Wool coat that sank with Civil War ironclad Monitor is nearly revived

Archaeologists and conservators nearly done with $20,000 effort to restore jacket from sunken Civil War ship

 More than 150 years after it sank off Cape Hatteras inside the warship Monitor, a woolen coat discarded by a Union sailor trying to escape the doomed Civil War ironclad is approaching another milestone.

Found inside the gun turret, which was recovered from the Atlantic in 2002, the rumpled expanse of Navy blue cloth had to be chiseled and coaxed from the grasp of the thick marine concretion that trapped it — a painstaking process that took archaeologists and conservators from the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and Mariners' Museum several days.

But that was only the start of a decade-long treatment program that included hundreds of hours of tedious yet precise manual labor as conservators used ultrasonic dental scalers to break down the concretions embedded between the fragile fibers.

Now the museum is engaged in the final steps of a $20,000 effort to reassemble some 180 pieces of fabric onto custom-made archival mounts, then put the conserved coat on display inside its USS Monitor Center here in southeast Virginia.

And with weeks to go before humidity indicators determine the optimum place for the artifact, the leaders of the effort to bring it back to life say that all the time, money and attention has been more than worth it.

"We've found all kinds of buttons inside the turret — some made of wood, some of glass, some of bone, some of rubber, some even mother-of-pearl. Clearly the sailors were just tearing their clothes off before jumping into the water — and doing it so fiercely that their buttons were popping off," Monitor Center director David Krop said.

"This coat was left behind by one of those sailors — and it gives you a very real, very personal connection to the story of those men and this ship during its chaotic end."

Recognized around the world after its clash with the Confederate ironclad warship Virginia — also known as the Merrimack — in the March 9, 1861, Battle of Hampton Roads, the pioneering Monitor sank less than 10 months later off Cape Hatteras.

Most of the officers and crew escaped the ship, which had just celebrated Christmas. But 16 men were lost when the vessel went down during a frantic, storm-tossed rescue attempt.

Not until 1973 was the wreck found in 220 feet of water — and 25 years passed before Navy divers working with archaeologists from the Newport News-based sanctuary launched the first in a series of summer expeditions that led to the 2002 recovery of the turret.

That's when conservators and archaeologists began the task of excavating and preserving the contents of the revolutionary gun platform, which had flipped upside down as it sank, jumbling its two giant guns and gun carriages, two ill-fated sailors and the rest of its contents together.

Among the most poignant objects discovered as they sifted through the tons of sediment and concretion that had accumulated over 141 years was the coat, which wrapped around several of the Monitor's gun tools — including a rammer and worm — as the sinking vessel descended.

Puzzling that mass apart from the surrounding concretion with small hand and pneumatic chisels was delicate and tedious work.

"It was heavily concreted in a lot of places — and the concretion had grown into the woven fiber structure," senior conservator Will Hoffman said.

From the turret, the mass went immediately into a tub of water — the first of countless baths it would undergo over more than 10 years in an effort to remove the destabilizing chemicals absorbed from the sea.

But long before the conservators freeze-dried the cloth to remove the last traces of its final water bath, the disintegration of the original cotton thread had combined with its long exposure to the sea to pull the garment apart into about 180 pieces.

"It looks like it's in great shape," Hoffman said, "but it's actually pretty degraded."

Although 85% to 90% of the coat survived, its fragile state ruled out stitching the remains together and displaying them on a mannequin.

Instead, the museum turned to textile conservators Colleen Callahan and Newbold Richardson, who mounted the fragments on archival backing at their labs in Richmond and northern Virginia.

Even before they began, the pair reached out to colleagues in the museum field, asking whether they could help identify the garment.

Chief curator Karen France of the Navy Museum in Washington, D.C., quickly recognized it as what may be the only surviving example of its type.

"Double-breasted sack jackets from this period were called 'pilot's jackets,'" she wrote, "and those with no sewn-on insignia were issued to a class of professionals: pilots, doctors, engineers, etc."

Examining the coat in the Monitor conservation lab, Callahan and Richardson were impressed by the cloth's condition. Its resilience could be felt as well as seen in its collar flaps, which still retain the rolled contour stitched into them by the original maker.

"It was amazingly pliable," Callahan said, "just like old wool."

Now fully laid out on their protective mounts, the sections of the coat look much as they might have before being assembled by their original maker.

Six long-separated black rubber buttons bearing the letters "U.S.N." and an anchor have been reunited with the fabric, fastened down through hidden magnets.

Part of an iron handle from a gunnery tool remains embedded in the cloth, too, left to preserve both the fragile weave and a dramatic part of the Monitor's story.

merickson@dailypress.com

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