Stalking an Iron Ghost

When the USS Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in a Dec. 31, 1862 storm, its loss marked the end of a crucial leap forward in American history.Above: The Monitor's turret comes into view from the cockpit of a minisub operated by the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.
AP Photo

Spawned by the deadly ingenuity of the first industrial-age arms race, the odd-looking little ironclad with the revolutionary gun turret was the world's first battleship--and the first warship to fight like a machine rather than a sailing vessel. Its momentous clash with the CSS Virginia in the March 9, 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads signaled not only the end of the wooden man-o-war but also the beginning of America's rise as a military power.

The Monitor's story did not stop, however, with its 240-foot descent to the bottom. Lost for more than 110 years, the elusiveness of the wreck only added to the ship's legend--and that aura of inaccessibility continued to grow after scientists discovered the hulk lying upside-down in 1973.

For nearly 30 years afterward, the Monitor's would-be saviors fought the storm-tossed waters off Hatteras in a futile rescue effort. Not until 2002, after five summers of wrestling with the unpredictable currents, did a determined band of Navy divers and Monitor National Marine Sanctuary archaeologists finally pluck the famous gun turret from the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

This is the story of their struggle.

The USS Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in a Dec. 31, 1862 storm. Sixteen crewmen perished, including serveral lost in a valiant rescue effort.
Photo courtesy of The Mariners' Museum

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