CSS Neuse Hull Moves To New Museum
By Scott C. Boyd
(August 2012 Civil War News)
Union Pvt. Philip Bader took this prayer book from “a dead Secesh [Confederate] soldier” after the Battle of Rich Mountain on July 11, 1861. (Walt Lesser)
KINSTON, N.C. – The wooden hull of the Confederate ironclad CSS Neuse was moved indoors on June 23 for the first time since it was recovered from the Neuse River in 1963.
The Blake Moving and Rigging Company of Greensboro, N.C., moved the three hull sections from the CSS Neuse State Historic Site and Governor Richard Caswell Memorial on the outskirts of town 2.9 miles to its new downtown home in the CSS Neuse Interpretive Center on North Queen Street.
The bow weighed 39 tons, the midsection 50 tons and the stern 18 tons, according to the movers.
A wooden crib supported each piece, each of which rested on several remote-controlled wheeled dollies. The Unified Jacking System enabled each jack on the dollies to lift at the same time and same rate, making them very adept at negotiating uneven ground.
By the evening of June 22, all three sections were on dollies and ready to be moved.
At 5:30 a.m. the next day the first hull section smoothly crossed the curb and slowly moved onto Vernon Avenue. By 5:56 AM all three hull sections were on the road with a police escort.
The caravan started the journey downtown at roughly one mile per hour. By 9:47 the last section sat in the new interpretive center.
“This is the last and best move of the CSS Neuse because it will ensure its preservation for generations to come,” said Keith A. Hardison, director of the North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites and Properties.
“We’ve worked long and hard for decades to have the Neuse in a permanent climate-controlled environment where we can protect it and properly interpret it to the public,” he said.
The air temperature must be cooled very gradually, according to Morris Bass, the site operations manager. It could take six months to a year, he said.
“The biggest thing we have to do with the ship is control the humidity, because she’s wood,” he said. “She expands and she contracts. Little pieces of wood fall off, nails back out of planking and trunnels back out.”
The contract to build the CSS Neuse was signed in October 1862. Confederate Navy chief naval constructor John L. Porter designed the Neuse virtually identical to sister ship CSS Albemarle.
The Neuse was 157 feet long, 34 feet wide and had a draft of 7-9 feet, with a flat bottom well-suited to inland rivers, according to C.S.S. Neuse: A Question of Iron and Time, by Leslie S. Bright, William H. Rowland and James C. Bardon (1981).
The Neuse carried two 6.4-inch double-banded Brooke rifles on pivots inside her casemate, behind 4 inches of iron armor plates.
The ship was launched in mid-March 1863, but not completed until June 1864. Persistent shortages of nearly everything except wood hampered her builders, as with most Confederate ironclads.
After the fall of Wilmington, N.C., in February 1865, Union forces came through Kinston on their way to Goldsboro to meet Gen. W.T. Sherman’s army.
The one battle the Neuse fought was also her last action. As Confederate troops abandoned Kinston on March 12, 1865, the Neuse fired on advancing Union cavalry before being blown up by her crew to avoid capture.
Gunpowder from the magazine was placed in the bow, 10 feet of which was obliterated by the explosion. She sank bow-first, listing to port, Bass said. There was a 20-foot hole on the port side. The forward deck had buckled.
The hulk could be seen at low tide in the Neuse River at the spot known as “Gunboat Bend,” according to Bass.
His late friend Alton Stapleford recounted a story his grandmother told him in 1961. She was the last living person who had been in Kinston when the Neuse exploded. She had two memories. As a 4- or 5-year-old, she had seen the “big black hulk” of the Neuse in the river before it blew up; and she recalled feeling scared of the Union troops advancing on Kinston.
As with most abandoned ironclads, the Neuse’s iron components like the armor plating were salvaged after the war, Bass said. No one knows what happened to its two Brooke rifles.
Following many delays and difficulties after starting in 1961, the wooden hull was recovered intact from the river in 1963, Bass said. It was placed on the riverbank to dry.
Roughly three-quarters of the hull survived, according to C.S.S. Neuse, at a length of 136 feet and a width of 37 feet.
In 1964 it was moved to the Governor Richard Caswell Memorial, a state park about five miles away. Bass said local roads couldn’t accommodate its weight. This was when and why the hull was cut into three sections.
At the Caswell Memorial, it was placed down by the river. In 1969, a roof, like a big carport, covered the ship.
Hurricane Fran flooded the area in 1996 and soaked the ship in 21 inches of water. In 1998, it was moved to higher ground at the site with a roof overhead.
When Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999 they were in the process of raising money to place the Neuse in a climate-controlled facility at the site.
“Floyd threw a monkey wrench into those plans,” Bass said. Standing water from the storm ruined the existing visitor center and museum.
The CSS Neuse Gunboat Association, a private, non-profit friends group founded in 1976, donated the site with buildings in downtown Kinston in 2006. The existing main building is undergoing renovation. Remnants of three shops were removed and an addition was added for the hull.
The state owns the hull and manages the new site. The association will operate the gift shop.
Ground was broken on April 21, 2011, for the 19,000-square-foot interpretive center to showcase the ship and artifacts salvaged from the wreck years ago. These include artillery projectiles, tools, the bell, buttons and a belt buckle. Visitors will also see a video about the Neuse and a cut-away scale model.
Hardison said a “ghosting” frame will sit above the hull, suggesting what the missing upper part of the ship would look like.
This is similar to what the National Civil War Naval Museum in Columbus, Ga., placed over its recovered hull of the ironclad CSS Jackson.
The ghosting over the Neuse, however, will be incorporated into a viewing platform that will place the visitor on the deck of the ship behind the aft section of the casemate.
“You will be able to not only look at the Neuse but place yourself on the Neuse to have a personal experience with it,” Hardison said.
The museum’s main floor will have a replica of a cross-section of the gun deck, including a faux Brooke rifle.
“We will have activities from time to time where visitors will actually help service the gun – do gun drill – under the watchful eye of the ship’s gunner,” Hardison said.
From a window in the new facility, a full-scale replica of the ship, dubbed CSS Neuse II, can be seen nearby. The CSS Neuse Foundation, a separate non-profit group, built it. The ship’s interior and exterior have been recreated, with the casemate’s armor painted on the wooden structure.
Visitors can see the original ship and then access a full-scale replica of the Neuse as she was when originally built, Hardison said. “You get a two-for-one package.”
Funds are still needed to complete the museum. Hardison said the estimated completion date is sometime next year.
By the end of October the mezzanine above the hull will be opened to visitors.
“They will be able to watch the process of building a new museum literally around the boat,” Hardison said. “This is the crown jewel.”
For information about the CSS Neuse Interpretive Center call (252) 522-2107. Additional information is at www.nchistoricsites.org/neuse/main.htm and www.cssneuseii.org