A Rude Awakening
I last visited the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, in 1957—in conjunction with the 350th anniversary of the Settlement at Jamestown. I have only vague memories of what the museum actually looked like then, and have been unable to find photographs of the museum in the 1950s. In twelve years of school, we had at least two full years of Virginia history, as well as other years of U.S. history. By the time I left high school, I thought I knew everything there was to know about Virginia history. Revisiting Williamsburg, Jamestown, and the Mariners’ Museum has been a rude awakening for me, both for how little I had really learned, and how much has been learned since I left school.
Returning to the Museum on our recent trip to the Williamsburg area put me in an environment unlike anything I remember. Today, the Museum has grown in many respects, including the extensive exhibits of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia. But, overall, the Museum is still dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of man’s development of sea-going vessels and the impact these vessels had on the advancing history of mankind.
According to their website, “The museum’s collection totals approximately 32,000 artifacts, equally divided between works of art and three-dimensional objects. The scope of the collection is international and includes miniature ship models, scrimshaw, maritime paintings, decorative arts, carved figureheads, working steam engines…” and much more.
As you enter the museum lobby, the left wing is largely dedicated to the USS Monitor conservation and the naval history of the Civil War. This is the “USS Monitor Center.”
The History Lesson of the “Monitor and the Merrimack”
I was greeted by a museum docent who briefly described the layout of the exhibits and introduced me to the features of the USS Monitor Center.
Briefly, the USS Monitor was built by the Union Army to provide support to troops attempting to take Confederate seaports and to defeat Confederate ships. The Monitor was effective in the sense that cannon balls bounced off of its armor. It is perhaps best known for the “battle of the ironclads in which it went head-to-head with the Confederate’s own ironclad vessel. History frequently records it as the battle between the “Monitor and Merrimack,” and I believe that is how we learned it in school. The fact is that the Confederate ironclad, referred to as the “Merrimack,” was actually the Confederate States Ship (CSS) Virginia.
In 1861, the Confederates managed to rout the Union from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, and in the process, capture several, albeit heavily damaged, Union ships including the frigate USS Merrimack. Recognizing the critical need for their own ironclad vessel, the Confederates used the hull of the Merrimack on which to build their armored ship. The original hull was shortened to remove a badly damaged area, and on top of the shorter hull, they built the superstructure of the new vessel. It was christened the CSS Virginia.
In its first battle in Hampton Rhodes, near Newport News, the Virginia was responsible for sinking or disabling at least three significant Union warships. The next day, the Monitor arrived. The Virginia was attacking the USS Minnesota when the Monitor entered the battle. It is reported that civilians and soldiers crowded ships and shoreline to watch the battle.<img src=”https://reninassancemusings.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/mariners-musuem-03.jpg?w=660″ alt=”A profile view of the USS Virginia. Note that the waterline is even with the deck fore and aft. (Mariners’ Museum display)” width=”660″ height=”193″ class=”size-large wp-image-1874″ /> A profile view of the USS Virginia. Note that the waterline is even with the deck fore and aft. (Mariners’ Museum display)
The two ironclads battled by passing abeam of each other, but neither crew was well trained in the use of the cannons. Finally, a shot from the Virginia hit the pilothouse of the Monitor, injuring the captain enough that the Monitor turned into shallow waters, away from the battle. The Virginia was about to engage other Union ships, but it had sustained some battle damage, including a leak in the hull and it withdrew to the navy yard. The fact is there was no clear victory in the historic first “battle of the ironclads.”<img src=”https://reninassancemusings.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/mariners-musuem-04b.jpg?w=660″ alt=”Two 11-inch smooth-bore cannons were mounted in the Monitor’s turret. The turret could rotate faster than two revolutions per minute.” width=”660″ height=”442″ class=”size-large wp-image-1875″ /> Two 11-inch smooth-bore cannons were mounted in the Monitor’s turret. The turret could rotate faster than two revolutions per minute.
There were subsequent attempts to engage in battle, but neither ship would accept the terms of the other. The Virginia wanted to remain in the protected Hampton Rhodes harbor while the Monitor wanted to engage off shore. In 1862, when the Union was about to retake the Norfolk shipyard, the Confederates destroyed the Virginia. During the same period, the Monitor was sent to Washington to have its engines overhauled, and was later ordered south to join an expedition against Wilmington, North Carolina. While under tow on December 31, 1861, the vessel was swamped by rough seas off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Forty-seven officers and men escaped, while sixteen perished with the ship.
The Union would go on to build more ironclad ships similar in design to the Monitor, and the Confederacy would continue to build ironclad vessels on the salvaged hulls of other vessels. The most significant aspect of Civil War era ironclad vessels is that naval shipbuilding was launched on a course of building modern steel ships.
The USS Monitor Center
Today, the Mariners’ Museum is heavily dedicated to the conservation and interpretation of the USS Monitor ironclad that was discovered (August 1973) and recovered from the Atlantic Ocean (beginning in 1999) where it sunk on the night of December 31, 1861/January 1, 1862.
The wreckage of the Monitor was located in 1973 using modern sonar. The next year, using the ALCOA Seaprobe research vessel, the search team was able to take photos that clearly identified the wreckage as the Monitor. Because of the heavy turret on top, the vessel had rolled over as it sank and landed on the bottom upside down. In 1975, the Monitor and the area around it were declared a National Marine Sanctuary and Landmark, protecting it from removal of artifacts from the site by divers and private salvage companies.
Under the auspices of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), artifacts from the wreck had been retrieved by divers. NOAA designated the Mariners’ Museum as the conservator of Monitor artifacts.
By 1995, the Navy and NOAA were ready to attempt to raise the Monitor, but work was halted due to an abnormally stormy season. NOAA developed a comprehensive plan to recover the engine, turret, guns and propeller. The propeller was the first item retrieved (1998). Over the next four years, the recovery team would raise all of the planned sections of the vessel and transfer them to the Museum.
The remains of two sailors were discovered in the turret. Their remains were sent to the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command in Hawaii with the hopes that they might be identified. Although facial reconstruction based on their skulls has been completed showing how these men may have looked, they have not been conclusively identified. Their remains were buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.
Preserving the Monitor
Iron corrodes rapidly in salty sea water. Also, iron actually absorbs salts. If iron that has been subjected to seawater for long periods is brought to the surface and allowed to dry, the sea salt forms crystals, and like ice breaking the surface of a road, the salt crystals break up the iron. Conservation of these parts involves placing them in tanks of water, and gradually dissolving the absorbed salts from the iron. After being submerged for more than 110 years, it may take decades before the larger iron structures can be removed from the water and placed on display.
To further add to the challenge, different metals and other materials decay at different rates and may require specific and different techniques. In addition to iron, the turret and its contents include brass, copper, lead, as well as wood, and leather. Each different material requires unique treatment.
Currently, to help visitors understand the condition and conservation of the Monitor artifacts, (1) there is a detailed reconstruction of the turret as it was found. Including replicas of the skeletons, and (2) there is a platform that provides views into the tanks in which the guns, turret and engine are being conserved. The water is clear and it is possible to see at least parts of the original Monitor structures. Also, just outside of the museum building is a full scale non-seaworthy replica of the Monitor that is accessible to visitors.
The Monitor Center also has a life-sized diorama of the forward section of CSS Virginia with information plaques that detail the sequence of events of to convert the original USS Merrimack hull to the CSS Virginia.
The remainder of the Monitor Center contains details of the crews of the ships including profiles of several officers, details of battles in the Hampton Rhodes area, and artifacts from and diagrams and models of many other vessels of the that historic period—a semester’s worth of U. S. history in an afternoon’s visit to the museum.
Part 2 of this article will look as other collections within the Mariners’ Museum.
©2014 Jeff Richmond -Reblogging permitted provided this Copyright statement is attached.
After more than fifty years, a return visit offers a rude awakening—I did not know nearly as much about Virginia and U.S. Civil War history as I imagined, especially about the famed “battle of the ironclads.” Mariners’ Museum Part 1 – The Monitor Center provides a brief history of the battle of the “Monitor and the Merrimack” and describes the conservation of major parts of the sunken Monitor that have been on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for more than 110 years.
Mariners’ Museum Part 1 – The Monitor Center provides a brief history of the battle of the “Monitor and the Merrimack” and describes the conservation of major parts of the sunken Monitor that have been on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean for more than 110 years.