Civil War Wreck Rises Again: Restoring the Monitor

Willie Drye in Newport News, Virginia
for National Geographic News
December 5, 2003
Around 11 p.m. on December 30, 1862, Francis Butts was ruefully recalling some advice he'd received soon after he joined the United States Navy: Never volunteer for anything.

Butts had ignored that timeless warning to servicemen only a month earlier when he volunteered to serve aboard the U.S.S. Monitor. The Monitor had become famous when it prevented the Confederate ironclad Merrimack—renamed the Virginia—from breaking the Union blockade of the James River that was stifling the rebellious states' ability to wage battle during the U.S. Civil War.

But on that long ago and miserable night, the Monitor was in dire trouble and Butts was regretting his decision. Battered and tossed by a fierce storm as it rounded deadly Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, the Monitor was sinking. The ship's revolutionary gun turret, which had allowed it to battle the Confederate ironclad to a standstill in the placid waters of Hampton Roads, Virginia, had become a mortal weakness in the cold, raging seas off the infamous cape. Huge waves slammed against the Monitor and seawater poured in beneath the turret, steadily pushing the ship lower and lower into the water. Even worse, the Monitor's coal was soaked, which meant the ship's steam engine couldn't power the pumps, and so the water came in much faster than the crew could expel it.

As Butts climbed a ladder from below decks, another storm-driven wave broke over the ship. Saltwater poured into the turret and sent him sprawling. He knew the Monitor was doomed.

"Our fires were out, and I heard the water blowing out the boilers," Butts said.

A few minutes later, Butts stood on the turret waiting for a rescue boat from the U.S.S. Rhode Island, which had been towing the Monitor. Butts was lucky—he escaped the waterlogged vessel before it sank. Sixteen crewmen were lost. Some were washed overboard trying to board rescue boats, and others went down with the ship.

The Monitor overturned as it descended, and its famous turret separated from the deck and settled into the sandy bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The hull came to rest, bottom up, atop the turret, and there the wreck lay for almost a century-and-a-half.

On an unseasonably warm November day in Newport News, Virginia, Colleen Brady, a conservator with the Mariners' Museum, sat on the turret of the U.S.S. Monitor and used a hammer and chisel to chip away chunks of the anthracite coal that had been too damp to burn on that stormy winter night in 1862. The coal had spilled into the turret sometime after the ship went down.

Despite the layers of rust and encrustations, a bulge was clearly visible on the turret's inside wall, a dramatic reminder of the Monitor's two-hour battle with the Virginia in March 1862. One of the Confederate ironclad's shots had been fired at pointblank range. The shell didn't penetrate the eight-inch-thick (twenty-centimeter-thick) iron plating, but it did smash a big dent into it.

The iron plating on the Monitor and the Virginia allowed the two steam-powered behemoths to pound each other with cannon fire until both captains realized they could neither destroy their opponent nor force him to yield. So they had separated, staggering away from each other like two punch-drunk boxers waiting for someone to tell them to quit. Since neither had sunk the other, they both claimed victory. The Monitor instantly became an American icon and its crew became national heroes.

Being underwater for 140 years has weakened the structural integrity of the Monitor, however. In some places the plating that withstood the Virginia's fierce cannonades is astonishingly fragile, says Curtiss Peterson, chief conservator for the Monitor restoration project at the Mariners' Museum. "It now has the consistency of soda crackers," Peterson says. "You can rub your thumb across it and remove it."

Peterson has been involved in the Monitor conservation project since shortly after the famous shipwreck was found in 1974. He became the lead conservator when the Mariners' Museum, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Navy, and other agencies joined forces to start salvaging Monitor artifacts. The ship's huge propeller and part of its shaft were recovered in 1998. The Monitor's steam engine was hauled up in 2001, and the famous turret was raised in 2002.

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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