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 rating: 5 of 5 stars
Mason has done a fantastic job of describing the life of an enlisted man on a battleship on the eve of WWII. His description of arriving at the training command in San Diego in 1940 was almost exactly the same as mine in 1988: the same late night arrival, not knowing what’s going on, finding an open bunk in a strange barracks in the dark, and the following days of figuring out where one belongs in a totally foreign new world.
His descriptions of time in the fleet also show how little the Navy changed in a half-century, with the Continue Reading »
I’ve posted a review of “Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway” over on the USS Yorktown website. This is a book I’ve had on my shelf for years, but my detour into all things Civil War pulled me away from my studies of the Pacific war. Really glad I got around to this, as it’s a truly ground-breaking treatment on the battle from the Japanese point of view.
Here’s a fascinating article about one of my favorite things in life: abandoned and rusting ships. Known as the USS Sachem during WWI and Circle Line V in New York City during the 1980’s, the boat has had a long and varied life, but now sits on the banks of the Ohio River in Kentucky, rusting away. While I hope someone comes to the boat’s rescue, for now I really love the photos of this rusty old hulk.
Full article on the Queen City Discovery website HERE.
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 »
Among the first units of the Army of the Potomac to pass into Pennsylvania on June 30th, 1863, the Iron Brigade enjoyed the cheering crowds and free food from grateful civilians that Robert E. Lee’s “Army of Liberation” had been expecting but never saw. The men that made up the Brigade — of the 2nd, 6th and 7th Wisconsin, the 19th Indiana, and the 24th Michigan — spent the night camped where Marsh Creek crosses the Emmitsburg Road (this area today is a non-descript dip in Highway 15, but if you know what to look for, you can find it). Members of the 19th Indiana pulled picket duty on the northern border of the camp, and found themselves the very tip of the spear of the Union Army, the furthest north and closest to the enemy. A few of the men on picket duty noticed a prominent hill in the distance that passing locals identified as Big Round Top, just outside of the town of Gettysburg.
The men had been told by those in charge that there were no Confederates about, and not to expect action on July 1st, but a detachment of John Buford’s cavalry passed through the camp late on the 30th and the horsemen spoke of going to greet some enemy infantry just down the road. Elements of Buford’s cavalry had fought with the brigade throughout the past year, and the Iron Brigade soldiers trusted their take on events more than any general’s. The troopers rode Continue Reading »
June 1863 saw messages and telegraph traffic explode to new levels as the North and the Army of the Potomac anticipated General Lee’s next move. Many expected Lee, fresh from victory at Chancellorsville, to go on the offensive. The North, wounds still knitting from that battle, reorganized and prepared to match Lee’s movements. Many enlistments in the Army of the Potomac had expired on June 1st, and many one year and ninety-day men went home. The draw down in man power and influx of new units saw the Iron Brigade re-designated as the First Brigade of the First Division of the First Corps of the Army of the Potomac. They would now be first on paper, as well as first on the field, in the coming campaign.
The men of the Iron Brigade knew nothing of General Lee’s plans, and continued to rotate on and off of picket duty. 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.