The Monitor and the Merrimack – 150 years later.

The U.S.S. Merrimack was a large American sailing vessel berthed in Norfolk, and sunk by the Union in order to keep it from Confederate hands.  The CSA, however, raised the sunken ship and reconditioned it as an iron-clad vessel, enabling it to threaten the navy of the North.which had placed a naval blockade of the Confederacy’s Atlantic ports.

To counter the Merrimack, rechristened the Virginia, the Union knew it too needed an iron clad vessel.  An article in Sunday’s Washington Post (“The Monitor’s Secrets”) told the story of John Ericsson, Swedish born ship architect, who had designed an unusual looking, low-riding, flat topped iron-clad vessel with a cylindrical revolving and armed turret on the top.  Ericsson’s Monitor was built and delivered within 100 days, and on March 8, 1862 (150 years ago, for the mathematically challenged), it engaged the Virginia/Merrimack in a four hour battle, the first battle ever between two iron-clad vessels, changing naval warfare from then on.

The battle itself might have been a costly draw, but the drama was just starting.because on December 31, 1862, the Monitor sunk in bad weather somewhere off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, where it lay undisturbed for over 100 years.

The article in the Post intrigued me enough that yesterday, I went to the United States Naval Memorial (7th and Pennsylvania Ave NW) to hear a presentation by John Broadwater, author of a new book “USS Monitor: A Historic Ship Completes Its Final Voyage”. It turned out to be one of the most fascinating hours I have spent in some time.

Broadwater is an underwater archeologist (and, boy, does he make that sound fascinating) who has spent a lot of time focused on shipwrecks off the southeastern coast of the United States, including the Monitor.  For years, he worked for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, and led several underwater expeditions to the wreck.

But I am getting ahead of  myself.  After Broadwater told the general story of the construction of the Monitor, its battle with the Merrimack, and its disappearance, just when you thought the interesting part of the story had been told, the excitement really began.

First, the ship had to be located, in and of itself, not easy as it was under about 240 feet of water approximately 16  miles off the coast of North Carolina.  The discovery of the ship and its formal identification, its initial exploration and the realization that the hull of the ship was impossible to salvage.  The identification of the propeller, the engine and, on the bottom as the ship had turned over when it sank, the turret.  And the extraordinarily difficult tasks of retrieving these important parts of the ship – difficult and unique engineering tasks (these items were extraordinarily bulky, heavy and delicately positioned; the propeller weighed 3 tons, the engine along with the retrieval equipment weighed about 135 tons and the turret more tan 200 tons), fascinating tales of the courage of the civilian and naval divers, and even the difficulty of obtaining the necessary funding for the salvage activities.

But there was more.  The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News VA (where I have never been, and did not know existed) built a separate building to house the salvaged parts of the Monitor (and various Monitor artifacts) and tell the story.  They have apparently constructed a full scale model of the ship, which sits outside the museum, and inside the museum, there are places set for the propeller, engine and turret, which are still under conservation – but even the conservation activities can be viewed through glass walls into the conservation laboratories.

And still more.  We now have 14 national marine sanctuaries, which are protected by the federal government.  The site of the Monitor was the first – and, depending on funding resources, there will be continuing exploration of the hull (the front of the ship, where the living quarters were, still are basically awaiting study and exploration) and analysis of the marine life that has formed around the sunken hull.

In this brief post, I cannot do justice to Broadwater’s presentation.  His book, a coffee table sized book, looked fascinating – and all profits are being donated to the Monitor sanctuary site.  If you are at all interested, I would suggest you look for it.









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