A Crisis of Loyalties: The Destruction and Abandonment of the Gosport Navy Yard

by Stephen Chapin Kinnaman

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Charles Stewart McCauley had the misfortune of being commandant of the Gosport Navy Yard in Virginia as America rushed headlong into its crippling Civil War. His deliberate scuttling of six of its warships on 20th April 1861, including the powerful steam frigate, U.S.S. Merrimack, deprived the secessionists of an easy prize. However, blame for the yard’s subsequent destruction by his erstwhile rescuer, Commodore Paulding, was placed squarely but unfairly on the shoulders of the hapless Charles Stewart McCauley.

In ‘A Crisis of Loyalties’, Stephen Kinnaman has put the record straight. He has rigorously employed primary sources to uncover evidence not previously made public. His erudite analysis of Commodore McCauley’s situation provides the reader with many new insights into the events leading up to the abandonment of Gosport and the consequences that followed. Most importantly, evidence is offered which clearly shifts some of the blame onto shoulders further up the naval hierarchy.

The book is superbly researched and is written in Stephen Chapin Kinnaman’s familiar engaging style. It is an easy read that should be enjoyed by professional historians and amateur Civil War enthusiasts alike. The main text covering 20 chapters is supplemented with six appendices, copious end-notes, an extensive bibliography, and includes numerous maps and illustrations. This is an important addition to the history of the Civil War that would grace any bookshelf. It sits well beside his two earlier works: ‘John Lenthall – The Life of a Naval Constructor’ and ‘Merrimack – The Biography of a Steam Frigate’, both published by Vernon Press in their Series In American History.

Robert Thorp
Author of ‘Mersey Built – The Role of Merseyside in the American Civil War’

Kinnaman’s “A Crisis of Loyalties” is the first complete treatment of a seminal event of the Civil War, the burning of the Gosport Navy Yard in April 1861. Kinnaman makes extensive use of contemporary deck logs, correspondence and reports to paint a compelling account of how events unfolded on an almost hour-by-hour basis. He has a clear eye for where individual leadership and responsibility lived up to its call, or fell short, all while the entire fabric of the United States and its military was collapsing in real time. This book will certainly become required reading for both academic and military curricula and professional reading programs about the Civil War.

Dr. Larrie D. Ferreiro
George Mason University, Fairfax, VA

This book is excellent. Stephen Chapin Kinnaman has an unparalleled understanding of the U.S. Navy before and during the Civil War, and it is on full display in this book. He expertly discusses all the various forces pressing in on Commodore McCauley, while correctly indicating that others shared some blame for the disaster. This book greatly increases our understanding of the human aspect of the secession crisis, and the impact of decisions made in haste or with imperfect information. It is a case study for today's naval leaders. Highly recommended.

Christopher L. Kolakowski
Director of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum
Naval historian and author of 'Last Stand on Bataan, The Defense of the Philippines' and other books

In the opening days of the American Civil War, the U.S. Navy suffered the catastrophic loss of its most valuable navy yard at Gosport, Virginia, commonly known as the Norfolk Navy Yard. Its fate was sealed by Virginia’s vote for secession and the subsequent resignation of most of the yard’s Southern officers, leaving its commandant, Charles Stewart McCauley, virtually defenseless. Early in the morning of Sunday, 21 April, fleeing federal forces set fire to and abandoned the Gosport Navy Yard, burning ten warships and surrendering 1,200 naval guns to Virginia’s militia. A year later, the Confederate ironclad "Virginia", built on the charred hulk of the steam frigate "Merrimack", chose the sloop "Cumberland"—the one ship to escape Gosport—as her first target during the Battle of Hampton Roads. "Virginia" then attacked the frigate "Congress", leaving in her wake nearly 280 dead or wounded Union sailors and two sunken ships. The birds from the disaster of Gosport had finally come home to roost.
In his quest to uncover the details behind Gosport’s destruction, the author methodically cross-tracked chronologies, carefully examined primary sources and dug deeper into the principal officers’ backgrounds to grasp just what was in their minds during the hours leading up to the navy yard’s burning. This fresh focus has yielded a more nuanced explanation of McCauley’s decision to hold back "Merrimack", of Paulding’s rush to burn the yard and run, and of opportunities for success missed by all three commodores present. "A Crisis of Loyalties" is the first full-length work of history to present the entire story of the destruction and abandonment of the Gosport Navy Yard.

Stephen Chapin Kinnaman grew up in upstate New York and northern New Jersey. He graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.Sc. in naval architecture and marine engineering and pursued post-graduate research at Cambridge University’s Department of Engineering. He is a professional naval architect and has used his understanding of technology to complement his historical treatment of the U.S. Navy’s loss of the Gosport Navy Yard. The author has recently published two works of naval history, as listed below.
- "John Lenthall, The Life of a Naval Constructor." Wilmington and Malaga: Vernon Press, 2022.
- "Merrimack, The Biography of a Steam Frigate." Wilmington and Malaga: Vernon Press, 2018.
The author and his wife live in Chappell Hill, Texas.

Norfolk Navy Yard (Gosport Navy Yard). United States Navy, history. United States Navy, officer biographies. United States, warships. U.S. navy yards, history. Civil War, naval history. Civil War, secession of Southern states. Virginia, Civil War history. Virginia, secession. American maritime history, 19th century

Series in American History
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Bibliographic Information

Book Title
A Crisis of Loyalties: The Destruction and Abandonment of the Gosport Navy Yard
Physical size
236mm x 160mm
Publication date
January 2024