The Monitor’s Mates

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Something about ships accentuates the human experience, most obviously because of the breadth of activity that has taken place within such small spaces. Crewmen, especially aboard warships, did not have an inch to waste, and the social microcosms of shipboard life come alive in each vessel featured here. You don’t have to be a sailor to appreciate their beauty and efficiency. Following are 10 destinations featuring historic warships that have helped guard us over the past two centuries, plus a few glimpses into the technology our enemies brought to bear against us. Those who have been anticipating the Mariners’ Museum’s dazzling new Monitor Center in Newport News, Virginia, will not want to miss these.

USS Constitution —The queen of all historic American naval ships is “Old Ironsides,” so called not because her hull is iron but because her sturdy wood construction consistently deflected enemy shot. Today, the oldest commissioned U.S. Navy ship afloat—she was launched in 1798—is open to visitors in Boston. Security is especially tight, so allow for it accordingly.

USS Constellation —The Constellation in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor continues to be at the center of a dispute: Is she one of the nation’s original frigates or merely the only surviving Civil War–era sloop of war? Because she was reconstructed as a smaller ship in 1854, current experts tend toward the latter. Whichever side you favor, the renovated sloop is still very much worth visiting. A short walk from the Constellation are the World War II submarine Torsk , the Coast Guard cutter Taney , and the lightship Chesapeake . There’s also the Liberty ship SS John W. Brown , which makes swing-music cruises in the summer on the Chesapeake Bay.

USS Cairo —This Union gunboat was the first ship sunk by an electrically detonated torpedo (mine). On December 12, 1862, she went down some seven miles north of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on the Yazoo River. The ironclad was raised in the 1960s, and today her remains and a museum housing artifacts from the vessel are part of the Vicksburg National Military Park.

Independence Seaport Museum —The centerpiece here is the cruiser USS Olympia , George Dewey’s flagship at the 1898 Battle of Manila Bay. The ship is on the Philadelphia waterfront beside the submarine USS Becuna , which completed five war patrols in the Pacific during World War II. Package plans that include a ferry trip to visit the battleship USS New Jersey , across the Delaware River in Camden, New Jersey, are also available.

Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum —For deep immersion in naval history, don’t miss this one. Included in the collection are the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (World War II’s “Fighting Lady”), the destroyer Laffey (known as “the Ship That Would Not Die”), the Cold War submarine Clamagore , and the Coast Guard cutter Ingham . Also on display are naval aircraft, including a flight simulator; a replicated naval support base from the Vietnam War; and a Medal of Honor Museum. The complex, across the harbor from Charleston, South Carolina, is open daily.

Battleship Cove —With a name like this, how could any naval enthusiast resist? In Fall River, Massachusetts, on Mount Hope Bay, are two World War II veterans—the battleship USS Massachusetts and the submarine Lionfish —the destroyer Joseph P. Kennedy (with the Admiral Arleigh Burke National Destroyermen’s Museum on board), and the Soviet-built missile corvette Hiddensee .

USS Arizona Memorial —Visitors cannot visit the actual ships that sank at Pearl Harbor, but the Arizona Memorial is a must to get a feel for the enormity of the event. In this vessel alone, 1,177 crew members lost their lives, and many remain entombed here. From the visitor center, the tour includes a short boat ride to the memorial. Also available are tours of the submarine Bowfin and the recently added battleship Missouri , site of the Japanese surrender in 1945.

U-505 —Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry opened a new exhibit in 2005 featuring the German submarine U-505 . Forced to the surface by American destroyer escorts in June 1944, the U-boat was captured (the only time that ever happened) and brought back to the United States.

USS Wisconsin and Nauticus —The battleship Wisconsin , a veteran of conflicts from World War II to Operation Desert Storm, is an exclamation point to the waterfront of downtown Norfolk, Virginia. She’s in mothballs now, but the battlewagon is one of the most popular attractions of Nauticus , a museum at One Waterside Drive.