The Monitor Makes Port

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For those who believe in myths within myths, however, the excavation and recovery effort has, sadly, burst one of the most resilient of them all, the stubbornly enduring story that the Monitor carried a pet cat and that a crew member stuffed the frightened creature inside one of its big guns just before the ship went down. A surviving sailor named Francis R. Butts remembered (albeit more than 20 years later) that as the ship foundered, he calmly pushed his coat and boots into one of the ironclad’s cannon, only to find “a black cat was sitting on the breech of one of the guns, howling one of those hoarse and solemn tunes which no one can appreciate who is not filled with the superstitions which I had been taught by the sailors, who are always afraid to kill a cat.” Instead, Butts claimed, he seized her, stuffed her into the other gun, and wadded it shut. But as the Monitor sanctuary historian Jeff Johnston reported last August, careful scanning of the recovered Dahlgren guns “failed to find any trace of organic material such as leather, wool, or bone.” The study, he concluded, “confirmed my suspicion that Francis Butts fabricated the whole story.”

The replica of the ship will be far more realistic than visitors expect.

Experts did, however, find in the turret two complete human skeletons, still unidentified and now in the possession of the Navy’s JPAC command center, since the remains are officially those of U.S. Navy casualties (once identified, they will receive formal burial). NOAA and Mariners’ Museum experts also worked to remove and sift through tons of coal and other debris and sediment from the 12-foot-long cast-iron Dahlgren guns during that painstaking effort and in the process of removing sediment from their casings uncovered beautifully engraved words that had survived 140 years on the sea bottom, one gun’s inscription honoring the ship’s commander, and the other its inventor: “Worden Monitor & Merrimac ” and “Ericsson Monitor & Merrimac .” The inscriptions testify eloquently to the vessel’s immediate renown after Hampton Roads. Much in need of repair and review, she traveled for rehabilitation to the Washington Navy Yard, where the guns were undoubtedly inscribed to celebrate her maiden battle. (The ship’s refurbishers clearly were not willing to concede the name Virginia to her opponents.)

Of course the sum of its parts, no matter how diverse, can’t begin to re-create life on board—and belowdecks—as it was lived in tight, fetid quarters by its original crew. But to provide modern visitors the closest approximation possible of their demanding day-to-day experience, the Monitor Center will also boast an extraordinary feature as its centerpiece, a full-scale, all-steel replica of the Union ironclad, constructed by Northrop Grumman Newport News, the same shipyard that recently built and in October 2006 dedicated the most thoroughly modern of all high-tech naval vessels, the latest heir to the Mon itor tradition, the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush. Northrop Grumman, which also served as a major funder of the Monitor Center, built the site’s conservation tanks, and performed ultra-sonic inspections and X-rays of recovered artifacts, assigned more than 100 of its employees, including many shipbuilding apprentices, to design and build the Monitor replica in 22 steel sections, drawing on engineering data from the firm’s aircraft carrier program and utilizing Navy-donated materials throughout.

The stunning result, officially christened on June 11, 2006, and now viewable against the backdrop of the institution’s lovely 167-acre Lake Maury, will strike visitors as far more realistic than expected and much more massive-looking than the ironclad of legend. Once described derisively as a “cheese-box on a raft,” the original Monitor , like the accurate replica, was actually a substantial 173 feet long, with a broad 41-foot-wide deck that, after Hampton Roads, carried a protective canvas tent strung over the turret to keep crew members below as cool as possible. Today’s visitors will be able to roam that deck at will, just as Abraham Lincoln himself did two months after the vessel had returned from her world-changing fight.

Likely they will conclude precisely what Lincoln did when he first glimpsed the “model of a strange, altogether new sea-going war monster” on a momentous 1861 winter day at the White House. Besieged with “adverse opinions from several other old salts” who insisted the proposed ship would never float, much less change history, Lincoln sent the project forward, remarking, “All I have to say is what the girl said when she stuck her foot in the stocking. It strikes me there’s something in it.”

Harold Holzer is the co-chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission; he is on the board of historian advisers to the Monitor Center, and has co-edited a book of lectures from a conference there, The Battle of Hampton Roads.

The Monitor’s Mates