Kempsville today is a busy place, with thousands of cars rushing through day and night. With roads changing names and intersections torn up and rerouted, it’s hard to imagine what it might have been like when ships laden with tobacco set sail from its docks.
When the town was the political center of Princess Anne County, boasting a new courthouse building; when it was a cornerstone of public education, hosting the county’s first public school; when it was a magnet for religious worship and Baptist and Episcopal churches were established.
Or when, on a cool November day at the dawn of the American Revolution, the first blood of Virginia patriots was spilled, and from that moment British rule in the largest of the American colonies began to crumble.
It all began because the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River gave Princess Anne County farmers ready access to a deepwater port from which to ship tobacco and other goods.
And because a fellow named George Kempe opened a store at a deep water landing in 1652, importing English goods, bricks and lumber. By the turn of the century there were numerous tobacco warehouses as Kempe’s Landing, as it became known, became a tobacco inspection site.
Then there was the puffed up and rather jumpy John Murray, the fourth earl of Dunmore. The last of the colonial governors had recently fled from Williamsburg and sailed into Norfolk Harbor with a small fleet of warships. From his ship, HMS Fowey, he blustered against the patriots, launched a raiding party to seize their presses and threatened to teach them a lesson.
”I really believe we should reduce this colony to a proper sense of their duty,” Lord Dunmore told his commanding general.
In October 1775, Dunmore got wind that there was a stash of gunpowder at Kempe’s Landing and sent troops to seize it. They came away empty handed, through, supposedly because Peter Singleton, an elegant officer with a fondness for cards, rode into town -- Paul Revere-style – to warn that they were on the way.
Next, Dunmore learned that militia were mustering at Kempe’s Landing and on November 15 personally led a force of British grenadiers and loyal militia to deal with the upstarts. The locals fired first but were quickly routed by the superior British force. One patriot, John Ackiss, became the first Virginian killed in the war. A couple of others may have drowned trying to flee across the river.
The victorious Dunmore set up temporary headquarters at the home of George Logan, a Scotch Tory. This is believed to be the still-standing Pleasant Hall, although others contend that Georgian Mansion was in fact built by Singleton.
At any rate, Dunmore then demanded that everyone in town take a loyalty oath. Many who did so swallowed bitterly as red cloth loyalty badges were pinned to their coats.
Dunmore held a lavish celebration at the Logan residence and then, flushed with victory, sent his troops to be slaughtered at Great Bridge by well-entrenched patriots. It wasn’t long after that he bombarded Norfolk and Set sail for England. It was the end of British rule in Virginia.
As for those who had suffered the most from the loyalty oaths? They held a “victory ball” in the summer of 1776 after news of the Declaration of Independence reached Kempe’s Landing. A plaque marks the spot of the dwelling where the celebration was held.
Most historic buildings in Kempsville were either destroyed by fire or developers who had them torn down. This includes the old jail, which for a time, was a private school and then, in 1848, the county’s first public school. As historian Stephen S. Mansfield puts it, “public education first saw the light of day” at that location.
Now the City of Virginia Beach is hoping to recapture some of Kempsville’s past by transforming the original crossroads into a small village of shops much like Williamsburg’s Merchant’s Square.
There should be plenty of interest today when city officials explain the plan during a 2:30 pm meeting of the Princess Anne County/ Virginia Beach Historical Society at Emanuel Episcopal Church,
Illustration: Artist Emily Whaley’s sketch shows what Kempe’s Landing might have looked like in the mid-eighteenth century. From the Virginia Beach Beacon.
Photo of Monitor sailor Robert Williams, left, next to a sketch made from photo of reconstructed face by the LSU forensic lab, with details added by Norris McClain.
When Navy divers found a skeleton in the turret of the ironclad ship Monitor ten years ago they treated it with the respect that all human remains must receive. And because it took several days to remove the sediment-encased bones, they developed a kind of kinship with the long-lost sailor.
They called him Bob.
That’s because one of the crew members who appears in a photo of the Monitor crew, a tall man with a walrus mustache, had been identified as Robert Williams, a first-class fireman from Wales. The photo was posted at the dive station.
The divers and archaeologists had no way of knowing at the time that the skeleton, after being flown to the Central Identification Laboratory at the Joint POW/MIA Command in Hawaii, would match Williams’ height exactly – five-eight-and-a-half – and the estimated age of around 31.
Although he’s a leading candidate for the older and taller of the two sailors who were trapped in the turret when the Monitor went down on Dec. 31, 1862, there’ hasn’t been any confirmation after nearly ten years in residence at the identification lab.
But now there’s a pretty darned good case.
Recently, David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, hired genealogist, Lisa Stansbury, to track down family and military histories of the missing sailors. Thumbing through passenger lists, a name jumped out: Robert Williams, “laborer,” had arrived on a ship sailing out of Liverpool, England, on May 21, 1850. He was 19 then, born in Wales. It was a perfect match.
In a New York City directory for 1853 she found Williams listed as a boilermaker. Two years later he enlisted in the Navy as a landsman, then worked his way up to first-class fireman by his third enlistment in 1862 – the year the Monitor was launched. He had hazel eyes, a swarthy complexion with pitted skin and suffered from chronic rheumatism and, at one point, from syphilis.
He was a complex fellow, unmarried and maybe even a bit of a rake, but if he was one of the ones found in the turret he might have been something else, a hero.
Consider that the men in the engine room stayed at the boilers, choking on fumes and dust until the last minute. One of the final orders before abandoning ship was to give all steam to the pumps to try to keep the ship afloat as long as possible.
Rick Cavey, the chief warrant officer who ran the Navy dive teams during the turret recovery, told me, “In my mind, a guy who was in the turret could have been one of the ones who stayed behind to man the pumps or help other people out of the boat, and stand his watch till the last minute. Why was he still on the boat? He wasn’t the first guy off, that’s for sure. Was he a hero? That’s the way it goes down in my mind. Here’s a guy who gave his life for the Union that we’re all so proud of now.”
And now we get even closer to Williams.
Just last week, NOAA released life-like images of two faces that Louisiana State University’s forensic anthropology lab had produced through facial reconstruction of the skulls. One was older, with a hint of gray in his hair, the other younger.
The older face didn’t look much like Williams at first, but I wondered what would happen if a few changes were made.
Norris McClain, an artist friend of mine, took the image of the older one and, first, converted it from color to black and white. Then he went to work with a graphite pencil and Sharpie. He added a jaunty cap like the one Williams wore, then the mustache and shadows and a few age lines.
And there he was, staring back at us from the sketch pad.
If you place the sketch and the photograph side by side, there’s almost no room for doubt. The Mariners’ Museum will be running the sketch in its member magazine, Ahoy, next month. Nothing definite can be said just yet, of course, but if Williams’ relatives can be tracked down, DNA tests could make a positive match.
Hopefully, the other sailor can be identified, too, and by this December, the 150th anniversary of their deaths, there’ll be quite a memorable burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Oil painting by Thomas Skinner depicts the battle of the ironclads, March 9, 1862, Courtesy of the Mariners’ Museum.
Sunday March 9, 1862 was mild like it is now, a fine day for church, except that, out on the water in Hampton Roads, men lay in wait behind thick armor, determined to kill each other. It’s fair to say they were on edge.
Below deck in the Yankee ironclad Monitor, the only light was what seeped through viewing slits in the turret and flickered from lanterns. For most the sense of not being able to see where they were or where the enemy lay was suddenly brought home.
“I experienced a peculiar sensation,” paymaster William Keeler wrote to his wife. “I do not think it was fear, but it was different from anything I ever knew before. We were enclosed in what we supposed to be impenetrable armour – we knew that a powerful foe was about to meet us – ours was an untried experiment and our enemy’s first fire might make it a coffin for us all.”
Dinwiddie Phillips, the surgeon on board the rebel ironclad Virginia, experienced an almost identical dread. ”Our vessel never having been tested before, and her model being new and unheard of, many of those who watched us predicted failure and others suggested that the Virginia was an enormous metallic burial case, and that we were conducting our own funeral.”
These combatants, many of whom had never served on a warship of any kind – those on the Virginian had not even had a sea trial or fired its guns – were about to make history by shooting at each other from behind heavy armor. There were other ironclads in the world but none had been tested in combat.
The first confirmation most of the Monitor’s crew had that a battle had begun was the howl of gunfire as the Minnesota, a wooden Union ship, unleashed a broadside at the Virginia, with no more effect than peas fired from a pea-shooter.
As captain John Worden maneuvered the Monitor alongside the Virginia. gunners crowded in the cave-like space of the turret waited anxiously as it revolved. Then they raised one of the heavy port stoppers, ran out the 11-inch Dahlgren gun and fired.
There was an earsplitting roar and choking odor of smoke as the immense cannon hurled 170 pounds of solid iron at the Virginia. It was 8:20 a.m. The battle had been joined.
Like heavyweight boxers, the two ironclads seemed to stand toe-to-toe, sometimes actually touching each other as they fought desperately amidst a cloud of thick smoke.
In the hot, stifling turret, gunners stripped to the waist, their bodies black with powder and drenched with perspiration. When the ship first received a direct hit, there must have been a sudden intake of breath and a gasp as the crew realized the shot had dented but not penetrated the armor.
Down in the heavy ironclad casemate of the Virginia, conditions were the same. At one point, when the Monitor fired at close range, gunners near the impact were stunned nearly senseless by the concussion. Adding to the hellish conditions, engines below them belched smoke and heat as the ships jockeyed for position.
Maybe this was better than having wooden timbers smashed to pieces, but it was no less frightening. One Monitor gunner “fell over like a dead man” when a shot hit the armor near his head – he was revived by brandy. Another whose knee was in contact with the iron wall was flung through the air when another shot hit home.
The more agile Monitor – not having to square up to fire broadsides – stung the Virginia again and again. Frustrated gunners on the Virginia stopped firing at one point because they felt it was pointless against the heavy iron of their enemy. Both ships tried ramming the other and narrowly missed.
The closest thing to a casualty was the almost-deadly shot of one of the Virginia’s gunners just as Captain Worden was peering through the viewing slit in the forward pilothouse. He staggered back, blinded and bloody and had to be taken to his quarters.
The Monitor withdrew to deal with Worden, then attempted to get back into the battle, but the Virginia’s officers, realizing that the tide was falling and endangering their deep-draft warrior, headed toward the Elizabeth River. Both sides claimed victory, but it was a hard-fought, claustrophobic draw.
The legacy of the battle was the end of the era of wooden ships. The new ones were, in the words of Herman Melville, “welded tombs.” But he saw a small silver lining: “War shall yet be, but warriors/Are now but operatives; War’s made/Less grand than peace.”
It was just after noon on March 8, 1862. A gentle northwesterly rippled the water out on Hampton Roads. In the distance, proceeding down the Elizabeth River, a column of black smoke could be seen. A shiver of fear went through the quartermaster aboard the Union ship Congress as he turned to one of his officers. “I wish you would take a glass and look over there, sir,” he said. “I believe that thing is a-comin’ down at last.”
That “thing” was the CSS Virginia, its hour come to test its fearsome prowess on the aging wooden ships of the Union blockade. The Confederate ironclad looked like the roof of a barn with a chimney belching black smoke, one observer felt. Another compared it to a “half-submerged crocodile.” Gleaming with pig fat that had been slathered on its sloping sides to help deflect enemy fire, it appeared to still another witness as, simply, a “dark monster.”
This lethal weapon was the brain child of the South’s secretary of the navy, Stephen R. Mallory, who knew there was no chance of competing with the North’s much larger fleet – unless. “Iron-armored” vessels, he believed, were capable of not only ripping through the blockade but even threatening cities as far north as Washington and New York, striking a blow “from which the enemy could never recover.”
Beginning in July 1861, workers at the Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth began transforming what had been the Union steam frigate Merrimack. They cut the ship down to its berth deck, then erected a heavy, slanting oak and pine casemate on top and cloaked it with four-inch sheets of iron. The Tredager Iron Works in Richmond had been pushed to capacity, fashioning the armor with the help of old railroad and trolley tracks.
Rechristened the CSS Virginia, the beast that emerged was the Union’s worst nightmare, an impenetrable gun battery, bristling with weapons and another nasty surprise, a 1500-pound iron ram.
The air was electric as news of the ship’s departure spread.
“In an instant the city was in an uproar, women, children, men on horseback and on foot running down toward the river from every conceivable direction, shouting, ‘the Merrimac is going down’” wrote a Georgia infantry private who watched from the shore. As the Virginia steamed into the Roads, the fragile federal fleet lay waiting like ducks in a shooting gallery.
The Virginia’s first targets were the Cumberland, a 1,726-ton sloop of war, and the Congress, a 1,867-ton sailing frigate, both with long and distinguished careers at sea but both completely dependent on sail power.
Heading straight for the Cumberland at full speed, the Virginia plowed into the Union ship’s starboard side, at the same time reversing its engines and causing the ram to break off in its victim like the stinger of a killer bee, Then, methodically, the Virginia’s gunners mauled the wooden ship. Rivers of blood and gore ran across the Cumberland’s decks as it sank, but the defenders kept firing until their gun ports were under water.
Next, it was the Congress’s turn. Seeing what had happened to the Cumberland, the commander of the Congress ran his ship into shallow water near Newport News and became grounded. Even so, the assassin was able to stand off about two miles and pummel the wooden ship with broadsides.
“The carnage, havoc and dismay caused by our fire compelled them to haul down their colors” and hoist white flags of surrender, flag officer Franklin Buchanan reported.
At the end of the day, 121 men on the Cumberland and 240 on the Congress had lost their lives, one of the greatest losses in American naval history. And there might have been more. The USS Minnesota, had run aground and would have been next had the tide not been falling. No problem, there’d be plenty of time the next day.
The Virginia headed for Sewell’s Point and anchored there for the night.
“We slept at our guns,” one of the officers said, “dreaming of other victories in the morning.”
But that night, as the Virginia crew dozed, a pilot on board noticed a strange shape, silhouetted by the fires of a burning federal ship, gliding across the Roads.
Next: The battle is joined.
Illustration: The wooden ship Congress goes up in flames after being plugged with "hot shot." Mariners' Museum.