Last summer a multi-organization effort led by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) made the most significant artifact recovery yet from the wreck of the USS Monitor off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina. The Civil War ironclad’s propeller and a section of the propeller shaft, together 11 feet long and weighing 3 tons, were raised from the deteriorating wreck on 5 June 1998. They were the largest objects from the ship to be raised since the Monitor’s anchor was recovered in 1983. The U.S. Navy’s first ironclad, the Monitor foundered in a gale in December 1862, nine months after her historic duel with the CSS Virginia (the ex-USS Merrimack).
The summer dives on the Monitor were in fact done in two expeditions spread over June and July, with 27 actual days of diving. Phase 1, which oversaw the retrieval of the propeller, was conducted jointly with the U.S. Navy’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, NOAA, and the Cambrian Foundation (a private non-profit organization devoted to assisting in underwater scientific projects). NOAA, the Cambrian Foundation, the National Undersea Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, cooperated on Phase II. In addition to the propeller, other recovered objects include several sections of deck plate, bottle fragments, and what may be one of the ship’s water closets. All objects taken from the site are sent to the Mariners’ Museum for conservation and eventual display.
The goal of the planned 1999 expedition is to begin the laborious task of stabilizing the remains of the Monitor. As the wreck lies upside down on top of the large central turret, currently a significant gap exists between much of the deck and the silty bottom—and the engineering spaces amidships and aft are in serious danger of simply collapsing into the mud through what is left of the armored deck. To shore the wreck, divers will place concrete bags under the portion of the Monitor containing her engine machinery. With the hull stabilized, the engine spaces can be swept for artifacts and removal of the machinery can begin.
This method of preservation, however, only can postpone the eventual collapse of the hull and the possible destruction of the artifacts it contains. This is a lower- cost option compared to raising or encapsulating the Monitor, and conservators hope this factor will contribute to the continued funding of the project. A two- to three-week expedition by Navy divers is planned for May or June 1999, and an additional expedition is planned for August by NOAA. This year’s operations have received adequate funding, in part because of a 107% increase in funding for NOAA’s Marine Sanctuaries by Congress. John Broadwater, Director of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said that the money allocated to the recovery and shoring projects should “probably be enough to get the job done” for this year. He also commented that that many in and out of the government “agreed that the Monitor needed to be a high priority” because of her poor condition.
The heavily damaged wreck lies 16 miles south-southeast of Cape Hatteras in about 230 feet of water. She foundered and sank there on the stormy night of 31 December 1862, while she was being towed by the USS Rhode Island on her way to Charleston, South Carolina. She had fought only in one other battle (at Drewry’s Bluff, near Richmond) after her historic fight with the Virginia .
The Monitor was designated the nation’s first National Marine Sanctuary in 1975, two years after she was discovered. Experts believe she already had damage from depth charging during World War II, and she has sustained natural and man-made damage since 1973.
Additional information about the Monitor and the ongoing efforts to preserve her can be found at the website of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary at www.nos.noaa.gov/nmsp/monitor or by calling (800) 599-3122.