HOPEWELL, Va. — Visitors and Civil War enthusiasts were given the chance to authentically experience life as a naval officer Saturday at City Point.
With the combined efforts of National Park Service rangers Randy Watkins and Gardner Graham, dressed in traditional Union and Confederate sailor uniforms, visitors to the General Grant's Headquarters Unit of the Petersburg National Battlefield were given the chance to learn more about the Navy's role in the war, as well as life on a ship.
City Point was one of the busiest supply depots of the Civil War and one of the busiest ports in the world. It served as Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's main supply depot for his Potomac Army in Petersburg.
Watkins said that despite the accomplishments of City Point, the Navy is often an overlooked aspect of the Civil War.
"I want people to understand that sailors did have a big part in the Civil War and it was important what they did so that they won't be forgotten," he said. "We think about the Union and Confederate Army and that's it, no one gives a thought to the U.S. and Confederate Marine Corps, which both had missions in the war too."
Watkins and Graham doing exercises with visitors and teaching them how to read charts and navigate, defining Navy terminology and teaching how to tie knots.
"What we wanted to do was give people an idea of what it was like in the Navy. Those ships were not air-conditioned. They were metal, some of them wood sheath and metal ... just being down in the engine rooms below deck was really hot, really stuffy, no port holes, a little bit of ventilation system but it didn't really work too well," Watkins said. "The sailors slept in hammocks and stood watch 24 hours a day. It was not a very good life."
Watkins said sailors ate better than soldiers in the Army, because meals were on a regular basis.
Watkins said one of the most interesting things about the Union Navy at the time was that it was the first truly integrated branch of the service.
"It had a lot of African-American sailors serving on board and [people from foreign countries]," he said.
Both Watkins and Graham are veterans. Watkins served in the Navy for 12 years and the Army for 20 years. Graham is a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard. Both became interested in the history of the Navy and its role in the Civil War, and wanted to share that with residents and visitors to the area.
"I think it offers a new perspective that people don't often think about, so that's important. ... with a lot of the stories associated with the Siege of Petersburg," Graham said.
He also said that starting with the Peninsula Campaign in 1862, the Navy's duty was to patrol and defend the York and James rivers and blockade supplies to the Confederacy. At City Point in 1864, Graham said, the Navy played an important role in getting supplies to Grant's headquarters and ferrying wounded to hospitals in the North.
City Point was originally a small village that was then deserted. According to Petersburg National Battlefield, Appomattox Plantation was the home of Dr. Richard Eppes and his family until 1862, when the Union gunboats arrived on the James River. When Grant arrived in 1864, it became a huge supply base that became "one of the busiest ports in the world." Famous ships were also known to frequent City Point, including the U.S.S. Monitor, the first ironclad warship commissioned by the U.S. Navy, and the U.S.S. Onondaga.
Graham said it's important to teach the public about the Navy's role in the Civil War not only because of the crucial role it played, but because a lot of the traditions the modern Navy has were come from this time period.
"We're a modern Navy now, and a lot of the traditions of the Navy are the same as they were back then," he said. "They were the ones that performed blockade duties, which cuts the supplies off going into the South. They were the ones that landed troops and transported troops from one place to the other, just like now."