Monitor Lodge No. 197

A.F. & A.M.
212 E. Mellen Street
Hampton, VA 23663


A History of Monitor Lodge #197
Researched and produced by Brother Russ Morrison

    Brethren, we are members of a Masonic Lodge with a long and distinct heritage of which we can all be proud.  The name  Monitor Lodge and the Masons who have preceded us have set a high mark for us to try to attain in the activities of this lodge and our day-to-day conduct as Masons.
What was the Origin of our lodge?
    Our lodge was chartered in May 1863, by the Grand Lodge of Maryland as #113.  On December 13, 1865, Monitor Lodge was chartered as #197 under the Grand Lodge of Virginia.  A “healing” ceremony took place on Jan 2, 1866, above the stables at Fortress Monroe--officially birthing Monitor Lodge #197 under the Grand Lodge of Virginia.  For this reason, we celebrate January as the birthday month for our lodge.
    During the early years of our lodge, meetings were held in a room over the stables (a little different smell, I imagine, than the savory smell of delicious food cooking we enjoy today during most of our meetings).  Our lodge’s minutes indicate that the members of the lodge may have met before May 1863, because the first minutes of a stated in May of 1863 refer to the minutes of the last meeting, which has been lost over the years.
The original members of our lodge chose the name Monitor
    We believe the lodge was named after the famous ironclad, the USS Monitor, which sunk on December 31st, 1862, in a gale off Cape Hatteras, NC. The sinking and its heroic battle with the CSS Virginia (the Merrimack) on March 9th 1862 (the first sea battle between iron ships spelling the end of wooden warships worldwide), would have still been fresh in the minds of Union soldiers and sailors at Fort Monroe in the spring of 1863 – a bright light in the gloomy war situation for the Union that spring.
    Several of the crew of the USS Monitor were Masons. Fireman sailor (eventually 3rd Asst. Engineer –an officer) George Geer saw himself as a Mason and as an American in a crew of mainly Irish immigrants and he was the epitome of the self made man – serving with honor and integrity.  George Geer and the other Masons aboard the USS Monitor were typical American Masons with perseverance, determination and unyielding commitment to opportunity who lived out their obligation in the Civil every day in difficult and dangerous conditions...On the Level, By the Plumb, and Upon the Square.
    The USS Monitor and its crew in 1863 captured the attitude of conquering new frontiers and new technologies--like those Operative Masons who built fantastic architectural structures in the middle ages for the 1st time--the crew built and operated a revolutionary iron warship whose capabilities made the blockade of Southern ports a success, sealing eventual reunification for our Union.  Although the initial Monitor for which our lodge is most likely named had a lifetime of less than one year, it changed history and spawned about 60 more Monitor class ships--of which 34 saw action in the Civil War.  There is an interesting parallel in our lodge being named after a famous and revolutionary iron ship, because so many of our members work or have worked in the shipyard or served in maritime elements of our Armed Forces.
Officers and crew of USS Monitor after the battle.



         Painting of the USS Monitor vs. CSS Virginia (Merrimack)     


Our lodge history acts out some of the basic principles of Masonry that all Masons hold dear.
    A famous historical novel on the Civil War is titled A House Divided; however, Masonry in America has often been referred to as “A House Undivided” during the Civil War.  Freemasonry on both sides, including the initial members of our lodge, continued to respect and provide relief to their Brother Masons, regardless to which side they held allegiance.  Allen Roberts, the author of the book House Undivided, believes Freemasons clung to this last string of harmony in our Nation because - Masons join of their own freewill – there has never been a National Lodge –Masons don’t discuss politics or religion in their lodges – and Masonry is based on brotherly love, relief, and truth.
    Our lodge minutes during the Civil War show this harmony that remained in Masonry during the brother-against-brother nature of the Civil War.  The harmony in which Monitor Lodge moved from under the Grand Lodge of Maryland to the Grand Lodge of Virginia at the conclusion of the Civil War, between Nov 1865 and Jan 1866, still carrying the name Monitor Lodge is a testimony to the role Masonry played in reuniting the nation and the concept that Masonry in America was never a Nation Divided.
    In the minutes of Monitor Lodge No. 113, one will note that the Grand Lodge of Virginia required the members of the lodge to be "Healed". Masonic Healing has many meanings, but we are taught that sometimes “healing is accomplished by merely exacting a new obligation to a lawful body”.  The kinds of irregularities and the surrounding circumstances in healing are innumerable:  the methods of healing are also numerous and no general rules can be laid down to fit all occasions."
    Each Grand Lodge considers its territory as exclusive and even a war does not permit another Grand Lodge to invade that jurisdiction, no matter how well intentioned the act may be. In this particular case, the careful wording of the Jan 1866 resolutions indicated the desire of each Grand Lodge to avoid offense to the other. Assuming the lodge was named after the USS Monitor, which played a significant role in the defeat of the Confederacy, the Grand Lodge of Virginia must have had to swallow their pride in leaving the name of lodge 197 as Monitor Lodge.
    Our Brothers served our nation, our community and our population throughout our history
Our lodge minutes tell us that previous members of Monitor Lodge have paid the ultimate price to protect our freedoms -1864 many Rituals of Sorrow – apparently the members of Monitor Lodge were sent into the first battles of that year in which so many causalities were claimed.
On Nov 4 1879, our minutes indicate a Masonic funeral was held for Brother T.T.  Thornburg “who fell while gallantly leading a charge at the head of his command against hostile Indians…”.  I assume this combat occurred a little further west than Virginia.
    Minutes during other wars, military contingencies and disasters show additional acts of courage and bravery by Monitor Lodge #197 Brothers.
Our minutes also show continued harmony and support for our Brethren and community during hard times--such as the Great Depression.
Some of the founders of the Hampton Roads Community were members of Monitor Lodge.  On Jan 13 1871, Brother Harrison Phoebus, the founder and namesake for this township of Hampton, was raised to Master Mason in our lodge, and we see that he went on to serve as Treasurer in 1873.
Our lodge was a major participant in laying the cornerstone of the Yorktown Victory Monument by President Arthur in Oct 1881 – 100 years after the surrender of Cornwallis and victory in the Revolutionary War.
    In Feb 1882, The Grand Lodge cited Monitor Lodge for attending the remains of Albert Mackey, the author of Mackey’s Encyclopedia and other notable Masonic books and references while his body was being transferred from ship to train in Hampton Roads.
From 1975 to the present we have sponsored the Hampton Assembly of the International Order of Rainbow Girls.  The list goes on and on showing important achievements and accomplishments of predecessors in the history of Monitor Lodge.  The history of our temple is an interesting part of the history of our lodge.
    We know that Brethren of our lodge held meetings at Ft. Monroe even before May of 1863 because our surviving minutes books refer to past meetings.  The lodge continued to meet over the stables at Ft. Monroe until 1894, when reacting to a scare that the stables were to be destroyed, the Brethren moved temporarily to St. Tammany Temple, then to our current building, which was owned by the Odd Fellows Club.  In May of 1904, Monitor Lodge bought a half interest in the building.  In May 1938, the joint ownership was dissolved and Monitor purchased the entire property.  Several renovations have occurred since then--the largest through the 1960 Burley E. Miller Building Fund--a $30,000 renovation in which the current brick facade was added and the interior totally remodeled.
    In conclusion, today we are inheritors of a proud and historically important lodge and are responsible for continuing the Monitor #197 tradition our forefathers left us. John Erisson, the inventor of the famous and revolutionary ironclad, named it the Monitor because in 1862 the word “Monitor” meant admonisher – one who reminds another of his duties – one who supervises – one monitoring the act of observing and sometimes keeping record of it.  Today as members of a Masonic Lodge so named, we must continue to monitor our own actions and those of our lodge and be active monitors of our work place, our governments, and our families and friends.  Like the USS Monitor we may be called on to take risks and admonish those who would harm our family, friends, or nation to protect brotherly love, relief, and truth.  May we remember and be proud of our long and rich history and continue in the fine tradition of the Masons that have belonged to this lodge over the last 143 years.