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Last summer two teams of divers and researchers dived on the wreck of the ironclad USS Monitor, surveyed the location of artifacts, took high-definition video images and catalogued nearby marine life. Dan Crowell, who organized one expedition, pointed out how such images can aid in the recovery and preservation process. Video that he took of the sunken vessel in 1994, for example, eventually assisted in the recovery of the ship’s engines. The collaboration between divers and researchers “is a very valuable tool in the management process for the sanctuary,” said historian Jeff Johnson. “The data will help NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] decide what it will do with the Monitor site over the next five to seven years.”

Today Monitor is one of NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries. Conservation has been an integral part of the sanctuary since its inception. With the help of the U.S. Navy as well as other divers and researchers, it has recovered not only the vessel’s gun turret but also its engine, cannons and propeller, as well as smaller items such as bottles, silverware and clothing.

“The reality is that all wrecks are on a slow march to deterioration,” explained David Alberg, the sanctuary superintendent. “You can’t stop that without radical measures being taken.” It will take hundreds of years before Moni tor corrodes away, but Alberg said that conserved artifacts can help “teach about both the maritime past and our current ocean resources.”

Alberg said the sanctuary is currently focusing on recovering additional artifacts. Last summer’s second expedition, which took place in August, comprised a team of divers from aquariums and dive centers—perhaps an indication that sanctuary officials might shift their focus to biology. The Smithsonian Institution’s Marine Botany department will analyze the samples they collected. The superintendent explained, “We want to get a better understanding of the communities on the wreck—how do they affect the wreck, and how has the wreck impacted their communities?”

The sanctuary may also be looking to expand its scope, as it has started surveying some of the other wrecks near Monitor. Thousands of vessels have perished in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” as this wreckage-strewn stretch of seaway is known. There has been particular interest in World War II wrecks lost during the Battle of the Atlantic, between 1939 and 1945.

Visitors to the Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Va., can get a bird’s-eye view of the ironclad’s turret and other artifacts as they are being preserved in the Batten Conservation Laboratory. The turret sits in a 90,000-gallon tank filled with treatment solution, where the chlorides accumulated over the course of 140 years beneath the sea gradually leach out. The vessel’s steam engine sits nearby in a 30,000-gallon tank, as do the two 11-inch Dahlgren guns that were removed from the turret.

The preservation process is “pretty simple,” according to David Krop, the center’s conservation project manager: “These artifacts have soaked up salts, sulfur and other impurities. At the same time, they’ve developed a thick layer of concreted marine sediments that form a tough matrix around the artifact. We soak them to help remove all of that, and when that’s done we dry the artifacts, then apply a protective coating.”

For the turret, that process will take about 20 years, though it’s faster for smaller artifacts. The center unveils a new batch of these smaller finds each March during Hampton Roads Weekend, commemorating the anniversary of the battle and the Monitor Center’s 2007 opening.

Recently placed on display was a fragile reminder of the past that also presages the museum’s goals for the future: the reconstructed fragments of a glass bottle, dubbed the “Phoenix flask.” Found in the revolving gun turret, the shards were pieced back together by conservators, who noticed a distinctive decoration. “You can see the head and wings of a bird,” said Anna Holloway, curator. “There’s also a Latin inscription Resurgam—I shall rise again.”

This March the museum will roll out Monitor’s propeller shaft, which will join the propeller—already on permanent display—as well as bullets from inside the turret, and leather boots and tools. Also scheduled to appear soon is the engine room clock.

Two sets of human remains were discovered in the gun turret, which are now being analyzed by the U.S military at the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command. Also recovered were personal belongings of some of the crew, including silverware with the initials S.A.L., which has been traced to officer Samuel Augee Lewis.

Alberg estimates that to date about 80 percent of the ironclad remains on the sea floor. When it foundered in a storm on New Year’s Eve in 1862, it landed upside down in 240 feet of water. As a result, some of the wreck has collapsed. And with many of the artifacts in conservation at the Monitor Center, the wreck doesn’t exactly look like the full-size reconstruction on display at the museum.

Alberg reiterated that divers—who must obtain a permit to dive on the site—are essential to providing information on the state of the sanctuary. “Recreational divers have become our eyes and ears,” he said.

Final recommendations for the sanctuary’s future plans aren’t expected until this spring or summer. “We’ve got all the right people working on answers to those questions,” Alberg explained. Many different groups are involved because Monitor itself tells an “important cultural engagement story.”

“This ship was built as a weapon to fight Merrimack,” Alberg said. “It became the savior of the Union and the stage for human drama the night it sank. It was a mystery for 130 years, then it was located and became a sanctuary. John Ericsson [Monitor’s designer] could never have imagined that maybe its most significant role is teaching us about ocean processes. That may be its most important legacy.”


Kristina Fiore is a health and science writer based in Glen Ridge, N.J.

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here