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01-14-08, 01:04 PM
MONDAY JANUARY 14, 2008 Last modified: Monday, January 14, 2008 12:40 AM EST

North man key to piece of history

BY JAMES A. MEROLLA/SUN CHRONICLE STAFF

NORTH ATTLEBORO - Chuck Veit knows a lot about something the rest of us don't know anything about. Reporter Amy DeMelia's accompanying story explains his new mission. This question and answer explains, in part, his passion.

Veit, 49, a digital graphic designer and naval historian, is a member of the U.S. Naval Landing Party, a group of Union Navy re-enactors in the New England area that has spread to include members across the country.

Veit's group portrays the activities of a landing party of Union sailors and Marines during the Civil War - a little-known role for the Navy in the 1861-65 conflict.

Throughout the War Between the States, the Navy routinely landed parties of sailors and Marines ashore on raids, reconnaissance or to aid the regular land forces. Veit brings these missions to life and is currently in the midst of educating the public about the Alligator, the U.S. Navy's first submarine.

SUN CHRONICLE: What is a Civil War Naval Landing Party re-enactor exactly?

CHUCK VEIT: The U.S. Naval Landing Party is our local (northeastern) living history crew, which was founded in 1997. We represent a shore party of Union sailors and Marines from the Civil War, and take part in re-enactments, school talks and presentations at historical societies and Civil War roundtables.

I am also president of the Navy & Marine Living History Association, of which the USNLP is one of a score of member crews around the country, and have published a number of research articles on naval history.

SUN CHRONICLE: Is there much call for that these days?

VEIT: If we wanted to, we could take part in a living history event every weekend between the start of April and the end of October. As one of the very few naval groups, we always have more invitations to events than we can possibly attend, so there is a lot of demand.

We benefit not only from the high level of interest in the Civil War, but also from being truly unique. People are genuinely surprised to see sailors at an event, and doubly shocked once they start hearing the naval perspective on the war.

This topic is so little taught in school that the vast majority of visitors are almost entirely unaware, but they are keenly interested and truly fascinated by a world they never even suspected existed. Most folks, when they hear the word "re-enacting," picture only the mock battles, but our focus in on the hours before and after the battle, when we can speak with the public.

Living history is a much undervalued approach to teaching that we have found to be very successful; the simple technique of one human sharing a story with others has worked for millennia.

SUN CHRONICLE: How did you get interested in this very specific historical field?

VEIT: In 1997, my wife and I were exploring new things for our family to do together, because our children were getting older. We visited a re-enactment in Uxbridge and were intrigued. However, because of my demanding work schedule and the press of projects around the house, I was unwilling to devote additional weekends to the drilling that the infantry regiments have to invest on top of events.

So, we hit the history books and found that the USN routinely landed men -single officers, perhaps with an aide or guard or groups that ranged from a score of sailors and Marines to over a hundred. This was a part of the war that was not being portrayed at re-enactments, so it was an appealing niche that we decided to fill.

SUN CHRONICLE: What do you want the public to know about the Alligator or naval vessels in the Civil War?

VEIT: You really can't begin with Alligator. You need to explain the context, to describe the period, the development of underwater technology and what the Navy was doing at the time they accepted the sub into the fleet, and why.

Part of our job is to introduce the public to the fascinating story of Alligator, but on a larger plane, I consider our goal to be to interest modern Americans in their own history. The Navy and Marine LHA does this "in the field" at events where our members speak with about 250,000 people every year.

Our partnership with the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration on "The Hunt for the Alligator" project has also gained us a lot of visibility, and provided another great story to share.

SUN CHRONICLE: Does this information surprise people? What's the strangest reaction you ever got?

VEIT: 'Surprise' is a wild understatement. I would say that people are 'surprised' to find a naval unit at a living history event and 'amazed' to learn of the Navy's contribution to the war.

When we broach the topic of submarines, 'stunned' is probably a more accurate description. That technologies such as airlocks, electrically-detonated mines and air scrubbing systems were used in underwater warfare in the 1860s is beyond anything most visitors are aware of.

You have to understand that, not only is this information not in any history book, but that people on the team are still doing original research to be able to write the book! That's what's so neat, both for our people and for the audience - this is all new. That's one way we get the kids' attention, by telling them this is stuff their teachers won't know. And it's true.

SUN CHRONICLE:What's the most fascinating aspect of the Alligator and how does it compare to what most kids learned about the Monitor and the Merrimack?

VEIT: While Ericsson's Monitor was a surface vessel, Alligator was, of course, a submarine; that's the biggest difference. Beyond that, it is interesting that both ships were built for the same purpose - to sink the CSS Virginia (Merrimack).

The Northern public, government and military were very much worried in late 1861 about the threat posed by the Rebel ironclad, and the Army and Navy were willing to try some unusual remedies. We know about Monitor because that ship was finished in time and managed to stop the Virginia.

But Alligator was contracted for the same purpose and simply launched too late. Two other ironclads of radically different design were also built for the Navy, but, like the sub, weren't ready. The Army even came up with a plan that Lincoln forced the Navy to take over and execute for a suicide squadron of civilian ships to ram the Virginia and sink her.

It was an interesting time.

Ellie