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The Mariners’ Museum,  Newport News, Virginia

It’s midnight, New Year’s Eve 1862, on the rolling deck of USS Monitor. Sailors scramble to free a towline only to be flung into the sea by breaking waves. Orders are shouted above the howling wind. Below, a bailing party is fighting a losing battle.

Conveyed in a multimedia display of stirring images and sounds, such is the opening scene for visitors to the new Monitor Center, a $30 million addition to the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va. Other highlights include replicas and hundreds of artifacts from both Monitor and its Confederate counterpart, CSS Virginia. The star of the show is Monitor’s massive iron turret, which Navy divers recovered off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in August 2002. It lies submerged in an alkaline bath in the museum’s conservation area alongside the ship’s engine and two 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannons. A viewing platform allows visitors to get an up-close look at this mammoth artifact.

Relating the two-day Battle of Hampton Roads, the center’s Battle Theater combines graphic images with pulsing music, hoarse commands and solemn narration to dramatize the events of March 8, 1862, when Virginia had its way with Union wooden ships, and March 9, when Monitor and Virginia slugged it out.

Amid the sound and fury are exhibits relating the story of the ironclads. After strolling through the simulated gun deck of a traditional frigate, visitors enter replicas of Virginia’s casemate as well as Monitor’s wardroom and surprisingly posh officer staterooms. Next in line, an interactive theater enables visitors to follow the modern recovery team in its race against time and weather.

Summing up the center’s overall theme, the narrator of the Battle Theater declares that while the clash between the ironclads may have ended in a draw, there was a clear victor in the contest of iron against wood— “And it changed every navy in the world.”


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here