Steve had visited the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia in the late 1970s and thought it was impressive. He’d been telling me we ought to visit there. Neither of us was expecting to see a museum three times as large as what he saw then with a new wing devoted to the recovery of The Monitor. The Mariner’s Museum was founded by Arthur Huntington in 1930. If you’ve joined us since we were at Huntington Beach, SC do read our entry titled Atalaya and Brookgreen Gardens. We thought a half day would be enough time to see the exhibits. How wrong we were!
The idea of seeing The Monitor after having recently seen the Hunley led us to that wing first. There are several short movies about the history of the battle, the construction of the ironclads and the recovery of the Monitor’s turret. Then there are all of the interactive displays from making your own decisions about building an ironclad to on site decisions that needed to be made during the recovery. There are exhibits of artifacts recovered from the wreck and a model of the turret. Facial reconstructions done by forensic anthropologists on the two crew members whose remains were found in the turret are on display. A full size external model of the Monitor is there and you can walk out on the deck and around the hull. The model was made in the apprentice welding workshop at Northup Grumman in Norfolk. Lastly, you can view the tanks where the restoration and conservation work is being done. A piece of iron casement has been treated and is on display with portals exposed so you can touch part of The Monitor. Before we knew it, we’d spent 3 hours just in that one wing. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
First a bit about the two ships involved in the famous battle at Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862. When I was in school we were taught that this battle was between the Monitor and the Merrimack. Not so. The Merrimack was a US Navy wooden steamship launched in 1855 and on duty in the Hampton Roads area when Virginia seceded from the Union. Union forces trapped behind Confederate lines were fleeing north and burned the Merrimack to the water line so she wouldn’t fall into Confederate hands. Both the Union and Confederacy wanted ironclad ships. John Ericsson had a design for a Union ironclad that would become the Monitor. The vessel would have a low, sleek profile only 18″ above the water with a 20′ central gun turret and a shallow 11′ draft for the shallow southern rivers. Confederate engineers, after examining the hull of the Merrimack, decided this could be the hull of a new vessel. Iron was scarce in the South and prewar stockpiles were soon exhausted. Everything from old farm machinery to pitch forks were melted down into the iron plate for the newly named CSS Virginia. Both North and South knew each other were working on an ironclad and a race to be the first to launch was underway. The CSS Virginia was launched in mid-February 1862. The Monitor was launched on February 25, 1862 and soon afterward began steaming for Hampton Roads. On March 8, 1862, the day before the famous battle, the CSS Virginia demonstrated fully the effect this new warship would have when she sunk two Union ships and ran a third aground. The morning of March 9 saw a four hour battle end in a stalemate with neither ship sustaining much damage. This battle did signify the end of an era for wooden war ships. A quote in the museum from a British official said “yesterday we had 149 ships. Today we have 2” meaning the wooden ships were obsolete.
Two months later the CSS Virginia would be scuttled in Norfolk by the Confederacy as Union troops invaded the James Peninsula. December 30, 1862 saw the Monitor in tow rounding Cape Hatteras when a severe storm developed. At only 18″ above the water it didn’t take long before waves washed over the turret and water began pouring into the ship. The coal became wet and steam pressure fell. Water continued to rise and the pumps had no effect. The famous ironclad was doomed. A red distress lantern was placed outside. The remaining tow line to the Rhode Island was cut but only after 2 of 3 crewmen were washed overboard. Rather than repeat what has already been beautifully written about the rescue attempts I will refer you to http://www.noaa.gov/150th/sinking.html . Final count of the crew was 47 rescued and 16 dead. When the Monitor sunk, it rolled and landed turret side down.
In 1973 the location of a wreckage off the North Carolina coast was identified as that of the Monitor. Twenty years later technology and funding had finally been developed to plan a recovery the Monitor. The movie of the turret’s recovery in 2002 has you on the edge of your seat even as you know it was successful. I found a short video of the raising of the turret and have pasted the link here. This shows how they used a special cage called The Spider to recover the turret. The Spider is also on display outside of the museum. There is a short ad then the video starts. Click on the expand button at the bottom of the video box to get a bigger picture. The link is: http://www.wavy.com/dpp/military/wildcard_129/military_archive_wavy_Raising_the_turret_of_the_USS_Monitor_20091105?CMP=201303_emailshare
With only an hour and a half to do the rest of the museum we had to make some decisions of what to see today and what to see later. Later would be tomorrow, we’d already decided to return. There was an exhibit about the War of 1812 as we are now celebrating the 200th anniversary of that event. A special exhibit called Abandon Ship told the stories of survivors of shipwrecks. My favorite was a gallery devoted to the collection of August and Winifred Crabtree. This collection of miniature model ships (most are 1/4″ to a foot) is the lifetime work of a dedicated model shipbuilder, woodcarver and artist. Mrs. Crabtree often assisted with painting of figures and small carvings. Models range from a primitive raft to a Ventian galleass with 359 carved figures on board. The details are jaw dropping. There is one ship that had a drummer at the rear to beat cadence for oarsmen. Mr. Crabtree was so dedicated to making everything himself that he tanned the hide from a mouse for the drum skin! The room is kept very dimly lit so that the models stand out. If you’d like to see more about this collection please click the You Tube link that follows.
The best plans can go astray. We returned as planned the next day. It was Tuesday. We never thought to check the website for hours of operation. You guessed it. CLOSED! So we turned to each other and said “When we come back this Fall….” Then headed off to the Virginia War Museum.