The Monitor Makes Port

The battle as envisioned by the marine painter Thomas C. Skinner in 1875.

Only the arrival of the Monitor late that evening, after being hastily towed down the Atlantic coast from the Brooklyn yard where she had been launched, had prevented far more grievous destruction at Hampton Roads, not to mention hysteria in Washington. An artist who portrayed the historic encounter years later titled his canvas Last of the Wooden Navy , and the battered, smoldering hulks of once proud Union warships like the USS Congress and USS Cumberland testified to its accuracy.

For many, the Monitor - Virginia duel also signaled the end of the age of romance on the high seas—the rise of the machine at the expense of the heroic individual. To Herman Melville, the Monitor ’s successful defense of the remnants of the Union fleet represented something decidedly unglamorous: “victory without the gaud / Of glory,” as he put it, with “plain mechanic power” now “placed— / Where War belongs— / Among the trades and artisans.” Here, Melville believed, was the dawn of a modern era of naval warfare “beyond the strife of fleets heroic.” Nathaniel Hawthorne was more succinct: “All the pomp and splendor of naval warfare are gone by.” It is no surprise that one of the most famous prints depicting the battle, Endicott & Company’s popular lithograph The First Naval Conflict Between Iron Clad Vessels , featured celebratory portraiture not of Captain Worden or his crew but of the vessel’s Swedish-born inventor John Ericsson and the machinery he invented.

As for the two ships, they never met each other again. Two months after the Battle of Hampton Roads, on May 11, 1862, the crew blew up the Virginia rather than allow it to fall into Union hands after General McClellan’s army had forced the Confederacy to abandon her anchorage in Norfolk. The Monitor saw brief action at Drewry’s Bluff but, unable to elevate her guns high enough to fire on Confederate fortifications, did no damage there. Nine months after Hampton Roads, under tow to duty in the Carolinas, she capsized in a winter gale off Cape Hatteras and on December 31 sank to the bottom, taking 16 men with her. Her sad, anticlimactic death confirmed worries that the new ironclads were less than seaworthy.

And there the story might well have ended. Though Union and Confederate yards alike quickly produced improved ironclads, iron rams, and monitors, the original vessels passed into the realm of legend, perhaps enshrined there because ironclads never really opposed each other one-on-one again. Artists in all media on both sides of the Atlantic burnished the Monitor - Virginia legend with engravings, lithographs, and paintings of the “terrific combat.” They kept the lost ironclads vividly alive in public memory for years. But certainly no one ever expected to see the actual Monitor again.

Both sides claimed victory, and the debate still goes on. But everyone agrees on one thing: Naval warfare would never be the same.

Now, astonishingly, they can. This March, coinciding with the 145th anniversary of the epochal encounter, a new 63,500-square-foot $30 million USS Mon itor Center opened at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. It houses a remarkable array of long-lost original artifacts that have been meticulously recovered in recent years from the ship’s underwater grave (now the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary) and then expertly conserved. Prime among them is the ironclad’s famous gun turret and the formidable cannon it once housed. Its armor plates still bearing the deep dents inflicted by the Virginia ’s broadsides in 1862, the turret will rest here at least for the next decade inside huge, publicly visible, restoration vats filled with fresh water and chemicals. There, like the two 11-inch Dahlgren guns that once fired from inside it and now lie submerged in adjacent silos, it will be juiced with so-called electrolytic reduction conservation, a gentle but perpetual electric current designed to leach out salts from the metal while the chemicals slowly dislodge generations of encrusted sea life, sediment, and rust. Eventually the completely rehabilitated and reconstructed turret and guns will be on full view for future generations. But starting now, Civil War enthusiasts may view the restoration process from catwalks ringing the vats. On days when the water is clear (or even better, on the periodic occasions when the tanks are emptied so conservators can assess their progress), the turret, guns, engine, and other relics of the original Ericsson marvel stare back unobstructed, defying time.