Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Lord Dunmore's Navy in Hampton Roads, 1775-1776, Part II: The Road to Great Bridge

By Matthew Krogh
Contributing Writer

Editor's Note:  This is the second in a series about Virginia's last royal governor, John Murray, Fourth Earl of Dunmore, who tried to establish a base of operations in Hampton Roads in an attempt to retain power during the early months of the Revolutionary War.  

Reenactors portraying British forces peer out from the palisades of "Fort Murray," Lord Dunmore's redoubt south of Norfolk, Virginia, during recent commemorations of the Battle of Great Bridge. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington
Lord Dunmore’s defeat at Hampton in October 1775 gnawed not only at his honor, but his ego. Prior to the battle, he attempted to ensure media silence by raiding Norfolk. On September 30, he sent a party of marines and sailors to seize the printing press of the Norfolk Intelligencer. Dunmore had accused publisher John Holt of sedition “by the grossest misrepresentation of facts both public and private.” The British made off with a bookbinder and a journeyman and gave three cheers as they marched down to the wharf. This aggression angered the citizens of Norfolk, who sent Dunmore a letter calling his actions “illegal and riotous.” Dunmore responded in a letter to Norfolk saying that he only wished the “unhappy deluded Publick might no longer remain in the Dark concerning the present contest.” Certainly, if the Virginia press was the dark, then Dunmore was the light. Yet, his conciliatory agenda could not penetrate the ridicule and disdain the Virginia Gazette heaped upon Lord Dunmore after the loss at Hampton.

"Part of the Province of Virginia," a map thought to have been made in 1791, is oriented south side up and shows two key areas of Dunmore's campaign in the Norfolk area, particularly Kemp's Landing (center right) and Great Bridge (upper right). (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)
Dunmore’s force now consisted of the Otter (20 guns and 170 men), Mercury (20 guns and 170 men), William (14 guns), Eilbeck (unarmed), four schooners, three sloops, and three pilot boats (four guns each). However, the British were not so cavalier in their raid in Princess Anne County on November 15. Dunmore’s ships landed over 100 men, who marched several miles to Kemp’s Landing and scattered the Princess Anne militia like chaff in the wind, raised the British colors (a naval jack), and seized supplies. Dunmore appeared in person this time and gave a rousing speech, entreating civilians to return their allegiance to the crown. Then in traditional English fashion, he held a celebratory ball, sure that he had cowed locals into submission.

Clearly, Lord Dunmore had not given up on Virginia. Yet, he was worried that locals no longer feared him. Therefore, he “determined to run all risques [sic] for their support” and issued a proclamation he had written aboard the HMS William on November 7. In it, he acknowledged a state of rebellion, declared martial law, and stated, “And I do hereby farther declare all indented [indentured] Servants, Negroes, or others (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining his Majesty’s Troops.” Perhaps this was an olive branch from Dunmore to the rustics who chafed under the rule of Virginia’s gentry. However, most Virginians sensed an attack on their social hierarchy and therefore received Dunmore’s Proclamation with a mixture of anger and dread.
Reenactors (the 76th, 64th and 14th Regiments of Foote in this case) portraying British regulars under the command of Lord Dunmore confidently cross "Great Bridge" against Virginia and North Carolina militiamen. (Photograph by M.C. Farrington) 
The next day, November 16, Lord Dunmore returned to Norfolk to raise his colors and coerce more citizens into taking the oath of allegiance. Red cloth, the sign of loyalty to the crown, quickly became scarce in tory-populated Norfolk as many flocked to his banner.  Of course for some it was more a matter of convenience than ardor.  From here, Dunmore continued his psychological warfare. Using the stolen printing press, he printed his own gazette aboard the William on November 25. The first issue boasted that there were “3000 men determined to defend this part of the country against the inroads of the enemies to our King.” For the duration of November, Dunmore sent the Kingfisher up the James River to control river crossings. He also pulled all of his troops out of Portsmouth, instead concentrating them in Norfolk, preparing for a final coup de grâce.  He must have imagined that the victory would rival the Battle of Point Pleasant, near the Ohio River, where he had defeated Shawnee Indians under Chief Cornstalk in 1774. There he had forced the defeated Shawnee to sign a peace treaty conceding all of Kentucky and Virginia south of the Ohio River. Perhaps he had something similar in mind for the rebellious Virginians.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

How a President's About-Face Would Help Net the World's Largest Navy Base

Local History. World Events.

This phrase has been a part of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum brand for many years, emphasizing that what happens here is connected with historical events, big and small, all around the world.
In June 1914, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, and President Woodrow Wilson attend a ceremony at the State Department.  After Bryan decided against running for the presidency in 1912, Daniels, a North Carolina publisher, put his support behind Wilson, who appointed both men into his cabinet.  Daniels would play a key role in expanding and modernizing the Navy before World War I, and in procuring the former Jamestown Exposition Grounds for a naval operating base and training station after war was declared.  (Franklin D. Roosevelt Library via Wikimedia Commons)
For example, thousands of Sailors from the Great White Fleet, which left Hampton Roads in 1907, were spending the second week of January 1909 performing disaster relief operations in Messina, Sicily, after earthquakes and tsunamis killed up to 200,000, including the American consul and his wife.
From disaster relief to myriad Navy-led diplomatic initiatives around the world, Hampton Roads-based ships and Sailors have affected the destinies of nations near and far. But of course no naval operation is as consequential as those conducted to win wars, which is still a core mission of the United States Navy.
World events have also affected Hampton Roads in profound ways, but again none more dramatically than those connected to war.  Although half a world away, seemingly disconnected from the daily lives of those living in Tidewater Virginia, the events of World War I, which by January 1917 had been raging in Europe for nearly two and a half years, would culminate in the establishment of the world’s largest naval base, right here in Hampton Roads.   
Theodore Wool. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)

Norfolk-based lawyer Theodore Wool had been campaigning for such a base in Sewells Point, north of the city, ever since the Jamestown Exposition had closed in November 1907.  The exposition had attracted nearly a million visitors to the area from around the world, yet the massive investment had not yielded the financial windfall investors had hoped, and the Jamestown Exposition Company ultimately went bankrupt. Wool and a number of other investors had bought the 474-acre property from the company and almost immediately began lobbying for its purchase by the federal government.  An attempt to move an appropriations bill for the property through the Senate in 1908 foundered, yet Wool soldiered on, taking up residence in one of the state houses built on the exposition property as the effort continued.  
The cover of a rare copy of Wool's pamphlet, Reasons. (HRNM Collection)

In January 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels received Wool and a group of prominent Virginia politicians in Washington to discuss the acquisition of the exposition property.  Wool had probably brought a self-published pamphlet with him, entitled Reasons. Within it he argued, among other things, that Sewells Point's size, location, and existing infrastructure made it a natural choice for a new naval base.  Whether the pamphlet made an impact on Daniels is unclear, but what seems more certain is that a decision made that month in Berlin, not Washington, would ultimately become more decisive in convincing Secretary Daniels and President Woodrow Wilson that the existing infrastructure the Navy possessed in Hampton Roads was insufficient to meet the needs of a nation in a global war.   

The aversion to becoming directly involved in foreign conflicts was a key doctrine in early American foreign policy.  "Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation," said President George Washington in his farewell address. "Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns." Presidents from Thomas Jefferson to John Quincy Adams echoed this policy, with Adams declaring that America "goes not abroad, searching for monsters to destroy.”  Woodrow Wilson had begun his presidency nearly a century later with much the same stance towards Europe.  He had been primarily focused upon domestic matters during his first term, and had run for his second term upon an antiwar platform, urging Americans to stay “neutral in fact as well as in name.” One of his key reelection campaign slogans in 1916 was, “He Kept Us Out of War.”  That he was reelected on this platform just a few short months after one of the most destructive attacks ever made by agents of a foreign government on American soil says much about the national mood. 
German saboteurs had set explosives at the Black Tom Island munitions depot in northern New Jersey on the morning of July 30, 1916.  The titanic detonation of over 100,000 pounds of TNT and other Britain-bound munitions killed only a handful of people but caused $20 million in damage (estimated at nearly half a billion in today’s dollars), including $100,000 in damage to the Statue of Liberty, caused the evacuation of Ellis Island, and broke windows up to 25 miles away.  The Black Tom explosion was only the most infamous of over 50 attacks conducted under the auspices of a unit of the German army intelligence’s Sektion Politik, operating from cells in New York, New Orleans, and Baltimore, including fires and other damage to at least 37 ships. We now know that the tendrils of of this network also reached into Hampton Roads, and its members confessed to setting fires in Newport News and Norfolk.  Some cell members even staged anthrax attacks upon animals being sent to Europe, the first such biological attacks conducted in America.
Although Wool and his compatriots returned to Norfolk empty-handed, the German high command was to hand Wilson his greatest single reason to change his entire approach to the war in Europe before the month was out.  On January 31, 1917, Count Johann von Bernstorff, the German ambassador in Washington, told Secretary of State Robert Lansing that the pledge his government made the previous May to respect international law with regards to submarine operations was ending.  Starting the following day, any ship, under any flag, within the German-designated "war zone" around Great Britain could be attacked without warning.

The German General Staff had conceived of this shift because they believed that they were within months of choking off the British from vital war material and forcing a negotiated end to the war, on their terms. Their reading of the situation with the British was not altogether inaccurate, but they failed to anticipate the American response to such a move. By resuming unrestricted submarine warfare they were in effect throwing down a gauntlet before Wilson and setting the stage for America's entry into the war. The nation’s credibility rested upon its ability to win that war. America’s Navy would play a crucial role in delivering a war-winning response to the Germans, and procuring the land that would ultimately become the world’s largest naval base would in turn become a crucial part of that effort.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Remembering the Battle of Hampton Roads-- With Cats!

By Joseph Miechle
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator
In this composite, one of the thousands of cats created by Ruth and Rebecca Brown of Civil War Tails handles a line aboard the Hampton Roads Naval Museum's model of USS Monitor. (Photo Illustration by M.C. Farrington)
A couple of years ago, The Daybook (Volume 18, Issue 2) contained an article about how the Battle of Hampton Roads was remembered in vastly different ways by Civil War veterans and the public. Here we are, nearly 155 years after the battle, and yet how we remember the battle continues to evolve. In a way, the way we display the battle reflects how our modern culture continues to change. With this in mind, we present a most unusual, yet highly entertaining and informative museum in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, which was recently labeled "[P]ossibly America's most whimsical war museum," by the Washington Post.
The ironclad Monitor fires a round against CSS Virginia within the Battle of Hampton Roads diorama within the Civil War Tails museum in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  (Courtesy Civil War Tails)
Gettysburg is not generally considered a must-see destination for students of American naval history, but a recent National Public Radio story piqued our interest when it showcased Civil War Tails at the Homestead Diorama Museum. The museum’s hand crafted dioramas depict some of the American Civil War’s most important moments: Fort Sumter in 1861; The Angle and Little Round Top at Gettysburg in 1863; the USS Housatonic; and Andersonville Prison. They also feature the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads. While the displays are certainly what some would consider a folk art creation, they still reflect the large amount of research that went into their creation. Meticulous craftsmanship has gone into representing actual people, topography, and hardware. Only upon closer examination do you realize the displays contain no people, but over 2,000 anthropomorphic cats.
Inside the Monitor turret we find nearly two dozen hand-made Union Navy felines, showing the cramped working conditions during the battle. (Photograph by Joseph Miechle)
The Civil War Tails Museum is the creation of Rebecca Brown and her sister Ruth. Their study of the Civil War merged with their love of cats, and the modeling of clay figures that they had been doing from the age of 11. By 2015, it had culminated in the opening of their museum. They use cats as opposed to people because, according to their web site, “Cats are easier to make and after all, history doesn’t have to be boring." It seems oddly appropriate that our modern society's fascination with online cat videos only naturally embraces a venue that merges people's fascination of the Civil War with cats.
John L. Worden and his junior officers prior to getting underway. Can you guess which one is Lt. Worden? (Courtesy Civil War Tails)
While the museum certainly displays levity with the use of cats, they also capture some otherwise underappreciated stories of the actions they depict. The diorama of the Battle of Hampton Roads is an excellent example. While the cardboard ships contain clay cats they also very accurately tell the story of the battle. The top of USS Monitor's turret can be removed and packed inside the detailed homemade model are 19 soot-covered cats representing Lt. Greene and the actual gun crews during the battle.
This image shows injured crew members sprawled across the floor of CSS Virginia after taking a point blank shot from USS Monitor (Photograph by Joseph Miechle)
The side of CSS Virginia may be removed, and the inside contains the gun crews commanded by Lt. John Wood and goes so far as to accurately depict his crew “bleeding from the nose or ears,” as Wood himself described it, after being struck by close range shots from USS Monitor. The diorama also has the benefit of “portholes” drilled into the sides below the waterline, so that a visitor might see the dramatic difference in draft between the two ships. The author is of the opinion that, despite lacking the refined details of what most consider “museum quality” models, the diorama at Civil War Tails makes up for in character and storytelling. The museum has made accessible a pivotal moment of American history to audiences who may never have been inclined to learn about it, thus adding to the legacy of how we “remember” the Battle of Hampton Roads.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Fratricide, Homicide, or Justified? The Killing of Maj. Gen. "Bull" Nelson

By Reece Nortum
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

Brig. Gen. Jefferson Davis shoots Maj. Gen. William Nelson. (
On September 29, 1862, in the lobby of the fashionable Galt Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, the huge, black-bearded Major General William "Bull" Nelson, in the blue and gold uniform of a commanding officer in the United States Army, was shot at point-blank range by a fellow officer, Brigadier General Jefferson C. Davis. The six-foot, four-inch, 300 plus pound Nelson died less than an hour later. General Davis was never punished, or even put on trial for committing this horrendous act. The explanation for such an astounding event takes us deep into the seldom explored military-political complexities of the Civil War.

The killing of this Union general created a large amount of controversy and opinions surrounding this story. Multiple versions from third party sources have been heard. Many believed at the time that the local newspaper had been making erroneous reports, creating a public outcry. The Jefferson Circuit Court in Louisville indicted Davis on the 27th of October, 1862, for the "manslaughter" of Nelson. Davis later paid $5,000 bail, and the case was heard from time to time until May 24, 1864 when it was removed from the docket. Nothing was heard or spoken again. The general consensus was that the federal government had swept it under the rug in order to protect Davis. But before you go to the end, we have to start from the beginning.

William "Bull" Nelson. (
Kentucky-born William Nelson was an unlikely candidate to become a major general, since most of his career was spent sailing the open seas with the Navy. He was appointed as a midshipman at the age of 15, and served with distinction during the Mexican War aboard the ship of the line Delaware. Many unofficial reports state that USS Delaware was one of hardest ships to work on due to its harsh leadership and high standards. Nelson later served on the USS Raritan, one of the last sailing frigates of the United States Navy, which eventually ended its career in Norfolk in 1849. From Nelson's naval experience, he received a sword for heroism and proficiency. His "quarterdeck style" of giving orders troubled many people because of its crude and pervasive nature. In 1846, Nelson joined the first class to attend the newly established Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. When the Civil War started, the 38-year-old Nelson was the senior lieutenant in the Navy. His brother, Thomas C. Nelson, was a close friend of fellow Kentuckian Abraham Lincoln, who had appointed Thomas ambassador to Chile in April 1861. The second day after the inauguration of Lincoln, Lt. Nelson walked into the Executive Mansion and expressed his allegiance to the Union. As a Kentuckian, Nelson could sympathize with the Confederates, and Lincoln knew that and that he also needed a strong supporter in that region. Lincoln sent Lt. Nelson to Kentucky with one order: do everything in his power to keep the state in the Union. Nelson acquired extensive information on the situation and reported his findings to Washington DC. He was promoted to brigadier general in the US Army.
USS Delaware within Dry Dock No. 1 at Gosport (now Norfolk Naval Shipyard) in 1833. (Hampton Roads Naval Museum file)
Jefferson C. Davis (Wikipedia)
The events leading up to Davis' shooting of Nelson showcase the influences of both personality and the culture of honor that was prevalent in 19th century America. Brig. Gen. Jefferson C. Davis had been sick and exhausted from the Civil War, and knowing the major concerns of the political issues in Kentucky. Davis quickly offered his help after an R&R trip back to his home state of Indiana. Davis was sent to work under Brig. Gen. Nelson in Kentucky by order from Major General William S. Rosecrans of the Mississippi, US Army Command. After Davis had been there for a day or two on duty, Nelson called him to headquarters, and Nelson asked: "Well, Davis, how you are getting along with your command?" and several other questions about his unit sizes, positions, and unit numbers under his command. Davis continued to reply noncommittally, "I don't know."

Nelson became angry and said that he should know these things, and that he was disappointed in him. Nelson stated in a commanding voice, "I selected you for this duty because you are an officer of the Regular Army, but I find I made a mistake." Davis remarked, in a cool, deliberate manner, "General Nelson, I am not a regular soldier, and I demand the treatment due to me as a general." "I demand from you the courtesy due to my Rank." Nelson thundered back, "I will treat you as you deserve, you have disappointed me, and you have been unfaithful to the trust which I reposed in you. I shall relieve you at once." "You are relieved from duty here, and you will proceed to Cincinnati and report to Major General Wright." Nelson turned toward the Adjutant General and said, "Captain, if General Davis does not leave the city by nine o'clock to-night, give instructions to the Provost-Marshal to see that he shall be put across the Ohio." Davis withdrew and reported in Cincinnati to Maj. Gen. Wright, who assigned him to command the units in Covington and Newport, Kentucky. A few days after, General Buell reached Louisville and superseded Nelson in command, and Wright, then ordered Davis to return to Louisville and report to General Buell, against Wright's order.
The murder of William Nelson made headlines across the country, (Wikimedia Commons)

Davis appeared at the Galt House in Louisville,  the headquarters at that time of both Buell and Nelson. On the morning of September 29, 1862, when Nelson entered the grand hall office of the hotel, he saw Davis at the front desk speaking to the hotel clerk. Nelson went to the hotel's office and asked Silas F. Miller, the proprietor of the hotel, if Gen. Buell had his breakfast yet. Then he turned, leaned his back against the counter and saw Davis quickly walking his way, demanding an apology for insulting him at their last meeting, and saying he must have satisfaction. Nelson told him abruptly to go away. Saying, "Go away you dammed puppy, I don't want anything to do with you!" Davis had taken a visitor card from a box on the counter and crumpled it into a ball, which, upon hearing the insulting words, he flipped into Nelson's face. Instantly Nelson, with the back of his hand, slapped Davis in the face and then walked away toward his room. After the slap, Davis turned to Thomas W. Gibson and requested a pistol, which he received. In the meantime, Nelson had passed from the office hall into the corridor which led to his room. Davis reached the doorway from the office, pistol in hand. They were face to face and about a yard apart. Nelson was entirely unarmed. Davis then fired a shot at Nelson while on the stairs. Nelson stumbled to the top and died less than an hour afterwards. Davis, though greatly agitated, showed no signs of rage, and was placed in formal military custody by Major James B. Fry, at that time Buell's Chief of Staff.

The grave of Maj.Gen. William Nelson as it appears today. (
General Buell regarded Davis' action not only as a high crime, but as a gross violation of military discipline. He felt that the case called for prompt and immediate action. He could not administer proper judgment and ruling. A major campaign was to start in two days. A new commander was found for Nelson's unit, and the Army marched the second day after his death. Buell could not spare the officers necessary for a proper court-martial. The pressures of war subverted justice in this case. Even in a society where honor was held high and duels occasionally still happened, most viewed this occasion as murder. Some believed the Army covered up the incident.