Civil War Artifacts Emerge From U.S.S. Monitor

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic
November 7, 2002

More than a century ago, the Civil War ironclad Monitor sank in a violent storm off Cape Hatteras, on the eastern coast of the United States. Last summer scientists and divers raised the ship's gun turret to the surface, and the well-preserved artifacts they found inside are opening a new window on history.

Along with items related to the ship's famous turret and its guns was a wide assortment of artifacts—from utensils to pieces of furniture—that in some cases have been puzzling. Also found were the remains of two crew members.

The Monitor, whose design represented a dramatic technical advance in naval warfare, battled the C.S.S. Virginia on March 9, 1862. It was the first clash of iron ships. The Monitor sank the following winter, on December 31.

An innovative revolving turret was the Monitor's most distinctive feature. Twenty-two feet (6.7 meters) in diameter, nine feet (2.7 meters) high, and sporting two powerful 11-inch (28-centimeter) cannons, it sat atop the ship's flat deck. Eight layers of inch-thick iron plates protected the crew inside.

Because the turret revolved, it could cover an enormous field of fire. It was the first time in naval warfare that cannons could be operated independently of the ship's maneuvering.

NOAA scientists and some 100 elite Navy divers raised the 120-ton turret in August. It was one of the heaviest artifacts ever recovered from the ocean floor, and bringing it to the surface intact was a delicate operation.

"Although 140 years ago cannonballs bounced off the sides, it could be quite fragile today," said John Broadwater, manager of NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and director of the turret excavation.

Pieces of History

Broadwater and his team were not sure what to expect inside the raised turret.

They found items associated with the gun turret, including ramrods, sponges, and a copper ladle that could unload powder from a gun primed to fire.

More curious, however, were some of the other items recovered from the silt that had filled the turret: Dozens of utensils—many of sterling silver, including knives with bone or ivory handles and engraved initials—that were personal items used by the Monitor's officers. Also among the well-preserved items were shoes, leather straps, wooden pulley blocks, a nearly complete wool overcoat, uniform buttons, coins, a comb, and even part of a furniture cabinet.

Continued on Next Page >>


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