Civil War Wreck Rises Again: Restoring the Monitor

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The prized artifacts were taken to Newport News, Virginia, where they were put back under water—this time in special tanks containing a solution that will gradually remove the salt that accumulated during almost a century-and-a-half on the ocean floor.

The preservation process has been completed on the propeller, and it's on display, along with dozens of other artifacts, as part of the museum's Monitor exhibition. The turret and disassembled steam engine are undergoing the preservation treatment in huge tanks on the museum grounds, but visitors can view them from special walkways overlooking the tanks.

The remains of two crewmen found in the turret were turned over to the Department of Defense for identification.

The world had never seen anything like the Monitor when it was launched at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in January 1862. The bizarre-looking craft, designed by Swedish engineer John Ericsson, resembled a tin can on a floating shingle. The Monitor was packed with ingenious devices, however, including flushing toilets, a steam engine designed to work in the ship's tightly confined space, and a forced-air ventilation system.

But the steam-powered turret that housed the Monitor's only armament—a pair of cannons—was Ericsson's most brilliant creation. Two cannons didn't seem like much of a punch for a warship that would be facing bigger ships with dozens of guns, but the revolving turret allowed the Monitor's gunners to aim their weapons without turning the entire ship, giving them a huge advantage over their opponents.

The Monitor and its turret were the prototype for today's modern, all-metal warship. But the Monitor's deck was only about 18 inches (46 centimeters) above the waterline, and the turret leaked where it joined the deck. When the ironclad ventured out on the ocean, it encountered big, storm-driven waves that easily washed over its deck, poured into the leaky turret, and flooded the ship.

As the conservators have studied the Monitor artifacts, they've absorbed a deeper understanding of this unique warship. Peterson says the discovery of many oil lamps among the artifacts brought home an obvious realization for him: "It was dark down there."

An image of life aboard the Monitor began forming in Peterson's mind—more than 60 sailors living inside a smoke-belching mechanical beast where the sun never shined, working in hot semi-darkness, moving about in the lamps' soft glow, and tending the ship's noisy steam-powered machinery. The ventilation system circulated air throughout the Monitor, but the crew probably had frequent headaches from carbon dioxide and the constant smell of burning coal.

Other artifacts, however, conveyed the human tragedy of the Monitor's loss with much more clarity than the big, rusty machinery. Peterson said he's been touched by the eating utensils they've found. Some were standard U.S. Navy issue, but many crewmen brought their own utensils from their homes. Some were engraved with "USN," while others had initials or family names engraved on them. Some were made of expensive silver; others were obviously very cheap.

These items "bring you back, often jarringly, to the fact that here was something a person had," Peterson said. "There's a poignancy to small personal objects."

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