Wednesday, May 17, 2000

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. A crew of conservators from the Mariners’ Museum will try to separate the Monitor’s propeller from its wrought-iron shaft today, in its effort to restore the historic ironclad.

The Union’s Monitor never sank a ship, never won a battle, and stayed afloat less than a year before sinking off Cape Hatteras, N.C., 138 years ago.

Yet the low-slung boat with the revolving turret, which dueled the Confederate ironclad Virginia to a draw on March 9, 1862, arguably stands as one of the most influential ships in American naval history.

The museum envisions a $25 million to $30 million wing, called the Monitor Center, dedicated to the ship, where visitors could walk the decks of a replica or sit in the re-created turret, the true marvel of the ship, and get the feeling for battle as the turret rocks back and forth and they hear sounds of cannon shots bouncing off it. That will go along with the tanks holding the ship’s propeller, which was recovered a few years ago, and the ship’s steam engine and gun turret, which they hope to raise this summer and next.

“It really is the time capsule of the real thing of what actually happened with the object that was there when the great battle took place, and naval history was changed,” said John B. Hightower, president and CEO of the museum.

That’s no overstatement the Monitor revolutionized maritime warfare.

The day after the Battle of Hampton Roads, when the Monitor and the Virginia an ironclad built from the salvaged remains of the wooden ship Merrimack spent an afternoon bouncing shots off each other’s iron armor, to no avail, the New York Herald declared: “Our late sea fight in Hampton Roads, is one of the most remarkable and instructive events in the history of modern warfare. It establishes the utter uselessness of wooden ships.”

And within a week of the battle the order went out that wooden ships would no longer be built in the British Navy at the time the world’s pre-eminent sea power.

Ships built before the Monitor were wooden, driven by sail and fired from fixed guns. To maneuver into position to fire could take an hour. The Monitor, however, was armored, driven by a steam engine and propeller and had two guns in its revolving turret.

“It really represents that middle step between wooden ships like the USS Constellation and today’s modern ship,” said William Cogar, the museum curator.

The Monitor, with its turret, could fire in any direction, without the crew having to reposition the entire ship. In the battle with the Virginia, the Monitor’s two guns fired more shots than the sum of the Virginia’s 10 guns because the turret cannons were always in position, Mr. Cogar said.

The ship never was adept at sailing the open seas its deck was too low and it took on too much water. It sank off Cape Hatteras on Dec. 31, 1862, killing about a quarter of the 56-man crew.

The museum, about a three-hour drive from Washington, also will tell the crew’s story. Part of the museum’s collection is a set of more than 80 letters, written during the Monitor’s 10 months afloat, by George S. Greer, a fireman who shoveled the coal needed for the steam engine. In July, the museum will publish a book of his letters to his wife a real find for scholars coming from a common sailor, compared with the more common letters written by ships’ officers.

Already part of the museum’s larger naval collection is the Monitor’s anchor. It also displays a red lantern, which scholars think may be the source of the red light that was the last sign of life the escaping sailors saw before the Monitor went down.

The propeller has been sitting in a water bath, attached to an electric current as it undergoes electrolysis to remove the salt water from its joints. Curtiss Peterson, who is leading the team of conservators, said the 2,500-pound propeller turned at about 40 rounds per minute each revolution taking 1 and 1/2 seconds at top speed.

Later this summer, the museum hopes divers will recover the Monitor’s steam engine, and next summer it has plans for divers to bring up the entire turret. Those pieces, too, will have to go through electrolysis.

Mr. Hightower has requested $500,000 from Newport News city officials to begin planning for the new museum wing. He hopes to open the museum by 2006, in time to capitalize on tourism for the 400-year anniversary of Jamestown.

The museum is being developed in concert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is overseeing some of the recovery work on the Monitor. Mr. Hightower expects to draw 250,000 visitors a year when the Monitor Center opens.

Part of the irony, Mr. Hightower said, is that the Virginia, which sank several wooden Union ships and stayed seaworthy, was scuttled; nothing remains. For the Monitor, however, sinking resulted in its preservation.

“Had it not sunk, it would have been spread through the system of recycled ships and been lost for all time,” he said.

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