Issue: October 2002
Homecoming

The turret of the U.S.S. Monitor, and at least two lost sailors, return to Virginia shores after 140 years on the sea floor.

 

     In a ceremony mingling celebration with sadness, hundreds of people welcomed the famous revolving turret of the U.S.S. Monitor to the Mariners’ Museum, the home of all artifacts from the Union ironclad that changed Naval history [“Into the Light,” June 2002]. The celebration was for the U.S. Navy divers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration archaeologists and private sector engineers who this summer defied weather, ripping currents and unfavorable odds to pluck the 235-ton turret (including the lifting frame and the turret’s contents) from the Monitor wreck, 240 feet deep some 16 miles off Cape Hatteras. The sadness was for the 16 sailors who died when the Monitor sank in a New Year’s Eve gale in 1862. Divers and archaeologists found the bones of at least two of those crewmen as they excavated 140 years’ worth of sediment and tons of coal from the turret before and after it was hoisted from the water on August 5.

     Though some of the remains were immediately retrieved and flown to the U.S. Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, most were too deeply embedded in coal concretions to be quickly removed. So, as a specialized trailer carried the turret from a barge snugged against the banks of the James River up to a podium for the welcoming ceremony, the hundreds of onlookers-many of them in Civil War era clothing, including several women in head-to-toe mourning garments-knew they were marking a somber homecoming. “We feel connected to the sailors,” said Commander Bobbie Scholley, commanding officer of the Navy’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two, whose divers did the dangerous deep work of preparing the turret for retrieval. “We feel connected because we were on the Monitor, diving on it, and we feel even more connected because we’re bringing them home.”

     The ceremony marked the end of five years of steady diving on the Monitor-

expeditions which have recovered the ship’s propeller and shaft, its engine and hundreds of smaller artifacts-and capped an astonishing summer for archaeologists. No one knew for sure what remained in the turret, which capsized with the Monitor as it sank. Archaeologists were ecstatic to find the turret’s two 11-inch Dahlgren guns intact, as well as piles of associated gear and equipment, including blocks, pieces of rope and ramrods. All of it will be excavated from the turret and slowly conserved to be put on display, ultimately in the museum’s Monitor Center, which is expected to open in 2007.