Monday, January 30, 2023

New book and lecture tell the story of the USS Monitor

Jonathan White of Christopher Newport University, will speak about the USS Monitor on July 2, at the Hampton History Museum (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the Hampton Convention and Visitors Bureau)
Jonathan White of Christopher Newport University, will speak about the USS Monitor on July 2, at the Hampton History Museum (HNNDaily photo/Courtesy of the Hampton Convention and Visitors Bureau)

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.

Our Little Monitor is a new, illustrated book about the Civil War ironclad that changed naval warfare (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of Dr. Jonathan White)
Our Little Monitor is a new, illustrated book about the Civil War ironclad that changed naval warfare (HNNDaily photo/Courtesy of Jonathan White)

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 is 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.

John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo
John Mangalonzo ( is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.

Related Articles