In any list of history's greatest warships, the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor ranks at or near the top. That's why American school kids have celebrated the Union ship and its Confederate adversary for nearly 145 years with the singsong phrase "the Monitor and the Merrimack."
But with the opening of a $30 million USS Monitor Center just days away, there's reason to brush up on why scholars consider this relatively small ship - famously described as "a cheesebox on a raft" - such a pivotal vessel. So we asked historian Jeff Johnston of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary to give us a quick refresher course on its importance.
DP: When the Monitor met the CSS Virginia - also known as the Merrimack - in the March 9, 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, the result was instant history. The clash between the two ironclads, combined with the Virginia's rampage through the Union fleet on the previous day, ended the age of wooden warships forever. But what singled the Monitor out as a milestone?
Johnston: The Monitor made two types of history in Hampton Roads. It stopped the Virginia from destroying the devastated Union fleet, making it the hero of a nation that had just suffered its bloodiest naval defeat until Pearl Harbor. It also changed everything about naval warfare and naval technology, primarily because its rotating gun turret enabled it to focus its firepower on its enemy without having to expose its hull. The Monitor had no mast, no sails. It was the first totally steam-powered warship in history - and that marked the shift from a crew of sailors to a crew of firemen and engineers - and from a fighting sailing ship to a fighting machine.
DP: If the Monitor was such a revolutionary ship, why did she sink less than a year after being commissioned? What about the other ships in the class?
Johnston: All the Monitors have a bad rap for not being seaworthy. But that reputation doesn't hold up. They weren't the ideal ocean-going vessels, but they weren't rocks either. That said, why did she go down off Cape Hatteras? It was bad timing, really. They didn't know they were sailing into a storm until it hit them. At some point, the packing washed out of the 18 to 20-inch-diameter hawser pipe where the anchor chain came in. So water leaked in, and she started to wallow at the bow. Water started coming in through the coal chutes, getting the coal in the bunkers wet. And for a ship that's powered entirely by steam, this becomes a very bad thing. In the end it was a series of events that took the Monitor down. The ship and the crew were giving their best, but these design flaws and Mother Nature always threw something else at them. And, eventually, Mother Nature won.
DP: How come it took so long to find the wreck?
Johnston: It was technology, primarily. It wasn't until (Harold) "Doc" Edgerton came up with side-scan sonar in the early 1970s that there was any way to find it in water 240 feet deep. Even when they did the survey in 1973, they didn't find it until the last pass - and they still almost missed it. They didn't expect the Monitor to be upside down. It took them a year before they figured it out.
DP: Nearly 30 more years passed before the sanctuary, working with Navy divers, recovered the famous turret. Deep water made the job difficult, but what else made it take so long?
Johnston: Preservation isn't always about recovery. That can be a destructive process, and the sanctuary (which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) is in the protection business. So what we did for many years was survey the wreck. It's one of the most studied wreck sites in the United States. But in the early 1990s, we started measuring the deterioration of the wreck in chunks instead of millimeters, and that alarmed NOAA so much that it began to change its mind about recovery. We did some studies. The cost of recovering the entire ship was staggering as well as pretty close to impossible. The only option was to go out and selectively recover some of the key components, then stabilize what was left. That enabled us to recover the propeller, the steam engine and other components as well as the turret. But we never could have done it without the Navy who brought them up - and The Mariners' Museum to conserve them.
DP: Who takes care of the Monitor now?
Johnston: We are the primary stewards of the Monitor and - even though our office is here next to the Mariners' - the wreck site is always a priority. That said, the artifacts we've recovered are our primary concern right now - and that's where the Mariners' comes to the table. The original Monitor Center was conceived purely as a conservation facility. It was planned here because the Mariners' became the federal government's primary repository for the Monitor collection back in 1987. But NOAA didn't want to recover these things just to put them storage. So the museum that the Mariners' proposed, and that we're seeing come to completion now, is just above and beyond anything we expected. I think people are going to be amazed when it opens.