Sunday, November 20, 2011

Confederate Ship's Bell Returns Home

Bell from Confederate ship is back home in N.C.

The Virginian-Pilot
November 17, 2011

One history buff from the North and another from the South maneuvered a heavy Confederate ship's bell into the Port O' Plymouth Museum on Wednesday.

Speaking instructions to each other in their distinct accents, Daniel McAuliffe of Worcester, Mass., and Jimmy Hardison of this northeastern North Carolina town pushed a dolly holding the bell, packed in a wooden box, through narrow passageways to the museum's rear display room and hefted it onto a table.

"I reckon that'll do it," Hardison said.

Placement of the bell was a friendly effort between North and South, unlike the circumstances back in October 1864. That's when Union Lt. William Cushing used a small boat to shove a torpedo into the bow of the CSS Albemarle, blowing out a hole big enough to drive a wagon through. The ship sank into the Roanoke River muck, ending its successful six-month campaign against the Union blockade in the Albemarle Sound.

The bell, which has gone back and forth between Worcester and Plymouth in recent years, is back on loan to the local museum for 10 years. McAuliffe acknowledged that interest in the war is much greater in the South, where the battles largely were fought and where many descendents of Confederate soldiers still live in the same county.

On the ironclad Albemarle, the bell sounded when to go forward or backward and marked watch changes, among other things. Life on the Albemarle was lived by the bell, said Harry Thompson, curator of the privately funded museum. This bell came from a church and was about three times larger than the typical ship's bell of the time, he said.

Schoolchildren from throughout the region and many others come to the museum, housed in an old train station, to see wall-to-wall artifacts from the 1864 Battle of Plymouth. Most of them are on loan from Hardison, who has spent his adult life searching the region for Civil War relics.

Gilbert Elliott was a 19-year-old lieutenant from Elizabeth City when he built the Albemarle in a cornfield just up the Roanoke River from Plymouth. During several battles, hundreds of cannonballs from Union ships bounced off the Albemarle's armor, and its ironclad strength allowed the Confederates to retake Plymouth and control the Roanoke River. In one battle, the USS Miami fired a round at close range, only to have the shell bounce off the Albemarle back onto the Miami, killing its commanding officer.

"She was feared by the Union," McAuliffe said.

The Union retook Plymouth a few days after the ship's sinking.

The Grand Army of the Republic Memorial of Worcester got the bell from the widow of Horace James, a Union chaplain from Worcester who supervised the Freedman's Colony of Roanoke Island.

Tom Harrison, a board member of the Washington County Historical Society, tried but failed to get the bell about 20 years ago. In 2001, he discovered it had been moved from the Grand Army museum to the Worcester Historical Museum, which was willing to make a loan.

Harrison drove 14 hours there to get it. It remained in Plymouth until this past April, when the bell went back to Worcester for the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War. Its return Wednesday begins a new chapter.

The CSS Albemarle was raised and brought to Norfolk, where it was eventually sold as scrap for $1,600.16, Thompson said. Only three known artifacts survive: the bell, a cannon stored at a naval facility in Norfolk and the smokestack on display at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City.