ECW Weekender: The USS Monitor Center

“The Monitor and Merrimac: The First Fight Between Ironclads.” Chromolithograph of the Battle of Hampton Roads, Louis Prang & Co., Boston, 1886. Public Domain

Have you ever been aboard a Civil War ironclad, or two? You can come close in The USS Monitor Center nestled in a beautiful setting at The Mariners’ Museum & Park, Newport News, Virginia. The Monitor Center is the official repository and preservation lab for over 200 tons of priceless artifacts recovered from the iconic vessel, whose remains lie in the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary off Cape Hatteras.

An award-winning exhibition—Ironclad Revolution—melds artifacts, original documents, paintings, personal accounts, interactives, and environments. The strategies, people, technology, and science behind the historic circumstances are displayed. The largest artifacts—steam engine and condenser, turret (upside down), and two 11-inch Dahlgren shell guns and carriages—can be viewed in liquid preservation tanks. You can build your own virtual ironclad, experience the action during the Battle of Hampton Roads in the Battle Theater, and participate in raising the turret by NOAA and Navy crews in the Recovery Theater.

USS Monitor full-scale replica. (Courtesy The USS Monitor Center)

The wonderful mock-ups put all those pieces in context. Walk the deck of a full-scale Monitor model; inspect a replica of the turret, and stroll through reproductions of living quarters, wardroom, and officer cabins.

And Monitor is not alone. Her erstwhile foe, the CSS Virginia (former USS Merrimack), also is there in full-scale, cutaway mockup. Walk the gun deck encased in two feet of oak and pine planking topped with two inches of iron plating, armed with 7-inch Brooke rifles and 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbores.

March 9, 1862: Monitor and Virginia confronted each other in Hampton Roads and pounded away at spitting range for four hours with minor damage on either side, a tactical draw. They were not the first steam-propelled ironclads—the French and British got there first—but this initial contest between these revolutionary vessels had immense strategic consequences. Monitor prevented Virginia from destroying every Union vessel in the area and breaking the blockade of the Chesapeake. She held Virginia in check until the Rebel vessel was blown up by her own crew in May as Norfolk fell to Union forces.

The large artifact gallery, where you can see the Monitor‘s propeller, engine register, conserved artifacts, video kiosks, and more. (Courtesy The USS Monitor Center)

Monitor operated on the James River supporting Union forces during the Peninsula Campaign and participated in the Battle of Drewy’s Bluff, where Rebel shore batteries turned back the floating flank of McClellan’s push on Richmond. She was lost in a gale off Cape Hatteras on December 31, 1861, not to be rediscovered until 1973.

The ships served as prototypes for ironclad casemate rams of the Confederacy and turreted monitors of the Union, which were in the thick of fighting all around the war’s periphery. From the upper Mississippi and Vicksburg through New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, and Fort Fisher at Wilmington, they ushered in the next phase of naval warfare as machine and armament become paramount and graceful wooden sailing ships of the age of fighting sail became relics.

You also can view the Monitor and Virginia battlefield, perfectly preserved; just drive a short way to the shore of Hampton Roads and look over the water. There is much Civil (and Revolutionary) War to see in the Newport News/Hampton Roads/Norfolk area. But even for landlubber Civil War junkies, The Monitor Center is truly a unique and “immersive” experience.

As-found USS Monitor turret; a full-scale replica. (Courtesy The USS Monitor Center)

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