Thursday, July 21, 2011

a little history

I've been spending some time around ships made of metal the last couple of weeks.  From the pilot boat to a collier to the famous civil war ironclad USS Monitor.  Several pieces of the Monitor, which sank off of Cape Hatteras in a storm, have been recovered over the last couple of decades.  The recovered items - the engine, propeller and shaft, anchor and, most interesting to me, the turret - are being preserved at the Monitor Center in nearby Newport News.
Pieces of the ship, which have been on the seafloor for nearly 150 years, are of course well corroded by the salt water, covered in marine growth.  Most of the time they are kept in tanks filled with water.  Periodically the water is drained so that preservation work can be done.  This is what was going on last week, I received an invite to come over take a look.  Above is the turret, which in an inverted position.

By a quirk of knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time, I was out on the barge with the navy divers when they lifted the turret off of Cape Hatteras a few years ago.  It was a summer-long adventure with hard, dangerous work for the divers, time constraints, running low on mixed gases for deep diving and a threatening storm.  You can read about all this - both the history land the modern day recovery - in the book Ironclad by my friend Paul Clancy.  After all that work - the process had started years earlier - there was an incredible amount of jubilation as the turret broke the surface of the ocean.

There was a fascinating connection that these modern day sailors had with their civil war brethren.  They looked at is as bringing some sailors home.  In fact the remains of two sailors were found buried the coal that was inside the inverted turret.

It will take years of delicate work but the turret will be preserved.  If it had been left on the seafloor it eventually would have decayed and fallen into pieces.

As they dig through the corrosion and bits of coal (the ship was coal powered, when it turned over while sinking tons of coal fell into the turret) they find small artifacts.  Silverware, coins, tools and decorative items have been recovered.  As they chip away at the concretions on the turret they sift through all the materials looking for items like this star-shaped piece of metal below.

A common misconception about the ironclads Monitor and Merrimac is that the innovation was in the use of metal armor on ships.  This had already been done been during the Crimean war.  The true innovation was the Monitor's rotating turret.  Earlier ships had to turn their hulls to orient their guns.  The rotating turret of the Monitor allowed the guns to be aimed without turning the entire ship.

The Monitor fought only one battle, a draw with the ironclad Merrimac, renamed the CSS Virginia by the South.  Below you see an artist's drawing of the battle, there are no known photographs.  A historian pointed out to me an interesting detail of all the drawings of the Monitor Merrimac battle - the color of the smoke was typically used to indicate the "good" ship.  The representation below would have been from an artist sympathetic to the North - the Monitor has white smoke and the Merrimac has the dark smoke.  Drawings from the South often have white smoke with the Merrimac, black smoke with the Monitor.


I've started buying food for the fall trip at the expedition supply store that opened just a few a few miles away - Walmart.  I've never thought of myself as a Walmart shopper but in this economy there is not much choice.  The argument against buying from Walmart is that you are taking away money from local businesses.  Of the two major grocery store chains in my area one is based in Michigan and the other is in North Carolina.  They don't sound like local businesses to me.  Plus I can't afford to pass up the 20, 30 or 40 percent savings on identical canned and boxed foods that I'll need for the trip.

One area where I will splurge is fruit snacks.  I stopped by The Fresh Market store in Virginia Beach the other day to check out the bulk supplies of nuts and dried fruits.  I love dried tropical fruit and find it makes the perfect snack for sailing.  The Fresh Market had an excellent (and pricey! I certainly can't afford to shop there regularly) selection of dried pineapple, kiwi fruit, figs, papaya, mango and who knows what else.  I will save on the staples at Walmart and treat myself well at The Fresh Market.



Baydog said...

Steve, you always seem to be in the right place at the right time! Was seeing that turret break the surface spectacular or what? Very cool indeed.

And buying from a local Walmart is in fact keeping your neighbors employed, so no-guilt shopping there. It's amazing how much stuff we've been getting at Target lately- stuff I would have assumed needed to be bought elsewhere.

EyeInHand said...

Excellent, and great photos. Wish I had your luck, too.

MaryLou said...

We've visited the museum, saw the displays and the turret and the movie about the recovery of the turret. Most impressive. I got chills just watching them recover such a piece of history. It must have been amazing to be there. The recovery was quite a nice bit of engineering too.

alondra said...

well can u gve me more info because im doing this 4 my book report???

Steve said...


I would visit this website for more information.