- Historic Sites
It is a place of noble harbors, a convergence of strong rivers and a promontory commanding a wind-raked bay; a shoreline enfolding towns older than the Republic and the most modern and formidable naval base on earth; a spot where a four-hour standoff between two very peculiar ships changed the course of warfare forever—and the breeding ground of crabs that people travel across the country to eat. Fred Schultz explains why the fifth annual American Heritage Great American Place Award goes to
October 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 7
Of particular interest to the Civil War enthusiast are the accommodations of two Confederate leaders who lived here under very different circumstances. Robert E. Lee was stationed in Fort Monroe as a U.S. Army engineer during the latter part of its construction. He oversaw the completion of the outer works and found it a place “by no means to be despised.” Nor did his later Confederate colleagues. Although surrounded by Rebel forces, the fort remained in Union hands throughout the war. In contrast to the young Lee’s rooms is the cell where Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held as a conspiracy suspect after the assassination of President Lincoln (though, in truth, both quarters seem equally Spartan).
The metal tank at the museum didn’t look like much, but when I learned what was inside, it sent chills down my spine.
The trouble with battlefields on water is that virtually nothing remains to be seen. But even at such historic pieces of terrain as Little Round Top at Gettysburg, much is still left to the imagination, and this is the case with the site of the first operations of ironclad warships. On each side of Interstate 664, another passageway beneath the shipping lanes of the James River, are overlooks that commemorate the two sea battles that really made this area famous.
In Christopher Newport Park, the Congress and Cumberland Overlook presents a vista of the brown-water James. We wondered whether the noisy motorboaters and Jet Skiers whisking by had any idea that this was the spot where on March 8,1862., the CSS Virginia —initially thought by her crew to be on a trial run—made relatively quick work of two big wooden Union warships. From this vantage point, Union lookouts spotted the former Merrimack at about one-thirty in the afternoon, coming out of the Elizabeth River, headed for the USS Cumberland . She rammed and sank the Cumberland , while the Union vessel’s shot bounced off her metal flanks. Then she bombarded the USS Congress , which had run aground after seeing the Cumberland sink, and set her afire. Only the coming of darkness saved the rest of the Union blockading squadron from this alarming new creature. And when the sun rose the next morning, it showed that an even stranger vessel had arrived during the night.
To the east of the appropriately named 1–664 Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel (the k in Merrimack was dropped after the Confederates had converted her) is the Monitor-Merrimack Overlook, which commands the wind-combed, watery acreage where the first ironclads fought it out the morning after the loss of the Congress and the Cumberland . The battle is usually called a draw, but the Monitor with only 2 guns to the Rebel ship’s 10, but a revolutionary revolving turret to bring them to bear—kept the Confederate from harming any more Union warships, and after the Merrimack withdrew, she never again came out to give battle. So it’s appropriate that this side of the waterway is the chosen repository for relics currently being raised from the sunken Monitor , where she went down later in the war off North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
That repository is at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News. Situated in a secluded wooded complex that could just as easily be in the mountains two hours to the west, the museum is a place visitors must really want to find. Those looking for a sensory arcade like the one at Nauticus might be disappointed, because nothing here is “virtual.” But this museum is, in its way, every bit as engaging.
“We picked a place out of a hat,” said Jeanine Posey, who had come with her family from Hendersonville, North Carolina. “We didn’t really know how much was here. But now we’re gaining a greater knowledge of maritime and naval history, which you rarely hear about until you’re around the water.”
The scope of the Mariners’ Museum is what makes it especially interesting. The first thing the museum spokesperson Justin Lyons wanted to show off was a nondescript metal tank outside, behind the main building. It didn’t look like much, but when I learned what was inside, chills went down my spine. Submerged in that tank is the Monitor ’s propeller. The whole arrangement looks like some sort of science fiction B-movie set, with electrical wires running into the water that surrounds the ship’s rusty screw. This supreme Civil War naval relic is undergoing electrolytic reduction, a process designed to restore sunken artifacts as much as possible to their original state. In mid-July the U.S. Navy-National Oceanic and Atmospheric team in partnership with the Mariners’ Museum, raised the Monitor ’s engine, which is to undergo preservation alongside the ship’s propeller. All the Monitor artifacts will eventually be displayed in a new wing of the museum called the USS Monitor Center.