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The Monitor Makes Port

June 2024
13min read

After a century and a half, the warship that changed the world is back

On March 9, 1862, a naval engagement near Chesapeake Bay in Virginia ended with no decisive victor and without claiming a single life. Yet no one has ever doubted that the bloodless fight changed naval warfare forever. Now, only a few miles from the broad channel where the battle took place, it is changing something else: the way present-day visitors experience Civil War history.

A hundred and forty-five years ago, with hundreds of spectators watching transfixed from the surrounding shoreline, two revolutionary high-tech ironclad warships—the hulking Confederate CSS Virginia (né USS Merrimack ) and the Union’s sleeker and smaller “iron pot,” the USS Monitor—squared off in a sensational, protracted, smoke-shrouded duel in the eight-mile-long channel of Hampton Roads at the confluence of the James, Elizabeth, and Nansemond Rivers. Just “the sounds of the conflict,” recalled one of the Monitor ’s crew, “were terrible.” To one soldier watching breathlessly from nearby Fortress Monroe, the first all-iron sea battle in history seemed nothing less than “one of the greatest Naval engagements that has ever occurred since the beginning of the world.”

As naval engagements go, truth to say, it was not even the most dramatic of the Civil War. For more than four hours the two relatively sluggish ships circled each other with agonizing slowness, all but parodying classic sea duels from the age of sail. The Monitor and Virginia mounted powerful guns and left plenty of dents on each other’s thick armor plates, but neither managed to inflict any lasting damage. The Virginia ’s most formidable weapon, its forward ram, had broken off the day before.

The battle’s only real casualty turned out to be the captain of the Monitor , 43-year-old New Yorker John L. Worden, who had the bad luck to be peering through a viewing slit in the pilothouse at the moment a shell burst outside, blinding him, though only temporarily. Three of the Monitor ’s crew did tumble heavily to the deck when another shell struck full force against her hull, and two of them lapsed into unconsciousness, but they, too, soon recovered. The Virginia counted a few mildly injured seamen of her own, but nothing serious. At the end of the long day, both ships simply ceased firing and steamed off in different directions almost simultaneously, presumably to fight another day. But they never did.

Monitor crewmen relax on the deck in summer sunshine. It is July 9, 1862; they have already fought their epochal battle, and the turret bears the scars of Rebel shot.
the mariner’s museum, newport news, va.2007_2_44

Both sides claimed victory afterward, igniting a debate that continues to this day. Did the Monitor retreat to shallow waters where the heavier Virginia could not follow ? Or did the Virginia chug off first, leaking badly, to resume its defense of the nearby waterways leading to the Confederate capital of Richmond? Did the Virginia win by dealing a staggering blow the day before to the less advanced vessels of the Union Navy? Or did the Monitor triumph by halting her rival’s deadly rampage and turning her away before she could inflict further damage? The controversy among historians rages on, but on one subject everyone agrees, then and now: Naval warfare would never be the same again.

For one thing, the Monitor ’s unique revolving gun turret revolutionized sea-going weapons technology—at least in concept. To say the least, the turret did not function properly during the engagement. “It was difficult to start it revolving,” said a crew member named Samuel Dana Greene, “or, when once started, to stop it.” After a while it simply turned round and round on its own, requiring gunners to fire on the fly whenever the Virginia returned to dizzying view. Nonetheless, warships would thereafter feature guns that rotated so that ships themselves would not have to waste time turning about to fire on enemy vessels.

Of equal significance, the age of sail abruptly came to an end on March 9, for at Hampton Roads the day before the famous duel the Virginia had decimated the Federal blockading squadron, ramming or shelling three wooden warships into submission, leaving two of them ablaze, killing some 250 sailors, and inflicting more damage than the U.S. Navy suffered in a single day until Pearl Harbor, some fourscore years later. The catastrophe drove Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet into what Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles described as a frenzy of “excitement and alarm.” Even the usually unflappable Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, appeared “the most frightened man on that gloomy day,” Welles remembered with competitive satisfaction. Stanton was “almost frantic” in his worry that the entire North might soon be under siege from the impregnable Rebel behemoth.

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.

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.
the mariner’s museum, newport news, va.2007_2_49

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.

Since then the new museum-within-the-museum, situated in a bucolic 550-acre park setting, has risen alongside the venerable Mariners’ building under design plans crafted by both Virginia and New York–based firms. As the curator Anna Holloway proudly points out, the resulting facility is designed to transport visitors through the entire experience of the Battle of Hampton Roads, from both Union and Confederate perspectives. (The institution made certain it could reflect the “other” side of the Monitor story when it purchased the original John Luke Porter design drawings for the transformation of the hulk of the U.S. steam frigate Merrimack —burned to the water line when the U.S. Navy ignominiously abandoned its Norfolk base at the outbreak of the war—into the armor-plated vessel that went on to guard the river passage to Richmond.

Visitors will also enjoy access to the museum’s unparalleled archive of personal accounts, paintings, photographs, sculptures, prints, period documents, and blueprints, all neatly enhanced through modern interactive displays designed to keep children and families fully engaged.

The steel replica of the ship built by Northrop Grumman.
the mariner’s museum, newport news, va.2007_2_50

The museum’s multifaceted “environments” include a “battle theater” in the round, where visitors, placed in the middle of the action, are introduced to the ironclad duel through a 13-minute film, conceived as an homage to nineteenth-century Civil War cycloramas (a once popular Monitor-Merrimack cyclorama vanished generations ago). Nearby, visitors will explore the sailors’ claustrophobic living quarters in re-created cabins. And just around a turn stands a mock stone dock connecting a sailing frigate to a full-scale re-creation of the forward portions of the CSS Virginia .

Much of the conservation facility with its oversized tanks will be fully open to the public, while behind the scenes a two-story 7,000-square-foot laboratory will serve as a unique training ground for professionals and university scholars. Education programs will be geared to both schoolchildren and future interns in museum studies and underwater archeology. The museum’s already richly loaded Web site ( ) will offer an immense stockpile of historical narratives, pictures, archives, and teacher resources both to help travelers plan visits and to aid researchers in their scholarly inquiries. The Mariners’ Museum’s formidable library already holds a million manuscripts, 78,000 books, and 600,000 photographs (not to mention maps, ships’ plans, and charts), among them a trove of letters the Monitor crew member William Keeler wrote his wife, which provide a wonderfully revealing account of life on board the ship. “I’m tired of everlasting iron,” he wrote home one day. “The clank, clank, clank while I’m writing this of the officer of the deck as he paces back and forth on the iron plates above my head, although suggestive of security, is not a good opiate.”

In the new museum, it is the original relics from the Monitor that will likely attract the most attention — and rightly so.

The original Monitor relics will likely attract the most attention—and rightly so. On public view for the first time is the vessel’s brass engine register (for the record, number 749088); its inexplicably unbroken, fully intact, and still working brass, copper, and glass engine-room thermometer (marked for “blood heat,” “fever heat,” and “water boils,” an arresting reminder of what its sailors had to endure during the ship’s first and only summer at sea); the nine-foot-wide cast-iron propeller; and the surviving metal-and-glass lanterns and wall sconces that once provided flickering illumination to the crew of a vessel that spent its life half-submerged and would otherwise have been cast into near darkness whenever water surged over its skylights. Pride of place among these relics may well belong to the red lantern whose light flickered and then died that night off Cape Hatteras.

Here, too, are mementos suggesting that the officers of the Monitor lived rather splendidly: engraved forks, spoons, and knives, intact wine bottles, shards of fine china. They help explain why Nathaniel Hawthorne, much as he regretted the decline of romance in naval warfare, wrote after a visit belowdecks: “It was like finding a palace with all its conveniences under the sea.” But here too will be reminders of the constant threats that faced the crew of the untested vessel, like the crude but workmanlike tools that were once kept handy for emergency onboard repairs, although when the fatal emergency of December 31 confronted her, no tools could help.

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

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