Scientists Unlock Secrets of Civil War-Era Shipwreck

Modern forensics may help identify heroes of the Monitor who perished at sea 150 years ago.

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The waves off North Carolina's Cape Hatteras rose 20 feet and crashed down on the steam-powered vessel, which at just 172 feet long appeared too small to be a warship. Many of the 63 sailors on the USS Monitor had been in storms before, but they were used to wooden ships that would ride the waves instead of bucking under them, taking a beating like this one. All the Monitor Boys, as they were called, had volunteered to serve on the Union's experimental vessel, with its ironclad hull and peculiar raftlike weather deck that rose just 18 inches above the sea. The design deprived enemies of surface area at which to aim by placing all of the ship's systems and living quarters completely below water level for the first time.

Instead of conventional cannons, the Monitor was armed with twin 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbore shell guns mounted inside a rotating turret, a novel design that allowed the crew to fire in any direction without turning the ship.

[SPECIAL COLLECTOR'S ISSUE: Secrets of the Civil War]

Some of the men had served on the Monitor when it made its debut in Virginia at the Battle of Hampton Roads, just nine months earlier. On March 8 and 9, 1862, the Confederates attempted to break the Union blockade of the James River with their new weapon, the ironclad CSS Virginia. The converted warship outfitted with iron plates was a restored wooden steam frigate previously known as the USS Merrimack.

On the first day of the battle, the Virginia had destroyed two wood-hulled Union warships. By the second day, the Confederate vessel was moving in on the defenseless USS Minnesota, which had run aground, when the little Monitor arrived to intercept the Virginia before it could move in for the kill. The two ironclads fired at each other at close range for hours. Though the Monitor was some 100 feet shorter and 3,500 tons lighter, it fought the Virginia to a draw. The battle would attract widespread news coverage and help lead to the demise of wood-hulled ships in navies around the world.

The Monitor itself became a household name and its crew instant celebrities. President Lincoln went aboard at least once, and women lined up to tour the celebrated vessel when it was in port.

After its dramatic showing at Hampton Roads, the Monitor kept guard over the Chesapeake Bay and made forays up the James River, where the crew suffered more from heat and mosquitoes than the occasional sharpshooters who attempted to pick off crewmen on the wide-open deck.

Though the Monitor had shown its toughness in battle, it had a significant weakness: It wasn't particularly seaworthy. The ship had almost capsized during two storms on its first trip from New York City to Hampton Roads. On Dec. 30, 1862, the Monitor would have to survive the open ocean again while being towed by the steamer USS Rhode Island toward Beaufort, N.C. Gale-force winds battered the ship in a violent storm. As the Monitor passed the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the late afternoon, the crew could see that the giant waves were weakening the caulking around the base of the metal turret. The ship began to take on water despite the crew's efforts to stay ahead of it with their bilge pumps.

Still, William Keeler, the ship's paymaster, would describe an almost festive scene in a later letter to his wife. "At 5 o'clock p.m. we sat down to dinner, every one cheerful & happy & though the sea was rolling & foaming over our heads the laugh & jest passed freely 'round; all rejoicing that at least our monotonous, inactive life had ended & the 'gallant little Monitor' would soon add fresh laurels to her name."

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But the sea kept up its relentless assault. Around 11 p.m., the crew hoisted a red lantern on top of the turret—a signal of distress. The Rhode Island immediately sent boats to pick up the Monitor's panic-stricken men. Some were swept off the deck while trying to reach the rescue boats. A few leaped off the ship only to miss and land in the cold Atlantic. Other men, paralyzed with fear, refused to try for the boats.

Updated on 3/8/13