- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 17, 2002

A joint project by the Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Aug. 5 succeeded in raising the gun turret of the Monitor from 240 feet of water off Cape Hatteras, N.C., where it had rested since 1862. The turret will be taken to the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., where it will undergo 12 to 15 years of conservation techniques. Eventually it will be displayed at the museum with hundreds of artifacts from the Civil War ironclad.

According to schoolbooks, John Ericsson's famous ironclad was called "the cheesebox on a raft." In others, however, the ship inspired less buoyant metaphors, such as a brick.
While the Monitor was being rushed to completion in Brooklyn, N.Y., in early 1862, it was examined by a Navy Department designer, John Lenthall. Although impressed with the vessel's fighting potential, Lenthall did not regard it as seaworthy. The ship was an "iron pot," he concluded, and its inventor crazy.
John Ericsson was not crazy, but his design for what was essentially a floating turret sacrificed seagoing qualities for armor and striking power. The Monitor had two hulls. The lower hull was designed to be under water. The upper hull overlapped it and was heavily armored. In the center of the deck was the ship's offensive punch, a revolving turret 9 feet high and 20 feet in diameter, mounting two 11-inch guns.
The Monitor was launched Jan. 30, 1862, amid cheers from onlookers who knew that the Confederates were constructing an ironclad of their own.
On March 6, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles ordered the Monitor's new commander, Lt. John L. Worden, to bring his vessel to Washington. The ironclad left Brooklyn that day, towed by a steam tug. Seas were moderate on the trip down the coast, but the Monitor demonstrated some unsettling tendencies.
Although small waves flowed easily across its deck, larger ones battered the turret and the pilothouse, causing several leaks. Nevertheless, the Monitor made it safely to Washington and then to Newport News, where it arrived just in time for the epic confrontation with the Confederate Merrimack.
The duel between the two ironclads was inconclusive. They battered each another for four hours on March 9 without inflicting serious damage, but it was the North that felt relief at the drawn battle. The Federal Navy had scores of vulnerable wooden ships that might fall victim to a single ironclad.
Although there had been no fatalities aboard the Monitor, one injury would contribute to its later fate. Skipper Worden had been sighting through a viewing slit when a heavy shot struck the pilothouse, throwing particles into his eyes and causing temporary blindness. After the battle, Worden was ordered to Washington, where his eyes were treated and he was lionized by the Lincoln administration.
Worden would not return to the Monitor, and when orders came that would put the ironclad in peril, the one voice that might have been heeded with regard to its poor seagoing qualities was not there to be heard.
The Monitor spent the rest of 1862 in and around Hampton Roads. Its watching brief on the Merrimack ended in May, when Gen. George B. McClellan's advance on Norfolk forced the Confederates to destroy the Merrimack. The first of the antagonists of March 9 was no more.
Soon the Monitor had a new skipper, John P. Bankhead. The 41-year-old was a respected officer in the old Navy, but he had none of Worden's interest in ironclads. Not only did the Monitor have a new skipper, but by autumn just 20 percent of its original complement remained.
At Newport News, there were rumors that the Confederates were about to attempt to break the federal blockade of Wilmington, N.C. To counter this threat, Welles decided to send the Monitor to Wilmington.
The secretary probably should have known better than to expose his only proven ironclad to the perils of Cape Hatteras, but war entails risk. On Christmas Eve, he issued orders for the supply ship Rhode Island, a converted yacht, to tow the Monitor to Wilmington.
Bad weather delayed the sailing, but by Dec. 29, the skies had cleared. The Rhode Island and its tow left Newport News in the morning, hopeful of a smooth passage. By 6 p.m. the two vessels had passed Cape Henry, Va., making about 5 knots. Darkness fell, but the good weather held; only in the morning was there an increased swell and a slight rise in wind force. Rain came, but the crew of the Monitor felt no special concern. Their ship was riding well, and in any case, it was equipped with no fewer than three sets of pumps.
By evening, however, there was cause for concern. The sky was dirty, the wind was fresh, the sea was stronger. The Monitor began taking on water in some volume, obliging Bankhead to activate two of his sets of pumps. Even so, the vessel began to plunge and yaw; to those on the Rhode Island, the ironclad seemed at times to disappear altogether.
In the hope that his ship would ride better out of tow, Bankhead ordered the tow rope cut. This proved to be an error, for the underpowered Monitor was unable to keep its bow to the storm. Equally ominous, when the ironclad dropped into a trough of the sea, its upper hull came down with great force, loosening plates and admitting water.
At 10:30 p.m., with 7 inches of water in the engine room, Bankhead hoisted a distress signal and asked the Rhode Island to send boats. In part because the Monitor had stowed its own boats on the Rhode Island, the rescue proved difficult. Such steam as the ironclad could muster was required for the pumps; the ship itself was not under control and several times threatened to swamp its rescuers.
The Monitor's paymaster, William Keeler, started to gather the ship's accounts but then realized that he could not handle the heavy ledgers. He climbed to the deck, where he found a scene "to appall the boldest heart." Mountains of water were surging across the Monitor's deck, and boats from the Rhode Island were smashing against the ironclad's sides.
In Keeler's account, "The howling of the tempest, the roar & dash of the waters, the hoarse orders through the speaking trumpets of the officers formed a panorama of horror which time can never efface from my memory."
With his vessel filling rapidly, Bankhead ordered all those still on board 25 or 30 men to get into two rescue boats, but some sailors on the ironclad refused to leave the false security of its hull.
Bankhead would write, "Feeling that I had done everything in my power to save the vessel and crew, I jumped into the already deeply laden boat and left the Monitor, whose heavy, sluggish motion gave evidence that she could float but a short time longer."
From the Rhode Island, exhausted survivors stared across the black water. From time to time, the lantern on the Monitor's turret would swing into view, only to disappear. At 1:30 a.m. on New Year's Eve, it flickered one last time, then slid beneath the waves, the latest of many victims of Cape Hatteras storms.
The loss of the famous Monitor was one more blow to the North, for whom the land war was going badly enough. Welles, who bore a good deal of the blame for the ironclad's ill-starred voyage, felt its loss keenly, but the Navy was charitable with regard to Bankhead. Even though he had left 16 men on his ship, he remained on the active list and had two other commands during the war.
As for the Monitor, it was too historic a ship to be forgotten. In 1973, the wreck was located in 240 feet of water, and plans were begun to salvage what could be retrieved. With the recent recovery of the ship's great turret, the salvage operation achieved an important milestone.

John M. Taylor is the author of a number of books on the Civil War period, including "Confederate Raider: Raphael Semmes of the Alabama."

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