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USS Monitor’s Innovative Engine Being Restored at Virginia Museum

On December 31, 1862, a fierce winter storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina extinguished the fires powering the steam engine of the USS Monitor, a warship packed with cutting-edge technology of the mid-19th century. With no engine to run its pumps, the ship that had fought one of history’s most famous naval battles and perhaps...

Mariners' Museum workers and Monitor engine
Workers at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia recently removed tons of concretions from the engine of the USS Monitor, which sank off North Carolina in December 1862. (Photo courtesy of Mariners' Museum)

On December 31, 1862, a fierce winter storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina extinguished the fires powering the steam engine of the USS Monitor, a warship packed with cutting-edge technology of the mid-19th century. With no engine to run its pumps, the ship that had fought one of history’s most famous naval battles and perhaps altered the course of the American Civil War was helpless against towering waves that were breaking over it.

As the Monitor’s 62 crewman scrambled aboard lifeboats, the doomed vessel filled with water. Most of the sinking ship’s crew was rescued by the steamer Rhode Island, which had been towing the Monitor from Hampton Roads, Virginia to Beaufort, North Carolina. But 16 sailors couldn’t escape before the Monitor disappeared beneath the storm-tossed waves. The ship overturned as it descended and settled upside-down in the notorious “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

In 1974, Duke University officials announced that a team of explorers had found the Monitor about 17 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras. (See “Civil War Wreck Rises Again: Restoring the Monitor“) The news stirred a lifelong passion in Rich Carlstedt, an engineer in Green Bay, Wisconsin who’d been reading about the Monitor since he was a boy.

Still, nearly three decades would pass before any of the wreckage could be recovered. Now, two of the iconic warship’s most distinctive features – its innovative steam engine and revolutionary rotating gun turret – are among the 210 tons of artifacts that have been raised. Many of the artifacts are on display at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, only a few miles from where the Monitor fought an epic duel in March 1862 with its archenemy, a Confederate ironclad named the CSS Virginia.

The Monitor’s steam engine and turret are being carefully cleaned and restored. And Carlstedt has helped as a consultant with the project.

He’s still fascinated by the Monitor’s engine and has built a miniature working model of the power plant. “It powered the first iron warship in the world,” he said recently from his office in Green Bay. “It’s the only engine of its kind that is preserved. I know of no other engine like it in the world.”

Dave Krop, conservation project manager for the Monitor preservation effort at the Mariners’ Museum, said workers recently removed about four tons of concretions from the engine. The concretions – formed by a chemical reaction between the saltwater and the iron that the engine is made of – had accumulated during the 139 years that the Monitor lay undisturbed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Krop said the engine eventually will be reconstructed to look as it did when the Monitor left Brooklyn Navy Yard on March 6, 1862 for its historic showdown in Hampton Roads three days later. But the process of treating the engine for preservation and reassembling it will take 15 to 18 years, he said.

The Monitor is best-known for its rotating turret that allowed gunners to aim the ship’s two cannon independently of the ship’s movements. But John Ericsson, who designed the Monitor, also came up with groundbreaking advances for the ship’s engine.

The Swedish-born Ericsson was an engineering genius who came forward at exactly the moment his adopted nation needed him. In his book, Lincoln: The War Years, author Carl Sandberg described Ericsson as a man who was “type and symbol of the industrial, mechanical North, the machine-age man from whose head incessantly sprang new tools, wheels, devices.”

Military leaders in Washington, D.C. knew the Confederacy was building a new type of warship at Norfolk, Virginia capable of breaking the Union naval blockade that was hampering the Confederate war effort. To counter that threat, Ericsson was given a contract in January 1862 to build his strange little warship in only 90 days. “He worked like a madman to get it built,” Carlstedt said. “It was a totally new concept.”

Ericsson didn’t have time to build a big warship, so he had to build a small ship that packed a terrific punch. And he had to figure out a way to fit a powerful engine into a very small space.

Naval steam engines of the day were massive machines that sometimes were several stories tall. The pistons that drove the propeller shafts of these monsters usually moved up and down, adding to the engines’ size. Ericsson’s pistons moved horizontally, which greatly reduced the height of the engine. He also reduced its width by devising pistons that didn’t have to travel as far to produce the power needed to drive the ship.

The result was a relatively compact engine that was entirely below the Monitor’s waterline and thus well-protected from enemy gunfire.

Still, the ship’s design and appearance did not inspire confidence among some Union leaders. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles was aghast when told the Monitor had only two guns. Those who saw the low-lying little warship with its turret derisively described it as a “tin can on a shingle.”

But on March 9, 1862, the Monitor fought the CSS Virginia to a standstill at Hampton Roads. Although the battle technically was a draw because neither ship could sink the other, the Monitor prevented the Virginia from breaking the Union blockade.

Carlstedt thinks that if the Virginia had broken the blockade, England would have entered the war on the side of the Confederacy, and that likely would have meant a Confederate victory. “I tell people we came within one day of being two countries,” he said.

Neither the Monitor nor the Virginia ever fought another battle, however. In May 1862, the Confederates destroyed the Virginia after military reverses forced them to abandon Norfolk. And the Monitor and its pioneering engine were lost on that stormy New Year’s Eve of 1862.

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Meet the Author

Willie Drye
Willie Drye is an award-winning author and a contributing editor for National Geographic News. He and his wife live in Wilmington, North Carolina.