Retrieval efforts aim to bring Monitor back to life

Civil War ironclad is being salvaged in $14 million 5-year effort

August 04, 2002|By William J. Broad | William J. Broad,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

After 140 years at the bottom of the sea, the 160-ton gun turret of the USS Monitor is to be lifted into daylight soon off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in the culmination of a five-year, $14 million effort to save the famous ironclad.

The federal-private project will then enter a new phase, to bring much of what remains of the Monitor, a revolutionary warship and a Civil War relic, back to life.

Experts are treating more than 400 Monitor artifacts to try to reverse the corrosive effects of time and seawater. The anchor, propeller, turret, guns, engine, condenser, hull plates and hundreds of smaller artifacts from the ironclad are to be displayed in a new $30 million museum.

Already, the recoveries have produced a rush of insights, said John D. Broadwater, a naval archaeologist who manages the Monitor marine sanctuary off Cape Hatteras.

New light is being shed on the ship's construction, quirks, innovations and death throes, as well as the achievements behind one of history's most celebrated warships.

For instance, conservators are finding that crew members made subtle measurements to keep its steam engine running at top efficiency.

In a more mundane discovery, it appears that the Union sailors who ran the warship tended to ply their meals with mustard, as suggested by the many condiment bottles found at the wreck site.

"We suspect the food needed all the help it could get," said John B. Hightower, president of the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., which is conserving and displaying the Monitor's artifacts.

Undocumented parts

Experts resurrecting the lost ship are finding that the Monitor's remains are often quite different from plans and period drawings. For instance, the gun turret has undocumented braces, and the steam engine departs in some respects from 19th-century renderings.

"It turns out we didn't have the big picture," said Broadwater of the Monitor sanctuary.

Other surprises have emerged. Last year, as experts retrieved the steam engine and began removing layers of marine encrustations, a presumed gauge turned out to be a large clock. Its iron hands had vanished. But close inspection of its brass faceplate showed faint smudges that echoed the last positions of the hands, near 1 and 3.

William F. Keeler, the paymaster who survived the sinking in December 1862, had written that the warship went down in a gale a little after 1 a.m. So historians have concluded that the inrush of icy sea water probably froze the clock, with the hands recording the moment of the ship's demise.

"It's pretty neat," said Curtiss Peterson, the chief conservator at the Mariners' Museum, who found the ghostly traces. "Suddenly, your mind goes back to the night of the sinking."

Even more significant for history - and for conservators' peace of mind - was a discovery concerning a real engine gauge. Known as a register, it counted the engine's revolutions, much as a car's odometer counts miles. Peterson, while removing encrustations from the old device, was elated to see the word "Monitor" etched across its top.

"I smiled ear to ear," he recalled. "If it had said something like `Toledo,' we would have been in deep trouble."

To date, the inscription is the best direct proof of the ship's identity, though historians have long viewed the mass of circumstantial evidence as airtight.

Built in a hurry

The Monitor was an ironclad whose advanced design altered the course of naval history. Though built in a wartime rush of 100 days, the ship was a deadly mix of innovations featuring the world's first revolving naval gun turret. That advance is still a hallmark of modern warships.

Built at Greenpoint in Brooklyn, N.Y., the Monitor was launched into the East River on Jan. 30, 1862. It was 172 feet long.

The turret, which is to be raised soon, was the distinguishing feature of the flat-decked ship. Measuring 9 feet high and 21 feet across, it housed two 9-foot Dahlgren guns able to jut through small openings and fire shells or cannonballs farther than 2 miles.

On March 9, 1862, the Monitor and the Confederate ship Virginia, an ironclad built over the body of the USS Merrimack, blasted each other for hours in an inconclusive battle at Hampton Roads. The confrontation nonetheless signaled the end of wooden warships and the start of the age of armored battleships.

On learning of the clash, the first between ironclads, the British Royal Navy, the world's pre-eminent naval force, canceled the construction of all wood warships, historians say. The Union began building a whole new class of Monitor-type vessels.

Sank in squall

Nine months later, the Monitor was under tow off Cape Hatteras to a new assignment when it encountered a violent squall and went down on New Year's Eve, killing 12 crew members and four officers.

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