Historians are supposed to be objective. We are supposed to let the sources speak for themselves and not manipulate them to our purposes. We are supposed to remain removed from our subjects of study.
All of this is good. And it makes for great history.

But there are times you meet someone long dead about whom it is hard to stay completely objective. Because, you see, historians can and do fall in love with the past. Not a romantic love, mind you. But a kinship. Perhaps more like family. I mean – you insinuate your way into their lives like a family member, and in many cases, you know more about them than any family member knows. Their words, their lives, their illnesses – all become available to the historian who pursues them.

And I pursue Eben Stoddard.

I once spoke with the great grandson of the man who first hired Stoddard into the occupation that would eventually consume him. I went there to find out about Barnabas and Joseph Baker. I left there knowing that Stoddard was my objective.

You see, Barnabas and Joseph Baker were the elusive two who are but a cipher in the books about the Civil War. They were always just B & J Baker – or the Baker Brothers; the “Celebrated Wreckers.” And they raised the Merrimack – which became the CSS Virginia. I wanted to know their names. I wanted them to be less than a cipher. I wanted to know who they were. And I knew that E.M. Stoddard was their associate. Also a mystery. But never mentioned. I had dug deep to find that name.

So when I asked Billy Baker what he knew about Barnabas and Joseph – he regaled me with stories. He verified facts. He gave me so much, and helped unlock the key to the cipher.

But when I asked him about Eben Stoddard, he stopped cold. And this man who had never known any of these people first hand said quietly:

“Stoddard. Now, he’s the real hero.”

And it was that day that my focus shifted. It was that day I chose to follow Eben Stoddard.

I know he was born in Ledyard, CT in 1834 or 35 – depending on which sources you believe. I know that he was the youngest child of 4 by 19 years – perhaps a surprise in his parents’ mid-40s. He shipped out to sea on a merchant vessel while still in his teens – the schooner Elizabeth Segar out of Mystic, CT. The schooner carried miscellaneous cargo between ports in the Gulf, Caribbean, and along the Atlantic seaboard. Stopping in New Orleans in November 1855, Eben received his affidavit of citizenship – a proto-passport if you will, designed to provide sailors with national identity. During his time on the Elizabeth Segar he visited the Hampton Roads region of Virginia. Though it is unclear when he came to live there permanently, by 1861 it appears that he had thrown in his lot with the wreckers Barnabas and Joseph Baker.

He was a Union man – as were the Bakers, though I had no way of knowing that at first. But when the war came, his path was clear – though that path from Virginia to the North was likely not one he would have willingly chosen. Captured by the Union navy while working a wreck belonging to northern interests, he was initially branded a Confederate – a claim he vehemently denied at trial. After being exonerated, he headed back north, where he joined the US Navy.

So it is that recently I found myself walking through Portsmouth, New Hampshire trying to find the essence of a young sailor who cast his lot with the Union and found a berth as volunteer Acting Master on the USS Kearsarge. He lived there for a time as the ship was readied for service. And he found love there – though it was a love fraught with difficulty and frequent separation. It was a love that did not survive his post-war occupation which found him away from his wife and family more than he was with them.

They married right after the war – after his service was done. And so he moved his young wife from Portsmouth to Portsmouth. New Hampshire to Virginia. He spent days, weeks, months away in his job as a wrecker – traveling as far as South America, the Caribbean, Bermuda, and Africa to do his work. They had a child – a girl – in 1870, and a boy in 1880. But by then I guess his wife had had enough and went back to her Portsmouth with the children.

I visited her home that day in New Hampshire. I am as fascinated with her as I am with him. I cannot pretend to know what motivated either of them in their personal lives. I cannot know how difficult the marriage may have been. I do not know who was at fault, though I suspect it was a shared fault. They divorced – which was not common. But then they remarried. Each other. The pension files tell a terse story – it was for the insurance.

Her claim was denied.

His last years were difficult. His health failing, his business bought out by a larger concern he turned his hand to fishing. Yet this old wrecker who had saved so many had to be rescued himself when his fishing vessel was driven ashore in NC in 1895. There, along the very shore where his daring and skill had vaulted his name into national headlines, he suffered the same fate as so many – his ship lost, but his life spared. After that, he quit the sea – though the sea was never far from him. Moving in with his nephew Orrin and family in Middletown, CT, he continued to write, invent, and build, though he became more and more an invalid.

At some point he built a small pulling boat – a peapod modeled on the surf boats he had used so often in his countless jobs along the coast. While it is not certain for whom it was built, it was likely for his nieces and nephews with whom he lived. That vessel called to me as well – from a darkened corner of collections storage at Mystic Seaport. I had not gone seeking the boat – but it surely sought me. Its elegant lines bespoke an artistry that came from his decades upon the water. His great-grand niece Martha donated it to Mystic sometime in the 1970s, saving it from the fate of most old boats built by long-gone relatives.

By 1898 he could barely walk and barely hear. He certainly could no longer work. It appears any money he may have had went to Ellen for the upkeep of their son Stephen, who suffered from some sort of mental instability. Essentially destitute, Eben had himself committed to Sailor’s Snug Harbor on Staten Island. The notation on his intake form said that he was ‘deaf and worn out’; his occupation had destroyed so much.

On that intake page at Snug Harbor Ellen was an afterthought – added as next of kin after almost anyone else. I doubt that they saw each other much – if at all – after he arrived there in 1898. He lingered on until 1902 – active at first, being allowed ‘leave’ for days or even weeks at a time. Then the times grew less frequent. Shorter. Until he no longer left at all. HIs cause of death was listed as syncope. His heart had simply given out. His nephew brought him back to Connecticut and buried him in Ledyard.

And Ellen died alone – in a hotel in Philadelphia 11 years later. The death certificate reveals diabetes, and pancreatic cancer. She was sent home on that final journey – to her Portsmouth. She is elusive, though. That day in Portsmouth I could not find her mortal remains. But I know where she lies now, so I will return.

Their daughter married and had a family. As far as I can tell she had a good life. The son – not so much. Institutionalized for years – he died alone, just like his father and mother. But he was in a mental institution with no next of kin known. Father and mother both long dead. Sister moved on. I had hoped to find the son in Portsmouth as well – to stand there and say ‘I know who you are. I know from whence you came, and I am here to honor you’ – but perhaps that is for another time.

But for that one day in Portsmouth, I honored their young selves – Eben and Ellen. Full of hope, hopelessly optimistic and looking into a future that neither one of them could ken. I walked through the streets of Portsmouth as much a ghost as they were. Half-bemused, I allowed them to lead me to the places I needed to see. My GPS was turned off. Instinct was turned on. And I found them there. And I will find them elsewhere. Until they tell me that I have followed them enough.

He was a hero by any accounts. He commanded the aft pivot of the Kearsarge in the battle against the Alabama. But that was a few short hours in his life. The rest of his life was spent rescuing ships, cargo, and human life from the clutches of the sea and shore.

But he couldn’t rescue what had been with his wife and family. Because all heroes have their faults.

As do historians. But I’m going to try to tell his story as best I can.

It’s what I do.

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It’s a time of goodbyes. But for today, we say goodby to our old Bucko mate….

So Long – C. Fox Smith (1924)

All coiled down, an’ it’s time for us to go;
Every sail’s furled in a neat harbour stow;
Another ship for me, an’ for her another crew –
An’ so long, sailorman … good luck to you!

Fun an’ friends I wish you till the pay’s all gone –
Pleasure when you spend it an’ content when it’s done –
An’ a chest that’s not empty when you go back to sea,
An’ a better ship than she’s been, an’ a truer pal than me.

A good berth I wish you, in a ship that’s well found,
With a decent crowd forrard, an’ her gear all sound,
Spars a man can trust to when it’s comin’ on to blow,
An’ no bosun bawlin’ when it’s your watch below.

A good Trade I wish you, an’ a fair landfall,
Neither fog, nor iceberg, nor long calm, nor squall,
A pleasant port to come to, when the work’s all through –
An’ so long, sailorman … good luck to you.

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From the William & Mary Quarterly, July, 1915, Volume 24, Issue 1 – so writes Robert L. Preston on page 66:

As fifty years have passed since that eventful combat, let us relegate to the rubbish heap all such tales as that the Monitor drove the Merrimac back to Norfolk, never to come out again. Burn up the histories, if they are incorrect, and re-write them. The hot blood of patriotism is excellent in time of war, but in peace by all means let us have the cold facts of history.

If fairy tales are necessary, serve them up to the little tin soldiers and the chocolate-cream generals, who have feasted on them so long. The real soldiers have no taste for them, and the children of the country need plain and simple food.

Now I’m hungry…..

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21. July 2008 · Write a comment · Categories: maritime · Tags:

From Monday’s a bitch

1. Have you ever been on a cruise?
Yes – several. But none of them are typical, and only one was on an actual cruise ship – and it had neither pool, nor floor show, nor shuffleboard. The rest involved square riggers and the leeward rail….

2. Do you own a gravy boat?
Sadly, no.

3. You’ve become the proud owner of a brand new boat.What do you name your vessel?
The HMS Burford, of course….

4. What is your favourite movie about boats?
Well – that would have to be ‘Jaws’ – since they need a bigger one….

5. Do you get sea sick easily?
65-foot square rigger, The Perfect Storm, galley duty…..you do the math.

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Today has given me pause, as I have only now found out about the death of the HMS Belfast‘s ships’ cat.

I do hate people sometimes.

Anyway – I shall raise a glass this evening for ships’ cats past, present and future. And confusion to their enemies.

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For those of y’all who’ve wondered where I’ve been lately…..

From The Daily Press

Submerging into history

The USS Monitor Center in Newport New prepares to show off its port to visitors

BY MARK ST. JOHN ERICKSON

February 11, 2007

Nobody saw the massive project looming toward the radar screen when The Mariners’ Museum launched an ambitious fundraising and improvement campaign just over 10 years ago.

Despite more than two decades of expeditions, underwater archaeologists had recovered little more than a hundred small artifacts from the wreck of the USS Monitor, the famous Civil War ironclad that lay at the bottom of the Atlantic off stormy Cape Hatteras, N.C. The one large object they had retrieved – a 1,500-pound anchor – still left plenty of room for the museum to fulfill its role as the primary caretaker of artifacts associated with the pioneering vessel.

But with the rescue of the ship’s propeller in 1998 – followed by the recovery of the massive steam engine and still larger gun turret within four years – a responsibility that had long weighed less than 2,000 pounds suddenly exploded into some 150 tons of priceless Civil War iron. That dramatic leap in scale not only pumped up the museum’s long-term plans in ways nobody had foreseen but also sparked a remarkable transformation.

Now nearing completion, the USS Monitor Center represents one of the largest parts of an enormous building campaign in which Peninsula museums have added more than 150,000 square feet and nearly $80 million in improvements over the past year because of the Jamestown 2007 celebration. But when it opens March 9, the 63,500-square-foot, $30 million exhibit hall and conservation lab also will herald a striking change in the character of one of the nation’s leading maritime museums.

“We’re not just trying to make the Monitor Center, we’re trying to change the face of The Mariners’ Museum,” Monitor Center curator Anna Holloway says. “We want to increase our visibility. We want to raise our profile. We want to change not only the way that we’re perceived but also how we do things and who our visitors are.”

Tacked onto the list of improvements targeted by the 1996 capital campaign, the Monitor Center began in late 1998 with a $500,0000 study designed to sketch out what would be needed to conserve and display the mounting stream of artifacts from the wreck. Within 18 months, that exploratory glimpse had grown into a bold plan for a large-scale exhibit hall as well as a state-of-the-art conservation lab whose work could be observed by the public.

The award-winning architectural design that resulted envisioned a sprawling two-level structure in which visitors would be able to walk in, around, on top of and under a full-scale replica of the Monitor. But when potential general contractors began to respond to the plan, the cost of the heroic engineering measures needed to make it work with the unforgiving Tidewater soil was colossal.

“It was a very wrenching fork in the road. We just couldn’t afford it,” recalls David Dwyer, Mariners’ vice president and executive manager of the project. “Because of the water table, the underground gallery – which we dubbed the ‘bathtub’ – would have popped back out of the ground without really robust support. That drove the cost to the point where the first 25 to 30 percent of the building was taking up about half the budget – and we just had to get more bang for our buck.”

Other problems confronted the planners, too, including the difficulty of creating a structure that not only incorporated two distinct functions – an exhibit hall and a conservation lab – but also embraced the complicated storyline behind the historic Monitor of the Civil War and its dramatic recovery nearly 140 years later.

Both topics had scored extremely well with test audiences, Holloway says. But putting them together in a single space proved to be a challenge.

“We have a story that takes place partly in the mid-1800s – and partly today. We have artifacts that are in the process of being conserved – but they may not be ready for years. We have artifacts that may never be recovered – but we have to have places for them in case they are,” Holloway says.

“Put the whole thing together and you have so many parts that it seems almost impossible to get your hands on it all. We actually had some design firms withdraw their proposals because it was just too hard.”

Many of these problems were ironed out through “Ironclad Evidence,” a 2004 exhibit that Holloway describes as a “dress rehearsal.” Equally important was the proving ground that the show provided for the museum’s sometimes heated relationship with the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, the Newport News-based federal agency charged with protecting the wreck and overseeing the artifact recovery and conservation efforts.

Few people know as much about the famous ship as sanctuary historian Jeff Johnston, who Holloway now describes as her co-curator. But past differences between the two institutions have often been wide and deep, ranging from disagreements over the care of the artifacts to turf disputes between the sanctuary’s superiors at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the museum’s board of trustees.

“The whole purpose of ‘Ironclad Evidence’ was to figure out how to work together – and that meant working together at every level,” Holloway says. “We had to learn to speak each other’s institutional language. But once we got over that, we really worked together very well.”

Proof of that partnership can be found not only in NOAA’s leading financial contribution to the project – an estimated $10 million so far – but also in the close attention that Holloway and Johnston have learned to pay to each other’s interests. Working with New York-based exhibit design firm DMCD, they’ve striven to hammer out an experience that transcends both the Monitor and the Civil War by emphasizing the human stories associated with the ship. They’ve also insisted on moving far beyond the traditional exhibit paradigms associated with history museums.

“We’ve got great stuff – really great artifacts – and really great stories to tell. But when you move through most of our galleries, it’s just a cabinet of curiosities unless you have one of our fabulous docents there to make it come alive for you,” Holloway says.

“We can’t have docents in every spot all the time. So we had to find new ways to take the stuff we have and make it more interesting and relevant.”

One strategy came from the National Aquarium in Baltimore, from which Holloway and Johnston borrowed the meandering but carefully calculated floor plan that has helped make the attraction one of the most popular on the East Coast. Marked by dramatic twists and turns that often lead to unexpected theatrical vistas, it animates the visitors’ experience in ways rarely found in history museums.

“We want people to say ‘Whoa!’ when they see what great stuff we have,” Holloway says, “and that’s what all these twists and turns are about.”

Computer technology plays an important role, too, especially as a means of engaging visitors and immersing them in the rich array of objects found in both the Mariners’ and the Monitor collections. In one attraction called “100 Days to Build a Warship,” visitors can interact with a computer screen that moves along a wall-sized timeline, accessing reams of audio, video and animated footage in addition to photographs, documents and artifacts explaining how the Monitor was constructed.

“NOAA’s collection is huge. The museum’s collection is huge. So how do we show people all this stuff?” Johnston asks. “The answer lies in technology like the I-Wall, where they can immerse themselves in all sorts of things if they want to – and where, suddenly, as you’re going through all this information, something like the receipt for the Monitor‘s paint job can become a really cool document.”

Similar kinds of technology power the exhibit’s personal story stations, enabling visitors to understand the people and issues surrounding the Monitor in a vivid and unexpectedly comprehensive manner. Other computer stations use challenging interactive games to explore such otherwise obtuse topics as designing an ironclad and maneuvering a wooden warship.

More digital magic waits in the museum’s new Battle Theater, where visitors will come as close to experiencing the historic clash between the Monitor and the CSS Virginia as current exhibit technology can make it, Johnston says.

“The great thing about the Monitor Center is that it allows you to experience the traditional and the new side by side – and the mix between the two works really well,” he explains.

“People will be able to see cool artifacts in cases – and we’ll have plenty of those. But they’ll also be able to push buttons and do things with these cool interactives.”

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My oh my – how the time does fly…

Here we are staring spring in the face already. A month has flown by nearly unnoticed as things have sped up to the point that I am displaying both a red and a blue shift depending on your vantage point.

We have survived yet another Battle of Hampton Roads weekend – and, at year 4 – it seems that we almost know what we’re doing! It was a whirlwind of fun – seeing old friends, making new ones and having a truly fun time whilst actually learning something! I had a great time with our speakers and guests – I had a meeting with James McPherson, Craig Symonds and Harold Holzer to go over themes for the exhibition. They could have made it feel like my doctoral comps all over again – but instead it was a blast! I got to take them out onto the deck of the full-size Monitor replica and it was fun to watch their reactions.

I think everyone who has been out there gets goosebumps. It’s pretty phenomenal.

So that was fun! The weekend is always great for catching up with folks we haven’t seen in a year, too. Bill (who is triply related to folks from the Monitor‘s crew and builders) was so much fun to hang out with and Francis and his wife brought many fine goodies to loan to us for the exhibit. Steve & Sylvia came all the way from California and we had a great time discussing all things ironclad and looking at pictures of Steve’s RC replicas – which he’ll be bringing out east next year for the grand opening.

Bob from National Ge0graphic brought freebies for us as well as an incredible Jim Gurney painting that will hopefully come to stay with us someday, someway. Bob Holland brought us some paintings to display as well – and some prints for us to sell. Very nice indeed!

We were able to display a brand new model of the CSS Patrick Henry made by Ozzy Raines. She’s absolutely beautiful – his work is exquisite. The MOC wants her – and I offered to arm-wrestle Dr. Coski for it – but he declined…

We also had a new member of the staff show up just in time for the weekend. Gunner Wood – fresh from Tennessee (and the Guru compound) made his appearance – along with his gun and pipe – and delighted all of the guests who were fortunate enough to meet him. We are looking for an appropriate berth for him in the new exhibition as he is – of course – a model of naval fortitude.

Well – I’m telecommuting at the moment – so work calls. But rather than continue to let you all think I fell off the face of the earth – I thought I’d resurface, if only for a moment…..

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I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the road lately doing lectures about the ickle cheesebox and what a long, strange, awesome trip it’s been.

It started back in January – I was invited – along with our CEO – to speak at the ‘Marine Art and History Fortnight’ at the New York Yacht Club. The folks there were absolutely wonderful and so were the accomodations! John and I gave our presentation in the legendary Model Room, which has recently been renovated and was exquisite in the extreme. A model of the USS Monitor hung on the wall along with dozens of others – evoking brilliant yacht races of years past. The spirit of the America herself was there as well. I cannot thank the folks there enough – but big huzzahs go to Commodore Hinman, Dr. McKay and Lindsay the wonderful curator of the club!

I was also treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of Christie’s auction house by Marie and Gregg – the marine curators there. I had been fortunate enough to be able to purchase a collection for the Museum (ok – I didn’t pay for it…..)thanks to the folks at Christie’s (we’ll do a press release soon!) and since we were going to be in the neighborhood…we stopped by! Marie and Gregg took us to The Sea Grill for lunch and then treated us to a visit with our new collection (which was being shipped out the next day) and with the incredible Peale painting of George Washington.

I also spent some quality time looking for the Naked Cowboy (he wasn’t there) and the new Belle & Sebastian single (it wasn’t out in the states yet…) and drinking lots of coffee.

I spent the rest of the week haunting areas of Manhattan that I never would have imagined I could have gained entry to – if you’d asked me 5 years ago I would have told you you were crazy!

And yet I found myself at the Century Club having lunch with some of the most wonderful people – and a tour of the building given by one of the members in our company. The weight of history hung heavy in those rooms. The leather chairs, the writing desks tucked away here and there. The quiet of the library…it was truly breathtaking.

New York was followed closely upon by a trip to Portland, Maine. In fact, I met some of my colleagues at LaGuardia to continue on to points north. One Lazy Lobster and a few pints of Shipyard Ale later and I was ready to head home!

This past week I’ve given two presentations on….what else? More on those later. But I thought I’d take a few minutes to catch up.

It’s been waaaay too long.

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