The USS Monitor's turret is 20 years into its (unprecedented) restoration. Photo courtesy of Mariners' Museum

Anniversary Celebration: IronClad Civil War Ship’s Turret Pulled from the Ocean

It was 20 years ago this weekend that the turret from the ironclad warship USS Monitor was recovered from the sea floor off North Carolina. That turret, now at The Mariners’ Museum and Park in Newport News, Va., will be the star attraction of an anniversary event this weekend.  

The USS Monitor has had a long and fascinating career since it was launched in early 1862. It is most famous for its battle with the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads harbor on March 9, 1862. The Monitor sank off North Carolina on the last day of 1862. The vessel remained lost until August 1973, when the shipwreck was finally found. Exploration and recovery began with smaller parts of the vessel being recovered first, such as the propeller. The largest piece recovered, the turret, broke the surface of the Atlantic ocean on Aug. 5, 2002, on its way to preservation and display at the Mariners’ Museum.  

The recovery of the turret was no small feat. It took 41 days and 160 divers, mostly from the U.S. Navy, to get  the turret to the surface. The turret has spent most of the last 20 years in an Electrolyte Reduction (ER) System in a 90,000 gallon tank to keep it protected. 

The Mariners’ Museum, which also houses the personnel and offices of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary (MNMS), will celebrate the turret’s 20th anniversary on Saturday Aug. 6. There will be a scavenger hunt and visitors of all ages can dig through concretion (the goop that surrounds artifacts on the sea floor) to find additional reproduction artifacts. Representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will guide visitors through a virtual dive to the submerged USS Monitor through virtual reality headsets. There will be additional personnel throughout the museum to give visitors additional and interesting information about specific exhibits.   

At 11 a.m., Dr. John Broadwater, the former superintendent of MNMS, will describe how the national marine sanctuary, NOAA, the U.S. Navy, The Mariners’ Museum and other agencies recovered the turret and other USS Monitor artifacts. After lunch, Will Hoffman, director of conservation and chief conservator, will discuss the efforts taken to preserve the turret over the last 20 years. He will also discuss the 210 tons of other artifacts recovered from the site.  

The recovery, preservation, and display of the USS Monitor turret has been a tremendous success.  Howard H. Hoege III, President and CEO of the Mariners’ Museum, told Bay Bulletin, “About two thirds of our visitors report that the USS Monitor exhibit was the best part of their visit to the museum.  Last week, we had a French film crew here to document our conservation of the USS Monitor.”

Preservation of the turret is ongoing. According to Hoege, “No one has ever conducted a restoration of this scale before, so we don’t know exactly how long it will take. The next step will be to turn the turret over (it is upside down now), remove the top, and continue treatment of the two separate parts.” 

Admission is still just one dollar.  You can find out more about the Mariners’ Museum at  www.marinersmuseum.org. The MNMS can be found at monitor.noaa.gov.  

-Kendall Osborne