Grand Review revisits battle

Grand Review 2000

June 11, 2000|By Liz F. Kay | Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

Shots fired during the maiden voyage of the replica of the mighty U.S.S. Monitor Friday evening commemorated a series of firsts.

The evening's entertainment, the re-enactment of the famous battle of the ironclads, was the first time this particular battle has been revisited on the Susquehanna River - during Harrisburg's Grand Review 2000, which marks the 135th anniversary of the end of the Civil War.

It also was a first in more ways than one for some of the participants.

"It's the first time I ever fought in bare feet," said William Jackson Marion Edwards, a Norfolk, Va., resident who shed his shoes to protect them from the water he waded through to board the Monitor. He was named for his grandfather, a Union seaman.

`Cheese box on a raft'

The battle's organizers have been performing re-enactments in various replicas for more than 20 years. Ron Hess, a Norfolk, Va., gun-store owner, saw what he described as "a cheese box on a raft" model of the Union Army's Monitor during a boating festival in the Chesapeake Bay many years ago. He wondered, with his fellow Civil War buffs, why he had never seen a model of its Confederate counterpart, the Virginia (also called the Merrimac).

"It just bothered us because it didn't even look like a real one," he said. "You look at ours. It looks like the history books."

Hess teamed up with friends Bill Whorton and Mike Harrison at a Norfolk marina to build the first replicas, designed at one-seventh scale. Since then, the team has designed three generations of models of these famous ships.

"It was too vast of a project at the time," Hess said.

The group took nine months to complete the project- the same amount of time shipbuilders spent completing the Monitor and Virginia in the 1860s, which were considerably larger than the models.

"But they had a whole lot more people to [work on] it," said Whorton, captain of the Virginia.

`Torn em up, blown em up'

The group has been through a lot, and so have their replicas.

"We've torn 'em up, blown 'em up. Anything you can think of, we've done it," Hess said.

Although only one-fifth the size of the originals, these ships packed a punch. Children watching the show on both sides of the river and on Harrisburg's Memorial Bridge held their ears and squealed when they felt the force of the gunpowder blasts from both the boats and the infantry on City Island and the eastern shore of Pennsylvania's capital city.

Staffing the boats became a slight problem. Not everybody who worked on the boat was able to attend the re-enactment, and although everyone was from Norfolk, some of them served as crew on the Union ship Monitor.

"I played Yankee captain for the weekend," said Hess.

Safety is a concern for those participating. All the sailors attend a safety class, and two safety officers are present as well. Still, some of those operating the Monitor felt that the blasts were a little too close for comfort. After one shot thundered over the helm during the battle, Whorton asked, "Is my hair smoking?"

Appreciative crowd

Their pains were not wasted on the spectators.

"Seeing a naval engagement is a whole other element," said Mark Peters of Cumberland, Pa. "These were really the most technically advanced things of their day." He was rooting for "whoever built the better boat."

"It's just the history out here," marveled Jay Holland, a West Coast native who now lives in Carlisle, Pa. He believes that people in the East are more involved in reliving the past, because this part of the nation is so much older. "Out in California," he said, "our history is gold rush."

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