It isn’t often historical opportunities repeat themselves in the same town but in Kinston you can visit the same Civil War ironclad gunboat twice in the same day, and in two different locations.
One is the remains of the original boat; the other is a full-scale model you can tour. They complement each other, these two sites: both have a lot to offer for anyone with a naval or history bug.
Kinston was home to one of the lumbering Confederate behemoths during the latter half of the Civil War. When Rebel forces were ordered to abandon the city in 1865, the CSS Neuse’s crew was ordered to fire a few shots to slow the pursuing Yankees down, then scuttle their boat and join the retreat.
They did so, sinking the boat where the King Street Bridge now stands. In 1961 the boat was raised – a lot of it was damaged in the raising, according to site director Matthew Young – and set up for public view under a large pavilion at the Richard S. Caswell gravesite on the banks of the Neuse.
There it languished, only mildly protected from the elements, until a new museum was built and the remains removed to its present location at 100 North Queen Street in 2012. A good thing, too: “(Hurricanes) Matthew and Florence would have done a lot of damage,” Young said.
They might have carried the whole thing away.
The move was necessary even without a threat of flooding. With no climate control, Young said, “in 100 years or less it would just fall apart.”
The museum façade is a bit of an art piece, with banners hanging overhead as you walk by and a gigantic mural of the ship’s captain, gazing down on you as you pass.
Inside, you’re presented with a welcome center and gift shop before going down a narrow hall that opens into the gigantic room where the ship, and dozens of artifacts, await.
Those additional artifacts won’t distract you. The massive, charred beams of the ship’s hull, dark and brooding, scream for your attention as you enter the hall. It is an elaborate, orderly mess, with giant spikes sticking out of the heavy timbers, its aft keel trailing off and making you think, oddly, of a dinosaur’s spine in some museum of natural history.
Displays around the walls feature original artifacts. The ship’s bell is there, along with a copy of the original receipt (it cost $170 in Confederate dollars – quite a sum, considering a sailor’s wages were around $10 a month), shovels, pans, and a sampling of shells and other ordinance that the Neuse’s two 6.4-inch Brooke rifles would have thrown.
“We’ve gotten more artifacts off the Neuse than any other Confederate ship,” Young said.
Young said the ship, when raised from the river, originally had most of its decking still in place, before it was broken apart and cannibalized for scrap. Makes one a little furious at the salvager’s lack of historic perspective. “They saw it as a way to make money,” Young suggested.
Construction on the Neuse began in October, 1862, in what is now Seven Springs. No slaves were used in building it. General Robert Hoke, a Tarheel general who was a remarkable doppleganger of Robert E. Lee, Once the hull was finished it was floated to Kinston where it was fitted out with guns and iron plating shipped in by train. Young said the Neuse’s underwhelming engines were taken from a sawmill (underpowered engines were a regular problem with early ironclads).
Iron plating was primarily used above the waterline, especially over the casemate where the gun crew and pilot worked: a horizontal, 2-inch layer of iron laid over a vertical 2-inch layer, and beneath that a layer of oak over layers of pine.
Cannonballs could not pierce the ship, though the crew certainly felt the concussive shock when the shells struck. Inside, they had to live with smoke, intense heat and the crashing noise that left many men, Young said, “legally deaf.”
The Neuse was launched on April 22, 1864, to assist Lee in a planned attack on New Bern, only to immediately ground itself on a large sandbar. There it sat for a month until water levels were high enough to carry it off.
The gunboat did finally see action at the nearby Battle of Wyse Fork, the second largest land battle in the state during the war, on March 8-10, 1865. When the Yankees could not be driven back, the ship was on the 11th ordered to fight a delaying action while Confederates burned the bridge into town. To prevent capture, the crew packed the bow of the ship with gun powder, set her on fire, and abandoned her. Union forces entered the town four days later.
After the war, in 1865, the iron plating was removed from the wreckage and sold for scrap while the two guns were hauled off – no one seems to know where.
Along with artifacts and signs explaining daily life on the CSS Neuse, other displays show artifacts form the USS Underwriter, a gunboat Confederates had blown up in New Bern, and other displays talking about civilian life in Kinston. A “Third phase” is expected to be opened in the fall which will include information on army life in North Carolina in general, our battles, and a display on Negro regiments.
For information, including hours of operation, contact the CSS Neuse Interpretive Center at 252-256-9600.