USS MONITOR RECOVERED AND UNDER
September 17, 2002 — After being under the ocean for some 140 years, the gun turret of the USS Monitor was brought ashore Aug. 9, 2002. The Civil War ironclad immediately began unveiling its long-held secrets. The remains of two or more seamen were found by NOAA scientists after the turret was raised from the ocean bottom. The turret and other artifacts are now at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., where they’re being preserved for later public display. The process is expected to take some ten years. (Click NOAA image for larger view of USS Monitor gun turret being pulled out of the Atlantic Ocean on Aug. 5, 2002, for the first time in 140 years. Click here for high resolution version of this image. Please note that this is a large file.)
Emotions ran high as the gun turret was brought ashore. At the pier in Newport News, Va., John Broadwater, manager of NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said this was the culmination of an effort that began in the early 1990s. “The recovery of the turret is truly a landmark for NOAA’s sanctuary program. The turret is an important part of history. The Monitor was the first of a new class of warships. It’s often called the Navy’s first modern warship, but the turret was its most unique and enduring feature,” he said.
Broadwater was on the Derrick Barge Wotan, with its 500-ton crane, for extended periods of time along with a huge team of people working to recover the turret. The weather often played a role in the pace of the recovery. Strong ocean currents made the recovery effort hazardous to the divers, who could only be under water for short periods of time given that the turret was 240 feet below the surface.
The gun turret expedition lasted 41 days, and during that time more than 200 artifacts were recovered, including a glass button, hydrometers, working thermometers, an intact lantern chimney and two stanchions.
The human remains that were found in the turret were transported to the U.S. Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii for analysis and identification. Broadwater said the discovery of the remains made the recovery of the turret a bit somber. “On the one hand it’s a sad thing to see that these men perished inside the turret, and in another way it’s a happy event. We should be happy about this because it’s an opportunity for us to bring shipmates back home. In that spirit, we do feel good that we’re working with the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. We’ll make every effort to identify these people by name, and if not by name at least to pin down the identification process, and to continue to attempt to identify them and also to see that they have a burial with honors.”
A parade of ships escorted the gun turret to Newport News, Va., including the NOAA research ship Ronald H. Brown. “We couldn’t have asked for a better escort. A beautiful symbol of NOAA’s capabilities at sea and our whole mission. It’s a real feeling of pride for NOAA, and it’s great to be a part of NOAA at this time,” said Broadwater.
As the turret made its way to the shores of Virginia, Broadwater said a bit of history was repeated. “It was an incredible experience when we sailed by Fort Monroe (Virginia). We were given a 21-gun salute, and that literally prickled the hair our necks since 140 years ago the Monitor herself was saluted at Fort Monroe. In fact, we sailed right by the pier where she sat quite a few months during the summer of 1862 before her fateful voyage down to Cape Hatteras,” he said.
The massive gun turret of the Monitor was the ship’s most prominent feature and a landmark in naval engineering. Broadwater said the turret radically changed the way naval warships fought battles. “The Monitor’s revolving armored gun turret made it possible to aim the gun in any direction for the first time because previous ships had to mount their guns on broadside and literally turn the ship. This is a feature that’s endured down through history. Even today warships mount gun turrets that are armored and can turn their guns in any direction,” he said. (Click NOAA image for larger view of members of the USS Monitor turret team taken the day the gun turret was raised from the ocean on Aug. 5, 2002: (left-right) Bob Schwemmer, NOAA’s Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, Wayne LuSardi, The Mariners' Museum, Jeff Johnston, Monitor NMS, Michelle Fox, Monitor NMS, John Broadwater, manager, Monitor NMS. Click here for high resolution version of this image.)
It was in early 1998 that NOAA finalized its long-range preservation plan for the Monitor, which was submitted to the U.S. Congress. Since 1998 large chunks of the Monitor have been recovered from the ocean bottom. In June 1998, the ship’s propeller and other artifacts were brought to the surface for the first time since the Monitor sank in what is known at the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” This recovery was a major step in NOAA’s plan to study and preserve the vessel, which is rapidly deteriorating. At this time it was a race against time because the hull of the Monitor was in danger of collapsing, which would end further recovery efforts.
In June 1999, NOAA and the U.S. Navy started the crucial work of stabilizing the hull and assessing the difficulty of removing the ship’s steam engine. In July 2001, the engine of the ship wreck was raised from the ocean bottom. The 28-day mission involved scores of people, including more than 150 NOAA and U.S. Navy divers, who worked around the clock to free the ship’s 30-ton steam engine from the grips of the Atlantic Ocean. The divers logged more than 300 hours of bottom time during that mission, and more than 100 artifacts were recovered that year. Broadwater said, “This was a stunning accomplishment. Now we can turn our attention to recovering the Monitor’s ‘soul,’ her revolving gun turret.”
In July 2002, a team of U.S. Navy divers and NOAA scientists successfully completed the task of removing a section of the Monitor’s hull and armor belt that had covered the gun turret since the ship capsized on New Year’s Eve 1862 off Cape Hatteras, N.C.
Once the turret was exposed, divers installed the 57,000-pound lifting frame or “claw” so that excavation of the turret could begin, which was completely filled with silt. Now the scene was set for raising the famous gun turret, an icon of the Civil War.
On August 9, the USS Monitor’s gun turret was extracted from the cold bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. It was the first time the most prominent feature of the ship had been above the ocean in 140 years. Also recovered were two of the turret’s 11-inch Dahlgren cannons. The revolving turret allows the cannons to be aimed independently from the ship’s heading, which provided an unprecedented war fighting advantage. To protect the ship against incoming shots, the Monitor’s walls were constructed of eight layers of one-inch plates, bolted together with overlapping joints for extra strength.
The Monitor’s turret stands an imposing nine feet tall, is 20 feet in diameter and weighs 120 tons. It is now being preserved by The Mariners’ Museum, which in 1987 was designated by NOAA as the custodian of the artifacts.
In all, there were more than 600 artifacts recovered. In 2007, NOAA and The Mariners’ Museum plan to open a $30 million, 65,000-square-foot USS Monitor Center, which will serve as the home for the artifacts, archives and stories of the men who served aboard this historic ironclad. (Click NOAA image for larger view of USS Monitor turret ceremony at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va. NOAA’s Monitor Sanctuary Manager John Broadwater (right) thanks Capt. Chris Murray for his efforts and those of the Navy divers during the turret arrival ceremony at The Mariners' Museum on August 10, 2002. Click here for high resolution version of this image.)
Broadwater said, “Our partnership with The Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Va., is going to allow us to let millions of people come and enjoy the features of the Monitor—the turret, the engine, the propeller and all the other artifacts we’ve recovered as part of a long-term partnership for exhibits and conservation.”
The recovery of the turret marks the end of NOAA’s multi-year recovery efforts. The sea will continue to claim what is left of the Civil War ironclad. However, the story of the ship and the men who perished will now be told from the recovered artifacts. It is hoped that the human remains found in the gun turret eventually will be identified. No longer will people have to rely on faded photos or paintings to get a sense of the Monitor’s history. The recovered parts of the USS Monitor are now free to begin telling the story of this historic ship that was claimed by the Atlantic Ocean so long ago.
John Broadwater, the manager of NOAA’s Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, stood on the pier in Newport News, Va., that August morning taking stock of the assembled crowds, which came to see the famous gun turret of the USS Monitor. With the efforts of so many years now behind him, he proclaimed proudly, “It’s a great day for NOAA. It’s certainly a great day for us who have participated.”