Three Civil War cities in Coastal Virginia that saw action

Sandra Julian Barker

Fort Monroe, the nation’s largest stone fortress, played an important role in determining the status of escaped slaves during the war.

Hampton, Newport News, and Norfolk are cities where the sacrifices of the American Civil War are remembered and honored.

Tucked into the southeastern corner of Virginia, these now-thriving cities and surrounding waterways were once war-torn battlegrounds. Today, they provide visitors with a unique opportunity to see authentic remnants from the past and glimpses of the life and death struggles that helped mold our nation.

Fort Monroe, the nation’s largest stone fortress, played an important role in determining the status of escaped slaves during the war.
Fort Monroe, the nation’s largest stone fortress, played an important role in determining the status of escaped slaves during the war.

On March 9, 1862, the USS Monitor and the USS Merrimack, newly dubbed the CSS Virginia, lit the skyline with explosions. Horrified residents witnessed the sound and fury of the first great battle of the ironclads.

Stroll along the shoreline of these cities and imagine the most important naval battle of the Civil War being fought within sight just offshore.

 

Newport News

The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News is the official repository for the Monitor Collection. From buttons and silverware, to the anchor and massive 120-ton gun turret, see actual artifacts from the famous Union ironclad ship.

The expansive “Ironclad Revolution” exhibit brings the historic ship and its pivotal battle to life. You can walk down a mock deck and see the CSS Virginia being built for battle, walk the deck of a full-scale reproduction of the vessel that changed naval warfare, and see the actual turret, as well as the battle action in the theater.

Other Civil War sites in Newport News include Endview Plantation and Lee Hall Mansion, 1-mile apart. Both of these well-preserved homes offer tours.

Endview, built in 1769, was used as a Confederate hospital during the 1862 Peninsula Campaign. Later, Federal troops invaded the area and occupied the house. Only three years after Lee Hall’s completion, the Peninsula became one of the first battlegrounds of the war, and the new mansion briefly became the Confederate headquarters.

“Annual programs and events at both sites include a spring Civil War reenactment, guided van tours of Civil War sites, and on-site and outreach programs,” said Laura Willoughby, historic site coordinator for both properties. A guided evening walk at Endview Plantation highlighting Civil War history takes place Oct. 21.

 

Hampton

Although Virginia seceded from the Union on April 17, 1861, Fort Monroe in Hampton remained a Union stronghold throughout the war.

“For many,” Robin Reed, Casement Museum director, said, “Fort Monroe is the eye of the hurricane for the American Civil War.”

16-09 CW Endview PlantationThe Casemate Museum, located within the largest stone fort in America, features exhibits on the very spot where some of the described events occurred. See weapons and uniforms, peer through bars into the room where Jefferson Davis was held prisoner, and see where three escaped slaves were granted refuge, establishing a concept that had a far-reaching impact during the war.

A new exhibit chronicles the “Contraband Decision” of 1861 which resulted in not only giving escaped slaves refuge as “contrabands of war,” but also gave them wages for their labor and created camps where they could live. Admission to the fort and museum are free.

Much of the city of Hampton was burned on Aug. 7, 1861, during the Confederate evacuation. Although partially burned, the walls of St. John’s Church, Queen’s Way, built in 1728, survived and the church was rebuilt. Enjoy a walk through this lovely old church which stands today as a testament to the rebuilding of our nation after the horrors of a civil war.

 

Norfolk

Only a year after Virginia became a Confederate state, the city of Norfolk was re-occupied by Union troops, and Fort Norfolk was seized from the rebels and used as a prison.

The fort, authorized by George Washington in 1794, stands on the banks of the Elizabeth River looking much as it did during the Civil War. Visitors are welcome to walk along the grassy mounds, stepping into old brick buildings, now painted a gleaming white, and imagine what life as a prisoner within those walls might have been like.

Walk along Norfolk’s Cannonball Trail and view many Civil War sites, including the circa-1807 home of Dr. William B. Selden, surgeon general of the Confederate Army, at 351 Botetourt St. The imposing white house once served as a headquarters for Union occupation troops. In 1870, after Selden’s return to his home, he hosted a grand reception for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

One of the many notable sites in Norfolk is the West Point Monument in Elmwood Cemetery. It is a rare tribute to African-American veterans of the Civil War and the Spanish American War.

The soldier depicted on the monument is Norfolk native Sgt. William H. Carney, the first black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor and whose regiment was the basis for the movie Glory.

Nearly 100 African-American veterans are buried in Elmwood Cemetery on East Princess Anne Road.

The U.S. Custom House, circa 1858, on Main Street was used as a federal dungeon during the war. The Norfolk History Museum at the Willoughby-Baylor House, features interesting exhibits describing the Union Occupation.

 

Before you go

Hampton Tourism: visithampton.com

Newport News Tourism: newport-news.org

Norfolk Tourism: visitnorfolktoday.com

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