The best place to begin a tour of Civil War Newport News, Virginia, is at Fort Monroe. It is the largest stone fort built in the U.S. and, until recently, it was the only moat-encircled fort still used by the U.S. Army. The army closed the facility during September 2011 and the board overseeing the fortress recommended that Congress create a national park at the site.
Civil War activities began at Fort Monroe as early as May 1861. Three slaves escaped and entered the fortress. The owner demanded their return, but was refused. By late spring, more than 1,000 escaped slaves where sheltered in the fort.
Robert E. Lee was stationed at the fort as a young U.S. Army officer before the war. During the war, Harriet Tubman served here as a nurse. As the war ended, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was held as a prisoner within its walls.
James River and Hampton Roads
Congress and Cumberland Overlook: Beneath the James River lie the remains of the 30-gun USS Cumberland, the first wooden ship to fall to the Confederate ironclad USS Virginia. On March 8, 1862, the Virginia emerged from the Elizabeth River to challenge the Cumberland and the 50-gun USS Congress. The Cumberland was rammed and sank with 121 men aboard. The Congress surrendered and was destroyed by the Confederates. A telegram from a newspaper reporter who witnessed the fight, reported that the Union cannon shot “but glanced off like pebble stones.”
Monitor-Merrimack Overlook: The next day, the USS Monitor arrived in Hampton Roads. It featured a steam-powered rotating circular turret mounted with two 11-inch guns. It had eight inches of iron plate on the turret and more than four inches on the deck. While the fight between the Monitor and the Virginia ended in a stalemate, it changed navy warfare as it ushered in iron warships and made wooden fleets obsolete.
Stalemate in Hampton Roads: For a month after this Civil War battle, the two ships watched one another and waited for the other to attack. Neither would make the first move, and, on April 11, the ships moved on to other destinations.
Newport News Land Battles
Causey’s Mill: On April 4, 1862, Union and Confederate troops fought on the ground occupied now by Causey’s Mill. It is the only gristmill in the area that maintains its original machinery.
Young’s Mill: Earthworks across the road from Young’s Mill formed the Deep Creek anchor of a Confederate first defensive line during 1861. The area surrounding the mill was a Confederate campground that later was abandoned. “The rebels left quite a village of huts or barracks,” according to Union private Wilbur Fisk, “and from appearances, they had enjoyed much more comfortable quarters during the winter than we had ourselves.”
Warwick County Court House: Union troops took over this court house on present day Warwick Boulevard. It was looted and its grounds were renamed Camp Winfield Scott. Brigadier General Erasmus Darwin Keyes used the building as his headquarters for two months. A camp for the Union observation balloon Constitution was established here.
Battle of Lee’s Mill: While on the march from Young’s Mill during the morning of April 5, 1862, Union forces were greeted by more than 1,800 Confederates behind massive earthen fortifications. The Civil War earthworks are preserved on a 40-foot bluff overlooking the Warwick River.
Battle of Dam No. 1: On April 16, 1862, Union forces decided to test the Confederate line along the Warwick River. The assault failed. The Vermont Brigade recalled the battle site as “a creek with a wide dam which drank the blood of many of our men in one brief hour.”
Skiffes Creek: Abandoned on May 3, 1862 as the Confederate Army withdrew toward Williamsburg, a series of five extensive earthworks stretched from Lee’s Mill to Skiffes Creek.
More information about Newport News Civil War historic sites is available from the Newport News Tourism Development Office.