Skip to comments.Conservators speculate on last moments of USS Monitor's crew
Posted on 01/01/2003 4:40:21 PM PST by SteveH
Conservators speculate on last moments of USS Monitor's crew
By SONJA BARISIC, Associated Press Writer NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) -- As the USS Monitor sank in the Atlantic during a storm off the coast of North Carolina on Dec. 31, 1862, the sailors knew they couldn't save the Union ironclad.
So instead they tried to save meaningful possessions as they watched water run across the deck and waited to be rescued.
That may be, conservators figure, how nearly 30 pieces of silver- and nickel-plated dinnerware ended up in the ship's turret. Five of the pieces found during excavation of the turret this fall are engraved with the initials or names of four of the 16 crew members who perished. Most of the other items are not thus marked.
Why would they reach for tableware when their ship was going down?
Sailors back then often had to supply their own mess gear, so perhaps their mothers gave them a kiss on the cheek and some of the family flatware as they left home for the war, suggested Curtiss Peterson, chief conservator at The Mariners' Museum.
"Do you want to go back and she says, 'What did you do with the fork I gave you?' " Peterson said as he looked over some of the pieces, including forks with crushed tines, knife handles, serving spoons and napkin rings. Once covered in muck, they have been cleaned, polished and lacquered to prevent tarnishing.
The Monitor fought the Confederate vessel CSS Virginia -- an ironclad built on part of the salvaged hull of a Union sailing ship, the USS Merrimack -- on March 9, 1862, in a battle near Newport News that revolutionized naval warfare and architecture. It was the first clash of ships covered in iron plates to repel cannon balls. Until then, most fighting ships were wooden.
The Monitor, designed by Swedish engineer John Ericsson, featured innovations including the first revolving gun turret, which allowed cannons to be aimed and fired independently from the ship's position.
The ship sank at the end of 1862, landing upside down in 240 feet of water, 16 miles off Hatteras, N.C.
A joint Navy and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration team used a huge crane to raise the 120-ton, cylindrical turret in early August of this year, ending a five-year effort to save major artifacts from the deteriorating wreckage. An expedition planned for 2003 will document changes to the wreck site and search for artifacts in the hole left in the seabed when the turret was removed.
The turret, 20 feet in diameter, was taken to the museum to be preserved and displayed along with other Monitor artifacts. The ship's engine, condenser, propeller and propeller shaft are on exhibit. The turret sits in a water-filled tank outside the museum and is expected to take 12 to 15 years to conserve.
After weeks of digging through and removing coal and silt several feet high inside the turret, the archaeology of the turret now is substantially finished. Both of the ship's cannons remain in the turret, and a team at the museum is focusing on separating the cannons from their carriages so they can be removed. The items essentially are cemented to each other and the turret.
More than 400 artifacts were found in the turret, including two sets of skeletal remains that have not been identified, a gold ring on the hand of one skeleton, fragments of a wool overcoat, a key, coins, uniform buttons, a hard rubber comb, three shoes, a boot, pieces of a wooden cabinet and cannon parts.
"It's all fairly evocative," Peterson said. "A lot of the things I deal with have dead man's hands on them."
As for the dinnerware, a theory established by NOAA is that the items fell into the turret from the galley when the ship rolled over. The galley was almost directly below the turret, and that could explain why so many pieces of flatware, plus a copper tea kettle, were found in the turret, said John Broadwater, manager of NOAA's Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and director of the turret excavation.
Peterson, though, thinks it's more than coincidence that the initials or names on the engraved forks and spoons match the names of four crew members who died: Seaman Jakob Nicklis, Third Assistant Engineer Samuel Augee Lewis, Ensign Norman Knox Attwater and Master's Mate George Frederickson.
Plus, he said, a fork is small enough for someone to jam in a pocket and still be able to swim unencumbered.
"It sort of gives you an idea, a flash, of what would you think when your ship is sinking," Peterson said. "What do you do? You're going out, what's important, what can you take?"
"They didn't just loot the silverware drawer," he said. "One presumes that the people who got off took their silverware with them."
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