USS Monitor:

From Weapon of War to Island of Life

By Matt Malinowski

Diving off the coast of North Carolina, the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Yogi, illuminates the water as it descends towards the seabed. From the control room of the NOAA ship Nancy Foster, crew members of the Valor in the Atlantic expedition slowly begin to see swirling schools of fish and patrolling sand tiger sharks on their view screens in what is otherwise a barren underwater landscape. Gradually emerging is the wreck site of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, an iconic symbol of American maritime heritage—and the site of America’s first national marine sanctuary, designated nearly 50 years ago.

It has been twenty years since a similar comprehensive survey was conducted on Monitor, and the team is searching for new signs of structural degradation. Though it sank 160 years ago, the wreck is found to be in astounding condition. Even more incredible is that here on the bottom of the ocean floor, history and ecology overlap. According to Tane Casserley, resource protection and permit coordinator at Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, “that same iron hull and armorbelt built to withstand the rigors of war, has now enabled Monitor to provide a stable habitat in its new role as an island of life.”

The hard surface of Monitor is coated in soft corals creating an environment that looks extraterrestrial. The world watches via livestream as the crew investigates and collects data on the artificial reef ecosystem. The entire dive is broadcasted and narrated for viewers as ROV Yogi focuses its cameras on aquatic creatures and points of interest.

Without protection within the boundaries of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, USS Monitor may have been stripped of its Civil War era artifacts by treasure seekers, or the wreck and artificial reef may have been structurally compromised. Instead, Monitor’s vital history is preserved, and its living shipwreck ecosystem thrives while expeditions like Valor in the Atlantic deliver inspiration to future generations of scientists, historians, and explorers. “USS Monitor’s discovery and designation is a clear case for the value and impact of national marine sanctuaries in preserving historical and cultural resources for future generations,” said Casserley. “The results we are seeing nearly 50 years after designating the site as a sanctuary makes Monitor an excellent case study that paves the way forward for shipwreck preservation.”

An Evolution in Naval Warfare

Commissioned by President Abraham Lincoln to help Union forces defend harbors during the Civil War, the ironclad USS Monitor was an evolutionary leap in naval engineering. The opposing Confederate Navy had their own ironclad, CSS Virginia, which was a threat to the wooden vessels of the Union Navy. USS Monitor was designed to challenge CSS Virginia and was constructed in just over one hundred days.

The newly crafted ironclad entered the warring seas not only with a heavily armored iron casemate but mounted with a rotating gun turret. Its Confederate adversary, CSS Virginia, was armed with side, bow, and stern cannons, which needed to turn to aim efficiently. Whereas, Monitor’s turret could rotate independently, allowing the ship to maneuver freely while simultaneously pointing its guns in any direction needed.

a painting of two vessels at war
“Terrific Engagement between the Monitor and Merrimac" was painted by the artist Frances Flora Bond Palmer. This historic piece of American art illustrates the ferocity of the close confrontation between the two ironclads during the Battle of Hampton Roads. Monitor’s iconic rotating turret sits in the center of the frame. CSS Virginia, alternatively referred to as Merrimac, blasts back with its stationary weapons, attempting to hit the low profile of the more maneuverable USS Monitor.

In March of 1862, USS Monitor and CSS Virginia clashed in the naval Battle of Hampton Roads. The armored vessels blasted each other’s iron hulls with powerful cannon fire for over four hours before reaching a stalemate. Though the battle ended in a draw, naval warfare made an evolutionary step forward as it proved the age of wooden warships was over and iron and metal hulls were the future of naval warfare.

Later that year, USS Monitor was called to blockade duty off the Carolinas. Along the journey, a storm rose up causing massive swells near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and the ironclad began to take on water. Leaking in multiple spots and unable to keep up with the encroaching water inside the ship, Monitor raised its red signal lantern indicating they needed to abandon ship. Despite their best efforts 16 of the 64 crew members perished, and the ship sank to the depths on New Year’s Eve of 1862.

Discovery and Designation

Despite a series of search efforts, Monitor’s resting place went undiscovered for more than 110 years. It wasn’t until 1973, when scientists using underwater survey equipment and advanced imagery located a shipwreck that fit Monitor’s profile. The ship was resting upside down on the seabed in over two hundred feet of water sixteen miles off Hatteras, North Carolina. It took months to fully confirm the ship’s identity, but the wreck’s unique shape and prominent rotating gun turret provided evidence needed to conclude this was USS Monitor.

crew on a research vessel lean over the side of the vessel to lower a metal frame with cameras attached to it down into the water, assisted by a lift davit and cable system
Harold “Doc” Edgerton, a pioneer in science and photography, developed a camera and strobe gear to explore the USS Monitor wreck site. The camera was deployed in August of 1973 by crew members aboard Duke University Marine Laboratory’s research vessel Eastward. The photography was used to confirm the identity of the shipwreck Monitor and create the first photomosaic of the site. Photo: NOAA Monitor Collection
an engineer wearing a hard hat attaches cameras to a remotely operated vehicle sitting on the deck of a ship
Nearly 50 years later in May 2022, Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and partners aboard NOAA Ship Nancy Foster used Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration’s advanced technology to comprehensively explore the wreck of USS Monitor and nearby natural reefs and historical shipwrecks during the Valor in the Atlantic expedition. Cameras on ROV Yogi collected photomosaic imagery to document the health of the shipwreck ecosystem, and 360 degree footage to create future virtual reality experiences. Photo: GFOE/NOAA

No longer protected by the U.S. Navy and too far offshore to be placed under the care of the state of North Carolina, a plan was needed to protect and conserve the iconic shipwreck site. The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 had recently passed to protect natural resources in American waters. Legislators determined that the act could also be adapted to protect areas of historic and cultural value such as Monitor. The site was designated as Monitor National Marine Sanctuary—the nation’s first national marine sanctuary—paving the way for today’s system of underwater parks encompassing more than 620,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters, protecting both natural and cultural resources.

It Belongs in a Museum

In the mid-1990’s NOAA began to notice an increased rate of decay on several areas of the wreck. The decision was made to recover parts of Monitor for conservation and exhibition to share this iconic shipwreck and its history with the public. To undertake this challenging project, a partnership was established between the U.S. Navy, NOAA, and The Mariners’ Museum and Park to recover significant pieces beginning with Monitor’s propeller and shaft in 1998. This was followed by the recovery of the ironclad’s vibrating side lever steam engine in 2001.

divers wearing metal helmets and full diving suits stand on a platform at the back of a ship
Recovery of USS Monitor’s gun turret in 2002 relied on the use of surface-supplied air diving. The divers are weighted in such a way that they can stand upright while working underwater. Under this method, divers used their helmet, shoes, and weight belts to control their buoyancy. Divers were so heavily weighed down that a lift system was needed to safely get them to the proper depth and back to the surface. Photo: Fleet Combat Camera, Atlantic, courtesy of U.S. Navy, Monitor Collection, NOAA
a person wearing a closed circuit rebreather scuba system sits on a boat, ready to go diving
Later research expeditions to Monitor involved open circuit scuba diving—a modern diving method involving the use of a scuba cylinder and regulator (breathing apparatus) in which gas is “wasted” once it is exhaled. In 2015, sanctuary researchers switched to using closed circuit rebreathers, which allowed for deep diving without having to carry the weight of additional tanks. Rebreathers remove carbon dioxide from the breathing loop after exhaling. When the diver exhales, gas is transferred back into the cylinder so it can be reused. Photo: NOAA

An even more complex recovery the following year saw Monitor’s iconic rotating gun turret raised from the depths. The ship itself had been resting upside-down on the turret since its sinking in 1862, but engineering efforts were able to support and stabilize the ship while retrieving the rotating armament. The remains of two fallen sailors were found inside the turret and were reverently documented and recovered for future burial. On March 8, 2013, marking the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, the two sailors were laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

State of the art preservation techniques employed by the USS Monitor Center at The Mariners’ Museum and Park have begun to conserve the engine and turret. Paired with cutting edge exhibits and a full-size replica of the USS Monitor, the maritime history of this iconic vessel and the memories of those who served are remembered and honored.

aerial view of workers standing inside of the turret performing preservation work. The two cannons can be seen from above
Following its recovery in 2002, USS Monitor’s turret underwent several years of restoration at The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Today, visitors to the Mariner’s Museum can see replicas of the famous turret as well as the real turret. Photo: NOAA Monitor Collection

Modern Day Monitor

Back in the waters off of Cape Hatteras, the Valor in the Atlantic expedition has come to a close, but for USS Monitor, this is only the beginning. Sonar readings from the dives have already been used to create 3D imagery of the Monitor wreck site. Data collected will be evaluated and interpreted to establish a baseline on the health of the living shipwreck ecosystem. Even video content from ROV Yogi will be translated into learning tools like virtual reality experiences and social media content to reach even more audiences. In this way, the Civil War ironclad lives on within the protected waters of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary. As Casserley states, “USS Monitor will be here for generations to come to share its stories of heroism and in its new role as habitat and an island of life.”

a shark swims over a shipwreck
A 360 camera is used to capture video of marine life on and around the shipwreck USS Monitor during the 2022 Valor in the Atlantic expedition. Photo: GFOE/NOAA
several people standing and sitting inside of a ship's control room with several screens and monitors
The Valor in the Atlantic expedition crew observe USS Monitor from inside the control room of NOAA Ship Nancy Foster while livestreaming to a public audience. Photo: GFOE/NOAA

Matt Malinowski is a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and a graduate student at Harvard University Extension School.