Discovering the USS Monitor

Above: The Monitor's turret was sandwiched between the ship's massive armor belt and the ocean floor.
NOAA photo
THE UNRULY SEAS GAVE WAY TO PECULIAR STILLNESS ON THE DAY that the USS Monitor -- lost off Cape Hatteras, N.C., for 110 years -- finally revealed its last position.

Chased down by a team of scientists aboard a Duke University research vessel, the famous Civil War ironclad first appeared on an experimental side-scan sonar as a "long amorphous echo." Nothing distinguished it from 21 other wrecks that had already been found and eliminated during the August 1973 expedition, which had crisscrossed more than 70 square miles of the Graveyard of the Atlantic in an apparently fruitless effort.

Not until the last day of the two-week mission did a telltale signal finally rebound from the bottom. Even then, the echo was so faint that "the scientist on watch paid little heed," said Duke Marine Laboratory director John G. Newton, recalling the expedition in National Geographic two years later.

It took another member of the team, who'd just returned from fishing off the research vessel's rail, to notice the tiny blip on a readout of the transmission. He recommended that they turn around and take a second look.

Three other competing expeditions were scouring the waters off Hatteras when the Eastward, which had re-plotted the fatal path of the Monitor from a companion vessel's log, dropped a primitive underwater video camera into the Atlantic.

The grainy black-and-white images that returned showed a large flat surface made of what appeared to be iron plate, a thick waist similar to the Monitor's massive armor belt and -- lying underneath it all -- a circular protrusion suggesting a turret. But even after three extra days of work, during which an advanced still camera designed by renowned electrical engineer Harold Edgerton snagged hopelessly on the wreck, the fuzzy stream of video from the bottom remained tantalizingly unclear.

For months afterward, Newton and his colleagues -- especially underwater archaeologist Gordon P. Watts Jr. of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History -- puzzled over both the video footage and a fragmented mosaic pieced together from the blurry black-and-white pictures.

Then Watts took his umpteenth look at the mysterious still portrait, which he had copied, taken home and taped to the front of his refrigerator.

Some say his wife unraveled the secret first, deciphering the image with a casual glance while standing at the icebox door. Watts himself remembers fingering the vessel in the middle of the night, squinting in disbelief as the famous silhouette materialized from the murk.

Not long afterward, the first in a stream of expert friends and acquaintances began visiting the Watts home for dinner. Eager to test his theory, the archaeologist asked each guest to study the mosaic closely, then provided the clue that had cracked the riddle open.

Nearly 30 years later, John Broadwater -- the chief scientist of the 2002 Monitor turret recovery expedition -- vividly remembers the late December night when he sat down to gaze at the baffling picture. Just months before, the young electrical engineer turned amateur underwater archaeologist had been scanning the seas off Hatteras at the same time as Watts, searching for the elusive wreck "in the wrong place," he recalls.

"When I looked at the mosaic, I saw some similar elements. But I didn't see the Monitor -- and I didn't think that anybody would have the nerve to say that it was," Broadwater says. "Then Gordon asked me to pretend that the Monitor had landed upside down.

"That's what did it. That's when everything in the picture fell into place and started to make sense.

"That's when the Monitor was found."

Rescuing the Monitor