History books teem with pages celebrating the Monitor's achievement

Swedish-American naval engineer John Ericsson was born with a rare mechanical genius and an even rarer temper. Unfairly blamed for a deadly gun explosion aboard one of his pioneering ships in 1841, he initially turned his back on the Navy when it began seeking designs for an ironclad vessel at the outbreak of the Civil War.

Still, the difficult inventor stunned his audience when, through the deception of a colleague, he was finally persuaded to present his plans for what would become a revolutionary warship. The USS Monitor left the age of wooden sailing ships behind and gave birth to the modern era of mechanized naval warfare.

* The first revolving gun turret. Enabled the Monitor to fire in any direction regardless of its course.

* The first low-profile design. Reduced the Monitor's exposed parts to a heavily armored gun turret, an armored pilothouse and an armored deck that rose only 18 inches above the waterline.

* The first to house its crew and engine room below the waterline. Required the invention of a pioneering ventilation system, a pressure-operated toilet and some 40 other groundbreaking innovations.
History books teem with pages celebrating the Monitor's achievement.

Back in 1862, however, the most telling sign of the ship's sudden fame may have been the long line of curious pilgrims who swarmed over its gangway to take a look.

President Abraham Lincoln was one of thousands of spellbound visitors who stepped on board the floating ironclad wonder. Author Nathaniel Hawthorne was another. Then there was the tough little vessel's inexplicable fascination among the female set, many of whom looked upon its defiance of the monstrous rebel threat as the act of a Davidlike protector.

Sent to the Washington Navy Yard for repairs in the fall, the Monitor was greeted by large, cheering crowds as it made its way up the Potomac River. Women and children, especially, poured over the deck after it tied up, confirming the vessel's unexpected second career as a historic tourist attraction.

So many skirts and petticoats rustled down the ladders into the Monitor's hull that these highly unmilitary visitations began to verge on the commonplace. Flattered by the attention, the officers became adept at conducting impromptu tours, some of which were entirely unsuspected.

"On going into my stateroom I found a party of the 'dear delightful creatures' making their toilet before my glass, using my combs and brushes," wrote paymaster William F. Keeler in a letter to his wife.

"An extensive display of lower extremities was made going up & down our steep ladders."

No such old-fashioned niceties of dress hinder Bobbie Scholley today as she scoots under a low-hanging steel brace, eager to make her rounds of the bustling village that sprawls out over the barge.

She wears black leather combat boots with rolled-down white socks, olive-drab military-issue shorts and a blue tank top. Her long red hair is bound up in a disobedient ponytail that bobs and glistens in the sun as she talks.

Nevertheless, the same glow of fame that drew so many Victorian women to the Monitor 140 years ago clearly weighs on Scholley's mind as she outlines the challenges of the expedition.

Recovering the 120-ton gun turret from such an inhospitable grave will be a tremendous feat, she says - if it is successful. But the constant danger of damaging or even destroying one of the most storied icons of the Civil War means that no one can take it easy until the job is over.

"I'm worried about the weather. I'm worried about the currents," she says. "You always have to be worried about them when you're diving at Hatteras.

"I'm also worried because this is the largest, heaviest, most complex - and certainly the most fragile thing we've ever tried to recover. Monitor's turret is an archaeological target - a national treasure - not just another piece of aircraft aluminum that's crashed into the ocean. So we can't just throw a wire sling around it and yank it to the surface. We can't mangle it as it comes up."

Rescuing the Monitor