For USS Monitor Conservators, the Work Gets Personal

In the stormy early morning hours of New Year’s Eve 1862, the USS Monitor slipped beneath huge waves off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The ironclad ship that changed naval warfare during the American Civil War capsized as it descended into the infamous “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” and its famous gun turret separated from the hull of the ship.

The Monitor, which was crammed with innovative technology, was being towed from Hampton Roads, Virginia to enforce a Union blockade of the Confederate port at Beaufort, North Carolina. But a fierce winter storm doomed the ship. Most of the Monitor‘s crew escaped and were rescued by the USS Rhode Island, which was towing the ironclad.

As the Monitor slipped into the dark depths of the ocean, tons of coal from the hull poured into the turret and buried two unlucky sailors who hadn’t been able to escape. The turret and hull settled upside down on the bottom of the ocean.

In 2004, Tina Gutshall, a conservator at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, was sifting through coal and other debris found in the Monitor‘s turret when portions of the iconic ship were raised in 2002. She came across an odd chunk of . . . something.

On a recent afternoon, Gutshall recalled that moment. “I thought: I don’t think this is coal,” she said.

She examined the object more closely, and suddenly a realization hit her. She was holding the kneecap of one of the sailors who’d been trapped in the turret when the Monitor sank on that long-ago stormy night.

Gutshall froze for a moment as the realization sunk in. “I think I feel tied to that person,” she said. “It was a very strong moment in my life. I get a little emotional when I think about it.”

The kneecap and other skeletal remains of the sailors were sent to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command in Honolulu, Hawaii. The remains of all unidentified military personnel who die in action are sent to JPAC.

Jeff Johnston, historian for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said the fact that the Monitor sailors died almost 150 years ago doesn’t matter to the pathologists at JPAC.

“They treat remains like they’re active-day servicemen,” Johnston said. “That’s their mandate.”

Major Ramon Osorio, a spokesman for JPAC, said pathologists are working on identifying the Monitor sailors.

A few tantalizing details about the sailors are known, however. From the condition of the remains, pathologists determined that one sailor was in his late 30s or early 40s and had done hard physical labor. He also was fond of smoking his pipe. In fact, he smoked it so often that the pipe stem wore a notch between two of his teeth.

Pathologists couldn’t tell much about the other sailor other than he was a young man in his late teens or early 20s.

Researchers know the names of all 16 sailors who were lost when the Monitor sank on December 31, 1862. Pathologists have taken DNA samples from the remains found in the turret, and that can be used to identify those sailors beyond any doubt. But Johnston said the researchers will have to match the DNA with descendants of the sailors, and they haven’t found any descendants to provide comparison DNA samples.

“Hopefully, people out there will get the word on it,” Johnston said. “They need to come forward and provide a DNA sample.”

As Tina Gutshall and other conservators at the Mariners’ Museum have sifted through 210 tons of artifacts recovered from the Monitor, their interest in their work has gone beyond a professional examination of ancient machinery. “What touches us, we’re more touched by personal objects,” said conservator Elsa Sangouard.

Buried in the tons of debris, coal and rust, the conservators found small personal objects that stirred their curiosity and their emotions — buttons, monogrammed spoons, small hand tools, a coat.

Fragments of a silk handkerchief were found next to the pelvis of one of the sailors in the turret. Such a dainty item isn’t what you’d expect to find in a sailor’s pocket. Sangouard and Gutshall think it could have been a present from a wife or girlfriend.

“These are the things that tie you into the project,” Gutshall said.

While there is much that remains unknown about the Monitor‘s last moments, at least one old mystery has been resolved. Crewman Francis Butts, who escaped the Monitor before it sank, wrote a memoir of his experience in 1885. Butts claimed that shortly before he left the sinking ship he’d stuffed a yowling, annoying cat into the barrel of one of the cannons in the turret.

But a century and a half later, conservators discovered that Butts’s story was only colorful fiction.

“We found no evidence of a cat in either of the gun barrels,” said conservator Eric Nordgren. “But we did find some fish bones.”

Changing Planet

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