My son and I spent an extended weekend immersing ourselves in history and wargaming in what is becoming an annual tradition. I took him out of school on Friday so we could leave early and spend the afternoon at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, then attended the Williamsburg Muster wargaming convention, and finally visited Historic Jamestowne before heading home Sunday. (Our school system doesn’t get Presidents’ Day off....) Our son’s fourth grade curriculum includes “Virginia Studies” for social studies, a subject he already enjoys and which we’ve indulged with additional trips to historic sites during the past year. He’s also interested in games, including historical wargames, so the weekend provided an opportunity to engage with both history and games.
Friday morning we drove down to Newport News and arrived in time for lunch at the Mariners’ Museum cafe. The museum itself charges only $1 admission, an amazing price considering the engaging displays, artifacts, and galleries involving maritime subjects. The highlight of our visit, of course, was the “Ironclad Revolution” exhibit focusing on the USS Monitor and CSS Virginia and their clash at the Battle of Hampton Roads. A life-sized model of the Virginia’s forward sections undergoing refit at Gosport Naval Shipyard help establish the ship’s size and – when peering outward from within – the thickness of the wooden casemate and its iron sheathing. Numerous media exhibits allow visitors to hear from the people behind the design and operation of both vessels, vividly present the events of the two-day Battle of Hampton Roads, and give a first-hand account of the Monitor’s end. Galleries tell the story behind both ships, including relics retrieved from the Monitor’s wreck: the red lantern raised when she foundered off Cape Hatteras; forks and other small artifacts; and the original anchor, shaft, and screw (propeller). A section of original decking was preserved so visitors can actually touch a piece of the Monitor itself. A quick walk outside allowed us to stroll on the deck of a full-sized replica of the Monitor. Visitors can also look down from a raised gallery into the conservation complex where massive tanks help stabilize more artifacts from the wreck, including the two Dahlgren guns and their carriages, the engine, and the famous turret. The Mariners’ Museum offers a host of other galleries of interest, including “Defending the Seas” about naval warfare through the ages, and the “International Small Craft Center” featuring small boats from around the world. We got an early start to the weekend’s gaming in the “Toys Ahoy!” gallery, where we played Civil War-themed Battleship on giant boards! On the way out we stopped in the gift shop where my son bought his metal model of the USS Monitor.
We soon arrived in Williamsburg for the wargaming convention. The Old Dominion Military Society (ODMS) has been hosting conventions in the area for years, but Williamsburg Muster is the largest of several they run. My son and I had a full slate of games to host, with some time to relax, catch up with friends, and, of course, do some game-related shopping. Friday night we ran a historical Panzer Kids scenario, “Charge at Tel el Aqqaqir,” essentially a Charge of the Light Brigade with British tanks against dug-in German 88mm flak anti-tank guns to lead off the el Alamein offensive. The British split their forces to dash up each side of the game table, but still only succeeded in getting four tanks behind enemy lines...and even then, they didn’t survive long. Our Saturday morning game was “Hungry Orcs,” a Lord of the Rings game using the Dragon Rampant rules and pre-painted 54mm miniatures: More than 30 orcs with warg riders and 18 mounted Rohirrim with Eomer commanding. The orcs tried to rush a farm to steal livestock, but fell back beaten after some fierce fighting that left Eomer alone in the middle of the battlefield. Our Saturday afternoon game, “A Game which Will Live in Infamy,” used simplified Wings of Glory rules to play out a Japanese dive bomber run against the USS California in the second wave of the attack. Most of the Vals, however, veered off to attack the USS Nevada making a dash for the channel out of the harbor; but only one dive bomber managed to hit the battleship before anti-aircraft fire from both ships and some persistent flying from an errant SBD Dauntless brought them (and most of their fighter escort) down. We had lots of fun and numerous compliments on our tables and models. Oddly enough for a “historical” gaming convention, the Lord of the Rings Dragon Rampant scenario garnered the most players of all my games.
We did some shopping with the dealers and at Sunday morning’s flea market. I’d already won a copy of Ticket to Ride in Saturday evening’s teacup raffle, but I splurged on some scenery and Flying Buffalo’s pizza and take-out dice from longtime (and retiring) convention vendor Harry Shiflett of Staunton’s Dragon’s Hoard (he’s still running the store, just no longer selling at cons), some MDF bases, a few more tanks, and used copies of Axis & Allies Pacific, Europe, and D-Day at the flea market. My son, taking his time to make decisions and weigh the value of his dollar, bought some WWII Russian soldiers and British jungle soldiers (for me to paint for him) as well as some earthworks and die-cast WWII airplanes. The hard-working ODMS members deserve kudos for all the effort and planning to make a successful event. Thanks to John, Red, Bob, Justin, Chuck, Mark, and all the friends who make us feel so welcome every year.
After Sunday morning’s convention flea market we packed up and drove out to Historic Jamestowne, the National Parks Service site of the first permanent English colony in North America in 1607. (We’d visited the Jamestown Settlement with its interpreters, reconstructed fort, ships, and Powhatan village back in June.) After the orientation film we walked on the boardwalk across the Pitch & Tar Swamp to the fort site. Here my son reveled in standing in the same places where the first settlers lived and worked (and died). He particularly liked the Captain John Smith statue and walking along the James River. We entered the restored church with the original brick tower, site of the first General Assembly in 1619 (believed to be the first legislative assembly in the colonies). We looked at the remains of building foundations and several structures partially restored to demonstrate the “stud and mud” construction technique. We walked along the restored palisade fence that protected the original fort. At the Archaearium Museum we saw numerous artifacts recovered from archaeological excavations on the island, including many weapons, pieces of armor, tools, and personal items. The exhibits also included remains of some of the first settlers with information about their discoveries, possible identities, and probable means of death. We had lunch at a cafe along the James River, stopped at the gift shop, then, after three hours walking around, decided to head home. We were already tired from a full weekend, but we made the most of our day.
My son’s already pestering me to attend the ODMS convention this summer, appropriately titled Guns of August, held at the Virginia War Museum. Maybe just a day trip this time. Who knows where we’ll go for day trips, spring break, or summer vacation? We have a host of options and, thankfully, a son interested in learning about all the history around us.