- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

The recent salvage of the turret, engine and other sections of the USS Monitor from the ocean bottom off North Carolina is the first step in the ship’s preservation and eventual display by 2007 in the Mariners’ Museum at Newport News, Va. This will be just the second time that the Monitor has served as a tourist attraction. The first time was during its brief military service, and it was here in Washington.

The Monitor, the “cheesebox on a raft” designed by John Ericsson, had been hurriedly sent to Hampton Roads, Va., to protect the Union blockade fleet there. On March 8, 1862, the Confederate ironclad Virginia, converted from the old wooden Union ship Merrimac, had easily sunk two Union warships, the Congress and the Cumberland. The Virginia intended to come back the next day and finish off the Minnesota, too.

On that day, however, the Monitor arrived just in time and fought the Virginia to a standstill. The Monitor then stayed at Hampton Roads to guard the fleet until the Virginia was blown up by the Confederates May 11 during a retreat. With the Virginia gone and more Monitor-class ships coming on line, the U.S. Navy decided to remove the Monitor from active duty for a while for necessary repairs.

Accordingly, as described in the Oct. 6 issue of the city’s Daily National Intelligencer, the Monitor was towed up the Potomac River by the tugboat Rescue, then steamed up the Anacostia River on its own to the old Navy Yard.

Almost at once, curiosity seekers showed up. A small fleet of sailboats, rowboats and tugboats descended on the scene, and the Navy soon had to issue an order forbidding people to land at the wharves or on the Monitor itself. After a month or so, when most of the repairs had been made, the Navy relented and announced in the local papers of Thursday, Nov. 6, that the ship would be open for public tours that very day, from 1 p.m. to sunset.

Perhaps the Navy relented too much. The newspaper accounts published the next day made no mention of any security restrictions — apparently, people could go anywhere they liked on or even in the Monitor. In the middle of a war, with spies and saboteurs about, this complacency seems strange. At any rate, no harm is known to have been done to the Monitor by its visitors.

The tally of tourists totaled about 5,000 to 6,000. The most popular attraction was the revolving turret or “cheesebox,” especially its two massive cannons, described by another Washington newspaper, the National Republican, as “formidable monsters.”

According to the newspaper, the visitors also checked out indentations left in the armor, each dent marked with an engraving cut into the metal itself, labeling which ship had caused it. Six such blemishes had come from the Merrimac, as the local papers patriotically called the Virginia, and two friendly-fire dents from the Minnesota. Perhaps the two ironclads were fighting at very close quarters just then. The National Republican also mentioned one upgrade — the pilothouse or wheelhouse near the turret now had armor plating to protect against Confederate snipers.

The Evening Star, meanwhile, spent more space describing the visitors than the ship. For instance, one paragraph referred to “Peeping Toms quite mean enough to take advantage of the embarrassments of the ladies, in crossing the sieve-like deck …” The newspaper added, however, that “the ladies of Washington are rather famous for their pretty ankles, and perhaps they don’t mind it.”

The Star also mentioned self-appointed jokers or know-it-alls who claimed the tall smokestacks were ventilation shafts so the Monitor could travel underwater.

At any rate, after the tours were over, work resumed and the Monitor left the Navy Yard Nov. 8. It later sank in a storm off North Carolina Dec. 31, with the loss of 21 crew members. This may especially resonate with modern audiences, who also know what it is like to lose a new experimental craft and several crew.

John Lockwood is a Washington writer.

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