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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About 7 a.m., divers headed down to the site and started attaching the 135-pound lifting shackles. Though the surface was calm, the bottom current remained “at the edge of the margins,” said Cavey. One of Cavey’s divers found that the only way to fight the current was to stab his knife into the seabed and pull himself along.

The sound of the ragged breathing of the divers filled the combox, a small speaker broadcasting the communication among the divers below the surface. When they talked, either to each other or to colleagues on the surface, they sounded like Donald Duck, due to the special mix of oxygen and helium they breathed.

Near the combox, a support team of 22 additional divers listened and waited. A fully suited diver sat heavily in a chair, ready to go below at a hint of trouble. Another, dressed only in running shorts, boots and tattoos, kept his eyes riveted on the panel that controlled the gas mix that the divers breathed. Several oversaw the umbilicals, a series of hoses that supplied the divers with air, communication and warm water, which was continuously pumped through their suits. Another diver kept time, checking a series of stopwatches slung around his chest like bandoliers.

On the sea bottom, saturation diver Chief Petty Officer Keith Nelson, along with two other divers, wrestled the last shackle into place. “That’s it!” he said. Then Nelson helped the operator of the Wotan’s 500-ton crane gently pluck the dislodged turret from the sea bottom. As it began to separate, the three divers found themselves in a total blackout as sediment swirled around them. When the current finally swept the bottom clear, the crane slowly moved the Spider over the platform. Slight swells at the surface turned the 235-ton load into an underwater wrecking ball: slamming downward, it left four-inch indentations in the platform’s three-eighths-inch-thick steel plate. Finally, the crew got the platform attached, and the lift began. When the Monitor’s turret broke the water’s surface, starfish and coral fell off, and seawater sluiced out its gunports and over the clearly visible dents that the Virginia’s cannonballs had inflicted 140 years ago. Broadwater stood momentarily speechless before joining the rest of the barge in stentorian war whoops of victory.

Two months after the battle of the ironclads, the Union took the port of Norfolk. The Confederates grounded the Virginia, set her on fire and let 18 tons of powder in her magazine make sure that not one rivet would go to the Union cause. Her nemesis gone, the Monitor sailed up the James River to spend a tedious, sweltering summer shadowing Union Gen. George McClellan’s abortive peninsula campaign. “I have charge of the Thurmomitor,” Geer wrote to Martha on June 13, “and found in my store room, which is farthest astern, it stood at 110; in the engine room 127; in the galley ...155; on the berth deck where we sleep 85.”

For the sailors, poor ventilation ranked high on a long list of complaints. In October, the Monitor arrived in Washington, D.C. and underwent several weeks of refitting, but then she rushed to Hampton Roads again, this time to join two other monitor-class ironclads ordered to take Wilmington, North Carolina. On Monday, December 29, the Monitor left the Chesapeake under tow by the side-wheel steamer Rhode Island.

Tuesday morning a storm started brewing. By nightfall, the Monitor was taking the rough water head-on. “The heavy seas rolled over our bows dashing against the pilot house &, surging aft, would strike the solid turret with a force to make it tremble,” Keeler wrote to Anna. The pounding soon took a toll and waves began sweeping the turret. Water—the Monitor’s most relentless enemy—started filling the ship. “I staid by the pump untill the water was up to my knees and the cylinders to the pump engines were under water and stoped,” Geer wrote. “She was so full of water and roled and pitched so bad I was fearfull she would role under and forget to come up again.” By the time he and the last dozen men got to the turret—the only way to reach the deck—the Monitor was sinking. They saw the Rhode Island’s boats coming to take them off.

“It was a scene well calculated to appall the boldest heart,” Keeler wrote. “Mountains of water were rushing across our decks & foaming along our sides.” As the men climbed down the turret and crawled toward the boats, the sea snatched at least two of them and swept them to their deaths. The rescue boats smashed against the ship’s side, the wind howled and the men screamed into the roaring blackness. “The whole scene lit up by the ghastly glare of the blue lights burning on our consort, formed a panorama of horror which time can never efface from my memory,” Keeler wrote. Geer jumped from the turret and made for a boat just as a wave swept the man next to him overboard. “As soon as the Wave had passed over ...this time reached the Boat and was Saved, and I can tell you I would not like to try it over again.” After shedding most of his clothes, Keeler tried to climb down the turret but found the ladder stacked with terrified sailors. He slid down a line hanging from one of the turret awning’s stanchions, and a wave immediately swept him across the deck, slamming him into a lifeline stanchion. “I grasped with all the energy of desperation,” he wrote, and he pulled himself along the ship deck’s lifelines until at last he reached a boat and was hauled aboard.

Atop the turret, a single lantern burned red. Just before 1 a.m., as the last boat left the Rhode Island to retrieve the remaining men, the light went out. The Monitor, along with 16 men, was gone.

Inside the turret, the only smell is of the sea. Coral clings to the metal shell. The one-and-a-quarter-inch-thick bolts that hold the iron sheets together look like gigantic rusty polka dots. The dents made by the Virginia’s cannon are the diameter of a soccer ball. Wooden blocks with hanks of rope lying in their sheaves hang as if still waiting for a hand to turn them. Ramrods and other tools used by the gunners are scattered about. As soon as the turret was raised, archaeologists found the second skeleton. “They were lying very close together near one of the hatches in the turret’s roof,” says Broadwater. Preliminary excavation also found fragments of a wool overcoat, rubber buttons with “U.S. Navy” inscribed on them, a comb made of India rubber and, from one of the sailors’ pockets, a silver serving spoon with an engraved design on it.


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