NORFOLK, Va. — The brass bell, most of it, anyway, has survived the Battle of Hampton Roads, a Portsmouth church fire and the melting pot of a Baltimore foundry.
Now it's tucked away in a Civil War exhibit at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.
In September, The Virginian-Pilot published a Back in the Day feature that mentioned a brass bell from the Merrimack given to the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences in 1953. That led a reader to pose the question, through the newspaper’s Glad You Asked initiative: Where is the bell now?
Turns out it endured quite a lot before it ever made it to a curator's custody.
"This particular one is a little bit mysterious," said Joseph Judge, deputy director at the naval museum.
The Union’s Merrimack, a first-in-class steam frigate, was built at Boston’s Charlestown shipyard and launched in 1855. Six years later it was at Gosport Navy Yard in Portsmouth — what’s now Norfolk Naval Shipyard — for repairs when the Confederacy approached.
In April 1861 the shipyard, along with the Merrimack and 10 other ships, was burned to avoid capture, according to Pilot archives. Virginia seceded from the Union five days later.
The Merrimack remained underwater for about a month before the Confederates salvaged its hull to build the ironclad Virginia, Judge said.
The Virginia fought in the famed Battle of Hampton Roads before it was scuttled by its crew near Craney Island, he said.
Among the wreckage about a decade later the bell would be found, according to “Ironclad Down” by Carl D. Park.
"Although a ship's bell has no bearing on the construction of the ship, the story of the Virginia's bell is worth telling," Park wrote in the 2007 book.
Around 1875, a diver had a government contract to blow up parts of the wreck and salvage what could be saved.
He recovered the bell from the Elizabeth River and gave it to St. Paul's Catholic Church in Portsmouth, according to historical accounts, where it hung in the belfry until 1907. That year, a devastating fire swept through the church and broke the ironclad's bell vertically in half. The remains, along with other scrap metal from the fire, were sent to Baltimore to be recast into a new church bell, Park wrote.
But a Hampton Roads woman, "believing that the damaged Virginia bell was an important part of Southern history that should be preserved," went to the foundry and retrieved it before it was tossed into a melting pot, he wrote. It went to her brother-in-law upon her death, and subsequently to his daughter.
The daughter, W.E. Darden, later told the Pilot that her father " 'loved the bell' and would take it on the porch every New Year's Eve and use it to ring out the old year and ring in the new."
He'd had many offers to buy it, including from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, but refused to sell, according to the 1953 newspaper article.
"It was exhibited in a store window in downtown Norfolk once when the Virginia Confederate Veterans reunion was held here and was on display on several other occasions," according to the article.
In 1953, Darden donated the bell to what was then the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences and became the Chrysler Museum, which still owns the bell.
It’s been on long-term loan with the naval museum since the 1980s, according to the Chrysler.
The ship bell is one of several the museum has on display, Judge said, though it’s fairly rare to have one from the Civil War era.
"Bells are very emotional artifacts to the Navy," he said. "Symbolically, they're very rich in meaning."
"We're preserving the heart of a ship," added Max Lonzanida, spokesman for the museum.
The bell is engraved with the fading words, "Ship Bell of Ironclad Merrimac."
Judge said he doesn’t know when that was inscribed. There’s also been mention of a replica of the bell or a second one pulled from the wreckage of the Merrimack or Virginia.
Some details about its origin and journey, Judge said, remain a mystery.