One hundred and fifty-six years ago residents of Hampton Roads were witness to a violent oddity that forever changed the course of naval warfare when the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (formerly the USS Merrimack) duked it out in the Chesapeake Bay during the Civil War.
Usually referred to as the Battle of Hampton Roads, it was the first clash between ironclad war ships, which were part battleship and part submarine, but with exteriors built from metal and not wood.
On July 2 at 7 p.m., at the Hampton History Museum, as part of the Port Hampton Lecture Series, Jonathan W. White, co-author along with Anne Gibson Holloway, of a new book about the battle and the USS Monitor titled “Our Little Monitor” will speak about the battle, the book, and the most recent archaeological findings.
“When the Virginia attacked the old wooden warships of the Union Navy on March 8, 1862, the wooden vessels were powerless to stop her,” White said. “The next day the Monitor and the Virginia fought to a draw, with neither ironclad vessel being able to disable the other.”
Although there was no clear winner, White said that observers around the world realized that this was a turning point in naval warfare. If governments wanted their navies to be effective, they would have to build them out of iron.
The USS Monitor was a revolutionary vessel, with the ship’s hull rising just 18 inches out of the water. On Dec. 31 of that same year the Monitor sank in bad weather off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.
In 1973 the wreckage was discovered in the Atlantic Ocean. Since then, many artifacts have been gathered and are on display at the Mariners’ Museum and the USS Monitor Center in Newport News.
“The wreck site and conservation work at The Mariners’ Museum is turning up a lot of new information about the Monitor. For instance, we are learning about manufacturers that made pieces of the ship that we’d not known about before,” White said. “The remains of two sailors were also discovered in the Monitor’s turret, really bringing home the human interest story of the ship.”
‘The pet of the people’
White, an associate professor of American Studies at Christopher Newport University, said the conservation work can also help teach more about the stories sailors told about the ship.
For instance, one sailor wrote an account of the Monitor’s sinking in which he claimed there was a cat in the turret that was driving the men crazy with its howling. According to this sailor, he grabbed the cat, stuffed it into one of the cannons, and then sealed her in with some wadding.
“So far, however, the conservators at the USS Monitor Center haven’t been able to find any archaeological evidence to substantiate the story,” White said.
“Our Little Monitor” is an illustrated volume from the Kent State University Press, with 131 images that brings the ironclad to life once more.
In addition to telling her story from conception in 1861 to sinking in 1862, as well as her recent recovery and ongoing restoration, White and Holloway, who previously was the curator of the USS Monitor Center, explain how fighting in this new “machine” changed the experience of her crew and reveal how the Monitor became “the pet of the people” – a vessel celebrated in prints, tokens, and household bric-a-brac, as well as a marketing tool and a prominent feature in parades, Sanitary Fairs, and politics.
White said that they even wrote about the Oozlefinch Craft Brewery at Fort Monroe and the Ironclad Distillery in Newport News, both of which feature drinks inspired by the USS Monitor’s story.