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The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., has about 60,000 square feet of exhibit galleries displaying more than 35,000 maritime artifacts. The majority of the museum’s holdings in the galleries and the research library are best appreciated in person, but several key aspects of the collections can be enjoyed online, especially the Monitor Center.

USS Monitor, the Navy’s first-ever ironclad, fought the Confederate ironclad CSS Virginia on March 9, 1862, in the Battle of Hampton Roads. The world’s first battle of ironclads, it marked a major shift in naval history. After Monitor sank in a storm on December 31, 1862, it remained undiscovered until the 1970s. Since then scientists have raised portions of the vessel—including its engine, Dahlgren guns and famous turret—which visitors can see through live webcams. The greatest resource of the online Monitor Center are the pages dedicated to eyewitness and participant accounts of daily life onboard ship and of the fighting on March 8-9, as well as brief bios of the officers and men, and diagrams and descriptions of both ships. Visitors will especially appreciate excerpts from the beautifully descriptive letters of Monitor paymaster William F. Keeler, while teachers should encourage their students to test their knowledge with the quizzes offered throughout the site. Anyone interested in public history and preservation will want to check out the site’s blog, too, which highlights the Monitor Center’s ongoing efforts.

Most Civil War enthusiasts admit to a limited understanding of naval affairs. This site can help to remedy that. While there, visit the museum’s other online exhibits and make use of the “Virtual Tour” that allows you to electronically browse most of the galleries. Some of the pages and links need updating, and the quality of your online tours will probably vary depending upon your computer’s speed. Overall, however, there is a wealth of naval history to be discovered at this site—and the Monitor Center, in particular, will appeal to buffs as we reflect on the 150th anniversary of the famous Battle of Hampton Roads this spring.


Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.