Your imagination soars when you stand on the shore near where the Civil War ironclads waged their mighty battle or when you view earthworks that witnessed the greatest concentration of artillery in the history of the world. Visiting some amazing sites in Newport News, Va., you are transported to the spring of 1862 and the beginning of the Peninsula Campaign, the Union’s attempt to capture Richmond, the Confederate capital. This is also where the USS Monitor and the Merrimack (CSS Virginia) fought the March 7, 1862, battle that forecasted an epic change in naval warfare.
We began our tour at The Mariners’ Museum, a delightful attraction full of artifacts that tell the story of navigation and our maritime heritage. It also houses the turret from the Union ironclad Monitor. The turret was recovered from the location where the ship sunk in a storm off of Cape Hatteras, N.C. You can walk through a reproduction of the turret and ship’s living quarters and even walk inside a mock version of the Monitor as she was being built. Step outside and walk the deck of a full-scale reproduction of the ship. The actual turret and its Dahlgren Guns are being conserved in a liquid tank that you can view as well.
But The Monitor Center is only part of the museum.
“People don’t realize how big the museum is,” said the attraction’s Crystal Breede, who advised that the Small Craft Center is another big draw.
We found that the ship model gallery, with its exhibits on navigation and exploration, and the extensive gallery on Lord Horatio Nelson brought old history lessons to life. There are 14 galleries in all, including a special exhibit about the role of Newport News in World War I and II.
Insider tip: The Mariners’ Museum lowered its admission price to $1 late in 2018 and plans to keep it at that level, making the museum a great bargain.
Civil War earthworks
Earthworks (fortifications usually made with earth and felled trees) laced Virginia throughout the Civil War, but most were destroyed by development or leveled as farmers reclaimed their land. The various lines of defense around Newport News and Yorktown, created to prevent the Union Army from reaching the Confederate capital of Richmond during the April-June,1862 Peninsula Campaign, are among the best preserved and accessible. They serve as silent reminders of a Union force of more than 100,000 commanded by Gen. George McClellan besieging about half that number of Confederates.
Stop by the Newport News visitor center for friendly suggestions and a helpful Civil War sites brochure (or download one at newport-news.org).
In Newport News Park (among the largest city parks in America) check out the site of the Battle of Dam Number 1, McClellan’s major attempt to break through the first line of defenses. Five miles of earthworks remain. A 1.2-mile Two Forts Trail is a good way to explore the area.
The site of the earlier battle of Lee’s Mill is a bit more accessible, according to Michael Moore of Lee Hall and Endview Plantations. When McClellan saw the earthen fortifications at Lee’s Mill, he elected to besiege the Confederates and brought in the largest concentration of artillery in history to do it, while constructing his own earthworks fortifications.
Lee Hall Mansion served as headquarters for the Confederate commanders during the Peninsula Campaign, Gen. John Magruder and Gen. Joseph Johnston, and is worth a visit. Endview Plantation dates to 1769 and was briefly used as a Confederate hospital before the Southern forces retreated to Williamsburg and the Union Army confiscated the property. You can interact with Civil War troops at both Lee Hall and Endview during a living history weekend April 13-14. (leehall.org)
You can see other earthworks adjacent to the 1820 Young’s Mill and at the Skiffes Creek Redoubt. The 1810 Warwick Courthouse Complex is also worth a visit. It served as a Union headquarters and was also the launching site for the Union hot air balloon Constitution, an early attempt at aerial reconnaissance.
As the Union siege works and artillery slowly advanced, the Confederate forces retreated closer to nearby Yorktown, in part making use of fortifications from the Revolutionary War. The Southern troops abandoned their positions in early May before a planned massive Union bombardment took place. The various lines of earthworks defenses and water obstacles effectively delayed the Union advance, allowing the Confederates to consolidate enough forces to deny McClellan access to Richmond during the Seven Days Battles.
Exploring these sites is like time travel as you imagine the ground-shaking artillery fire and the soldiers’ lives life behind the earthen walls.
The Hampton Inn just off I-64 is a good base and offers afternoon appetizers as well as a hot breakfast.