Sixteen miles off north Carolina’s Cape Hatteras and 240 feet beneath the surface of the Atlantic, the ocean bottom was as gray, pocked and silent as the moon. Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution’s Johnson-Sea-Link II submersible slowed, and pilot Don Liberatore turned on its sonar. A thick smudge of white light pulsed like a heartbeat on the readout, growing bigger by the second. “It’s coming up right now,” Liberatore said. He toggled a switch, light flooded the void, and the chiseled bow of the USS Monitor, the Civil War’s most celebrated ship, appeared on the screen.
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Liberatore steered the sub over the Monitor’s forward section, a wreckage of iron plates and frames that once composed the officers’ and captain’s quarters. Here, beneath a dim skylight 140 years ago, acting assistant paymaster William F. Keeler wrote to his wife, Anna, describing life aboard “our iron monster.” Here, too, in the wardroom, commissioned officers shared meals, debated politics and discussed their innovative little ironclad’s next assignment in a war that was tearing the young United States apart.
The sub moved slowly farther aft and hovered next to a 9-foot-tall, 22-and-a-half-foot-wide revolving turret, the first in naval history. Schools of small orange fish called red barbiers flitted about the iron cylinder. “I feel like I can reach out and touch it,” said John Broadwater, his voice rasping in the sub’s headphones. An underwater archaeologist and manager of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, Broadwater was among the first to explore the wreck after it was discovered by scientists aboard Duke University’s vessel Eastward, in 1973, and has since championed the effort to recover parts of it. He has guided the five-year partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the sanctuary, and the U.S. Navy, whose divers have retrieved the ship’s propeller, engine and hundreds of other artifacts. This past summer, the team went for the turret itself. In July, Navy divers discovered that the two 11-inch Dahlgren cannons had not dropped out of the turret, as some historians speculated, when the Monitor sank on December 31, 1862, landing upside down on the ocean floor. They also learned that at least two members of the crew who were lost on that “night of horrors,” as Keeler put it, died in the turret itself, their last and only refuge from the storm-lashed sea.
The union navy brought out the Monitor on January 30, 1862, amid much skepticism. “We heard every kind of derisive epithet applied to our vessel—she was called a ‘silly experiment,’ an ‘iron coffin for her crew’ & and we were styled fool hardy for daring to make the trip in her, & this too by navy men,” wrote Keeler. Designed by Swedish-American inventor John Erics-son, the Monitor was a hodgepodge of components never before joined: steam power, iron construction, a revolving turret. Resembling a 173-foot-long black lozenge, it looked more like a submarine than a surface warship. The flat deck cleared the water by only 14 inches when the ship was loaded. In the middle sat the gigantic and ungainly turret, shaped like a pillbox.
For centuries, the vagaries of wind and current had played a major role in all naval battles. Wooden sailing ships jockeyed with each other for hours or even days, trying to come up broadside so they could engage their guns with maximum effectiveness. The Monitor changed all that. With its iron construction designed to deflect enemy fire, and its 400-horsepower steam engine, the Monitor eliminated traditional ships’ two major weaknesses: a vulnerability to cannon shot and restricted maneuverability. But the revolving turret was by far the Monitor’s most enduring innovation. Armed only with two 16,000-pound cannons, the turret was built of eight layers of inch-thick iron bolted together and seated in a brass ring. Two small auxiliary engines called donkey engines rotated the turret, enabling the Monitor to fire upon an enemy no matter where the ship was situated.
This past summer, broadwater and a crew of U.S. Navy divers were camped out on the 300-foot derrick barge Wotan, anchored off the North Carolina coast. Working in teams around the clock, 7 days a week for 41 days, 162 divers had readied the Monitor’s turret for bringing it to the surface, cutting, hammering and dredging their way through tons of concreted coral, coal and sediment to clear the turret’s interior. When the capsized Monitor sank to the seafloor, a coal scuttle landed on top of the turret, filling it with tons of coal the crew had bunkered just before leaving the Chesapeake. At this depth, the surface-supplied divers had at most 40 minutes before they had to begin the 70-minute climb to sea level, stopping at way points so that their bodies could slowly get rid of accumulated nitrogen that can cause the debilitating and sometimes fatal diving sickness known as the bends. Once they’d finished their last stop at 40 feet, they had only five minutes to swim to the surface, climb onto the barge’s deck—where the team stripped off their 175 pounds of gear—and get into the onboard decompression chamber for up to two more hours.
All that’s risky enough, but nearby were the cowboys who ride even wilder ponies—saturation divers, who don’t return to sea level for up to ten days. In teams of two they worked on the wreck for 12 hours, then climbed into a diving bell pressurized at 230 feet. Winched back from the depths onto the barge, the bell was joined to a cluster of huge, white decompression chambers where the divers could safely eat, sleep and live for the duration of their ten-day shift. Life under pressure is uniquely dangerous, even for ordinary activities. A tiny air bubble in a cough drop can create a vacuum that will suck the lozenge against a diver’s tongue or mouth with remarkable force, leaving a painful ulcer. And returning to sea level was a 66-hour trip through another chamber.
Which is why they love it, of course. “Out of the Blue, Into the Black,” read one diver’s T-shirt, quoting Neil Young, who probably never considered his lyric quite so literally. Pound for pound, there was enough testosterone on the Wotan this summer to supply Viagra Nation. These divers are the front line for maritime disasters of all stripes, from the crash of twa Flight 800 to the terrorist attack on the USS Cole. They dive on wrecks where they can barely see and the bodies still have faces.
All that hard work paid off. They recovered the glass hydrometers that 25-year-old, first-class fireman George Geer would have used to measure the salinity of seawater intended to fill the ship’s boilers, and mustard and pepper bottles used to spice up the bland Navy food. They found bones. The coal and sediment had preserved them remarkably well. “We found fully articulated skeletal remains,” says Wayne Lusardi, museum conservator at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. “Buttons were found at the wrists, down the thoracic cavity, near the waist.” The dead sailor had carried a knife in his right front pocket; it was found resting on his right femur, enclosed within some wool fabric. Archaeologists believe the knife may yield some clues to the sailor’s identity. Later, they found a second skeleton. These remains are being treated as mias, and they have been sent to the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, where forensic anthropolo- gists are working to identify them.
Says Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley, commanding officer of the Navy’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two and head of this expedition’s dive operations, “We feel connected to the sailors, because we’re bringing them home.”