Pieces of History

Raised from the deep, the Monitor's turret reveals a bounty of new details about the ship's violent end

After 41 days of grueling, round-the-clock diving, Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley and her dive team celebrated the turret's recovery. (Lynda Richardson)
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After seeing his iron home for the first time, Keeler wrote to Anna that “your better half will be in no more danger from rebel compliments than if he was seated with you at home.” It was kind reassurance for a lonely wife. But the Union Navy was in a terrible hurry, for the Confederates had just unveiled a secret weapon, and haste would almost undermine the Monitor. In April 1861, the Confederates occupied the Navy Yard at Hampton Roads in Virginia and salvaged the Union warship Merrimack, which had been scuttled nearby. They refitted her with steam engines, sheathed her topsides in iron and armed her with ten guns, renaming her the CSS Virginia. (Union sailors refused to call the ship by its Confederate name, and many historians perpetuated that insult well into the 20th century. To this day, most people still refer to her as the Merrimack.) The Virginia represented a serious threat to Union ships blockading the entrance to Hampton Roads, which ensured them access to northern supply routes in the Atlantic and in the Chesapeake Bay. The Union commanders feared that their blockading ships wouldn’t stand a chance against the fortified Virginia. They needed backup in a hurry.

By September, Union officials had approved a design. It took only another four months to build the Monitor. With a complement of 11 officers and 48 men, the ship set out March 6, 1862, from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, bound for the Chesapeake Bay and the Virginia. A day into the voyage, the seas rose and the wind started blowing furiously. The Monitor started leaking. Water poured down through the turret on top of George Geer, who was fighting a cold and had been trying to rest in his hammock on the berth deck. Paymaster Keeler looked up from his writing desk and saw waves washing over his small skylight. Water flooded the stubby blower pipes, soaking the belts that drove the ventilators. Toxic fumes from the coal-fired boilers felled men where they stood, and their mates carried fallen soldiers to the top of the turret for fresh air. Without sufficient draft, the boilers began shutting down, leaving barely enough power to run the pumps.

It was an inauspicious—and nearly fatal—beginning for the Union Navy’s experiment and a portent of the ship’s fate. But when the storm blew itself out, the Monitor and her exhausted crew were still afloat. Within three days after leaving New York, they arrived in Hampton Roads in time to witness the Virginia’s horrifying handiwork that day: the 50-gun frigate Congress lay burning and would soon explode; the sloop Cumberland had been rammed and then sunk; the steam frigate Minnesota sat grounded and useless off Newport News.

The next morning, March 9, 1862, the Monitor steamed over to the Union vessel Minnesota, whose crew members were frantically throwing whatever they could get their hands on overboard in an attempt to lighten her and free her keel. The Virginia approached the Minnesota, intent on finishing her off. At first, the Confederate sailors paid little attention to the Monitor, which was half the Virginia’s length and sat low in the water. But when the Monitor’s second cannon-shot solidly hit the Virginia, the battle of the ironclads was joined. Hurling shot, sometimes from a range of only 20 feet, the two ships pummeled each other for four hours.

But it soon became clear that the Monitor’s guns were not capable of delivering a deathblow to the Virginia. The guns’ designer, Capt. John A. Dahlgren, had expressed some concerns about the integrity of the untested cannons, so Lt. John L. Worden, the Monitor’s captain, had ordered his gunners to load only one charge of gunpowder per firing. Later tests showed these cannons could have handled three charges, and historians have speculated that, had they done so, the Monitor would have severely damaged or even sunk the Confederate vessel. As it was, the cannon only cracked several iron plates. As for the Monitor’s vaunted turret, at first it wouldn’t turn at all, because the drenching ride south had rusted the control wheel. Even when Chief Engineer Alban Stimers cleared the rust, he found the turret difficult to control or stop in time for an accurate shot.

Still the Monitor had made its point. The Virginia’s balls had pocked and dented the turret—one vicious hit knocked unconscious two men inside. But the Monitor’s eight inches of armor and ability to fire from any position had proved its tactical worth. Safe within the ship, none of the crew was seriously hurt; only Worden was badly injured when he peered from the pilothouse just as a shell exploded. “Our ship resisted everything they could fire at her as though they were spit balls,” Geer wrote to his wife, Martha.

History would call the battle a stalemate, but by thwarting the Virginia’s efforts to sink the blockading fleet, the Monitor had preserved the Union’s strategically important control of the Chesapeake Bay. From President Lincoln to ordinary citizens, no one could get enough of the little ship. Lincoln visited the vessel shortly after the battle and on other occasions during the spring and summer. Even Nathaniel Hawthorne visited the ship. “People seem to regard her as a sort of irresistable war monster & anyone arriving from her as something more than human,” Keeler wrote. The men of the Monitor were heroes, bearers of their tormented nation’s right stuff.

It was an early morning in August 2002, and the metal deck of the Wotan was beginning to bake. Inside the gray metal container that served as the Navy dive team’s command center, Scholley, Chief Warrant Officer Rick Cavey and John Broadwater anxiously watched video monitors showing divers working 240 feet below. A cold front was coming from the northwest and a tropical depression spun to the south, either of which might suspend diving and put a disappointing end to the $14 million project after five long years of effort. In four days, funds would be exhausted.

The divers had already centered a 25-ton, eight-legged grappling claw called the Spider over the turret and lowered a platform next to it. With the turret safely embraced in the Spider’s clutch, what remained was to attach eight shackles and lifting straps to the legs; raise the turret and place it on the platform; anchor the Spider to the platform with turnbuckles and more shackles; and then lift the whole thing.

That was the plan. But for the past three days rough water and strong bottom currents had made it impossible. By the next day, the approaching front would turn this unforgiving stretch of water into a maelstrom of 30-knot winds and six-foot seas. Broadwater and Scholley had been considering the possibility of coming home empty-handed. It was now or never.


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