NEWPORT NEWS — A hymn rang out over the grounds of the Mariners' Museum Saturday afternoon. Civil War-era guns were fired in salute and a blue-clad bugler played taps. The grieving wife of a Union soldier killed 152 years ago laid a rose on the water in remembrance.
The Battle of Hampton Roads is best known as the first clash between two armored ships. The Mariners' Museum hosted lectures, re-enactments and a tasting of Civil War-era cuisine to commemorate the battle, which took place between March 8 and 9, 1862.
One group of re-enactors, however, spent Saturday afternoon remembering those men who fell victim to the CSS Virginia before the ship squared off with the USS Monitor.
"While much attention has always been focused on the battle that took place on March 9 between the Virginia and the Monitor, today we commemorate the men of Company D of the 99th New York Volunteer Infantry," said re-enactor Larry McCauley.
Soldiers from the 99th New York were stationed as naval infantry on the USS Congress, McCauley said, which fell prey to the Virginia on March 8, the day before the Monitor arrived to engage the Virginia.
The CSS Virginia, known as the USS Merrimack before Confederate forces claimed and repaired the frigate in Norfolk, was a steam ship covered in heavy armor impervious to the firepower of the era. Confederate leaders hoped to use the ship to break the Union's blockade of Southern ports.
In its first combat outing on March 8, 1862, the Virginia demolished two Union warships in the waters of Hampton Roads — the USS Congress and the USS Cumberland.
The lopsided battle left 261 Union sailors and soldiers dead, including infantrymen from the 99th New York stationed on the Congress. The Virginia ultimately lost just two men.
This was a blow to the northerners — the Union fleet, a large collection of mighty wooden ships, now seemed acutely vulnerable.
When the Virginia returned to Hampton Roads the following morning to assault a grounded Union frigate, the Union's own ironclad was lying in wait. The USS Monitor exchanged fire with the Virginia for hours, marking the first time two ironclad ships had met in combat. The March 9clash ended in a draw and signaled a dramatic shift in the future of Naval warfare.
McCauley said he hoped that the 99th New York's memorial would go beyond honoring the memory of those who died and that it reminded people of the human cost of war.
"It was a significant battle and men died fighting for a cause they believed in. We have to commemorate the battle for what it meant. It changed naval warfare forever," McCauley said. "In remembering the acts and the men, we may be able to avoid making the same mistakes again."