135th Anniversary of the Battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia

Reenactment scene

March 7-9, 1997
Portsmouth, Virginia

I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the 135th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Hampton Roads in Portsmouth, where the burnt hull of the USS Merrimack was transformed into the ironclad CSS Virginia.

BG(Ret) M. H. "Hank" Morris, chairman of the committee that organized this event, put on a fine show. The Governor of Virginia, George Allen, proclaimed March 9, 1997 as "The Battle of Hampton Roads Day". The mayor of Portsmouth, Dr. James W. Holley III, attended several of the functions and welcomed everyone at the reception.

Douglass disembarking from the VirginiaThere were a number of other honored guests. Assistant Secretary of the Navy (November 1995 - August 1998), John W. Douglass, attended as a reenactor. Virginia landsman, William W. Douglass, was apparently a relative. (His wife indicated that he would spend all his time at reenactments if he could.) Captain William R. Klemm, commanding officer of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (which, despite its name, is in Portsmouth and was known as the Gosport Navy Yard in 1862) gave an excellent talk on the history of the Navy Yard.

The events began on Friday night with a reception at Trinity Church with the introduction of the special guests by Hank Morris and the welcome by Mayor Holley.

On Saturday, the anniversary of the first day's battle of Saturday 135 years earlier, the symposium featured five speakers. Captain Klemm spoke on Gosport Navy Yard at the time of the battle. Alan Flanders, Director of Public Affairs, US Atlantic Fleet Training Command (author of a book on the construction of the Virginia and frequent contributor of articles on the ironclads to the Virginian-Pilot), spoke about the Virginia and her crew. John V. Quarstein, administrator of Museums and Historical Services, Newport News, spoke about the USS Monitor and her crew. Joseph M. Judge, Curator of Hampton Roads Naval Museum, spoke about the USS Cumberland and the USS Congress. Albert F. Harris, Coordinator of Museums in Portsmouth, spoke about the first day's battle..

Flag of the VirginiaAt the commemorative banquet on Saturday night, Hank Morris called the meeting to order. Mayor Holley again welcomed the gathering and introduced various members of the audience, particularly members of the city council. Captain Klemm then introduced Dr. John M. Coski, historian and librarian at the Museum of the Confederacy. Dr. Coski, the author of several books, most recently Capital Navy: The Men, Ships, and Operations of the James River Squadron, spoke on the duel of the Ironclads.

On Sunday morning, the reenactors marched from the encampment area to Trinity Episcopal Church. The service this morning was taken from the same 1789 Book of Common Prayer that was used for the Holy Communion taken by the men of the Virginia just before going off to battle. Reverend Dr. Geoffrey M. Hahneman presided over the service. During his sermon, he called the children to the front and sat down with them to talk about remembrance of past times and of the history of that church during the Civil War.

After the service, for four hours, crowds gathered at the First Street waterfront to watch living history presentations. Cannons were fired and reenactors showed the daily routines of both sides during the Civil War.

Virginia crewThe highlight of the reenactment was the mock battle of the ironclads by one-fifth-sized replicas of the Virginia and the Monitor. The day was bright and sunny while a stiff breeze made it somewhat cool for the more than 1000 people who viewed the spectacle. The site of the reenactment was in a protected area, close to the shore so spectators could get a good view of the action. Apparently earlier reenactments were out further from shore and were more difficult to view. The ships circled each other, firing their cannon often. From the shore, you could see the gunners retract the cannon, clear it, and ram new charges down the muzzle. The Virginia attempted to ram the Monitor. As was the case 135 years ago, no significant damage was done to either vessel.

Reenactment sceneI asked about why the two vessels rode higher in the water than the originals. The answer was that at one-fifth scale, a real three-foot wave is like a fifteen-foot wave. Earlier models had been lower and shipped water through their portholes. (The original CSS Virginia was deemed too unseaworthy to venture out of Hampton Roads. The original USS Monitor almost sunk before getting to Hampton Roads and did sink off Cape Hatteras when it left Hampton Roads.)

There is some interest in building full scale replicas of the Monitor or Virginia. One person indicated that the Monitor would be the more likely first candidate as it would be smaller and cheaper.

Reenactment scene

Credits

Committee Members

BG (Ret) Hank Morris

Chairman and
Commander of Stonewall Camp #380, SCV.

RADM(Ret) Jamie Adair

Vice Chairman

Charles Whitehurst

Treasurer

Venus Parker

Recorder

Ship Builders & Reenactors

CSS Virginia Ship's Company

Sponsors

Firing of a cannon

Stonewall Camp #380, SCV; Portsmouth Area Civil War Round Table; 1st Battalion Virginia Regulars; 3rd Virginia Infantry; 9th Virginia Infantry; CSS Virginia Ship's Company (Lt. Bill Wharton, commander); Confederate States Marines Co's B&C; Norfolk Light Artillery Blues; 79th New York Highlanders; Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Foundation; Temple of Music; Beazley Foundation; Cox Cable Communications; City of Portsmouth; Navy Medical Center, Portsmouth; Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

Proceeds

Hank Morris indicated about $250,000 had been donated in time and services to put the event together. Proceeds of the events (the reenactment was free to the public) are being used to continue restoration of the Cedar Grove Cemetery in Portsmouth. The Stonewall Camp #380 group is further funding the restoration by selling reprints of the 1892 book of John W. H. Porter (son of the constructor of the CSS Virginia), History of Norfolk County, 1861-1865.

Reenactment scene w/gunflash

Media Coverage

There was extensive media coverage of this festival. Two separate half-hour TV shows aired four times daily each for two weeks publicizing the event and news broadcasts covered the events. There were numerous newspaper articles in the Virginian-Pilot, Portsmouth Times and Ports Cities Concerns. Some of the Virginian-Pilot articles are available online. The February 15, 1997, issue described the upcoming event. The February 27th issue gave more information about the event. The March 10th issue contained an article about the event, including a color picture.

Crew of the Virginia

Videos

MPEG segments of the videos I took during the re-enactment:

More Pictures

Click on these to see the larger images. (Provided by Hank Morris.)

CSS Virginia

Battle scene

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CSS Virginia
Copyright 1997 by Mabry Tyson