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Recalling the Ironclads Volume 57 Number 6, November/December 2004
by Dan Brillman

[image] The diverse crew of the USS Monitor--foreign born, inexperienced, and some ex-slaves--awaits battle. (Courtesy The Mariners' Museum) [LARGER IMAGE]

There's an eerie quality to the USS Monitor, pieces of which are on display in Ironclad Evidence: Stories from the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Maybe it's the photographs of awkward young men on Monitor's deck, or that pieces of the ship, which went down in a swell off the coast of North Carolina in 1862, are displayed in huge tanks filled with anticorrosive solution like captured aliens in a sci-fi film.

The exhibit tells the story of the 1862 contest between Monitor and Virginia near Newport News, the first battle between ironclad warships in history. The wreck of Monitor was discovered in 1973, and divers have recovered portions of it ever since. (Virginia was destroyed by its crew months after the battle as Union forces neared.) Monitor had about 40 patentable devices, including the engine, propeller shaft, and revolving gun turret (with 11-inch Dahlgren guns and a cannonball dent from Virginia), displayed in some 20 conservation tanks behind the museum.

The curators do a solid job of combining document and relic. Crew photographs and letters are next to personal items such as hair-tonic bottles, monogrammed silverware, and a telescope. Visitors get a good history of the groundbreaking battle.

The exhibit will be reorganized over the next two years to create the USS Monitor Center, which is slated to open on March 9, 2007, the 145th anniversary of the battle. It will be a stirring interactive account of the ironclad revolution and include a bounty of artifacts. Until then, the museum's website,, has a webcam trained on the conservation tanks 24/7.

Dan Brillman is a Virginia-based reporter/writer and former researcher for The History Channel.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America