Mariners' Museum Opens America's Civil War Attraction

Ruzan Haruriunyan's picture

Late on the evening of March 8, 1862, a strange looking craft, which some thought resembled a "cheesebox on a raft," crept slowly into Hampton Roads, Va., after a harrowing trip down the coast from New York. That morning, the massive Confederate ironclad Virginia, constructed atop the hull of the old steam frigate Merrimack, had made its first sortie into the roadstead, destroying two U.S. Navy warships and damaging a third.

It was the worst defeat in U.S. Navy history until Pearl Harbor 80 years later. Now the USS Monitor had arrived, and everyone on board her was aware that the next day-March 9-they would have to try to stop the continued rampage of the rebels' ironclad. What ensued that day not only revolutionized the way battles were fought at sea, but quickly established the Monitor as a naval icon.

On March 9, 2007, 145 years later, The Mariners' Museum and its partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will open the doors to America's premier Civil War attraction-the USS Monitor Center. This new $30 million, 63,500-square-foot wing is home to artifacts such as the turret, steam engine and cannon; a major interactive exhibition on the two ironclad vessels and their battle; the men who served them; their demise and the modern day heroics to recover and conserve over 1,200 artifacts from the Monitor. Visitors will walk on a full-scale replica of the Monitor, experience the drama of the Battle of Hampton Roads in a high definition theater and observe the intricate hands-on conservation taking place in one of the largest state-of-the-art conservation facilities on the East Coast.

"The USS Monitor Center is the result of one of the largest, most successful public/private partnerships in the country," said Museum President and CEO Timothy J. Sullivan. "NOAA's groundbreaking efforts to not only recover and help conserve these artifacts, but to embrace an undertaking such as this new facility, are a testament to the Monitor Center's importance in this great country's history."

"March 9, 1862, marked a turning point in the history of modern warfare in that it marked a change in the relationship of man to machine. In many ways, it marked the beginning of mechanized warfare at sea," said USS Monitor Center Chief Historian Craig L. Symonds. "The new USS Monitor Center, just a few miles from the site of that first duel between armored warships, will offer scholars and students, families and tourists, a chance to understand and even relive this revolutionary moment in naval warfare. We have worked hard to ensure that history is not only preserved, but also that it comes alive."

Leading up to the USS Monitor Center

Since the USS Monitor slipped beneath the Atlantic Ocean waves during a gale, 16 miles southeast of the Cape Hatteras, N.C., coastline on December 31, 1862, her revolutionary design, stealth and iconic gun turret remained immortalized by engravings, artists canvases and textbooks. The wreck site was not discovered until August of 1973. Named the first National Marine Sanctuary by NOAA two years later, the rediscovery of the wreck created a buzz in the maritime world - thus beginning a national effort to identify major components of the vessel and recover and conserve them for future generations.

"Leading up to the major artifact recovery period, management of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary was focused on preventing further deterioration of the wreck, recovery of important ship components and artifacts and protecting the wreck from damage by human activities," said Superintendent for NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary Program, David Alberg. "In 1987, The Mariners' Museum was designated by NOAA, on behalf of the federal government, as the repository for artifacts and archives from the USS Monitor. Working jointly with NOAA and the U.S. Navy, the Museum has received over 1,200 artifacts from the Monitor, including the steam engine, propeller and revolving gun turret - all now permanently housed in the state-of-the-art USS Monitor Center."

The Exhibition - Ironclad Revolution

In telling the story of this remarkable vessel, the USS Monitor Center exhibition-Ironclad Revolution-begins at the end with a dramatic re-telling of the last moments of the Union ironclad as it foundered off Cape Hatteras on December 31, 1862. An interactive presentation allows the visitor to experience the horror of being encased in an iron ship in the midst of an Atlantic storm. Relying on words written by surviving crewman Paymaster William Keeler in a letter home to his wife, Anna, the last statement visitors hear is "the Monitor is no more."

Visitors emerge from this opening segment to learn how the Monitor was discovered in 1973 and how dive teams in the 1970s and '80s recovered the initial artifacts. The last thing visitors will see in this innovative theatre experience (created by Batwin+Robin studios) is the red signal lantern from the Monitor. A singularly powerful artifact, the lantern was the last thing the crew saw before the Monitor disappeared and the first artifact recovered by NOAA.

Combining artifact with environment

"At The Mariners' Museum, we are fortunate to have an abundance of exquisite, historically rich artifacts that together begin to tell an incredible story-the story of the Monitor and the Virginia. Add to them vast treasure troves of archival material and books from our wonderful Library, and the story takes on deeper dimensions. Finally, add the piece de resistance-our partner NOAA's Monitor Collection-and we have the making of an unforgettable experience that goes beyond the walls of the physical museum in ways that our founder Archer Huntington could never have dreamed," said Museum Chief Curator and USS Monitor Center Curator Anna Gibson Holloway. "Working with some of the finest designers, media producers and exhibit fabricators, we have recreated significant portions of this revolutionary story to place visitors inside a wooden frigate, on the docks at Gosport Navy Yard in 1861 or looking at their bunk aboard the Monitor for the first time."

Standing inside a recreated portion of the USF United States in 1812, one of the premier naval warships of its time, visitors discover the rich technology advances of the first half of the 19th-century-the shift from sail to steam, from solid shot to exploding shell, and from wood to iron. Using artifacts, models, imagery and recreations, visitors are armed with the knowledge necessary to try their hands at an interactive where they can sail and fight a wooden frigate in battle.

Leading up to one of the interactive highlights of the USS Monitor Center-the high-definition "Battle Theater"-are a series of galleries devoted to construction and launching of the Confederate ironclad Virginia and Union ironclad Monitor. With cobblestone underfoot and a panoramic view in the background, visitors soon realize they're standing in Gosport Navy Yard in early 1862. Next to them is a full-scale waterline section of the Virginia as her ironclad casemate is being constructed and armed to break the Union blockade in Hampton Roads, Va. Complete with a cutaway section, the mock Virginia offers visitors a firsthand look both inside and out of what Union newspapers called the "rebel monster," which motivated the Union to begin construction of their own ironclad in haste.

"In response to intelligence gathered concerning the construction of the CSS Virginia, Union leaders realized they had no choice but to begin construction of their own ironclad warship. We use recently acquired original plans and notes from the design and construction of the USS Monitor to reveal the manpower and impressive industrial support this warship had. These are truly one-of-a-kind documents and plans that we're proud to display in such a unique manner," said Holloway. "We are also able to highlight paralleled developments of other ironclads, revolving towers and similar technologies-something that has been sorely lacking in this story before."

After viewing these documents and learning about the unique patentable features created by the Monitor's designer John Ericsson, visitors can design their own ironclad using an interactive that allows them to submit their own design to the "Ironclad Board" for approval or rejection.

One of the most noticeable features of the USS Monitor was that the living quarters were located below the waterline, as was the steam engine. Using artifacts recovered from the wreck, as well as original letters from crewmembers and officers, visitors can see, hear and experience what life was like below decks of the Monitor.

Relive the historic Battle of Hampton Roads by being in it

Produced by Pyramid Studios of Richmond, Va., the 13-minute Battle Theater presentation of Ironclad Glory features over 100 original digital paintings portraying the events surrounding the first battle of ironclad warships. With high-definition projections, surround-sound quality and unmatched craftsmanship, the Battle Theater is truly one of the highlights of the USS Monitor Center. Narrated by actress Salome Jens (Clan of the Cave Bear, Cats and Dogs, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) this "theater in the round" consists of 45 swivel seats that allow visitors to turn almost 360 degrees around to witness action from all sides as the March 8 and 9, 1862, Battle of Hampton Roads is recreated. Technology used in this theater experience allows visitors to feel the concussion of cannons firing, experience the heart-pulsing drama of two ironclad warships dueling at sea and feel what it was like to be in the Monitor as she fought her Confederate foe, the Virginia.

"The Battle Theater experience is one of a kind," said Holloway. "In many ways it's an homage to the old cycloramas of the late 19th-century, only we're using 21st-century technology. It's part action film, part documentary and all totally immersive. Thanks to the incredible talents of our media producers, we've been able to recreate scenes that have never before been seen-only read about. It's an experience that you won't soon forget."

Recovering history

From 1998 through 2002, the United States Navy, NOAA and The Mariners' Museum teamed up to implement one of the largest artifact recovery missions the maritime community had ever witnessed. Using the skills of trained Navy divers and the expertise of officials from NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary Program, the ironclad's propeller, steam engine, revolving gun turret and over 1,200 other artifacts were recovered from the wreck site 240 feet below the surface.

In the final large gallery, visitors see and experience all aspects of what it took to overcome the same environmental elements that sank the Monitor to recover some of her most important pieces. A recreated turret, as it was recovered in 2002, offers visitors an opportunity to walk into a replica of what scientists, historians and archeologists worked years to recover for future generations. Another cut-away recreation of the turret reveals the mechanics of how the world's first rotating gun turret was constructed using 192 one-inch thick iron plates fastened together in layers around an iron skeleton to form an impenetrable eight-inch thick shield.

Scattered throughout this gallery and the Ironclad Revolution exhibition are "personal story stations." Using actors to depict figures from history, coupled with scientists, historians and naval officers from today, these stations, created by Two Rivers Studios from Williamsburg, Va., allow visitors to hear first-hand the stories as they were experienced.

"The 'Large Artifact Gallery' is really the telling of modern-day history," said David Alberg, superintendent of NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary Program. "The skill and talent of the hundreds of navy divers who learned on the Monitor wreck site are honored in this gallery, as are the professional skills of conservators, historians and scientists who helped plan and implement intricate recovery missions and detailed conservation plans. Their efforts have assured future generations can learn an important part of this great nation's history through interaction with artifacts."

The best display of the heroism involved in the numerous artifact recovery missions can be found in the "Recovery Theater" experience. This sit-down theater allows visitors to experience a narrated journey onto the work barge Wotan, 16 miles out to sea as Navy divers fight Mother Nature to recover the Monitor's gun turret. Visitors are asked to make various decisions along the way and using polling technology, those decisions help guide the experience with the ultimate goal being the recovery of the turret.

One of the most significant gifts to the USS Monitor Center is the full-scale replica of the Union ironclad built by the apprentices of Northrop Grumman Newport News. This exterior replica offers visitors an opportunity to imagine what life was like serving and fighting on this unique warship. --


Submitted by Cynthis Schmidt (not verified) on


I watched with interest on SBS tonight, the story about the USS Monitor and the discovery of two Seamen.

It is wonderful to at last to give them a burial.

May I ask, why you have left so many USS Service Men on New Britain there. I have always looked up to America for brining their boys home, until now. Rabaul is my home town, I returned home in 1946, my childhood stories are all the atrocities that happened on the Islands of New Britain, New Ireland and the Surrounding Islands of the mandated Territory of New Guineaduring the Japanese Occupation.

I was taken and shown where my father had been executed and shown other atrocities sites where USS Service Men were executed. Do you know that the japanese used Unit 731 on the Islands.

Thank you for caring,

Cynthia Schmidt

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