Chaplain Denis Cox
"There is a point of no return. Fortunately... Chaplain Cox found it in the nick of time."
Conservator Pamela Young
Nearly 75 years have passed since a chart made 199 years ago by the most famous Navy chaplain of the War of 1812 came to adorn a wall of the Naval Station Norfolk Chapel. After the rededication of the chart and its official transfer to the Naval History and Heritage Command on April 29, 2015, this restored artifact, one of the earliest of the U.S. Navy in Hampton Roads, made a short but substantial journey to the archives of the nearby Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
The talent of its creator, David Phineas Adams, was on full display as dozens of Chaplain Corps members, most notably Deputy Chief of Navy Chaplains Rear Admiral Brent W. Scott; members of the Naval Station Norfolk community, led by Captain Robert E. Clark; and members of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum, itself part of the Naval History and Heritage Command led by Director of Naval History Sam J. Cox, gathered in the David Phineas Adams Memorial Chapel to commemorate the event.
“I learned of David Phineas Adams when I was in Chaplain’s School, on what not to do as a chaplain” said Commander Denis N. Cox, Chaplain of Naval Station Norfolk, and the man whose interest in the chart led him on a two-year journey culminating in the ceremony. "But it wasn’t until I came to this chapel, saw his chart, read that plaque, and instantly fell in love with Chaplain David Phineas Adams. I fell in love with who he was. I fell in love with what he accomplished. I fell in love with what he was able to do. As a chaplain. As a man."
A one-time professor of mathematics and astronomy at Columbia College (now Columbia University) in New York, the Harvard-trained Adams was appointed by President James Madison as a Navy chaplain on May 10, 1811. Although he performed the duties expected of chaplains today, the exigencies of war demanded much more of him. His most famous exploits during the War of 1812 came from serving under Captain David Porter on the frigate Essex; not for ministering to the crew, but for taking command of three of Porter's prizes on his famous cruise around Cape Horn to the Galapagos Islands, where Adams became arguably the first American to conduct topographical surveys, decades before the arrival of HMS Beagle on her own history-making mapping mission.
After the war, Adams was assigned by Captain Stephen Decatur to utilize his skills once again, undertaking a survey of Hampton Roads for its suitability for future use by the Navy. The resulting chart was completed in 1816. "[Adams spends] all year out here in Hampton Roads and charts all the shoal waters and does an incredible job," said Chaplain Cox. "[Adams] submits it back to the Navy. And then the chart just goes dormant. David Phineas Adams goes dormant. We don’t read anything about David Phineas Adams after that. Nobody knows about him. He just falls off the charts."
"Until 1938," Cox added, after another chaplain succeeded in securing funding from Congress for the naval station's Protestant and Catholic chapels, as well as Frazier Hall.
Commander William Wilcox Edel discovered the chart sometime during the construction of the new chapels, which were completed in 1941. "It’s kind of falling apart because it’s 125 years old at this point," said Cox. "[Edel] takes out Scotch tape and tapes this thing together, and then he puts it on acidic paper, and he puts it right next to the door. God bless him. He [was] a chaplain; not a preservationist."
"So I am walking around here wondering what am I going to do," said Cox as he described his first encounter with Adams' chart shortly after taking over as command chaplain of Naval Station Norfolk in 2013. "And I look over here and I see this chart that’s sitting on the wall. And I go, 'What is this?' And I started reading and thought, there’s no way that this could be the original 200-year-old chart. There’s no way. [But] yeah, it’s the original 200-year-old chart. Unbelievable. It’s just been sitting here for 75 years next to the door next to the weather under this light and I thought, 'I’ve got to do something about this.' So I called up [Hampton Roads Naval Museum Curator] Joe Judge, and Joe Judge says, call [conservator] Pamela Young, and I called Pamela Young and instantly fell in love with another great American."
Young subsequently spent about 30 hours over the next nine months painstakingly removing the adhesive tape Edel applied in 1941 and fabricating new "rag stock" paper to replace the cotton fibers that had leached away from the chart over the past 199 years. "This organic material is prone to deterioration," said Young, "and there is a point of no return. Fortunately... Chaplain Cox found it in the nick of time."
"We will make sure that it is taken care of," said Sam Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command and Curator of the Navy, adding that the chart would also be protected from, in his words, "the ravages of ultraviolet light that are as bad as the ravages of time on memory."
"This chart was used by the Navy as a reason to bring the United States Navy down here to Hampton Roads," said Chaplain Cox. "This [was a] backwater area. Nobody lived out here in the 1700s and 1800s. Nobody but tobacco farmers and corn farmers... There was nothing but swampland until the Navy came here to Hampton Roads. And now we have millions," Cox added. "Blame a 'chap' for that."