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Remembering Fort Monroe’s Deadliest Tragedy
By Nancy E. Sheppard

FMDT ImageThe year was 1910 and the United States was seeing the birth of innovation and might for the military. Soldiers at Fort Monroe participated in various exercises for not only training, but as a loud and clear signal to anyone who dared trifle with our coastline of what waited for them.

On July 21, members of the Army’s 69th Company Coastal Artillery prepared for the latest exercise at Fort Monroe’s Battery De Russy. Outfitted with 12- inch "disappearing” guns, which sat nestled behind walls that were 20 feet thick, the goal was to set a speed record while firing upon two moving 60x30 feet targets. The "disappearing” guns were capable of firing 1,000-pound shells up to six miles at an average of two rounds per minute. That morning, twenty-one soldiers from the company manned Gun No. 1, preparing for the test.

The commandant of Fort Monroe, Colonel Clarence Townsley, was watching from nearby. Gun No. 1 was thoroughly checked and deemed in normal working order. The targets entered the water and soldiers readied the gun before the order was given to fire. Suddenly, Colonel Townsley heard an explosion and witnessed an object fly backwards from the battery, through the air, before splashing into Mill Creek. He ordered a cease fire and raced to Battery De Russy.

FMDT Image2What he saw in front of him was carnage beyond comprehension. A newspaper reported, "Bodies were scattered around the gun pit. Wounded men squirmed in agony on the ground.” One man’s body was cut in half and several were missing. They were later found in Mill Creek, along with pieces of the battery. Surgeons and soldier reported to the scene and discovered that eight men had died instantly while others were gravely wounded. Lt. George L. Van Deusen laid beneath the ruins of the gun in agony from a broken leg. When the rescuers attempted to remove him, he exclaimed, "See to the men first!” Lt. Van Deusen propped himself against a wall and directed the efforts until every man was seen to.

In total, 11 men died that bloody day. An official investigation was conducted but many of the relevant witnesses were among those who lost their lives, leaving the results to be inconclusive. However, it was assumed that the order was given to fire before the breech block could properly be secured. The victims were honored in a memorial service day following the accident and new safety standards were put into place.

Battery De Russy continued to be operational for coastal defense through World War II before it was abandoned. Today, the battery that saw the deaths of so many men in 1910 stands derelict; a decaying relic of a bygone era and a forgotten tragedy.

 





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