Sunday, September 17, 2006

Unexpected USS Monitor artifacts turn up during cleanup

By Mark St. John Erickson
September 17, 2006

Four years after Navy divers pulled the USS Monitor gun turret from the ocean's grasp, the historic Civil War artifact has compiled a long record of surprising conservators with its secrets.

But few revelations have been more unexpected than the artifacts that turned up during seemingly routine excavations inside the new conservation facility at The Mariners' Museum this summer.

Probing though some of the last deposits that remain after the removal of tons of sediment, concretion and sand, conservators David Krop and Susanne Grieve knew their chances of coming across any overlooked finds were slim. Yet hidden under layers of accumulated grit that now measure as little as 2 inches thick was an assortment of unanticipated artifacts, including a trio of buttons, a mysterious iron crank and a piece of chalk that once stroked messages to the ill-fated vessel's sailors.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was a quartet of brass-jacketed bullets that seemed to come out of nowhere. Not only were they the first examples of ammunition found on the famous warship but they also emerged in an entirely unsuspected location.

"I must have had my nose pressed against that exact spot on at least a dozen different occasions," says Jeff Johnston, the historian for Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, describing a familiar site on the turret's interior wall.

"But it just shows you why we don't want to go in there and start chipping away until we hit bottom. You never know what's in there under the surface - or what you're going to expose when you remove the next layer."

Recovered from the ocean floor off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in August 2004, the famous iron cylinder has required a lengthy and often complex series of conservation steps as the Newport News museum and sanctuary office - which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - have labored to preserve it.

Immersed in the Atlantic for more than 140 years, its chloride-contaminated iron plates will spall and rupture disastrously if allowed to dry out. That means constant interruptions from a system of overhead water sprinklers whenever the conservators drain the turret's immense, 95,000-gallon tank in order to carry out their work.

Despite such obstacles, the museum and the sanctuary - with the help of engineers and riggers from Northrop Grumman Newport News shipyard - have successfully removed the heavy but fragile iron beams that braced the bottom of the turret and supported its pair of 9-ton Dahlgren guns. They also have hoisted both of the historic cannon as well as their ponderous carriages, completing the delicate move from the turret to individual conservation tanks without causing any damage to the inscribed surfaces on the 13-foot-long barrels.

Since completing that task in late 2004, much of the conservators' efforts have focused on documenting the turret's newly cleared and stabilized interior, which they mapped with the aid of digital laser scanners. In August, they began a new excavation campaign aimed at clearing some of the last bits of sediment and concretion from the walls and ceiling - which now forms the floor of the upside-down cylinder.

Using their hands to probe the softer deposits and pneumatic air chisels to peel off the concretions, Krop and Grieve - joined by three East Carolina University students working as NOAA interns - spent four weeks removing and then sifting through the seemingly unpromising accumulations. But it didn't take long for the first discovery to galvanize their attention.

"We were looking at areas that had been gone over before," Krop says. "And then, all of a sudden, there was a button - and then this piece of chalk in the remaining sediment.

"It's always great when you find things like this - and this was really unexpected."

Krop's surprise was intensified by the personal nature of some of the objects that emerged.

The buttons, in particular, provide a concrete link to the stormy Dec. 31, 1862 night when the Monitor sank - and many of its crewmen struggled to remove their heavy winter coats before leaping to the deck and attempting to reach the lifeboats.

"You can just imagine them standing there inside the turret - tearing things off before they jumped into the water," Krop says. "These guys really were scrambling for their lives - and some of them didn't make it."

Almost as evocative is a chunk of chalk once used to scribble out messages to the officers and crew on a slate board. According to accounts of the sinking, the captain used one such board to communicate to an escort ship alongside the ironclad, saying that he'd hang a red lantern as a distress signal if the Monitor started to go down.

Other artifacts, including a simple wooden handle, may have great historic value because of their use during the Monitor's pioneering clash with the CSS Virginia - also known as the Merrimack - in the March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads.

"We've found lots of handles," Krop says. "Some are bone and were parts of silverware. Some are iron wrapped in canvas - and they were parts of the gun tools. But the lanyards for the Monitor's guns had a simple handle that looked a lot like this."

Even such seemingly nondescript finds as the brass-jacketed bullets can have important documentary value, Johnston says.

In an era when most small firearms still used percussion caps - and required their users to ram Minie balls and paper gunpowder cartridges down the muzzle into the barrel - these self-contained breech-loading projectiles represented unusually advanced technology.

"Breech-loaders were state-of-the-art - so it's just the sort of thing that you'd expect on the Monitor," he says.

"They were taking state-of-the-art firearms and putting them on their state-of-the-art vessel. There wasn't much that was old-fashioned about this ship."



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