Hampton Roads has changed almost beyond recognition over the past. 160 years. The only constant is the water itself, dark, deep, and cold. Once a sleepy Tidewater port, Norfolk is now a major American city, and home to what is probably the largest naval base in the world. Much of the shoreline around Sewell's Point and the eastern bank of the Elizabeth River where Confederate soldiers watched the drama unfold is now part of Norfolk Navy complex. In the waters off the point where the Virginia spent the night before her battle against the Monitor, lines of US Navy supercarriers and amphibious assault ships continue the naval legacy. Further down the river are the berths for smaller vessels: destroyers, frigates, and support vessels. The base is not entirely off limits to the public, although access is still restricted, particularly in the vicinity of Sewell's Point. The US Navy run tours for interested civilians, and the "Norfolk Navy Base Tour Office" is close to the site of the encampment of the Confederate garrison during the spring of 1862. The office can be reached by following Interstate 64 as far as Junction 276C, then following State Road 564 (Admiral Taussig Boulevard) past Base Gate 2. The office is on the right.
The shore of Newport News Point, looking toward Sewell's Point (now Norfolk Navy Base). The USS Cumberland foundered in the shallow waters in the foreground of the picture. (Author's Photograph)
The Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia, still exists as a naval establishment, and is located on the western bank of the Elizabeth River, immediately over the Jordan Bridge, off Route 337 (Elm Avenue). Parts of the shipyard are open to the public, and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum interprets the history of the base, and the story of the building of the Merrimac/ Virginia. Of particular interest is a model of the dry dock where the Merrimac was converted into the Virginia. A pedestrian ferry that runs seven days a week links the site with downtown Norfolk. Visitors to the area should also visit the nearby Lighthouse Museum, which provides a useful insight into maritime activity on the Elizabeth River. The Old Naval Hospital Building is located close to the riverfront at. the northern end of Portsmouth, and stands on the site where Flag Officer Buchanan and other Confederate and Union wounded were taken for treatment after the first day's battle. Across the river lies downtown Norfolk, which can be reached by three main Int.erst.at.es (164, 264, and 464). Interstate 64 serves as a bypass road, linking all three roads with the Hampton Bridge Road Tunnel, one of three major road crossings in the Hampton Roads and Chesapeake Bay area. The museum and maritime science exhibit Nauticus is located on the bank of the Elizabeth River in the southwest corner of downtown Norfolk. On its upper floor it contains a maritime museum dedicated to the naval history of Norfolk and Hampton Roads (The Hampton Roads Naval Museum). A major portion of the museum is devoted to the interpretation of the battle between the ironclads, and contains a full-sized reconstruction of the Monitors turret, and a cross-section of the Virginia's casemate. Interpretation is augmented by a fascinating collection of artifacts, and an extremely well-presented audio-visual display. While in the area, visitors might consider strolling clown through Town Point Park to the river itself, and imagine the scene on that Saturday morning, when thousands lined the shore and silently watched the Virginia on her way down the river.
While the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel links Norfolk with Delaware across the Bay, two other crossings connect Norfolk and Portsmouth with Newport News and Hampton. To the west Route 664 doglegs its way across Hampton Roads, from Pig Point to Newport News Point. To the east of its southern approach is Craney Island, where the Virginia was scuttled. The area is now a disposal area run by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The wreck site was located, and artifacts from the Virginia are now housed in several collections, including the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, probably one of the best Civil War museums in the country. The northern end of the crossing is the site where Union batteries fired on the Virginia while it attacked the two Union sailing frigates. Once again, the wrecks of both the Congress and the Cumberland have been located, and artifacts recovered from them are now housed in the Mariners Museum in Newport News, one of the premier maritime collections in the world. Further to the east, Route 64 links Willoughby Spit (now called Willoughby Beach) to Hampton via the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel. The bridge itself links the Rip Raps (the site of Fort Wool) with the southern shore, while at the northern end the tunnel emerges immediately to the west of Fort Monroe, located on Old Point Comfort. The fort is open to the public, and contains the Casemate Museum.
i FIRST 8ATTLE OF IRONCLADS
IN HAMPTON ROADS. SOUTHWARD AND A MILE OR TWO OFFSHORE iKI SfrS&'A. (MERRIMAC) ANO THE MONITOR FOUGHT THEIR ENGAGEMENT. MARCH 9. 862 I THE DAY BEFORE THE VIRGINIA DESTROYED THE CUMBERLAND AND CONGRESS. WOODEN SHIPS OF UNION NAVY.
One of a series of interpretative markers located on the shore of Newport News, explaining the events which took place beyond the shoreline to the left a century and a half ago. (Author's Photograph)
Visitors can reach it by turning east onto Mallory Street (named after the Confederate Secretary of the Navy), then following directions. The museum contains a Monitor-Merrimac display (which includes scale models), an interpretation of the history of the fort, and displays dealing with coastal fortifications and artillery. As its name suggests, the museum is located in the inner casemates of the Fort. By driving west from Hampton to Newport News along Chesapeake Avenue, travelers are presented with an excellent view over Hampton Roads, looking out over the piece of water where the two ironclads fought their duel. A series of interpretative signs provides a brief outline of the battle, and shows where certain events took place. Near the western end of the avenue is a small car park, and close by, several signs tell how the Virginia destroyed the Congress immediately in front of the car park. By standing on the shoreline, you can imagine the scene as the survivors swam ashore, or were rescued in the shallows by Union soldiers. The wreck lies in the mud some 80 yards from the shore. Unfortunately the waterfront in front of the area where the Cumberland went down is more commercial, and railroad tracks and the slip-roads onto the Route 664 tunnel and bridge make it difficult to imagine the shore as it looked in 1862. Two museums in the Newport News area are well worth visiting and contain information or artifacts that are relevant to the battle. The Virginia War Museum is situated close to the junction of Route 60 and Mercury Boulevard (leading to the James River Bridge). Incidentally, the bridge crosses the part of the river where the Virginia turned around before returning to finish off the Congress. The museum covers military activity in Virginia from 1775 to the present day, and provides a venue for the interpretation of the Union batteries and garrisons on the northern bank of Hampton Roads in 1862. Further up Route 60 is the Mariners Museum. Apart from the artifacts from various shipwrecks that have already been mentioned, the museum contains extensive displays of ship models, historical artifacts, and documents relating to the naval side of the American Civil War in general and the Battle of Hampton Roads in particular. It also boasts a world-class book store and gift shop. For researchers, it offers an excellent library and an extensive photo archive.
As for the two ships themselves, the Virginia has gone, destroyed by a mixture of treasure hunting, salvage, and dredging operations. Only a handful of artifacts remain in the care of museums in Richmond and Newport News. The Washington Navy Yard in Washington D.C. houses a collection of artillery, including all the guns carried by both of the ironclads during the battle, but the Virginia's original guns have been lost. The Monitor sank off Hatteras Inlet, North Carolina, in 220ft of water. The site now forms part of an underwater marine sanctuary administered by NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Several artifacts have been raised, and the wreck has been extensively surveyed and the results published. The vessel sank upside down, so the hull rests on her turret. Scientists have recently become concerned for the stability of the wreck, and are considering plans to ease the turret out from beneath the hull in order to preserve it. If the turret and any other part of the ship were raised and conserved, it would provide a direct link with the dramatic events that took place in the waters of Hampton Roads in 1862.
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