A Visit to the Monitor

A depiction of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862.

A depiction of the battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862 (Library of Congress).

The first aspect of the Civil War that interested me as a kid was duel of the ironclads. I knew them as the Monitor and the Merrimac, although, like the Brontosaurus, the Merrimac turned out to have some nomenclature difficulties. The vessel from which the Confederates constructed their ironclad had been the Merrimack (which some people, including my younger self and George Gordon Meade, spelled as Merrimac). Its new incarnation—the Robocop version—bore the name CSS Virginia. That’s the correct nomenclature, but something embedded in my DNA that always makes me think of the Monitor and the Merrimac. (And I just read an article that said there may have been a Brontosaurus after all, and it wasn’t just a misidentified Apatosaurus. So there’s that.)

A gun from the CSS Virginia at the Mariners Museum. The damage at the muzzle was inflicted by the Monitor during the famous battle of the ironclads.

A gun from the CSS Virginia at the Mariners’ Museum. The damage at the muzzle was inflicted by the Monitor during the famous battle of the ironclads.

Duel of the Ironclads, with great illustrations by Fred Freeman.

My well-worn copy of Duel of the Ironclads, with its great illustrations by Fred Freeman.

There was something about this pivotal naval battle that captivated me. Along with my drawings of the starship Enterprise, the Discovery from 2001: A Space Odyssey and the robot from Lost in Space, when I was bored in class I often drew pictures of the battling ironclads . One of my inspirations was certainly Duel of the Ironclads, a Time-Life book with superb illustrations by Fred Freeman. I can’t remember when I got the book, but I spent many hours studying his paintings. I remember being awestruck back in the 1970s when I heard the news that the Monitor had been discovered on the ocean floor off Cape Hatteras, and I was excited a little later when a National Geographic arrived, with a photo-mosaic showing the vessel’s wreckage on the sea bed, where it had lain since sinking in a terrible storm on December 30, 1862.

But I had never had the chance to visit the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. The museum has relics of the Monitor that have been raised from the sea, including the ship’s revolutionary turret and its big Dahlgren guns. I finally got the chance to stop by this past weekend, and it was worth the wait. It’s a cool museum—and I’m not just saying that because it was founded by a guy named Archer M. Huntington.

My wife and I pose on the deck of the life-size Monitor mockup.

My wife and I pose on the deck of the life-size Monitor mockup.

One of the Monitor's two guns, recovered from the ocean floor.

One of the Monitor’s two guns, recovered from the ocean floor.

I found it fascinating to actually see bits of the ship up close and personal. I saw the turret, the guns, and the ship’s engine and steam compressor in their tanks inside the conservation lab. The museum has all kinds of other artifacts recovered from the wreck, including the signal lantern the crew used on the night the Monitor sank, and all kinds of little items such as silverware and mustard bottles. In addition, there’s a life-size mockup of the turret as it looked on the seabed (complete with maritime encrustations), a cutaway turret showing its design, and a full-size mockup of the entire vessel that sits outside. There were also recreations of sections of the Monitor’s interior (it was much roomier than I would have though) and one of the forward portion of the Virginia.

It was a thrill to stand on the deck of the life-size Monitor mockup and imagine what it would have been like to stand on the real thing. Not in battle, of course. That would not have been fun at all.

What does this have to do with George Gordon Meade? Not much. But Meade did mention the Confederate ironclad in his letters to his wife (using the variant spelling of Merrimac). On March 11, 1862, after the Virginia had cut a swathe through the Union blockade fleet at Hampton roads, sinking the Cumberland and setting the Congress afire after she had run aground, Meade wrote, “We hear to-day of the disastrous naval conflict at Newport News. This is a very bad business, and shows the superior enterprise of our enemies. There is no reason we should not have had the Cumberland iron-clad, as the Merrimac has been prepared by them. The loss of two such vessels as the Cumberland and the Congress, two of our finest frigates, is a very serious blow, not only to our material interests, but to our pride and naval forces.”

The museum's mockup of the bow of the CSS Virginia.

The museum’s mockup of the bow of the CSS Virginia.

On April 13, more than a month after the epic battle between the two ironclads had ended in a draw, and the Virginia still lurked as a potential threat to the vessels supporting McClellan’s Peninsula Campaign, Meade wrote, “As I understand, the difficulty is that, owing to the fear of the Merrimac, the gunboats cannot leave Fortress Monroe to ascend the York River and take their batteries in the rear. It is said, however, the Navy have a plan, by which they are confident they will sink the Merrimac, if she gives them a fair chance, in which I trust they may succeed.” Three days later he wrote, “It is evident we cannot advance on Richmond from the Rappahannock, because at that point the direct route leaves the railroad, and the roads across are impassable for artillery and wagons. It has been surmised that we are kept here because they are fearful the Merrimac may run the gauntlet at Fortress Monroe, in which case they could pen McClellan in on the peninsula, between the York and James Rivers, and then they could detach a force to threaten Washington.”

I'm standing inside the recreation of the Monitor turret as it would have appeared on the seabed, when it was upside down and encrusted with marine life.

I’m standing inside the recreation of the Monitor turret as it would have appeared on the seabed, when it was upside down and encrusted with marine life.

Finally, on April 25, Meade noted, “The papers say the Merrimac is ready to come out again; which I think is the best thing that can happen, as until the question of her supremacy is settled, we will be hampered at Yorktown. Let her be captured or sunk; when our gunboats will be free to operate on the James and York Rivers, taking the enemy’s works in flank and rear, which now we cannot do for fear of the Merrimac.”

In the end, the Confederates destroyed the Virginia in May rather than have her fall into Union hands. The Monitor went down before the year was over. These pioneering ironclads had short lives, but long-lasting effects on naval warfare.

The life-size cutaway of the turret, showing the bracing designer John Ericsson added after construction, and the revolving machinery.

The life-size cutaway of the turret, showing the bracing designer John Ericsson added after construction, and the revolving machinery.

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