Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May 2, 1862 (Wednesday): Preparing to Abandon Norfolk

CSS Virginia (www.history.navy.mil)

HEADQUARTERS, Richmond, Va., May 2, 1862.
Commanding Army of Northern Virginia:
    GENERAL: Your letter of the 1st instant* has been received, and your directions to General Huger, Captain Lee, and Flag-Officer Tatnall forwarded to Norfolk. The Secretary of War went to Norfolk this morning to make arrangements preparatory to the evacuation of that department and for securing the public property at the forts and navy-yard, and to endeavor to send the unfinished gunboats to this city. All the time that can be gained will facilitate these operations. It is not known under what necessity you are acting or how far you can delay the movements of the enemy, who it is presumed will move up York River as soon as opened to him to annoy your flank. His advance on land can be retarded, and he might be delayed in effecting a landing on York River until your stores are withdrawn. The safety of all your ammunition is of the highest importance, and I feel every assurance that everything that can be accomplished by forethought, energy, and skill on your part will be done. If it is possible for the Virginia, which upon the fall of Norfolk must be destroyed, to run into Yorktown at the last movement and destroy the enemy's gunboats and transports, it would greatly cripple his present and future movements, relieve your army from pursuit, and prevent its meeting the same army in Northern Virginia.
    I have the honor to be, your obedient servant,

    R. E. LEE,

*not found

Official Records, Series I, Vol. 11, Part 3, Page 488.

The decision to abandon the Warwick River line was inevitable due to the sheer weight of ordinance McClellan was assembling.  Soon Johnston would begin sending men and material back towards Richmond.  The position of the Virginia was untenable.  It was not seaworthy and, in any event, could not run the blockade and enter the Atlantic.  With the weight of its iron it drew 22 feet of water, too much to ascend the river to Richmond.  Plans for its end had to be made.  Lee's plan of trying to take the Virginia to attack Yorktown seems odd, assuming as the Virginia would have to pass down from Hampton Roads to pass the guns at Fort Monroe, hug the coastline to the York River, and ascend the York River, a trip of at least 40 miles.  It is hard to imagine Lee, whose brother was in the Confederate Navy, would not have been aware of the Virginia's lack of sea keeping qualities.

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