Driving through History: Visits to the USS Monitor, Smithsonian Air, Richmond, Gettysburg and Brawner’s Farm
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ― William Faulkner,
William Faulkner famously struggled with the history of the South. Born and raised at a time when Civil War veterans still lived, he didn’t have to walk the battlefields at Gettysburg in order to be able to write his stirring piece on how those days in 1863 have never left us. But once the people of significant events have passed into that same history, no longer to tell their stories, we have to find other ways to touch the past.
Recently, I was made aware that the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia, the home of the restoration of the USS Monitor turret and other recovered artifacts, was giving tours of the facilities and the turret itself. See, the turret is kept in a tank filled with water the majority of the time, fresh water and a slight electrical current leech the accumulated salt from metal that spent 140 years on the bottom of the Atlantic. Of course, once I heard of the tours, I made plans, borrowed a car, and drove south on a Thursday afternoon.
The USS Monitor had a short lifespan, yet was a truly revolutionary ship. After careful perusal, I can actually recommend the Wikipedia article on her as a good source for her history during the Civil War and post recovery in 2002. I’ve read a lot about the Monitor during years of model building, general historical curiosity, and research for my New York Times pieces, so I was well versed in her past when I arrived at the museum on Friday morning. I was greeted by Hannah, who took me through the initial parts of the Monitor related exhibits, including a busted Dahlgren cannon fired from the CSS Virginia during the battle the day before her fight with the Monitor, and a full-sized partial depiction of the Virginia herself. Several preserved artifacts recovered from the Monitor’s wreck are displayed, the most impressive of which is the red signal lantern at the top of this entry. The red lantern, the distress signal the Monitor raised on New Years Eve in 1862, was the last thing anyone ever saw of her as she sank. 140 year later, it was also the first thing found of her wreck, spotted laying on the ocean floor, literally rolling in the sand, several hundred yards from Monitor herself. Continue Reading »
My latest piece has been published by the New York Times. “Civil War Submarines” delves into the history of the submarines other than the famous CSS Hunley. As it turns out, the Union Navy was the first to field submersibles during the war, and several at that. In the South, dozens of other submersible craft were planned, started, and tested, with several entering combat.
You can read the article HERE on the New York Times’ website.
150 years ago tonight the Union 205 foot long sloop of war USS Housatonic reeled from an explosion and sank off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. The shallowness of the water, only about 25 feet deep, would save most of Housatonic’s crew. They climbed the masts and into the rigging to await rescue, only 5 out of a crew of 155 lost their lives. As one of the survivors, Robert Flemming, clung to the rigging waiting for rescue, he saw something low on the water: a blue light. He didn’t know it then, Continue Reading »
NOAA doesn’t have the funding to support operations of the USS Monitor wet lab at the Mariner’s Museum. While the regular museum, and I assume the research library, is still open, the lab with the tanks that house the turret, guns, engine, and other artifacts, have had the lights turned off and the tanks covered with tarps.
You can read the full story in the Virginia Pilot’s Online Edition.
The Mariner’s Museum web page has the full press release and various links of use.
There’s also a Change.org petition on the matter.
One of my big areas of interest that I’ve yet to really delve into in Civil War history is that of the ferry gunboats. When President Lincoln immediately implemented a blockade in 1861, there simply weren’t enough ships in the Union Navy to seal off the Confederate ports. The government set to buying anything that would float, including New York City ferries. The idea of a Staten Island ferry, loaded with guns, sent south and made a Continue Reading »
“Pook Turtles, Armorclads and the Civil War on the Rivers”, my fourth piece for the New York Times “Disunion” feature, deals with the ironclads on the western rivers. Little know, these warships truly helped shorten the war Continue Reading »
My third piece for the New York Times “Disunion” series is now online. “Raiding the Keokuk” is about a daring salvage operation of an enemy warship in contested waters. The warship, USS Keokuk, is one of those oddities of technology that really should never have been built. As necessity during wartime can result in brilliant success — i.e. USS Monitor — it can also generate spectacular failures.
I’m really happy with this piece as I was able to get much closer to individuals and a single ship. USS Keokuk, while not a successful design, was a unique looking vessel, and I have a model of her in-progress that I look forward to completing.
Direct link to article HERE.
I’d planned on the joining of the upper and lower hulls on Chickasaw to be an ordeal, but it wasn’t as bad in some respects as I’d expected, but was worse in other respects. While Chickasaw doesn’t have the full “raft over a lower hull” arrangement of the original Monitor or her follow-on Passaic class ironclads, it does exist. While building the lower hull, I exerted too Continue Reading »
My second piece for the Times’ “Disunion” web series has been published. “Rise of the Infernal Machines” gives an overview of the torpedoes of the day, what we now mostly know as mines. Crude, unstable, and mostly non-functional, they provided the Confederacy with a new weapon with which to strike back at the superior Union navy. Despite their endless problems, they succeeded in sinking more Union warships than all other means combined (probably speaking more to the ineffectiveness of Confederate warships and fortifications than to effectiveness of the torpedoes). The article can be access HERE.