Turret's return big event for many

Floating gracefully past Fort Monroe early Friday, the gun turret of the USS Monitor was welcomed back to familiar waters by history buffs, service members and a 21-gun salute.

The turret is considered the most significant feature of the famous Civil War ironclad. Having been rescued from the ocean floor off the North Carolina coast, it's now described as one of history's greatest naval artifacts.

Naturally, its return was a major event for the area's military community and history enthusiasts alike. The turret is bound for The Mariners' Museum, where it will undergo years of conservation and will eventually be displayed with other Monitor artifacts.

"I've got my camera, and I'm going to capture the moment," said Vonda Winkler, a civilian who works at Fort Monroe. She was one of about 100 who watched from the fort as the barge carrying the turret eased into the local harbor. "Ten years from now when the turret is on display, I'll be able to say I watched it come home," she said.

Winkler was one of those who grasped the historical significance of the event. During the March 9, 1862, Battle of Hampton Roads, the USS Monitor fought the Confederacy's ironclad, the CSS Virginia. The clash happened in the very waters the turret passed through Friday morning.

Like many others watching Friday's events, Winkler saw the Monitor's symbolic return as a somber occasion as well as a historical triumph.

"It's a tomb -- they found human remains," Winkler said. "So this is a bittersweet moment."

Fort Monroe -- which was an active U.S. Army installation during the Civil War -- was an appropriate place to view the arrival, many said. "This is one piece of Civil War history saluting another relic of the Civil War," said Army 1st Sgt. Guy Williams, standing on the seawall with binoculars and camera. "What a great place to be."

George Karahalios, one of those gathered along Fort Monroe's seawall, said he's glad the turret is headed for The Mariners' Museum. "The battle took place right here," he said, looking back toward Hampton Roads. "And the battle changed the face of naval warfare. It needs to stay here."

A small group gathered at the Chesapeake Avenue overlook near the "First Battle of Ironclads" historical marker. They could see the barge moving steadily through the water in the distance.

"This is exciting -- even though it was a Yankee ship," said a smiling Lavinia Reilly, who lives a few blocks off Chesapeake Avenue.

Mary Lou Richter, another neighbor, marked the slow, steady progress of the barge while sipping coffee and sitting comfortably on one of the overlook's park benches. She had seen the miniature armada pass Fort Monroe on television. "I came down to get a closer feel for it -- not really a view," she said, pointing to the barge, which was passing on the opposite side of Hampton Roads.

"There is something sad about it all," she added. "But it's peaceful knowing that they're coming home finally."

As the turret made its way to Victory Landing in downtown Newport News, so, too, did Clinton Parks Jr., who began his day outside his Chesapeake Avenue home watching the barge pass Fort Monroe. Wanting to absorb every moment of the day, Parks shot the turret with a portable video camera, speaking his own observations into the recorder's microphone.

Parks, who has followed the Monitor recovery project since divers brought up the propeller in 1998, said he was thrilled to see the turret up close. He could only view it from a distance near Fort Monroe, but at Victory Landing he was so close he called his wife on his cellular phone to report he could see the rust on the turret. He is looking forward to checking it out even closer once it is put on display at The Mariners' Museum.

"Really, this is where it belongs," Parks said. "Right here in Newport News, where the battle occurred."

He said the discovery of skeletal remains inside the turret was a reminder that the Monitor is more than just a legendary warship.

"That really brings everything home," he said. "It's easy to get caught up in the history of it, but when they found those remains, it just brought it all home -- there were people in that thing."

About 500 people gathered for the hour-long ceremony at Victory Landing, where Newport News Mayor Joe Frank pointed out that "standing at this place 140 years ago on March 9, we would have witnessed the battle within range of the smell of its gunpowder."

John Woodley of the Department of Defense drew a parallel between the Monitor's crew and the Navy divers who recovered the turret. He talked about "the transcendence of time and military ingenuity that link these two groups together."

The families of many of the divers stood among the crowd, watching the barge come in.

Becky Langdon of Suffolk surprised her husband, Larry, by taking the day off from work and bringing their two young daughters to Victory Landing to welcome him when he got off the barge. As they waited in the late-morning sun, she looked at the turret her husband had helped haul up.

"It's just amazing to think that it was still there," she said. "It's amazing it hasn't just rusted away."

Michael Cobb, Hampton History Museum curator, said Union soldiers from the Civil War era marveled at the USS Monitor when it was docked near Fort Monroe. "Those men, soldiers and sailors, knew that the Monitor had made history and would always be remembered. They knew it then.

"After all these years, the Monitor has the same mystique that it had after the fateful battle in Hampton Roads. The vibrations of that battle still can be heard."

WANT TO GO?

The barge carrying the gun turret from the USS Monitor is expected to arrive at the Lions Bridge shortly after 9:30 a.m. today.

After the turret is unloaded from the barge, there will be a brief ceremony featuring remarks by officials from the Navy, The Mariners' Museum and Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. The program will include a reading of the names of the 16 men who died during the sinking of the Monitor, followed by a bagpipe rendition of "Amazing Grace" and a salute by Civil War re-enactors.

The landing and ceremony at Lions Bridge are open to the public free of charge. Parking is available at The Mariners' Museum.

Visitors are invited to bring blankets and lawn chairs. Children's activities are scheduled, and refreshments will be on sale.

After the ceremony, the turret will be transported to the museum conservation area. On the way, it will pass within a few feet of the crowd.

Visitors can watch the turret's arrival and unloading at the conservation area. The cost to enter the conservation area is $6 for adults and $4 for children. Museum staff will hand out two- for-one coupons at the bridge, and those with a military ID get in free that day.

For more information and notice of possible schedule changes, call the museum's update line at 591-5122.

Mike Holtzclaw can be reached at 928-6479 or by e-mail at mholtzclaw@dailypress.com. Sam McDonald can be reached at 247-4732 or by e-mail at smcdonald@dailypress.com

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