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History of the Monitor

Managing the Monitor

In  August of 1973, nearly 111 years after the ship sank, scientists aboard Duke University’s research vessel Eastward located the Monitor using sidescan sonar. The wreck lies in 230 feet of water, 16.1 miles south-southeast of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. The Monitor was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in October 1974 as a resource of national significance. On January 30, 1975, the Monitor became the first National Marine Sanctuary under Title III of the Marine Protection, Research and Protection Act of 1972. The Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, a vertical column of water one mile in diameter, is managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).


The Monitor was designed by Swedish-American engineer John Ericsson. Based on an earlier concept Ericsson had presented to Napoleon III of France in 1854, the Monitor was a radical departure from traditional warship design. The vessel was fully steam powered, with engineering spaces, crew and officer spaces and the galley all below the water line. The vessel, constructed almost entirely of iron, was completely armored. A notable feature was the Monitor’s 21 ½ -foot diameter, 9-foot-high revolving turret, which was located at midships and housed two 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannons. Built at the Continental Iron Works in New York, the Monitor was launched on January 30, 1862. Due to the threat that the CSS Virginia, a Confederate ironclad built from the burned hull of the USS Merrimack, posed to the federal fleet at Hampton Roads, Virginia, the Monitor was ordered to Hampton Roads in early March 1862. The Union ironclad arrived on the evening of March 8 in time to see the results of the havoc and destruction caused by the Virginia on the Union wooden frigates Cumberland and Congress.  The steam frigate USS Minnesota had run aground in Hampton Roads and the Monitor was ordered to protect her since the Virginia was sure to return at first light March 9.

When the Virginia steamed out to finish off the Minnesota the next morning, she was met by the Monitor. Despite the Virginia’s much larger size, the Monitor demonstrated the advantages of a rotating turret over traditional broadside guns. The two vessels frequently bombarded each other at point-blank range over the course of four hours with no substantial damage to either vessel.  However, a shell exploded in the view-port of the Monitor’s pilot house, temporarily blinding Captain John Worden. The Monitor steamed off into shallow water, where the Virginia could not follow, to assess the captain’s wounds and damage to the ship. The Virginia’s captain, assuming that the Monitor was leaving the battle, withdrew in supposed victory. When the Monitor returned to resume the engagement and found the Virginia gone, her crew also assumed victory. Although there was no clear victor in the battle, the Monitor succeeded in preventing further destruction to the Union blockade. 

Shortly after midnight on December 31, 1862, while under tow by the Rhode Island to Beaufort, North Carolina, the Monitor sank in a gale off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. 

Research and Recovery

Numerous research and recovery expeditions coordinated between NOAA and the U.S. Navy have occurred since 1977. Approaching the Monitor on the first submersible dive in 1977, an archaeologist spotted a brass navigation lantern near the turret. This lantern has remained of particular interest because of its red fresnel lens, evidence that it was a signal lantern, perhaps the same lantern Paymaster William Keeler mentions in his vivid account of watching the Monitor’s red lantern as it vanished and reappeared on the dark, stormy ocean the night the ship sank.

Major dives in 1979 recovered numerous small artifacts. The Monitor’s unique four-fluked anchor was recovered in 1983.

In the 1990s, NOAA began noticing an alarming pattern of accelerated deterioration in several areas of the wreck. In 1996, NOAA was given a mandate by Congress to come up with a plan to preserve the Monitor.  In 1998, NOAA released a long range plan that outlined a six-step proposal for stabilizing portions of the Monitor’s hull and recovering the vessel’s steam engine and rotating gun turret. The Monitor’s 9-foot cast iron propeller and 11-feet of propeller shaft were recovered in 1998 with the help of the United States Navy.  NOAA and the Navy began planning larger recovery expeditions in 1999, and implemented the stabilization portion of the plan in 2000 and 2001.  The Monitor’s vibrating lever steam engine was successfully recovered in 2001.

In 2002, a 41 day recovery effort culminated in the successful raising of the gun turret and two 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannons from the ocean floor. The engine, cannons and gun turret are currently undergoing conservation at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. When conditions permit, the entire conservation process is available for public viewing. Scores of other artifacts, including the anchor, propeller, signal lantern, and small personal items are currently on display.

USS Monitor Center @ The Mariners’ Museum

Scheduled to open in 2007, the 63,000 square-foot USS Monitor Center will showcase the design and building of the Monitor, her battle at Hampton Roads and her loss in the Graveyard of the Atlantic. There will be a full-size replica of the vessel, interactive exhibits, a theater and much more. The Center will be located on the grounds of The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

Download the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary Factsheet

MNMS Factsheet

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