The Monitor Makes Port

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John B. Hightower, the longtime president and CEO of the Mariners’ Museum who retired last year, called the recovery and installation of the turret “a transformational moment for the museum and Tidewater Virginia,” adding: “To see the Monitor gun turret even in its often opaque bath of curing chemicals is to look upon a defining icon of the Civil War—and wonder about the ‘what if’ had the ironclad not arrived, just in time, ready for a battle that changed history.” Hightower’s successor, a former president of the College of William and Mary, Timothy J. Sullivan, has said he expects the new center to become an essential stop on the nation’s Civil War trail.

The gallery in this rendering recalls the wooden warships the ironclads made obsolete.
 
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Against formidable odds and only after years of patient exploration, researchers from Duke University, MIT, and the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources located the Monitor in 1973 in 240 feet of deep, treacherous water some 16 miles south-southeast of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Her grave sat only three short, but maddeningly perplexing, nautical miles from the spot at which the warship towing her during the fatal storm had calculated her demise. So near and yet so far. In 1975 the wreck site became America’s first National Maritime Sanctuary, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Even after underwater explorers had at last found and photographed the wreck, it was not immediately apparent they had indeed found the Monitor , for the ship had come to rest on the bottom upside down, her highly identifiable turret buried in sand beneath the hull and all but invisible. Under NOAA’s supervision and a Department of Defense– funded mission to recover the wreck despite severe technical challenges and rapid deterioration of the materials, work continued for more than a decade. The project’s great triumph occurred, the veteran team leader Jeff Johnston recalls, on an August morning in 2002 when a spider crane, submerged to grasp the turret, the most important artifact of all, brought it “up in beautiful condition, better than any of us could have ever hoped.” As Johnston puts it, “I have worked on many ocean recoveries, but this was, without doubt, one of the most flawless ever.”

I had the privilege of inspecting that turret up close just a few years ago—in the company of my friend Tim Goeglein, Special Assistant to the President—not long after the huge relic was hauled inland by truck and deposited with appropriate pomp in Newport News, then promptly submerged in its protective water-filled silo. On a day the water was drained so NOAA archeologists could examine their excavations, Goeglein and I donned cloth boots and hazmat-like white suits (the site is delicate enough to warrant such precautions). Then we ascended a steep ladder to the lid of the tank (a real challenge for this vertigo-afflicted writer), slowly climbed down into what felt at the first toe-in-the-water touch like a big puddle of debris, and finally stepped gingerly onto the interior roof of the actual turret that had once menaced the Confederate ironclad Virginia .

Amidst aromas of dead sea life emanating something between a smell and a stench, we walked below the very gun slides on which the Monitor ’s Dahlgren cannon once rolled in and out of their gunports, touched the metal that deflected Confederate shot, and, I’ll now admit (though NOAA and museum officials will likely have my hide), picked up a tiny conch shell that was still clinging resolutely to the side of an iron plate. I will never forget the feel, the sight, and the smell of any of it—and, even if they beat me with rubber hoses, plan to take the secret location of my pilfered seashell to my grave.

The turret will rest in a restoration vat for at least a decade.

These days NOAA is fully partnered with the Mariners’ Museum to deliver, store, and study the Monitor ’s recovered relics there and to serve as headquarters for all conservation, research, and programming activities at the new center. NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary Program has also contributed $9.5 million toward construction of the new center. Since it announced this official designation in 1987, NOAA has delivered to the museum no fewer than 1,200 artifacts from the ocean bottom, objects as small and intimate as a gutta-percha hair comb and as large as the ship’s 400-horsepower engine and 1,300-pound anchor. The search and recovery mission climaxed most dramatically with the August 2002 delivery of the gun turret.