On 9 March 2007, the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, will dedicate the $30-million USS Monitor Center, where recovered remains of the nation’s first armored warship, including her iconic turret, will be placed on display. The event will mark the end of an odyssey that began 145 years ago in Brooklyn, New York, when Cornelius Bushnell knocked on John Ericsson’s door. Their meeting marked the genesis of the revolutionary vessel that became the USS Monitor.
Like the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley, the Monitor symbolizes how the Civil War marked a tipping point not only in the history of naval warfare, but also in the relationship between man and machine. It marked nothing less than a revolution in the history of warfare itself.
For nearly half a millennium, war at sea had remained largely unchanged. Constructed in 1853, just eight years before the war began, the sloop-of-war USS Constellation (which is open to present-day visitors in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor) was the last sailing warship built by the United States. In her fundamental design, she would have been familiar to John Paul Jones, Sir Francis Drake, or even Christopher Columbus. She was (and is) a wooden-hulled, three-masted sailing vessel carrying iron guns mounted in a broadside, guns that fired mainly solid shot—essentially iron balls—into other wooden ships that were similarly designed and armed. Sailors maneuvered their ships using a complex maze of lines and sails, and they manhandled their heavy guns around the deck with ropes and handspikes. The officers who directed their activities stood on the weather deck with the wind in their hair. The captain on the quarterdeck watched it all like some omnipotent god of war, and such was the culture of the sailing era that he might tip his hat to his enemy counterpart who would be standing on his own quarterdeck a mere “half-pistol shot” (roughly 25 yards) away.
The officers and crew of the Monitor, however, were not so much on board a ship as they were inside one. They certainly did not feel the wind in their hair.
Those who fed coal to the fires and those who pulled the levers and turned the gear wheels to keep the engines in balance did so below the waterline in submarine dungeons lit only by the artificial light of lanterns; those who served the Monitor’s two enormous XI-inch Dahlgren guns did so from inside a revolving iron-walled turret, an environment so disorienting that they could not tell east from west or bow from stern. Even the ship’s captain piloted his 172- foot-long craft from inside a tiny metal box on the vessel’s bow while peering out a narrow slit through nine inches of wrought iron. These men were not only isolated from one another, they were also isolated from the world outside their ship. As one officer recalled, “Everybody was shut in.”1
In that respect, the Monitor suggested not only the demise of wooden navies, it also foreshadowed the emergence of other kinds of machines including submarines, tanks, armored personnel carriers, and even airplanes—weapons that required human direction to be sure but that somehow dwarfed the men who served in them. For better or worse—and perhaps inevitably—the advent of the Monitor changed the relationship between man and his weapons. No longer was a weapon something a warrior held in his hand. It was a complex machine served by the new-age warriors who fed its engines, turned its gear wheels, and pulled its
The Eccentric Inventor’s Novel Ship
This evolution would surely have taken place even if the Civil War had never happened, but it culminated at Hampton Roads, Virginia, in 1862 largely because the Confederates at nearby Portsmouth were turning the steam frigate Merrimack into an armored vessel, the Virginia, and because of the genius of a Swedish-born American immigrant named John Ericsson.
As befitted a genius, Ericsson was something of an eccentric. Indeed, when the Civil War broke out in 1861 he was not even on speaking terms with the U.S. government. Back in the 1840s he had designed another remarkable vessel, the USS Princeton, the world’s first propeller-driven steam warship. During what was essentially a public-relations cruise on the Potomac River arranged to impress a group of official dignitaries, one of the Princeton’s guns exploded at the breech, killing half a dozen people, including both Secretary of State Abel Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer. The gun that exploded had not been designed by Ericsson, but outrage about the disaster was sufficient that some of the blame splashed onto him anyway.
Thus it was that a dozen years later in the midst of civil war, when the U.S. government put out a call for individuals to submit designs for an iron-armored ship to counter the threat of the armored Merrimack, Ericsson did not respond. Nevertheless, fate—in the form of shipbuilder Cornelius Bushnell—played a hand. Bushnell was advocating a vessel designed by Samuel Book that was subsequently named the Galena. But a number of individuals who examined Pook’s plan told Bushnell that she was not likely to float with all that iron armor on her. To validate the seaworthiness of the proposed vessel, Bushnell took the plan to the one man in America who everyone assured him was the foremost authority on the subject. Ericsson took a look at Bushnell’s model, made a few quick calculations, and assured him that the proposed vessel would indeed float. But then he asked if Bushnell would like to see “the plan of a floating battery” that would withstand “the heaviest shot or shell.” Bushnell replied eagerly that he would, and Ericsson brought out the plan for the ship that eventually became the USS Monitor.2 The vessel might never have been built but for the role played by President Abraham Lincoln. When Bushnell showed up at the White House with a letter of introduction from Secretary of State William H. Seward, Lincoln greeted him warmly and asked what he could do for him. The president was so intrigued by Ericsson’s plan that he personally attended the next meeting of the Navy’s Ironclad Board where he remarked in characteristic fashion: “All I can say is what the girl said when she stuck her foot in the stocking. It strikes me there’s something in it.” Even with Lincoln’s support, however, the skeptical senior captains who constituted the board told Ericsson that he could have a contract only if he could build the vessel in 100 days. Under other circumstances, the touchy engineer might have stormed out. But he accepted, very likely in order to demonstrate the merit of his idea.3
Ericsson subcontracted various parts of his vessel to other companies, but he personally supervised the critical components: the engines, the hull assembly, and in particular the revolutionary revolving turret, which was assembled at the appropriately named Novelty Ironworks in New York City. Work began on 25 October, and the vessel was launched at the Brooklyn Navy Yard 93 days later. Ericsson was vindicated—and his critics silenced—when she floated with exactly the reserve buoyancy he had calculated.
Overcoming Initial Ordeals
On 27 February, the Monitor embarked for Hampton Roads, but the voyage turned into a brief and nearly disastrous sea trial. The engines worked well enough, driving the ironclad through the water at a respectable eight knots, but the helmsman called out that the ship would not answer the rudder. Her great weight created such a powerful inertia that the tiller ropes connecting the wheel to the rudder had no effect. The Monitor ran back and forth across New York Harbor “like a drunken man on a sidewalk,” as into the Brooklyn dock near the city gas works in a jarring collision. Ericsson went below, tinkered with the lines and pulleys, and soon put things right.4
A week later, the Monitor again set out for her historic confrontation with the CSS Virginia. The Union vessel could not make the voyage on her own; she had to be towed by another steamer. The second day out, off the coast of New Jersey, the barometer dropped and the wind increased. Heavy waves washed over the ship’s flat deck. Officers in their cabins looked up through the glass windows in the overhead to see green water above them. Save for the turret, the Monitor was virtually submerged. Soon water began to leak into the lower hull through the imperfect seal between the turret and the hull. Ericsson had calculated that the turret’s great weight (120 tons) resting on a brass ring would create a watertight seal, but just before departure, the ship’s chief engineer, Alban Stimers, attempted to improve on this scheme by placing a plaited hemp rope between the turret and the deck. Now water was seeping through this rope gasket, and before long it was cascading in.
At 4 o’clock that afternoon, the wet leather belts in the engine room lost their purchase on the pulleys and the fans stopped working. Without the fans, smoke built up in the engine room and the men had to abandon it, staggering out coughing. Without the engines, the pumps would not work, and water began to accumulate in the lower hold. Lieutenant John Worden, the career Navy officer who was the Monitor’s captain, ordered the national ensign hoisted upside down in a signal of distress to the towing steamer. Only the timely easing of the storm prevented the ironclad from going down. Had she done so, the whole history of the Civil War might have been different.5
But the Monitor did not go down—not yet. She arrived in Hampton Roads at about 2100 on 8 March, the same day that the Virginia had steamed out of the Elizabeth River and destroyed two Union warships—the sloop-of-war Cumberland and frigate Congress—thus inflicting on the U.S. Navy the worst defeat in its history until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Worden took the Monitor alongside the grounded USS Minnesota, and soon afterward, almost as a punctuation mark to the day’s events, the burning Congress exploded in a giant fireball as flames reached her powder magazine.6
The First Battle of a New Naval Age
Dawn on 9 March revealed a scene of devastation. The Cumberland’s topmasts, with her blue commissioning pennant still flying, jutted above the surface of the water off Newport News Point, while nearby were the charred remains of the Congress. A morning fog lay over much of Hampton Roads, but as it lifted, Worden made out the dark shape of the Virginia, which had spent the night at anchor off Sewell’s Point on the southern edge of the roadstead. As on the day before, spectators lined the shore as the Virginia got under way. Like the picnickers who rode out to watch the Battle of Bull Run, they hoped to witness history in the making. And they did.
Worden’s plan was to close with the Virginia until the two ironclads were nearly in contact before firing. Though his ship was smaller and carried only two guns, they were of the largest caliber, each capable of firing a 168-pound iron ball. Also his ship was both faster and more maneuverable. Still, no one knew what impact the Virginia’s guns might have. Ericsson was confident his vessel was “absolutely impregnable to the heaviest shot or shell,” but he was not inside the turret.7 The Monitor’s paymaster, William F. Keeler, recalled ii the moment of tension and anticipation as the two vessels closed with one another. “I experienced a peculiar sensation,” he confided to his wife. “I do not think it was fear, but it was different from anything I ever knew before. We were enclosed in what was supposed to be impenetrable armour—we knew that a powerful foe was about to meet us—ours was an untried experiment & our enemy’s first fire might make it a coffin for us all. . . . The suspense was awful.”8
Worden steamed to within 50 feet of the Virginia before giving the order to fire. When the shot slammed into the big Rebel ironclad, she shuddered from the concussion, but her armored walls remained intact. Then shells from the Virginia’s IX-inch Dahlgrens and 7-inch rifles began striking flush on the face of the Monitor’s turret. Up to that moment, no one knew if the enclosure’s eight layers of 1-inch iron plate would repel shot effectively, or if the concussion of a well-aimed shot would knock the turret off its spindle. Inside, the ship’s executive officer, 22-year-old Samuel Dana Greene, was alarmed to see a bulge appear on the turret’s inside wall, caused by one of the Virginia’s rounds. Turning to the veteran Stimers he pointed to the bulge. Did the shot come through? Stimers asked him patiently. “No, but it made a big dent!” Greene replied. “Of course it did,” Stimers answered. “What do you care as long as it keeps the shot out?”9
The two armored ships circled one another, firing as fast as the gunners could load. But neither made much of an impression on the other. The Monitor’s XI-inch guns might have broken down the Virginia’s shield if they had been able to strike the same spot repeatedly or if the gunners had used a heavier charge of black powder. But the turret’s turning mechanism was not precise enough to allow Worden to target specific points, and he did not know if a larger charge than the specified maximum of 15 pounds would blow the breeches on his guns. Both captains devised plans to ram the other, and, in fact, each vessel did strike the other once, but neither blow was decisive. Each captain also considered boarding, but the Virginia was too unwieldy, and the Monitor had a smaller crew, so boarding seemed an unpromising tactic. At one point the deep-draft Virginia ran aground, though she soon managed to extricate herself. Meanwhile, the cannonade continued.
The fight reached a decisive moment when a shell from one of the Virginia’s guns exploded square on the face of the pilothouse while Worden was looking out through the slit. A “flash of light” lit up the tiny pilothouse and filled it with smoke. Worden staggered backward, his hands to his face. “My eyes,” he cried out. “I am blind.” Worden’s blindness, as it happened, was not permanent, but for the moment he could not see at all, and he had to pass command over to his young executive officer, Dana Greene.10 But before doing so he ordered the ship to sheer off, believing the pilothouse was wrecked.
Greene had never been in combat before; indeed, his voyage on the Monitor was his first as a Navy officer. After a hiatus of perhaps half an hour, during which he determined that the vessel’s steering gear was still intact and the pilothouse not seriously damaged, he ordered the Monitor back in the fray. By then, the Virginia’s captain, Lieutenant Catesby ap Roger Jones, had had a chance to assess his own circumstances.
The Confederate ironclad had fired off more than 25,000 pounds of powder and shot, and she had burned up several thousand pounds of coal as fuel. The Virginia was then 10 to 20 tons lighter than she had been the day before, and a real danger was that as she rose in the water her vulnerable wooden hull would become exposed. Moreover, the tide was falling, and unless Jones took his big vessel back into the Elizabeth River before low tide, she might be trapped in the open roadstead while low on both ammunition and fuel and with an exposed hull. He decided to call it a day. Consequently, just as the Monitor was returning to renew the fight, the Virginia went back into port where she received a hero’s welcome.
Both sides claimed victory. Confederates noted that the Monitor had been the first to withdraw; Federals noted that when the Union ironclad returned to renew the fight, it was the Virginia that withdrew. Such arguments are meaningless. What mattered was that the presence of the Monitor, arriving in the proverbial nick of time, allowed the U.S. Navy to continue to hold Hampton Roads. It meant that Union Major General George B. McClellan could continue with plans for his army to advance up the nearby Virginia Peninsula, and that the blockade of Hampton Roads remained intact. Two years later, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant could not have made his end run across the James River to attack Petersburg without Union control of Hampton Roads, and when, on 3 February 1865, Lincoln met with senior Confederate representatives to discuss peace terms, he did so on board the steamer River Queen, anchored safely and securely in Hampton Roads.
The Combatants’ Fates
The Virginia never again ventured past Sewell’s Point. She occasionally steamed back and forth as if inviting the Monitor to come and finish their fight. But the smaller ironclad’s assignment was to protect the rest of the Union fleet, and her orders were to re-engage only if the Virginia threatened the wooden ships, which she never seriously did. Two months later, Union forces landed east of Sewell’s Point and advanced on Norfolk from the rear. When the city surrendered, the Virginia lost her base. Unwilling to let their ship fall into the hands of the Yankees, the Confederates blew her up. Only her propeller, anchor, and a few other artifacts survive and are on display outside the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.
As for the Monitor, she remained in Hampton Roads protecting the fleet for two months after her 9 March duel with the Virginia. Then in May, she along with the ironclad Galena and three other Union gunboats steamed up the James in support of McClellan’s slowly advancing troops. On the 15th, however, the warships were turned back by heavy fire from Confederate guns at Drewry’s Bluff, eight miles from Richmond. After spending the summer and early fall mostly guarding transports or on blockade duty in Hampton Roads, the famous ironclad ventured up the Potomac in October and underwent repairs at the Washington Navy Yard. She was back on duty at Hampton Roads by late November.
The next month, Navy Secretary Gideon Welles ordered her to be towed down to Charleston, South Carolina, the seedbed of the rebellion, in the hope that her big guns could batter down the walls of Fort Sumter and reclaim that post for the Union. En route, on 30 December, the Monitor encountered increasingly heavy seas off Cape Hatteras, that graveyard of the Atlantic, and in a deadly reprise of her experience off the New Jersey coast nine months before, water worked its way between the turret and the deck, and sea spray inundated the blower pipes, putting out the engines and making the pumps unworkable. This time, however, the storm did not abate, and early on New Year’s Eve, the Monitor sank in 240 feet of water 16 miles off the coast, taking 16 of her crew down with her.
Rescued from the Depths
Ericsson’s revolutionary vessel lay undisturbed for 110 years until 1973, when a team of divers led by John Newton of Duke University, Harold Edgerton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Gordon Watts of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History discovered the wreck site. The Monitor had tumbled on her way to the continental shelf, and her turret landed first, upside down with the hull on top of it. In 1975, the Monitor’s wreck site became the nation’s first National Marine Sanctuary, and two years later, the first artifact was recovered: a brass lantern with a red Fresnel lens. It may well have been the very lantern used as a distress signal by one of the 16 victims just before the ironclad’s final plunge.
In 1977 the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration undertook a more extended effort to investigate and document the site. The entire wreck was photo mapped, including sections of the inner hull—an activity made possible because portions of her wrought iron hull plating had corroded away. Additional expeditions in the 1980s yielded more artifacts, including the Monitor’s unique four-fluked anchor and a steady supply of mustard and pepper bottles. By the 1990s, however, it became clear that the wreck was deteriorating at an accelerating rate. This triggered a serious and concerted effort to recover as much of the vessel as possible before she disappeared entirely. The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, which in 1987 had been designated the official repository for all recovered USS Monitor artifacts, agreed to take on the monumental task of conserving the large objects slated for recovery. In 1998 divers raised the first substantial elements of the ship when they brought up the propeller and propeller shaft.
But the great prize, the single most important trophy, was Ericsson’s revolving turret. Recovering it, however, posed a huge engineering and logistical puzzle as well as a daunting human challenge. The turret, originally weighing 120 tons, was pinned under the hull by the ship’s heavy armor belt and was filled with more than a century of sand and silt. To recover the turret, the divers first had to cut through the thick armor belt, and then clear away the tons of coal that had spilled over and around the site. And they had to do this in the cold and darkness of 240 feet. The slow descent and ascent required by working at such depth severely restricted the available time on the bottom. Fortunately, the wreck site was a perfect training ground for U.S. Navy divers to experiment with commercial “saturation-diving” equipment.
Saturation diving is a difficult and demanding process that requires divers to live at depth in a tiny self-enclosed tank for a week or more at a time and then subsequently decompress in another tiny tank for several days more. In addition to the officers and men who served in the Monitor during her fight with the Virginia, Commander Barbara Scholley, U.S. Navy, and her team of Navy divers are also USS Monitor heroes. First the team recovered the ironclad’s 40-ton steam engine in 2001, and then a year later, a specially designed claw (called the Spider by the crew on the dive barge) successfully grasped the newly liberated turret and lifted it—plus the two 11-inch Dahlgren guns still inside it and the accumulated sediment—from the bottom of the continental shelf.
Now, beginning in March 2007, the general public will be able to see that turret plus all the other artifacts recovered from the wreck site and a reconstructed full-size replica of the original Monitor at the new USS Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum. The exhibit includes a reconstruction of the Monitor’s interior that will allow visitors to experience how it felt to be inside the nation’s first completely armored warship, and a 360-degree theater that will allow them to see and hear how it looked and sounded that day in Hampton Roads, 145 years ago, when ironclad first met ironclad.
Conserving the Iconic Turret
By Jeff Johnston
One of the major components of the Mariners’ Museum’s new USS Monitor Center is the 25,000- square-foot Batten Conservation Laboratory Complex. Since the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was established in January 1975, more than 1,200 objects have been recovered from the wreck site, and like all artifacts recovered from a marine environment, they require specialized treatment to prevent further degradation and to preserve them for study and exhibition.
The world-class Batten complex’s “wet lab” houses the large artifact tanks that hold the Monitor's, steam engine, rotating gun turret, and two cannon and carriages. These large iron objects are being conserved by electrolytic reduction—a slow process for leaching salts from metal and loosening organic encrustations from its exterior. Each artifact is submersed in an electrolytic solution, electrodes are suspended around the object, and direct current is passed through the system. Additional lab space at the complex is dedicated to the conservation of smaller objects.
Of all the Monitor artifacts, none has generated more interest than the turret. Since its recovery by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Navy in August 2002, the turret has been excavated and documented and undergone 4½ years of active conservation at the Mariners’ Museum, but it still has many more years to go; complete conservation is expected to take 15 to 20 years.
Soon after its recovery, archaeologists and conservators began excavating soft material (mud, sand, clay, and shell hash) inside the turret. During the process, hundreds of small artifacts were found, including remnants of wool clothing, buttons, shoe and boot parts, cannon implements, and approximately one ton of coal.
The two most significant finds were the skeletal remains of two of the Monitor's crew. NOAA is working with the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) to identify them. JPAC has been able to extract viable DNA samples from both sets of remains, and research is ongoing to locate maternal descendants of the Sailors who died when the ironclad sank. Also, NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary plans to have facial reconstructions made of the two unidentified Civil War heroes who went down with their ship.
During the turret excavation, one of the big surprises was the discovery of pieces of flatware lying scattered inside the structure. Archaeologists also recovered remnants of wood that could have been part of a silver chest. Did it topple into the Monitor's turret as the ship rolled over on her way to the sea floor, or did a confused steward trying to save the ship’s silverware drop it there? Future research may provide an answer.
After the excavation, the next step was to thoroughly map the turret and its components. The normal process is to document a large artifact and its components and features by hand. NOAA, however, contracted with the National Park Service for a laser scan of the turret and the Monitor's engine. The subsequent mapping accomplished in two days what it would have taken the museum conservators and NOAA archaeological team more than a year to complete. The effort yielded a complete record of the turret, cannon, and carriages just as they had lain for almost 140 years on the seabed.
Once the turret was thoroughly documented, the focus turned to the removal of the Monitor's two XI-inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannon and their unique friction carriages. Riggers from Northrop Grumman Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock assisted NOAA and the museum in this effort. The shipyard has been an invaluable partner to the conservation staff at the museum, providing its expertise and services in many areas—from fabricating storage tanks to analyzing material recovered from the wreck site. Before being placed in their own conservation tanks, the two gun barrels were cleaned and debris cleared from their bores. Because of a Monitor survivor’s old sea story, the latter process generated a significant amount of attention.
Sailor Francis Butts, whose Monitor service began about eight months after her duel with the Virginia, claimed in an article published in 1885 that as the ship was taking on water shortly before she sank, he stuffed his coat and boots in the bore of one of the two cannon and a howling cat in the other. With the two Dahlgrens out of the turret, Mariners’ Museum conservators cleared the bore of gun #27 and found no evidence of cloth, leather, or cat. Gun number #28 yielded the same.
We should not cast aspersions at Butts for embellishing his account. He was obviously proud to have served in one of his country’s most famous warships. Moreover, while he was not a participant in the battle between the ironclads, he was certainly a veteran of one of the world’s oldest battles: man against the sea.
1. William F. Keeler to his wife, serial letter, 6 March 1862 in Robert W. Daly, ed., Aboard the USS Monitor: 1862 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1964), p. 34.
2. [Cornelius S. Bushnell], “Negotiations for the Building of the “Monitor,” Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (New York: The Century Company, 1887-89), vol. 1, p. 748.
4. Keeler to his wife, 28 February 1862, in Daly, ed., Aboard the USS Monitor, p. 18.
5. Keeler to his wife, serial letter, 6 March 1862, ibid., pp. 27-30; S. Dana Greene, “In the ‘Monitor’ Turret,” Battles and Leaders, vol. 1, p. 721.
6.The best general history of the duel between the Monitor and the Virginia is still William C. Davis, Duel Between the First Ironclads (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975). See also Harold Holzer and Tim Mulligan, eds., The Battle of Hampton Roads (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), and Craig L. Symonds, Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 83-137, from which much of this article is adapted.
7.[Bushnell], “Negotiations for the Building of the ‘Monitor,’” Battles and Leaders, vol. 1, p. 748.
8.Keeler to his wife, serial letter, 6 March 1862, in Daly, ed., Aboard the USS Monitor, p. 34.
9.Greene, “In the ‘Monitor’ Turret,” Battles and Leaders, vol. 1, p. 723.
10. Keeler to his wife, serial letter, 6 March 1862, in Daly, ed., Aboard the USS Monitor, p. 38.