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."