Kinston’s Confederate gunboat museum opening Thursday

Published: July 18, 2013
By Kelsey Rupp — krupp@newsobserver.com

The CSS Neuse Civil War Interpretive Center opens in downtown Kinston on Thursday, telling Eastern North Carolina’s Civil War story with the Confederate ironclad as its centerpiece.

The opening ceremony begins with the dedication of a new highway marker at 10:30 a.m., followed by a behind-the-scenes public tour of the new museum at 100 N. Queen St.

Though museum officials do not expect the permanent displays to be completed until mid 2014, the facility’s main attraction, the CSS Neuse, is on view from a mezzanine balcony that is level with the ship’s deck.

“This is a soft opening,” said site manager Sarah Ristey-Davis. “We are promoting this time as our behind-the-scenes specialty tours. We have a temporary exhibit set up in the mezzanine; people can see the museum and see the ship and see our craftsmen as they complete the permanent exhibits.”

The remaining hull of the CSS Neuse suffered from nearly a century of sitting in the Neuse River; followed by decades of exposure to wind, water, humidity and heat before it was finally settled in this climate-controlled building last June.

The museum was originally designed to focus solely on the ship, but museum officials saw the new facility as an opportunity to take a more holistic approach and highlight North Carolina’s pivotal role during the Civil War.

“We will be talking about the two battles of Kinston during the Civil War, the Battle of New Bern, and special history as well, the home front life for minorities and women,” said Ristey-Davis.

State Department of Cultural Resources spokeswoman Fay Mitchell said she expects the facility to be popular, because it emphasizes a Civil War artifact unique to North Carolina.

The CSS Neuse was one of 22 ironclad gunboats commissioned by the Confederate government in 1862 and built on the banks of the Neuse River, in what is now Seven Springs, about 18 miles upriver from Kinston.

The ironclad measured 158 feet long and 34 feet wide when it was completed. When Union troops occupied Kinston in March 1865, the Neuse was intentionally burned by its crew, resulting in an explosion that sank the vessel.

“In March 1865,” said Morris Bass, the museum’s operations manager, “you had three Union armies concentrated in Eastern North Carolina. And North Carolina is like the backdoor of the Confederacy. What happened in March 1865 is what led to the last port of the Confederacy to fall.”

“Once the ports were closed and the Confederacy could not receive supplies, the backdoor was kicked open and the Confederacy began to collapse from the inside,” he said

The remains of the CSS Neuse stayed in the river until 1963. The ship was moved under a shed and shared a site with a memorial to Richard Caswell, the state’s first governor, on West Vernon Avenue. The shed was roofed but had neither walls nor climate control, and the site was flooded by hurricanes twice – once by Fran in 1996 and again by Floyd in 1999.

In 2000, the CSS Neuse Gunboat Association acquired an empty building in downtown Kinston on Queen Street and donated it to the state for a new museum, said Bass. The state allotted $3.2 million for a new facility; the donated building became the lobby and gift shop while the state constructed a climate-controlled addition to house the vessel.

After Thursday’s grand opening, the museum will offer tours Tuesday through Saturday at 10 a.m., 12 noon, and 2 p.m.

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