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Can We Ever Raise The Monitor?

The fate of a legendary ironclad is about to be decided.


The mighty U.S.S. Monitor drifted helplessly on the stormy sea some 16 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The scene at midnight on December 30, 1862, seemed “well calculated to appall the boldest heart,” wrote William F. Keeler, paymaster of the ironclad. “The wind was blowing violently; the heavy seas rolled over our bows dashing against the pilot house & surging aft, would strike the solid turret with a force to make it tremble…. Again came the report that the water was gaining…. Her bow would rise on a huge billow & before she could sink into the intervening hollow, the succeeding wave would strike her…like thunder & a violence that threatened to tear apart the thin sheet of iron bottom & the heavy armor which it supported…. Our Captain now gave the order to make the signal for assistance.”

Some small boats answered the call for help and attempted to rescue the Monitor’s crew from the doomed ironclad. Survivors were transferred to the sidewheel steamer Rhode Island, which had been towing the Monitor to Beaufort, North Carolina. The rescue scene radiated a bluish “ghastly glare,” wrote Keeler. It was “a panorama of horror which time can never efface from my memory….”

Sixteen of some 60 men aboard the Monitor did not survive. The last anyone saw of the wildly pitching ironclad was a falling red lantern. The historic ship capsized during the early hours of December 31 and was gone.

One hundred and ten years later, scientists using recently improved sonar and long-distance photographic technology discovered what they believed to be the Monitor’s wreck. In 1974 they confirmed their beliefs.

Ever since, underwater archaeologists have grappled with the difficult questions of what should be done next–and what could be done. Should the Monitor be raised and preserved ashore? Was that possible? Should key parts of the vessel be salvaged and the rest left to decompose? Should the wreck site be excavated for artifacts without raising any of the ship? Now, 24 years after the Monitor’s discovery, an action plan is being formulated for proposal to Congress. Whether the plan is accepted or rejected may very well determine the Monitor’s fate once and for all.

The ironclad lies upside down in 230 feet of water. The port stern of the capsized hull rests on the turret, which had detached from its base and landed on the ocean floor upside down. The vessel then came to rest on top of it. The starboard side is partially buried under sand, except for about 15 feet forward and a few feet at the stern. The wreck’s maximum profile (height off the bottom) is 17 feet, and its maximum length, about 100 feet.

Examination of the wreck revealed that most of the hull is wrought iron, with some wood underneath the armor belt. A full-size wooden pattern was used as a plating model. Rivet holes were marked to line up eight layers of one-inch-thick iron plates. By contrast, the five-foot-high armor belt around the hull, extending a few feet above and below the water line, was six inches thick, and the iron plates covering the deck and bottom were only one inch thick. Given this information, it is no surprise that the Monitor was top-heavy.

When she was in service in 1862, the Monitor was 172 feet long with a 41-foot beam. The revolving gun turret was 21 feet in diameter and rose nine feet off the deck. How ill-suited the vessel was to the open sea can be judged quickly by the fact that she extended only 10.5 feet below the water line and displaced 1,000 long tons. Its freeboard–the distance between the deck and the water line–was all of 18 inches.

When underwater archaeologists first examined the wreck in 1974, it showed extensive damage to the stern, probably inflicted by depth charges detonated in the area during World War II. Still, “the hull had survived remarkably well,” says John Broadwater, manager of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected site.

Though the Monitor had made it through a century underwater in better condition than expected, it was clear the wreckage needed to be protected as soon as possible from further deterioration. The first part of a preservation plan was found in the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, which had authorized the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a federal agency in the Department of Commerce, to establish federally protected marine areas. In 1975, NOAA established the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, a one-mile protected zone around the famous ironclad’s wreckage, as the first of such sites. Broadwater became an advisor for the sanctuary and in 1992 was named its manager.

“It creates a large buffer,” Broadwater says. “There are 14 of these sanctuaries now, but this is the only one protecting an historic ship. Since 1973, the U.S. Navy and the Naval Historical Center have taken a very strong positive stance.” The U.S. Coast Guard helps to enforce and patrol the site against salvage, anchors, grapples, dredges, explosives, fishing, trawling, and other potential hazards. A number of citations have been issued; violators face a potential $50,000 fine.

For protection purposes, the site is in some ways too accessible. It is only 230 feet below the ocean’s surface, and water temperatures normally range from 65 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. The ocean floor at the site is smooth and sandy except for some scouring, and visibility ranges to more than 100 feet–clear enough on occasion to see the entire vessel at once.

The weather, however, is often severe, just as it was in 1862, and the strong currents–the Gulf Stream meets the Labrador Current here–bring both turbulence and nutrients, the latter of which have turned the wreck into a lively coral reef with vast schools of fish of many species, including sharks. Teredo worms bore into the remains of wooden deck planking and frames. Sponges, corals, and sea fans have attached themselves to the mostly wrought-iron hull and iron plating and promote corrosion. “It is a true reef environment with many species,” Broadwater says. “But somewhere down below all that iron and coral growth are most of the war materials and personal possessions of the ship’s officers and crew.

“We believe all of the crew, even the 16 or so who perished in the storm, managed to get away from the wreck before she capsized. So we do not expect to find any human remains entombed in the wreck–but still it is possible.”

During the first NOAA expedition in 1977, the four-man Johnson-Sea-Link submersible was used to recover the very first artifact from the wreck: a brass navigation lantern with a red lens, which might have been the red light William Keeler saw just before the Monitor sank. In 1979, archaeological excavations were conducted in the area of the captain’s cabin, near the bow. In 1983, the 1,500-pound anchor was recovered 495 feet south-southwest of the Monitor’s bow. It was one of the most ambitious artifact recoveries attempted up to that point. During the 1980s, explorers armed with sensitive scientific instruments established a more precise picture of the wreck, its rate of corrosion, and its deterioration. In 1987, the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, was chosen as the principal museum for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and its collection of artifacts.

“In 1990, a formal survey program was set up,” Broadwater says. “We try to get out at least once a year to look at the site; 1990 was one of the best years. The first sports dives were allowed in 1990, but manned submersibles continue to ‘monitor’ the Monitor and carefully remove selected wreck artifacts.” Occasional visibility of 170 feet in 1990 resulted in some outstanding, high-resolution images of the vessel, and, that same year, permanent mooring markers were deployed near the wreck. Mounted on one of them is a brass plaque inscribed with a quote from Monitor paymaster William Keeler: “What the fire of the enemy failed to do, the elements have accomplished.”

Most diving, exploration, and recovery methods that are currently available have been used at the site at one time or another, including scuba, manned submersibles, a diving bell, and the newer form of the old “hardhat” dive system, in which oxygen is supplied from the surface. The navy’s research vessel U.S.S. Edenton joined the 1995 expedition, providing access to new technology, and the Johnson-Sea-Link had laser-sighting capabilities that facilitated precise measurements and photography. It also had tools delicate enough to recover even fragile pottery.

Explorers at the site include independent scuba divers who support the project with videography and photography (such as Gary Gentile, whose pictures appear with this article). “There are serious historians who also like the adventure,” Broadwater says. “Some of them go down on compressed air.” The normal safety limit for free diving is 150 to 200 feet because compressed air becomes especially dangerous at deeper levels. So special, safer gas mixtures were developed–usually about 18 percent oxygen, 32 percent nitrogen, and 50 percent helium.

“In 1995, the free divers met up with the ‘hardhat’ divers,” says Broadwater, who was one of the “free divers.” “We showed up at the propeller at the same time. Here we were swimming above these guys in weighted boots. It showed the advantages of both systems. Given a good weather window, we can get the photographs that salvage people tell us they will need. July and August are ideal diving months–if you don’t have hurricanes.”

Archaeological work on the wreck site has slowed down considerably since 1995, and weather hasn’t been the reason. The Edenton research ship has been decommissioned. “The navy has had its share of budget cutbacks,” Broadwater says, “and so recently there just has not been an available system.” Meanwhile, says Broadwater, “the hull is collapsing at a much faster rate than we had predicted 20 or even 10 years ago.”

High-resolution videography, a photomosaic, and a drawing of the entire wreck show the dramatic deterioration. “Everything has collapsed, especially now in the middle structural region,” he says. “The drastic damage from an anchor from a fishing boat in 1991 might have been the final insult. It broke the skeg [the beam supporting the rudder and propeller] and accelerated the process of corrosion damage. Pulling the skeg out, since it connects to the keel, affects the entire hull, and the weight of the propeller is going to snap the hull in two.” A six-foot section of the port armor belt aft of the turret has completely disintegrated, and considerable portions of the hull and deck plating, midship bulkhead, and lower hull have shifted or collapsed or been lost. “The corroded armor plates have fallen down in a real pick-up sticks fashion,” Broadwater says.

Because much of this deterioration has occurred in the past 10 years, it seems possible that discovery of the wreck actually accelerated its decay. But Broadwater does not think so. “In fact, it is possible that the discovery has protected it,” he says. “It’s true that 1990 through 1992 were bad years as far as human destruction,” he concedes. But, he says, “People are warned, and mostly cooperative.” And as for the vessel whose anchor ripped off the Monitor’s skeg, “that particular fishing boat was caught by the Coast Guard and fined $1,500 and is still complaining about it.”

To help stabilize the wreck, divers tried to remove the coral-encrusted propeller in 1995. Bad weather and, ironically, the iron itself defeated the effort to cut through the drive shaft. “That is tough stuff,” says Broadwater. “It is nine inches of solid iron.” Still, removing the propeller remains a high priority.

“There are many things detaching,” Broadwater says. “The rivet holes are all corroded, hollowed out. The main thing that alarms us now is that from the midship bulkhead aft it is seriously detaching. Except for some of the deck plates near the curve of the bow, the forward part is relatively stable, but the high side near the turret is completely exposed, the coal bunkers are going fast, and the main supporting frame is settling. I don’t know why it still is intact.”

Thousands of artifacts remain to be found. Some artifacts will be in perfect condition; others are pinned within the wreck or under the sand. The wash of current scours the site like the plowing of a field, mainly on the raised side (the port side). Most of the starboard side is buried under the sand. “The collapsed bow points due west,” Broadwater says. “The stream runs predominantly northeast. We don’t think the overall position of the wreck has changed much.”

Considering the myriad of seemingly insoluble problems inherent in any effort to protect the wreckage, it may seem that raising the Monitor, despite the probability of damaging it, is ultimately the best way to preserve it. But Broadwater is uncertain. “We are not convinced that recovery is the best option, especially with our limited funding and resources,” he says. “We don’t have the equipment to lift it this year, that’s certain. Right now, we barely have the resources for mapping, photography, measurements, possibly shoring up those parts most in need of stabilization, to try to prevent total collapse. We were forced to scale down our dive operation to a point where we’re lucky to get a few good days each year. The weather ruins most days. This is a national treasure, but the reality is, this kind of work becomes prohibitively expensive. As my colleague Gordon Watts used to say, ‘If you give me enough money, I can make the goddamn thing fly.'”

Though the cost of raising the Monitor would be considerably less than the cost of giving it wings, expenses still would exceed $10 million. “The Johnson-Sea-Link, plus its vessel to carry it there, raise and lower it, costs $15,000 a day,” Broadwater says. “So when your annual operations budget for these dives is $60,000, you can see it doesn’t go far. The total NOAA budget is $11 million for all 14 sanctuaries. The hull of the Monitor weighs about 1,000 tons–a fragile mass of iron, corroding badly–and the cost for recovery could be $20 million, or more, depending on how badly deteriorated it is. To bring up even a portion, like the turret and guns, the parts that made the Monitor famous, we’re talking probably $10 million.” That is to say, roughly the entire annual budget for the entire NOAA sanctuary program could easily be spent on this one recovery effort. “And once you raise it, then what?” Broadwater says. “We have no tank large enough to conserve, preserve and treat the hull. Curation would cost another fortune, if it could be done at all.”

The middle road makes the most sense to Broadwater. “Recovering the turret–the most representative, innovative and recognizable aspect about the Monitor–could make a great deal of sense,” Broadwater says. “It is an ambitious but not impossible project.” The turret weighs 120 tons without its guns; if the two 11-inch smoothbore Dahlgrens are still inside, add another 30 tons. “They could have fallen out,” Broadwater says. “We still are not sure. In any case, the armor plate for the turret is eight inches thick. That’s eight layers of one-inch-thick iron plating, riveted and bolted, holes reamed out when they didn’t happen to line up perfectly–a new process then.”

If the turret is brought up, it may reveal answers to some of the ironclad’s stranger mysteries. “Our preliminary excavations–small holes–have given us only hints and glimpses of what might be inside that turret,” Broadwater says. “There is a story that a sailor stuck the ship’s unhappy cat inside one of the great 11-inch Dahlgren guns because it was causing trouble–that cat may be in that gun barrel still.”

At one point, Broadwater dived under the ship to examine the gunports, “which of course are facing in,” he says. “We were hoping to look under and inside to see if guns were still in there; the gun ports are closed but the thumb rod sticking out from the interior iron stoppers made us think it might be the gun, the distortion of water confusing our sense of scale. We believe the turret floor is mostly gone and the interior filled with silt. The inside is still a mystery. The guns are probably there, and there could be human remains.”

To date, expeditions to the wreck have turned up 160 artifacts, from wine bottles and mustard and relish jars, to a hair restorative found in a locker, lanterns, and the anchor. “We have also found some leather, rope, and clothing, and wooden personal effects,” Broadwater says, “but no bodies.” Some of the best artifact specimens are on permanent display at the Mariners’ Museum. Other recovered objects and archival materials are located at other facilities or exhibits. A section of iron plate, for instance, is at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.

“Holding an object that was part of the Monitor, that someone held going into the battle, means something to me,” Broadwater says. “We all feel the Monitor is very special. We take our role as stewards very seriously. We’re trying to bring the Monitor into a museum environment and preserve it where the public can appreciate history. That is part of my role as sanctuary manager.

“We’re seeking help from all conceivable public or private sources, and we’re preparing a report for the Congress, a plan to be completed by September 30, outlining the options for 1997-98, identifying costs and time frames. There are two incompatible objectives of the NOAA sanctuary program: public access and preservation. We hope that in spite of the recent damage our study will provide a solution regarding what can be salvaged and/or protected. It’s like watching a terminally ill patient. You know what’s happening but there seems to be no way to stop it. But we keep trying and hoping for a miracle.”

For a project whose startup cost is in the neighborhood of $11 million, a miracle is what it will take to save the Monitor. “The public knows the Monitor,” says Broadwater. “We get good press, a lot of enthusiastic volunteer support. But I try to be more objective: If I was an average person on the street, would I spend money on the Monitor? Is it worthwhile? Is it worth preserving?” CWT

Bert Hubinger, a freelance writer from Arnold, Maryland, also wrote the “Travel” article for this issue on the Monitor exhibit at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.