- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 14, 2004

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The two mighty ships that fought in the first battle of ironclads, forever changing naval warfare by making wooden warships obsolete, have been brought together again.

A deck plate from the Union ship USS Monitor sits next to a section of armor plate from the Confederate CSS Virginia in a new exhibition at the Mariners Museum guaranteed to give goose bumps to Civil War fanatics.

“Ironclad Evidence” tells the stories of the vessels from construction to destruction and explores what shipboard life was like for the men who sailed in them. Among the numerous artifacts, documents and images are some items never before displayed, such as the Monitors ironclad propeller and construction drawings of the Virginia.

This is the first time the museum, the official repository for Monitor artifacts, has pulled together so many Monitor and Virginia objects. The artifacts eventually will be displayed in the USS Monitor Center, a $30 million addition the museum is expected to open in 2007.

Although the Monitor has received much attention in recent years as items have been salvaged from its wreckage, “one purpose of the exhibition is to remind people there were two ships,” said Anna Holloway, the museums education director.

The Monitor and the Virginia built on the salvaged hull of a Union ship, the USS Merrimack fought to a draw near Newport News on March 9, 1862, a day after the Virginia wreaked havoc on the Union fleet.

The exhibition opened this month, almost exactly 142 years after the ships clash.

The Monitor sank in the Atlantic Ocean during a squall on Dec. 31, 1862, off the North Carolina coast. Artifacts from the wreckage, such as a boot sole and silverware with engraved initials, are poignant reminders of the 16 lives lost that night.

Numerals on the face of a brass engine register record the last revolution of the Monitors propeller shaft before the ship sank. The register is dented from the impact when the ship hit the ocean bottom, landing upside down.

The register is the only artifact recovered from the Monitor so far that bears the vessels name.

“Theres something really magical about finding an artifact with a ships name on it,” Miss Holloway said.

During the past decade, hundreds of Monitor artifacts have been recovered from the wreck site through a partnership among the museum, the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Much less survives from the Virginia, which was destroyed by its own crew on May 11, 1862, to keep the ship out of the hands of advancing Union forces.

“They blew her up, as one of the crew said, ‘real good,” Miss Holloway said.

Items on display from the Virginia include its iron wheel, drafting tools that Confederate shipbuilder John Luke Porter used when working on the plans for the ship, and the drawings that guided the ships construction.

Nearby, blueprints and models show some of the more than 40 patentable innovations that made the Monitor unique, as designed by Swedish-born engineer John Ericsson.

While the exhibition offers much information about the specifications and design innovations of both ships, as well as details of their battle, it also gives glimpses into everyday life aboard an ironclad.

In a letter to his wife, the Monitors George Geer, who kept the fire going in the ships steam engine, explained that he declined his ration of grog so he could save money.

“By not drinking it I get $1.25 per month, which will most cloath (sic) me,” Geer wrote.

The Navy eventually barred consumption of spirits on warships. A copy of that prohibition order is on display near a large bottle of Grays Hair Restorative that was recovered from the Monitor. Curators suspect that crew members imbibed the tonic, which likely contained alcohol, or else filled the bottle with liquor.

“Yeah, there may have been this outbreak of baldness on the Monitor, but we dont think so,” Miss Holloway said.

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