National Geographic : 1975 Jan
S THE ROWBOAT CRESTED a wave, Acting Master's Mate D. Rodney Browne could barely see the red lantern swing ing wildly from the turret of U.S.S. Mon itor,a quarter of a mile away. The foundering ironclad rolled drunkenly, at the mercy of the storm off Cape Hatteras. It was Browne's third trip to ferry crewmen from the doomed gunboat to the U.S.S. Rhode Island, a big side-wheeler that had been tow ing Monitor south to Beaufort, North Caro lina, when a gale struck, endangering both vessels. One towline broke, the other was cut loose. Now about two miles of tossing ocean separated the ships. Nearly a dozen men still clung to the sink ing vessel, but the sea was pouring in beneath her turret, down the ventilation shafts, and through the hawsepipe. Another wave lifted the approaching res cue craft, but now the gleam of Monitor's lan tern was gone. On reaching the scene, Browne later reported, he "could perceive no other trace of her, except an eddy apparently pro duced by the sinking of a vessel." The loss of Monitor, first gunboat armed with a revolving turret, came on New Year's Eve morning, 1862, less than ten months after her historic duel with the armored vessel Mer rimack, by then renamed the C.S.S. Virginia by the Confederacy. The battle ended the era of wooden fighting ships. Long Search Finally Ends Lost but never forgotten, Monitor was for decades the object of search. The effort had intensified with development of modern oceanographic equipment. Now, more than a century after she went down, Monitor has been found. The crushed frame of the unconventional "cheesebox on a raft" has been viewed and photographed. Parts and fragments of the vessel, retrieved from the seafloor, plus hundreds of pictures, have made the identification certain. At the end of August 1973, I was privileged to direct a search for the venerated ironclad aboard Duke University's 117-foot research vessel Eastward. A more certain objective was a submarine geological survey of the area. The Army provided two other craft for this dual project, supported by the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, and the U. S. Army Reserve. Eastward carried conventional and side scan sonar, still and television cameras, and a precision depth-sounder. Months of careful research had narrowed Monitor's likely loca tion to a 6-by-16-mile rectangle approximately 17 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras. But this still covered 96 square miles of ocean floor, and our target was tiny, measuring only 172 feet overall, with a beam of 411/2 feet. Further complicating the quest, hundreds of known wrecks litter the bottom around this storm-tossed "Graveyard of the Atlantic." * Before our first week was over, our instru ments had picked up 21 targets. General size and configuration quickly ruled out most of them. Our camera recorded one vaguely cir cular shape that raised our hopes, but it was only the pilothouse of a sunken trawler. In the end, fate played a decisive role. Fish-finder Provides the First Clue While we followed a depth contour across the northeastern segment of the search area, Fred Kelly, chief of our oceanographic party, had been fishing for amberjack and sea bass from the ship's rail. As he went below to stow his gear, he glanced at the recorder of our "fish-finder" sonar. Although alert, the scien tist on watch had paid little heed to a slight echo scribed across the paper. "Hey-that looks like something," Fred said, and suggested that Eastward reverse course to take a closer look. Aboard was Dr. Harold Edgerton of Mas sachusetts Institute of Technology, famed for inventing the ultrahigh-speed strobe light used in photography. "Doc" Edgerton at once readied the sensitive side-scan sonar he had helped develop, and this confirmed Kelly's hunch: It revealed from bow to stern the clear outline of a wreck. We also discerned a circular structure that could be Monitor's rotating gun turret. We lowered our television camera. There on the black sand seafloor at a depth of 220 feet, the camera's light illuminated a flattened hulk that in numerous features fit Monitor's description. Our excitement mounted. "Look at that flat surface-iron plates with rivet holes," said Gordon Watts, underwater archeologist for the North Carolina Depart ment of Cultural Resources. Then, as the camera scanned the far side of the hulk, the long, narrow armor belt of the vessel came into view. (Continued on page 56) *The September 1969 GEOGRAPHIC included a map (pages 398-400) charting more than 500 wrecks in Atlan tic waters off North Carolina and Virginia.