On the morning of March 9, 1862, the USS Monitor approached the CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads, Virginia. The Confederate ship, built on the remains of the USS Merrimack, had been harassing and damaging Union shipping in the harbor. The Monitor, built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York, was the first of many monitor class ships that eventually would end the rein of wooden war ships.
For hours, the ironclad ships locked in a duel. They exchanged shell after shell at point-blank range. They collided numerous times. The intention of each was to cripple the other and then move in for the kill. Neither ship, though, was able to inflict a crushing blow.
“I often thought of you and the little darlings when the fight was going on,” wrote Union sailor George Geer to his wife, “and what should become of you should I be killed…but I should have no more such fears as our ship resisted everything they could fire at her as though they were spit balls.”
These two ships that made maritime war history never fought again. The Virginia was destroyed by its crew on May 11 when the port where it was docked fell into Union hands. The Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras during a storm on December 31 as it was in tow to another port.
Artifacts from the Monitor were raised several years ago along with its famous gun turret. Many of these artifacts, including its anchor and lantern, have been conserved and are displayed at the Monitor Center in The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
The ship’s cannon and turret remain in conservation tanks at the Batten Conservation Laboratory Complex within the museum. The cannons can be seen by looking through massive glass windows. The bottom rim of the turret is visible at the top of its tank but the rest remains hidden as it continues to receive its conservation treatments. For a while, the turret remained in the same upside down position in which it was found on the ocean bottom.
The Monitor’s two gun carriages were turned right side up for the first time since the ship sank. By rotating the carriages in the conservation tanks, conservators can gain access to additional areas that require treatment. The carriages are made of wood and metal, making them more difficult to treat than the metal-only turret and cannon. An initial step included removing sediment and marine concretion, which is a calcium crust that forms on items resting on the ocean bottom. Once clear of most or all debris, the carriages will gain greater access to the treatment solution.
When the treatments are completed, the turret, cannons and carriages will be placed on display with the other Monitor artifacts.
The Virginia’s Remains
Since the Virginia was rebuilt from the burnt remains of the USS Merrimack and subsequently destroyed by its crew, not much of it has been found. One artifact, a very long metal shaft, is on display outside the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond.
The Mariners’ Museum, one of the world’s leading international maritime museums, is part of a 550-acre park that contains rolling woodlands and 167-acre Lake Maury. It is an official site on the Virginia Birding and Wildlife Trail. In the museum, besides the Monitor Center, visitors can step inside an aircraft carrier ready room and review a collection of miniature ships and small craft from around the world.