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‘Graveyard Of The Atlantic’: Expedition Documents Ironclad Warship That Went Down During The Civil War

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Navy divers, working w. archaeologists fr. the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on the Manson Gulf Derrick Barge WOTAN, recovering steam engine of USS Monitor fr. waters within the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, 16 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, N.C.
(Photo by Mai/Getty Images)

An underwater expedition this month found that a Civil War ironclad warship sunk off the coast of North Carolina was still preserved in a time capsule-like state. 

A crew from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) went to Cape Hatteras and sailed out 16 miles to find that the wreck of the USS Monitor, a ship used by the Union during the Civil War, was still in “an excellent state of preservation” on the Atlantic seafloor.

“The wreck is in an astounding condition after being on the seafloor for 160 years and weathering all of the environmental conditions off Cape Hatteras, including exceedingly strong currents and hurricanes,” said Tane Renata Casserley, of the NOAA, to McClatchy News. 

The Monitor took part in the first-ever clash of ironclads (a warship covered in iron) in the Battle of Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, against the Confederate vessel, the CSS Virginia (which had been the USS Merrimack before being repurposed by the Confederacy). One of the key features of the Monitor was the rotating gun turret which can now be viewed at the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia.

Later that year, the Monitor would sink off the coast of North Carolina, taking the lives of 16 crew members. It went down in an area known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic because of the frequent wrecks in those waters. 

“Leaks developed, flooding the engines and reducing steam pressure needed for propulsion. The crew tried using pumps and even bailing with buckets, but the distress was too great,” an NOAA report on the sinking explains. “The turret was the only escape hatch from below and as the men attempted dashing across the deck many of them were swept into the unknown by the treacherous waves.”

From May 15, 2022, the NOAA and the Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration used a remote camera to view the Monitor’s wreck as part of the Valor in the Atlantic initiative. This initiative intends to document and publicize photos and videos of historic shipwrecks in the Atlantic Ocean, specifically those related to World War II and the Civil War. 

The ship’s wreck, examined extensively this month for the first time since 2002, is protected under the National Maritime Sanctuary Act, the first such location to be put under such protection. In 2001, NOAA, working with the U.S. Navy, pulled the Monitor’s steam engine out of the Atlantic.  

“That same iron hull and armorbelt built to withstand the rigors of war, has now enabled Monitor to provide a stable habitat in its new role as an island of life,” Casserley said. “It truly was incredible to see the transformation at the bottom of the ocean. There was often so much marine life on Monitor it was difficult to see the shipwreck itself.”

He also described the ironclad as “a time capsule back to 1862,” adding that parts of it were in better condition than wrecks from similar times and World War II.

“The bottom line is USS Monitor will be here for generations to come to share its stories of heroism,” Casserley explained.

On Memorial Day, the National Marine Sanctuary System put out a series of tweets on the Monitor showing an image of the ironclad resting on the ocean floor.

The organization also noted that two of the sailors who drowned when the ship sank were buried in Arlington National Cemetery after their remains were found in the ironclad’s turret back in 2013.

A previous version incorrectly referred to Tane Renata Casserley as a “she.” Casserley is a man. 

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