmond, where we were most kindly treated by the governor and his family, and by the gentlemen there present from the various parts of Virginia, We remained as guests of the governor, on parole, till Wednesday, the 24th, when we were released, and on Thursday morning we left for Washington.
To Governor Letcher our especial thanks are due for the uniform kindness and consideration with which he treated us. Probably to protect us from any annoyance from the populace of Richmond he accompanied us to the cars at 6 o'clock in the morning, and to further shield us from possible annoyance along the road he detailed two officers of the Virginia forces to conduct us safe to Washington, where we arrived yesterday, between 4 and 5 o'clock p.m.
From what we could learn in Norfolk, I am of opinion that the attempt to destroy the dock did not succeed. We were told that the mine did explode and that it did not. Three separate explosions took place after we got clear of the yard, one of which I presumed at the time to have been the dock mine, yet after considering all the contradictory rumors it seems probable that the structure is uninjured.
In addition to this report, I desire to submit a rather more extended narrative, which may possess some interest hereafter.
I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
H. G. WRIGHT,
Captain of Engineers.
HEADQUARTERS OF THE ARMY,
Washington, April 19, 1861.
Capt. H. G. WRIGHT,
Corps of Engineers, Washington:
SIR: You are selected as an engineer officer of high science and judgment, to repair promptly to the United States navy-yard at Gosport, Va., and to tender your professional services to the commodore there in command in designing and executing a plan of defense for the same.
You will find the commodore instructed by his Department to expect you in your professional capacity.
I think it best that you should first call at Fort Monroe and consult Colonel Dimick on sending a portion of its garrison to assist in the defense of the navy-yard.
If two volunteer regiments shall have joined him, he may spare one of them for that purpose perhaps, but this must depend on the threatening circumstances about him; and if but one volunteer regiment has joined, the colonel may, after consulting you, deem it safe to detach two or three companies of regulars for duty at the navy-yard. Show him this letter and give him a copy of it for his warrant.
Both of you will bear in mind that, although the navy-yard and its contents are deemed to be of very great importance, Fort Monroe is still more so to the Union.
You will lose no opportunity of reporting to the Adjutant-General your progress in carrying out these instructions.
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