Category Archives: History

USS Monitor Lab Dark and Shuttered

Photo taken during September 2011 visit to Mariner's Museum.

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 petition on the matter.

Wreck of Gunboat USS Westfield Recovery

USS Westfield image from gulfwrecks.netOne 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

July 1st, 1863: Pawns

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

“I was always willing to try to fight for my country, but I never could.”

firing-squad-executionJune 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

New York Times “Disunion”: Raiding the Keokuk

keokukMy 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.

Chancellorsville: In Reserve… again.

0704000245-lThe spring of 1863 came to an Army of the Potomac in the midst of change.  After taking command from General Burnside in late January, “Fighting Joe” Hooker spent the early days of the year rebuilding the army, both physically and mentally.  Meals were improved, with more fresh food brought in daily.  The paymasters got everyone up to date on their pay, removing the burden of worrying about providing financially for those back home.

A new furlough system lessened desertions.  Soldiers were granted extended leave to visit home, some for the first time since they’d enlisted more than two years prior.  And as the furlough system lessened the number of men deserting, those that had already run were welcomed back.  The last three weeks of March 1863 Continue reading

New York Times “Disunion”: Rise of the Infernal Machines


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.

Playing Cards and Running

Belle Plaine camp in background, Confederate prisoners in foreground.

January 1863 saw the 19th Indiana and the Iron Brigade in winter quarters, camped at Bella Plain, VA, on Potomac Creek.  Still smarting from the defeat at Fredericksburg, many referred to the winter of 1862-1863 as “the Valley Forge of the Army of the Potomac”.  The soldiers built wooden cabins that they fitted with fireplaces and covered with their field tents, then settled in for several months of inaction.

With little to do, talk among the soldiers turned to the recent Emancipation Proclamation.  Most were against it, in the respect that they thought it changed the course of the fight.  A Captain of the 19th wrote “I dont want to fight to free the Darkeys.  If any body else wants to do so, they are welcome to come and do so.”(sic)  The near-general consensus throughout the unit and most of the army was that they had signed up to restore and preserve the Union, not free slaves.  Obviously little thought was given to the main reason that had caused the war and brought them to that place.  Still, others welcomed the proclamation and couldn’t wait to get freedmen Continue reading

New York Times “Disunion” Piece Published

city buildingVery happy to announce that the New York Times has published my first piece for their website.  Ironclad Fever is about the armored warship building frenzy in both North and South after the Monitor and Virginia (Merrimack) battle in 1862.

I’m extremely pleased to be able to put all of the historical research I’ve done while building models and writing stories into this format.

150 Years Ago Today: USS Cairo, Preserved by Gunpowder

“…I heard an explosion from the Cairo, and on looking up (from a small boat on the river) I saw her anchor thrown up several feet in the air.” – Ensign Walter E.H. Fentress

“…just as we were training on the battery (gun emplacement or torpedo), we were struck by a torpedo, which exploded under our starboard bow, a few feet from the center and some 35 or 40 feet from the bow proper just under our provision store room, which crushed in the bottom of the boat so that the water rushed in like the roar of Niagara.  In five minutes the Hold was full of water and the forward part of the gunboat was flooded… One of our heaviest bow guns had been dismounted by the force of the explosion, injuring three men. ” -George Yost.

On December 12th, 1862, the  American Civil War saw yet another military first: USS Cairo became the first warship sunk by an underwater mine, or torpedo as they were known at the time.  The Union Navy had known of Continue reading