Two original drawings from one of the most important naval building projects of the Civil War have been acquired by The Mariners' Museum.
Created by Confederate naval constructor John L. Porter in June 1861, the fragile pair of images show both Porter's preliminary idea for producing an armored "Floating Steam Battery" and his later concept for modifying a captured Union frigate.
The rare plans soon led to the construction and deadly success of the famed ironclad warship CSS Virginia - also known as the Merrimack - and its history-making clash with the USS Monitor in the Battle of Hampton Roads.
"These drawings are absolutely astonishing," said Mariners' President and CEO John B. Hightower, who unveiled the yellowed renderings before a group of Civil War writers at the museum Monday.
"We are becoming better equipped to tell the entire story of the clash between the Monitor and the Virginia through actual artifacts and archives within the museum's collection. We hope and ask that people begin stepping forward to contact the museum with similar items as we move closer to the opening the USS Monitor Center in 2007."
With an estimated cost of $30 million, the 65,000-square-foot Monitor Center is designed to provide a home and conservation treatment facility for all the artifacts retrieved from the ship, which sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C., on Dec. 31, 1862.
But in addition to such priceless objects as the Monitor's revolutionary gun turret, which could by recovered by Navy divers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists sometime this summer, the new center will explore many of the other pioneering naval advances sparked by the Civil War.
Chief among those achievements was the slow but lethal Virginia, whose ironclad sides and superior guns inflicted what was then the worst defeat in U.S. naval history just one day before its famous March 9, 1862, battle with the Monitor.
"The Confederates were the first off the mark with an ironclad warship. They then destroyed two Union ships - proving the power of iron over wood," says Civil War historian John V. Quarstein, director of the Virginia War Museum.
"Then the Monitor shows up and fights the Virginia to a draw - proving that only another ironclad could stop an ironclad. So, really, the Monitor would never have been famous had it not been for the Virginia."
Many Civil War historians agree, pairing the clashes of both March 8 and 9 into one panoramic - and history-changing - Battle of Hampton Roads.
They also point to Porter's drawings - four others of which survive and are now in private hands - as crucial illustrations of this ground-breaking shift from sail and wood to steam power and iron hulls.
"That was the truly revolutionary nature of the Virginia," says U.S. Naval Academy historian Craig L. Symonds, who spoke at the museum Monday. "This was not a traditional fighting ship. It was a machine of war."
Mark St. John Erickson can be reached at 247-4783 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times