Ruins hauled up in 2002 from the wreck of USS Monitor, which sank during a New Year’s Eve storm off the North Carolina coast in 1862, proved a treasure trove for conservators at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. The revolving turret—21½ feet in diameter—on the technologically cutting-edge armored and steam-powered vessel was especially impressive, but buried within it was a far more poignant remnant. Tangled amid gun tools inside the turret were the remains of a coat, partially locked up in a mix of sediment, corrosion products, and marine life known as “concretion.”
The coat’s cotton threads had dissolved in the seawater, but its wool fibers proved more durable. Eventually 140 fragments were freed and made recognizable as a garment. Those fragile pieces are now assembled on a flat support and on view in a climate-controlled cabinet in the museum’s exhibition focusing on Monitor’s officer’s quarters.
“Air ventilation and desiccant keep it at 50 percent humidity,” says senior conservator Elsa Sangouard.
A boot, comb, pencil, and buttons were also among the recovered artifacts, but the coat is the only major item of clothing discovered in the wreck, apparently tossed off as crew and officers fled the sinking ship, which was never designed for operation on the high seas. Forty-seven of the 68 men onboard survived to recount how crew escaping the turret had to climb nine feet down to the deck amid 30-foot waves, and jump off into a lifeboat in order to reach the rescuing vessel USS Rhode Island. “Crew shed garments and left the boat half-naked,” says John Quarstein, director of the museum’s USS Monitor Center.
In 2009, museum staff began working to free the woolen fabric, using soapy baths to loosen the dirt and ultrasonic dental drills to delicately remove deposits. “It is a big artifact, and it was tedious work—and very tricky,” Sangouard says. A $20,000 donation from the Mariners’ Museum’s Bronze Door Society helped complete the conservation effort and pay for the climate-controlled cabinet.
The next challenge, according to Quarstein, is figuring out who owned it. No images of Monitor officers show this type of coat, nor does the cut of the coat—and its rubber buttons—fit the profile of a government-issued garment for officers, which normally had brass buttons. “It is tailor-made,” he says. “We have looked through some 200 images of pea coats and saw a couple of similar coats, but none have pockets positioned like this one…and no officer would be seen in a coat with rubber buttons.”
The garment might have belonged to a warrant officer such as a master’s mate, boatswain’s mate, gunner, or quartermaster, says Quarstein, adding: “We know the size and weight of every member of the crew, and we use the waist of the coat to determine the skirt’s length. It is a big maybe, but we might be able to figure out who it belonged to.”
It is possible an enlisted man had a fine coat made on his own. The most promising candidate of that scenario is Jacob Nicklis, whose father was a tailor in Buffalo, N.Y. Nicklis wrote a poignant letter shortly before Monitor was lost: “They say we will have a pretty hard time going around Hatteras, but I hope that will not be the case.”