An ironclad beast, the most advanced of its’ time, sailed through the waters, weighed down by the hopes of many. Those hopes would sink along with the seemingly unstoppable ship soon after an inconclusive battle with Confederate ship CSS Virginia (formerly USS Merrimack). After repairs, this beast, the Union ship USS Monitor, set sail again in 1862. Despite rejuvenation and over 40 new inventions, the Monitor was claimed by rough waters and high seas near Chesapeake Harbor on New Year’s Eve, 1862. The ship’s remains were missing until 1973, when a vessel called the Eastward stumbled upon it.
You may be wondering how this all ties back to our collections at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (unless you recognized Eastward from our previous post, Eastward Bound). Eastward was a Duke Marine Lab owned and operated research vessel, designed by naval architect Stanley Potter from 1965 until it was replaced in 1982 by the R/V Cape Hatteras. During that time period, the ship collected a multitude of specimens, some of which reside in our collections today.
On a chilly August day in 1973, the Eastward began a month-long expedition to find whatever was left of the Monitor. It was led by John G. Newton, who was the marine superintendent of the Marine Lab. Prior to this voyage, he assembled a team to plan and narrow down the search field. One such expert was Harold E. Edgerton, who was a professor of electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is known for his significant achievements in photography, especially in creating the basic flash on cameras that is still used today, and the development of side scan sonar, which was crucial in the discovery of the Monitor. John Newton’s daughter, Cathryn, was just 16 years old when she assisted her father in assembling navigation beacons at the top of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse to aid in determining the ship’s coordinates at sea. She is now, impressively, the [only] Professor of Interdisciplinary Sciences at Syracuse University, recognized for her broad scope of expertise.
Together, they spent almost a year researching the Monitor and mapping out the places it could possibly be found before even setting sail. Eventually, the team honed in on an area known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” which was named for the many shipwrecks that occurred in the region. Due to the abundant number of shoals in that area, the team was unsure of the extent of the damage of the Monitor. This made it difficult to predict what the wreck might actually look like, and therefore what the search image would be. Luckily, the team used cutting edge technology to help their exploration.
Side scan sonar and navigation beacons certainly made it easier to find the Monitor, but the crew still had to search a fairly vast area, even after they had narrowed it down. In an article from 1975, Newton stated, “Before our first week was over, we had picked up 21 targets.” He went on to say, “the scientist on watch paid little heed to a slight echo,” referring to a blip on the paper read-out made by the sonar recorder. Luckily, the chief engineer of Eastward’s oceanographic party, Fred Kelley, took notice of this “slight echo” and decided that it was worth checking out. So, the Eastward reversed course and stumbled upon what they believed to be the Monitor, which was upside down and 230 feet below the surface. It took 5 more months of study and another visit to the site in April of 1974 to confirm the ship’s identity.
In 1977, divers finally entered the water and laid eyes on the ship that had been missing for over a century. While underwater, they found and brought to the surface a red signal lantern that used to be perched on top of the Monitor, as it was in danger of being swept away. The lantern now resides in The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia.
The Monitor’s recovery continued into the 2oth century, with the anchor being recovered and put on display in 1986, the 9 foot cast iron propeller uncovered in 1998, and the turret being found in 2002. Two soldiers’ remains were found in the turret, but no one has been able to identify them as of yet. After discovering one of the most important artifacts of the Civil War, the Eastward would continue to advance our knowledge of the world around us by collecting various specimens, which all tie back to our collections here in North Carolina. Who knew that a ship we would see so often on our specimen labels would have such an intriguing background?
by Arshi Mahajan.
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