- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 5, 2003

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The museum conserving artifacts from the wreckage of the USS Monitor also is trying to tell the story of the Union ship’s Confederate opponent, the CSS Virginia, commonly referred to as the Merrimack, in the historic first clash of ironclads.

So when a private collector recently offered to sell the drawing that guided the construction of the CSS Virginia, the Mariners’ Museum jumped on it.

John Hightower, the museum’s president and chief executive officer, said the drawing was a “spectacularly valuable historic document” because it helped persuade the Confederate navy to build a ship covered in iron plates to repel cannon balls.

However, nobody is sure whether the drawing will end a 140-year-plus argument about who deserves primary credit for the Virginia’s design.

In 1861, Portsmouth shipbuilder John L. Porter, and naval constructor John Mercer Brooke shared project management responsibilities of converting the abandoned Union steam frigate USS Merrimack into the CSS Virginia.

Mr. Porter clearly did the construction drawing because it includes his signature. But some people disagree about who developed the concept for the ship, said Craig L. Symonds, a Civil War historian with the U.S. Naval Academy.

“For a long time we didn’t have really good, hard evidence to demonstrate this one way or the other,” Mr. Symonds said in a telephone interview.

The 6-by-2-foot, pen-and-ink drawing tilts the argument in Brooke’s favor, Mr. Symonds said.

“The design features of that plan more accurately reflect the concept that Brooke had originally proposed,” he said. “You can even see on this plan some of the changes that Brooke made Porter add to it.”

However, Mr. Hightower thinks the drawing supports Mr. Porter’s claim to the credit.

“Porter did the drawing, and that should be that,” Mr. Hightower said.

The Monitor and the Merrimack fought to a draw on March 9, 1862, near Newport News. The battle revolutionized naval warfare, effectively ending the era of wooden warships.

The Monitor later sank in a storm off the North Carolina coast and the Mariners’ Museum has more than 1,100 artifacts recovered from the wreckage in recent years.

The Virginia’s crew blew it up to prevent the ship from falling into Union hands.

Don Tharpe, a collector of Americana and Virginia military items who lives in Fauquier County, acquired the drawing from the Porter family a few years ago. Mr. Tharpe said he sold it to help enhance the museum’s planned USS Monitor Center.

Mr. Hightower and Mr. Tharpe declined to disclose the price of the construction drawing. The museum verified the price with Sotheby’s, which wanted to auction it for at least $500,000, Mr. Hightower said.

“We didn’t pay quite that much, but we paid a lot,” he added.

Last year, the museum paid the Porter family $300,000 for two rare architectural drawings of the Virginia done by Mr. Porter.

Several decades ago, the family gave the museum small black-and-white photocopies of the construction drawing. But interesting details show up much more clearly on the original.

Erasure marks show how the stern pilothouse was removed at Mr. Brooke’s direction, archivist Lester Weber said as he pointed to the drawing.

Other changes include the added bow and stern pivot gun ports, a redesign of the port shutters, hatches, armor added for steering chains and a bulkhead for a submerged bow.

Hash marks in the lower corners of the stained and creased document probably were made by Mr. Porter as he cleaned his pencil and pen.

The drawing also has some pencil doodles on it, but museum officials are uncertain about what they are and whether they were done by Mr. Porter or by a child in the family.

Museum officials hope more people will step forward with other drawings and items related to the Virginia and the Monitor that can be housed in its USS Monitor Center, which is expected to open in 2007.

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