The ‘Monitor’ Rises
SHE FOUGHT FOR ONLY ONE DAY AND SURVIVED FOR LESS THAN A YEAR, BUT NOW THE MOST IMPORTANT PARTS OF HER RADICAL DESIGN—WHICH TRIGGERED A REVOLUTION IN NAVAL WARFARE—CAN BE SEEN AGAIN
ON MONDAY AFTERNOON, AUGUST 5, 2002, A CRANE ON a barge 16 miles off Cape Hatteras pulled up a rusting 160-ton prize from the ocean floor. It was the fabled turret of the Civil War ironclad Monitor , seeing daylight for the first time since the ship had sunk in December 1862. During her 10-month career, indeed in the first days of that career, the Monitor had changed warfare more than any other ship in history. She had done so with her revolutionary technology, her metal construction, and especially her turret, made of iron eight inches thick and able to rotate and fire guns in any direction in an age of wooden ships and broadsides. The Monitor ’s single day of battle, March 9, 1862, spelled the doom of all the wooden navies of the world. No major wooden warship was built anywhere after that day.
The Monitor and what she did were the product of remarkable creativity and courage and timing when the nation was facing its sternest test. After her brief career, the vessel and 16 of her men lay undisturbed 240 feet beneath the sea for 111 years until their story began again in 1973. In August of that year two scientists, a nautical archeologist named Gordon Watts and a marine geologist named John Newton, operating remote cameras, found a wreck at the bottom of the ocean just where the Monitor was believed to lie. The photographs they got were so unclear it took them six weeks to be sure of what they had found, but as a result of their discovery, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration made the area of the Monitor ’s remains the first of 13 national marine sanctuaries, protecting the ship’s rusting carcass.
NOAA (pronounced Noah ), best known as the government agency that runs the National Weather Service, began leading expeditions to study the site in 1977, and by 2002 the effort had grown into a collaborative undertaking involving NOAA, the Navy, and the Mariners’ Museum, of Newport News, Virginia. The mission had changed over the years from studying and maintaining the wreck to raising its most significant parts for preservation on land, after studies in the early 1990s established that the ship was disintegrating at an alarming rate, probably after being damaged by the anchor of a fishing vessel. Navy divers staying under pressure for a week at a time and breathing special gases were working with NOAA scientists and museum historians and conservators to rescue pieces of the ironclad, including her propeller, engine, and turret.
They were salvaging pieces of a cutting-edge technology that, as is the nature of such things, had been tremendously flawed but had shown a way to the future. The Monitor had been built in a race against the Confederacy, which at the same time had been preparing its own more conservative ironclad, refitting a scuttled Union wooden frigate, the Merrimack , as a steamdriven ironclad. The race ended neck and neck, the Merrimack going into action a day before the Monitor could meet her, a day that proved the most destructive in the history of the U.S. Navy until December 7,1941. First the Merrimack showed that an ironclad could make an entire wooden fleet helpless. Then the Monitor showed that an opposing ironclad could erase the difference.
The idea of iron’s replacing wood in warships had been germinating for years, and both Britain and France had already built ironclads, Napoleon Ill’s navy constructing the Gloire in 1859 and Britain the Warrior in 1860. Those experimental ships had wooden frames with iron armor over them, unlike the all-iron Monitor , but soon after the Warrior the British built the Black Prince with an iron hull. Thus, as the naval historian James Phinney Baxter wrote, the Monitor and the Merrimack “did not initiate the great revolution in naval architecture, they crowned it.”
IN JULY 1861, LESS THAN THREE MONTHS INTO THE CIVIL War, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles submitted a report to Congress recommending the formation of an Ironclad Board to explore the new technology. Reports were already circulating that the Confederacy was remaking the Merrimack , so in early August Congress authorized Welles to proceed with a $1.5 million budget. The board approached the job cautiously, though, stating that “we are sceptical as to their advantages and ultimate adoption. But whilst other nations are endeavoring to perfect them, we must not remain idle.”
The board received 16 proposals, among them one from a Swedish-born engineer and inventor named John Ericsson. Even before that, a Connecticut industrialist named Cornelius Bushneu had gotten a contract to build an ironclad, the Galena (which proved much less resistant to shot than expected and was quickly scrapped). He had shown his plans to Ericsson, and Ericsson in return had told Bushnell of a concept of his own. He wanted to build a kind of iron raft that would barely rise above the water line, and therefore offer no target, except for a single iron turret that could rotate full circle so its guns could fire in any direction. Ericsson even had a cardboard model of the ship, which he had made to try to interest the French navy in the idea several years before. She was much more radically innovative than any other ironclad yet built or proposed, and in the words of the historian and Monitor expert Craig Symonds, of the U.S. Naval Academy, “Bushnell saw right away that this was the answer. He thought it could be the magic bullet of the Civil War.” He continued to work on his own design, but he also became a champion of Ericsson’s.
Ericsson, already known as the inventor of the modern screw propeller, was a brilliant engineer and a difficult man. He had been born in Sweden in 1803, the son of a mining engineer, and had shown his abilities very early, taking charge of a surveying crew when he was 14. In 1826 he moved to England with grand ideas of making steam obsolete with a new sort of engine that worked on hot air. While in England he built his first ship’s engine and several steam fire engines. He also constructed a steam locomotive, the Novelty , that ran smoothly when it worked but then broke down in a contest with another experimental locomotive, George and Robert Stephenson’s Rocket . In 1837 he built a tugboat, the Francis B. Ogden , to demonstrate his propeller and managed to arrange to take some top British naval officers for a ride on a boat towed by her, but they failed to be convinced the technology was practical. Soon Ericsson was in debtors’ prison.
He had picked up an important supporter, though, an American named Robert F. Stockton, and once he was free, he built a propeller-driven steamer, the Robert F. Stockton , which crossed the Atlantic in 1838. Ericsson followed the next year, and Stockton, a Navy captain, got the U.S. Navy to commission him to build a steam-powered warship, the first ever driven by a propeller. Named the Princeton , after Stockton’s hometown, she incorporated a remarkable number of innovations, including machinery all beneath the water line and boilers that burned anthracite.
In the winter of 1844 Stockton took the Princeton to Washington, where on February 28 he showed off her capabilities to guests who included President John Tyler and the Secretaries of State and the Navy, along with other Cabinet members. Stockton had mounted on the ship not only a large gun Ericsson had designed but one of his own, which alarmed Ericsson with its lack of an iron bar around the breech for strengthening. Stockton fired his gun for the crowd, and confirming Ericsson’s worst fears, it exploded, killing the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy, and several other people. The President survived because he happened to be in another part of the ship at the time.
Stockton’s gun was clearly at fault, but Stockton blamed Ericsson, and it would take the inventor several years to be exonerated. In the 185Os he built a ship powered by hot air instead of steam, fulfilling his lifelong dream, and showed her off in New York Harbor. She managed to make a steady seven or eight knots but was clearly underpowered, and she sank in a storm in 1854. He supported himself meanwhile by building both steam and caloric (hot-air) engines in partnership with a New York foundry.
Cornelius Bushnell borrowed the model Ericsson had made of the ironclad he envisioned and showed it to the Secretary of the Navy, exclaiming, “The country is safe! I have found a battery which will make us masters of the situation.” The Ironclad Board was dubious, however; one member, Comdr. Charles H. Davis, told Bushnell, “Take the little thing home and worship it, as it would not be idolatry because it was made in the image of nothing in the heavens above or the earth below or the waters under the earth.” Yet President Lincoln saw the model and was impressed, remarking, according to legend, “All I can say is what the fat girl said when she put her foot into the stocking. It strikes me there’s something in it.” Ericsson journeyed to Washington to make the case for his design himself, and he won over the Ironclad Board.
On October 4, 1861, a contract was signed setting tough terms for Ericsson. He would have to have the ship “complete ready for service in all respects excepting guns, ammunition, coal and stores” in just a hundred days. The price was $275,000. She was essentially a flat iron raft 172 feet long and 41 wide, with a keelless metal hull hanging beneath it like a basket for most of her length. The raft rose only 18 inches above the sea in calm waters, and those 18 inches were protected by a belt of iron on top of pine and oak running around the circumference of the ship. Protruding above the deck, or the raft, were nothing but a tiny pilothouse that stuck up less than 4 feet and was less than 4 feet long and 3 feet wide; several short air pipes and smokestacks that could be cleared away before battle; and the turret. The turret was a cylinder, 20 feet across on the inside and 9 feet high, composed of eight layers of one-inch-thick iron. It had two ports for guns to poke through and no other openings; it was supported by a massive central bulkhead and sat on a bronze ring machined meticulously enough to be almost watertight. Two small auxiliary engines underneath would raise it slightly with a wedge and rotate it in action. The two guns it would hold were 11-inch smoothbore Dahlerens.
The main power plant was a novel coal-fired engine with a single “semi-cylinder” 40 inches in diameter that had a “double trunk” vibrating lever driving two pistons in one housing. Blowers drew in air from abovedecks both for the engine and for ventilation for the crew. Ericsson himself named the craft, explaining that “the impregnable and aggressive character of this vessel will admonish the leaders of the Southern Rebellion… but there are other leaders who will also be startled and admonished.… To the Lords of the Admiralty [in England] the new craft will be a monitor , suggesting doubts as to the propriety of completing those four steel-clad ships [more traditional frigates] at three and a half millions a-piece.” His claims for his undertaking may have been grandiose, but as it turned out, they were strictly accurate.
A number of firms in New York City, Brooklyn, Baltimore, and the Albany area fabricated the pieces of the Monitor , which came together on the Brooklyn waterfront. Ericsson produced drawings as they were needed (there was never a complete set) and revised his designs as problems arose. The hundred days flew by as rumors grew of the speed with which the Merrimack was being converted. As the deadline passed, the chairman of the Ironclad Board wrote to Ericsson, “The time for the completion of the Shot-proof Battery according to the specifications of your contract, expired on the 12th instant,” and then, “She is much wanted now .”
FINALLY AT THE END OF FEBRUARY 1862 THE SHIP WAS PUT into commission and a crew arrived. The vessel contained, her chief engineer, Isaac Newton, estimated, 50 “patentable inventions,” even including flush toilets, probably the first ever on a ship when such amenities were still rare on land. They were necessitated by the fact that the crew of 56 would live entirely below the water line and couldn’t rely on gravity to remove their wastes. The crew would also have no way of seeing out but by going up on deck, by looking through the two gunports in the turret or a slit in the front of the pilothouse, or by peering straight up into one of several skylights.
When the Monitor was taken out for trials, the rudder failed. The Navy ordered her into dry dock to have a new one installed, and Ericsson fumed: “The Monitor is mine! and I say it shall not be done.… I will make her steer in three days.” And he did, rigging a system of weights and counterweights to correct her imbalance. On March 5 the ship was at last ready to go to war. Bad weather kept her in New York one more day. On March 6, commanded by Capt. John L. Worden, she headed out, under orders to make for Hampton Roads, a crucial waterway in southeastern Virginia from which a navy could control the river routes to both Richmond and Washington. Hampton Roads’ north shore was in the hands of the Union; its south shore, several miles away, belonged to the Confederacy. The Merrimack was expected to emerge there any day.
The Monitor , not built for ocean travel, made the trip under tow and almost sank along the way. A shipyard worker who didn’t trust Ericsson’s design had stuffed oakum—rope fiber—where the turret met the deck; instead of improving the gravity-based seal, it ruined it, and when the ship encountered an offshore gale, water poured in. Water also entered by the slit in the pilothouse and through the blower vents, stretching the blower’s leather belts and causing them to stop working. That threatened the crew with suffocation. In a Catch-22 situation, they couldn’t fix the blowers without the air the blowers provided. They handled the crisis by gathering every engineer on deck and sending them down one at a time to do brief specific jobs and then rush back up to be replaced. By the time they arrived in Hampton Roads, at dusk on March 8, almost nobody had slept for two days. They got there toward the end of the afternoon and saw a ship burning. The Merritnack had entered service that very day and destroyed two Union ships. She expected to demolish the rest of the fleet the next day.
The Confederate ironclad was hardly as revolutionary as the Monitor ; she was a conventional wooden frigate with an added superstructure encased in iron, with four guns inside the superstructure on either side to fire traditional broadsides, plus rifled cannon on the bow and stern and a ram for crashing into a wooden ship to sink it. But she was a far greater gamble for the navy that built her, for she consumed an inordinate proportion of the South’s very limited industrial resources. Eight hundred tons of iron had to be collected for her, more than was available in the whole state of Virginia. The Merrimack (though renamed the Virginia by the Confederacy, she continued to be called by her old name by most people on both sides) was heavy and slow, making a maximum of about five knots, barely twothirds the speed of the Monitor .
Her captain, Franklin Buchanan, had joined the U.S. Navy in 1815 and was 61 years old, but he was anything but conservative. March 8 was the day the Merrimack was supposed to begin trials to test her seaworthiness. Instead, without telling anyone but his engineers, Buchanan headed straight into battle, thereby, as it happened, beating the Monitor to the scene by a day. That day proved the helplessness of a wooden navy attacked by an ironclad. The Union fleet at Hampton Roads mounted 188 guns to the Merrimack ’s 10, but her armor, four inches of iron over two feet of solid oak, easily took a full broadside from the Cumberland as she steamed toward that Union ship’s side. She rammed the Cumberland , which sank, taking 121 lives. Then the Merrimack set about sinking the Congress . The Congress , quickly disabled, raised a white flag of surrender, but when Confederate vessels approached to accept the surrender, Union troops on shore fired on them. This so enraged Buchanan that he fired hot shot into the Congress until she burned. Another hundred lives were lost. The Merrimack then stopped her depredations because the tide had ebbed and Buchanan was shot and had to be relieved.
After the Monitor arrived and got word of the day’s destruction, she anchored on the seaward side of the steam frigate Minnesota , which had grounded herself in shallows that the Merrimack couldn’t enter. The next morning the Merrimack headed out from her lair at the Gosport Navy Yard, down the Elizabeth River to the south, at about 7:30 A.M. The officers and men of the surviving Union ships watched her agonizingly slow approach, and the crew of the Monitor awaited the test of their little vessel against the ship that the day before had proved herself the most destructive in history.
The executive officer of a vessel accompanying the Merrimack described seeing a strange object in the water, dwarfed by the Minnesota , “such a craft as the eyes of a seaman never looked upon before—an immense shingle floating in the water, with a gigantic cheese box rising from its center; no sails, no wheels, no smokestack, no guns. What could it be?” One theory was that it was a barge supplying the Minnesota with water. Another was that it was a raft hauling away one of the ship’s boilers for repair or evacuating the crew.
The Merrimack ignored the stranger and began firing at the Minnesota . As she did, the Monitor pulled out and made straight for the attacker—“much to my astonishment,” as the Minnesota ’s captain later wrote, “… and the contrast was that of a pygmy to a giant.” The two ironclads set up alongside each other and began firing; the Merrimack ’s replacement commander, Lt. Catesby Jones, still didn’t understand what he was facing and thought the first shots were a boiler exploding. Balls bounced off both craft at point-blank range with a deafening clangor (the ones hitting the Merrimack sometimes sliding off, because her sloping walls had been greased with tallow, which gave her an overpoweringly vile odor). The men in the Monitor came to realize they were invulnerable.
FOR A WHILE THE TWO SHOT AT EACH OTHER DOING NO more damage than a few dents. Three major design flaws in the Monitor quickly revealed themselves. First, the unprecedented situation of having the captain, in his little pilothouse, utterly isolated from the gunners, was supposed to be handled with a speaking-tube arrangement; the tube failed, and two crewmen had to run back and forth belowdecks carrying messages throughout the battle. Second, white marks painted on the ship’s deck to be seen beneath the turret’s flooring were quickly obliterated, so the gunners lost all sense of what direction they were facing. And third, when the two Dahlgren guns, which ran on rails, pulled back after firing, iron shutters were supposed to close over the two ports they shot through, but the shutters were difficult to operate, and only one could close at a time. These latter two problems were addressed together in an almost comically makeshift way. Men in the turret would look out to see where they were while the guns were reloading and the openings were off to the side; they’d then set the turret spinning, fire the guns when they were swinging past the target, and not stop the turret until it had rotated 180 degrees to face the other, safe side.
The two ships experimented fruitlessly with ways of harming each other. The Monitor pulled around behind the unwieldy Merrimack ’s stern, hoping to shoot her propeller; that didn’t work. The Merrimack accidentally ran aground; the Monitor moved to where she could fire and not be fired upon until the Merrimack managed to drive herself off back into deep water. Jones, frustrated by his ship’s impotence—with the Monitor in the way, the Merrimack couldn’t even shoot at the Minnesota , since her guns couldn’t elevate—decided to try to ram the Monitor . The Monitor was able to duck aside. Boarding was a clear opportunity; an obvious weakness of the Monitor was the danger that enemy sailors could climb on deck and toss an explosive device into the turret (it had a grillwork top for light and ventilation). But Ericsson’s nimble ship stayed out of the way. At one point Captain Worden tried to ram the Merrimack ’s stern and failed.
Jones saw vulnerability in the Monitor ’s pilothouse and had his men shoot at that. They hit it when Captain Worden was looking through the slit in its front. As Lt. Samuel Dana Greene later recalled, “he was a ghastly sight, with his eyes closed and the blood apparently rushing from every pore in the upper part of his face. He told me he was seriously wounded.” He was, in fact, blinded (amazingly, he eventually regained his sight). The Monitor withdrew some distance to change command; Jones, on the Merrimack , assumed his opponent was retreating and also retreated with his leaky vessel and fatigued crew.
The battle over at about 12:30 P.M. , the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Gustavus Fox, soon went on board the Monitor and told the crew, “Well, gentlemen, you don’t look as though you were just through one of the greatest naval conflicts on record.” Lieutenant Greene, now in charge of the ship, replied, “No, sir. We haven’t done much fighting, merely drilling the men at the guns a little.” Both sides claimed victory, but the North’s claim rang truer. The Merrimack ’s threat had been neutralized, the remainder of the Union fleet saved, and the Confederate ironclad never posed a threat again. The waters of Hampton Roads now lay in Union hands.
The Merrimack came out three times again in the ensuing weeks, once firing a shot to windward, the ultimate naval insult, but the Monitor refused to be provoked. In early May, after Confederate troops had left the area to defend Richmond, the South set the Merrimack afire to keep her out of Union hands. The victory for Ericsson was complete: Within a week of the battle he and his partners had a contract to build six more ironclads. The Monitor took on visitors, including President Lincoln, who, according to the paymaster, “examined everything about the vessel with care.… Most of our visitors come on board filled with enthusiasm " patriotism. … His few remarks as he accompanied us around the vessel were sound, simple, " practical.” The ship made one ineffective foray up the James River toward Richmond and returned to Hampton Roads, her interior proving an oven in warm weather that often reached dangerous temperatures of 140 degrees or more. In the fall the Monitor went into dry dock for repairs in Washington, and in December she was ordered to blockade duty in Wilmington, North Carolina.
So it was that she once again found herself being towed out on an open ocean that she was barely equipped to handle. Since the original trip from New York to Hampton Roads, the blower stack through which water had entered had been lengthened, but another error was made for a second time. Apparently once again a workman, not trusting gravity to keep the turret sealed, stuffed oakum between it and the grooved brass ring it rode on, and once again that made the ship less, not more, watertight. This time the mistake was fatal. As a storm raged, leaks put out the coal fires, and the pumps couldn’t work to keep the ship afloat. Forty-eight of the crew made it off to an escort vessel; 16 men either washed away or were trapped inside when the Monitor went down.
The weight of the engines and boilers pulled her down stern first, and when she hit bottom, she fell hull up, the turret sliding off to rest under the stern. But nobody would know that for more than a century. Meanwhile, naval warfare would continue on the path Ericsson had opened. The last American Monitor -type ship would not retire until 1937, and though heavy armoring would be given up when ordnance grew too powerful for any cladding to withstand, rotating turrets would remain essential into the twenty-first century.
In the summer of 1973 Duke University teamed up with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, National Geographic , and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources to use an underwater-research vessel Duke owned, the Eastward , to hunt for the Monitor ’s remains. Watts and Newton found 21 wrecks that weren’t the Monitor before, on their very last scheduled day, their side-scan sonar detected a shape on the sea floor that fitted the Monitor ’s description. They added three days to their outing and took pictures that showed a flat surface that appeared to be iron plate and a “circular protrusion” that looked like a turret. Part of their equipment was an experimental underwater camera designed by the MIT professor Harold Edgerton, famous for his strobe photographs; it snagged on something and was lost.
The next spring another research vessel, the Alcoa Seaprobe , used side-scan sonar and video cameras to confirm that the wreck was indeed the Monitor . To protect the site from fortune seekers, the governor of North Carolina nominated it to be the nation’s first marine sanctuary. It won the designation in 1975 and became a protected plot of water administered by NOAA.
Over the next decade NOAA mounted expeditions that brought up the 1,500-pound anchor, which had lain 450 feet from the ship herself, a signal lantern, and many smaller objects. In 1986 the wreck was named a National Historic Landmark, and a year later the Mariners’ Museum, in Newport News, Virginia, next to Hampton Roads, was selected to be the official museum to receive artifacts from it.
By 1998 overwhelming evidence had accumulated that the Monitor ’s remains were deteriorating too fast and completely to continue to be preserved underwater. Nor were they sturdy enough to be raised in one piece. Most of the hull, being of unreinforced iron much thinner than that of the deck and turret, was gone, and the weight of the engine and boilers had deformed and ripped much of what was left of the deck, since they lay hanging upside down from it. As John Broadwater, manager of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and NOAA’s chief scientist in the recovery expeditions, put it, “We knew that if we didn’t take quick, decisive action, the Monitor would be lost to future generations. We hooked up with the Navy because we don’t do heavy salvage, and for them it was a great training opportunity. The depth at which the ship lies, 240 feet, is almost double scuba depth.”
In 1998 Navy divers and NOAA scientists brought up the propeller, an urgent matter because its weight was seriously stressing the ship’s stern. The nine-foot screw is the only surviving ship’s screw built by the man who invented the technology. In 1999 and 2000 further expeditions surveyed the wreck, worked to stabilize the hull, and recovered more artifacts.
IN 2001 THE DIVERS MADE THEIR BIGGEST EFFORT YET , bringing up the ship’s 30-ton engine. First they worked 24 hours a day for a month to remove hull plating that was in the way, to scrape corrosion off the engine, and to attach it to a “recovery structure”—a metal framework in which it would be lifted—with dozens of lifting cables and straps. The engine now lies in a 91,000-gallon outdoor tank, open to public view, next to another tank in which the propeller rests, on the grounds of the Mariners’ Museum. For 5 or 10 years both the engine and the propeller—and now the turret—will be subject to a constant but mild electrical current in a sodium hydroxide or sodium carbonate solution to reduce oxidation and remove chloride and encrustation from the seabed. A visitor to the museum can easily see the engine’s unorthodox shape through the clear water. The 320-horsepower engine operated horizontally, unlike most ships’ engines, so it could fit within the ship’s shallow hull protected from enemy fire. A complex series of rockshafts, links, and levers transferred its power through a 90degree turn to the rotating propeller shaft.
Raising the engine was especially hard because at 240 feet, divers could stay down for only 30 minutes at a time and then had to decompress for more than two hours. But while the work was under way, the Navy was also trying out a commercial saturation-diving system, developed for use in oil fields, in which divers stay pressurized for up to 14 days and then go through 66 hours of depressurization.
The divers were led by the Navy commander Barbara L. Scholley, who was the fourth woman ever to command a commissioned U.S. Navy ship and who had been in charge of the TWA Flight 800 salvage and recovery operation. She said of her Monitor job, “It is by far the best dive a Navy diver can make. It’s physically and technically challenging. But it’s cool to be working on the forefather of our modern Navy. So everybody gets excited. It’s really wonderful.”
In 2002 saturation diving—so called because after about 12 hours divers are saturated with gas and won’t keep needing additional decompression if they stay down longer—joined traditional surface-fed diving in being utilized at the Monitor site around the clock. The saturation divers worked out of a bell in four-to-six-hour shifts. When the bell came to the surface, they’d pass through hatches directly into pressurized chambers. Both they and the short-term divers breathed a mixture of helium and oxygen; the helium replaced the nitrogen that causes the worst effects of the bends, and it made their voices, when they communicated with the surface, sound weirdly high and thin. John Broadwater observed the passion with which many of them took to their difficult task. “This was a Navy ship,” he said. “Sixteen lives were lost on it. That means a lot to some of us.”
On June 26, 2002, the derrick barge Wotan , up from Louisiana, arrived at the Monitor site to begin the year’s excavation season. Three hundred feet long and loomed over by her 500-ton crane, the Wotan had grown a small city on her surface, a dense cluster of containers holding all the living and working quarters for a population of 116 men and women. Already Johnson-Sea-Link II , a deep-sea submersible, had been down to the bottom to examine and document the site’s latest condition; now the Navy’s divers would go to work. By July 5 they had fully exposed the turret, cutting away large portions of the ship’s stern hull structure and of the armor belting that had lain atop it. Now there were two main jobs to be done, removing silt and debris from the turret and preparing the Spider, a specially designed 57,000-pound lifting frame that would raise it to the surface.
A week later the divers made a major, if not unexpected, discovery. For the first time, one of the two Dahlgren guns was located, right where it belonged inside the turret. No one had known for sure that they hadn’t broken away and landed elsewhere when the ship sank; the gun was not only there but still attached to its carriage. The second gun was located soon after.
Surface divers, with their short work times, concentrated mainly on clearing away debris, mostly large amounts of coal, since the bunkers had dumped much of their load into the turret as the Monitor went down. The saturation divers worked at finer tasks, such as examining a storage cabinet found in the turret that contained hydrometer parts, glass lantern chimneys, spare engine-room instruments, and a thermometer that was still accurately indicating the temperature.
The Spider, a assemblage of eight hinged arms that reached out and down to encircle and lift the turret, was lowered into the water on July 17. It had been conceived and built by engineers from both the Navy and Phoenix International, an underwater-engineering company, and in a delicate operation it was sunk to several feet directly over the turret and then, with divers on every side, eased into place around it. At one point the next day, as John Broadwater noted in his log of events, “the Monitor was surrounded by a diving bell with two saturation divers, a dive stage with two surface-supplied divers, the ROV [remotely operated vehicle], the Johnson-Sea-Link , and a variety of hoses, pipes, and tools. Overhead were the derrick barge Wotan with more than a hundred people, and the Research Vessel Seward Johnson . The Monitor ’s inventor, John Ericsson, would have been very pleased to see his little ship receiving so much attention.”
On July 26, by which time the expedition’s leaders thought they’d be bringing up the turret any day, a sobering discovery was made: human remains—two bones—in the turret. Since the turret had been the way out of the ship, and men had been scrambling to get off when it went down, the finding was not unexpected, and a forensic archeologist, Eric Emery, was already on hand, assigned to the Wotan from the U.S. Army’s Central Identification Laboratory, at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. He directed a diver in mapping the exact location of the bones; they then would be photographed before being brought to the surface and sent to Hawaii for analysis and possible identification.
The turret finally came up on August 5, after several days of waiting for good weather. It rose from the water, on a platform clutched by the Spider, looking rusted and encrusted but very much like its old photographs. Onlookers on the Wotan could see the two openings through which the guns that still rested inside had fired, and they could make out the dents left by the shells fired by the Merrimack . As the turret came to rest on the Wotan ’s deck, it started to turn orange from contact with the open air. To halt that process, it was put under a continuous spray of water, inside and out.
While it traveled, under its shower of water, back toward land, yet another discovery was made. After two days, Commander Scholley announced, “It appears we might actually be bringing home more of our shipmates.” More bones had been found in the turret, the remains of two men altogether, including one nearly complete skeleton.
ON AUGUST 9, EXACTLY 140 YEARS AND FIVE MONTHS after the Battle of Hampton Roads, the turret returned to the scene of its action as the Wotan arrived in Newport News. A 21-gun salute was fired from shore, and a bugler played taps in honor of the Navy dead aboard. At the arrival ceremony, Commander Scholley presented an 1862 flag to John Broadwater, symbolizing the Navy’s turning over the turret to NOAA. The next day the turret reached the Mariners’ Museum, and at a ceremony there, the names of the 16 men who had died in the Monitor ’s sinking were read.
Now the turret rests in a tank of electrolyte-charged water at the museum near the engine and the propeller. The tank has portholes so that visitors can observe its progress in undoing the damage of 140 years underwater. The museum plans to open a Monitor Center in 2007 to house and display all the artifacts rescued from the wreck and to support ongoing research and conservation efforts.
Meanwhile, efforts are being made to arrange an expedition for 2003 to bring up a piece of the armor belting and possibly the engines that drove the turret. At the end of August 2002 scientists at the Mariners’ Museum spent a week cleaning out the inside of the turret, which was raised with a great deal of silt and concretion still in it, and making new discoveries. They found a gold band in place on a finger—possibly a wedding ring, and as Eric Emery said, “a ring in situ is one of the best identifications you can make.” They found an enlisted man’s wool coat, a bucket probably used with the guns, more buttons, a rubber comb stamped U.S. NAVY that looked brand-new, and a silver spoon from the wardroom.
They also discovered new clues to how the ship worked. “Our biggest surprise,” Broadwater said, “was that we knew there were diagonal braces put in when the turret was built, but we found additional ones at 90 degrees to the original that look like a retrofit. Our guess is that the weight of the turret with the guns made the turret sag, and they put these in when the Monitor was in the Washington Navy Yard.”
The next step will be to remove the guns. “There’s no way they’ll come out with the gun slides in place,” said Broadwater, referring to the rails on which they rolled forward and recoiled. “We’ve had some heavy riggers look at the situation to try to find a solution. We might try to lift each gun with its carriage still attached or remove the carriages and take them out first. We want to do the least amount of damage possible to both carriage and gun.”
Once the turret has been thoroughly cleaned out, all human remains will be sent to the Army’s lab in Hawaii for study. According to Eric Emery, “the most likely result from DNA testing will be just mitochondrial DNA, which allows you to get a partial DNA fingerprint. The way you get that is to have a direct descendant on the mother’s side of the family. We’re hoping we’ll be able to work with the Navy Casualty Office, MIA Division. We’re talking about setting up a team, so people who think they are direct descendants of crew members can get in touch and we can keep files on them. There’s at least a chance we’ll be able to identify people.”
John Broadwater described what it was like to get inside the turret, which was still upside down. Each day the tank was being drained of water; the scientists would work under a continuous water spray until evening, and then the tank would be refilled. “After watching the Navy divers have all the experience,” Broadwater said, “it’s really pretty special. Every once in a while it just hits me. After all the years of studying the Monitor , here we are actually working in here. Here’s a gun sitting right here, and the answers about linkages and mechanisms are all here waiting for us to find them out. It’s pretty exciting.”