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.

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