One of the major exhibits, above, will show how the one-time Yankee warship Merrimack was transformed with slabs of iron into a floating battery and renamed the Virginia. A replica of the Virginia’s slanting iron casemate, resting opposite a traditional wooden sailing vessel, will be built, the museum officials said. RENDERING COURTESY OF THE MARINERS’ MUSEUM
By PAUL CLANCY, The Virginian-Pilot
© December 5, 2003
NEWPORT NEWS — The wind moans and steep waves seethe with foam. In the distance, light from a red signal lantern pierces the gloom, the last hope that men left behind can be saved.
The water is bathed in icy blue flares, the sky ripped by signal rockets.
These last moments in the brief life of a revolutionary ironclad ship that was lost, then found, off Cape Hatteras, are the stuff of human drama that planners of a new Monitor Center at the Mariners’ Museum hope will hook millions of visitors.
Detailed plans for the $30 million center, due to open in 2007, won’t be revealed until spring. But museum officials parted the curtains slightly Thursday night in a reception for friends and donors hosted by President John Hightower.
Hightower announced that the museum has received about $13.5 million in grants, donations and pledges and will begin construction of an enclosed conservation wing in late spring. The wing will house artifacts, including the Monitor’s turret, engine and propeller, that recently have been retrieved from the ship’s resting place, 16 miles off the North Carolina coast.
And, in spite of its name, the center won’t showcase just the Union’s Monitor, but the opponent it battled in Hampton Roads, the Confederacy’s Virginia, as well as the ironclad ships they inspired. This window into life aboard the ironclads is the most ambitious expansion the museum has undertaken in decades.
“With its dramatic design and exciting exhibitions, the Monitor Center will become one of the premier Civil War tourist attractions in the South,” Hightower said. “It will have national, even international stature.”
One of the major exhibits will show how the one-time Yankee warship Merrimack was transformed with slabs of iron into a floating battery and renamed the Virginia.
A replica of the Virginia’s slanting iron casemate, resting opposite a traditional wooden sailing vessel, will be built, the museum officials said.
There also will be a full-scale model of the Monitor’s deck, with its revolving turret and pilothouse on top. There will be walk-in representations of the ship’s wardroom, berth deck and officers’ quarters.
Anna Holloway, director of education and interpretation at the museum, said she hopes people will react to the exhibits in a “visceral way.”
“The story of iron and warfare and guns is not necessarily what makes everyone get excited,” she said. Instead, she hopes people will ask themselves, “What would it have felt like if I had been on board?”
Hightower announced that W.M. Jordan Co. of Newport News, builder of several local hospitals and Norfolk’s Nauticus, will do the construction. The exhibits are by DMCD Inc. of New York.
There will be a “battle theater” intended to give visitors a sense of what it was like to be in Hampton Roads on March 8, 1862, when the Virginia steamed down the Elizabeth River and wreaked havoc on wooden Union warships, then March 9 when the Monitor battled the Virginia to a standoff.
Visitors are likely to hear the dull thud of solid shot against turret walls, maybe even experience the smell of gunpowder during a re-creation of the battle.
“We hope to pack two days of battle horror, heroism and intrigue into about 12 minutes,” she said.
The modern sequel to the story is the discovery of the Monitor where it sank almost 141 years ago, then the recovery of several of its components by Navy divers and archaeologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A “sat chamber,” the pressurized quarters in which saturation divers lived for weeks at a time while working on the recovery, may be part of the exhibit.
Sights and sounds of the Navy divers who dove around the clock on the wreck 240 feet down in the Atlantic are also certain to play a major role.
The 120-ton turret rests in a preservative bath on museum grounds, where visitors — depending on the clarity of the water — can get a murky glimpse. Hopes are that the two 11-inch Dahlgren cannons and the tracks on which they rode can be removed by early spring.
The Virginia was blown up and sunk by its crew near Craney Island in May 1862. The Monitor went down in a gale off Hatteras on New Year’s Eve, 1863, with the death of 16 men.
There are hundreds of personal recollections by members of both crews.
One of Holloway’s favorites is a letter that Monitor sailors sent to their former captain, John Worden, who had been injured in the battle with the Virginia.
“We remain until death,” they said, “your affectionate crew — the Monitor Boys.”