Shortly after midnight on Dec. 31, 1862, nearly 10 months after its historic Civil War battle with the Confederate warship Virginia (earlier known as the Merrimack), the ironclad gunboat U.S.S. Monitor sank in a howling storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C. For more than a century the ship lay undiscovered in 220 feet of water. Then in 1973, a search expedition under the direction of John G. Newton of the Duke University Marine Laboratory zeroed in on a suspicious sonar blip. Lowering a television camera and powerful lights, the searchers found the remains.
This week Newton will return once again to the scene. The 44-year-old geologist’s object is to map the undersea site before sending down divers next August. As head of the nonprofit Monitor Research and Recovery Foundation, which he set up after leaving Duke in 1975, Newton hopes eventually to recover the corroded hulk and restore it as a museum and national monument.
To do so, he must conquer formidable obstacles. To begin with, Newton observes, “Diving to the Monitor will be tricky. Currents in the area are two knots, and under water that feels like a hurricane.” Moreover, films of the wreck have shown that it is infested by marine life, including an intimidating 15-foot shark. (To discourage treasure hunters, the government has taken the precaution of designating the site as the nation’s first marine sanctuary.)
Restoring the ship will be even more difficult. If exposed to the air after all these years, the Monitor’s iron plating would oxidize and crumble in a matter of minutes. It and the massive oak beams will have to be treated with preservative chemicals. And though preparations for raising the ship may go on for years, scientists say the actual recovery must take place within a very brief time span—perhaps a single day—or be disrupted by the changeable currents.
One plan would involve the former CIA recovery ship Glomar Explorer, which is capable of reaching down with massive jaws, seizing the 750-ton Monitor along with 2,500 tons of sediment surrounding it and hauling it away to shallower water. A Swedish company, on the other hand, has proposed fitting a plastic canopy over the Monitor and pumping in liquid nitrogen. Within six hours, so the theory goes, everything beneath the canopy would freeze. The wreck, neatly contained in a 172-foot ice cube, could then be hoisted from the bottom with cables. “One advantage of this technique is that it would lock all the artifacts into place,” says Newton. “But we’re dealing with a historic site, and we don’t want to try something unproven.” (If the ice cube technique appears feasible, Newton plans to test it first on another iron-hulled wreck nearby.)
Married, and the father of three children, native Tarheel Newton makes his home in little Beaufort, N.C, south of Hatteras. One of the major problems he faces in his effort to salvage the Monitor is that John Ericsson, the Swedish immigrant who designed the vessel, apparently destroyed the plans when faced with a barrage of patent infringement suits. Only rough sketches remain. Consequently, Newton is appealing to descendants of the ship’s crew to provide him with letters, shipboard diaries and other memorabilia. “We want to work with naval architects and Civil War historians to find out how the ship was built and how she functioned,” says Newton, “and we’re going to go over the remains inch by inch—the way the government investigates a plane crash.”