August 21, 2011

Painting by J.O. Davidson of the battle between the Monitor and Virginia. Courtesy of the Mariners' Museum. (Click to enlarge)

Here we go, up the aluminum ladder, through a hatch and into a round iron space. There’s a dank, rusty, metallic smell and something else – but it’s hard to place at first. Be careful as you climb in with those rubber boots; the floor is lined with railroad rails and you could lose your balance and stumble against something fragile.

There on the circular wall are large dents made by cannons during an unfortunate gun trial, and close by is an inward bulge made by . . . .

And now you realize what it is you sensed as you entered – chaos and fear.

This is the interior of the turret of the ironclad Monitor, briefly open as conservators at the Mariners’ Museum hammer away at the last bits of concreted material before returning it to a bath to remove more than a century’s worth of salt. July and August afforded the rare opportunity to see inside after thousands of gallons of water that had bathed the turret were removed.

I got a chance to step inside where crew members of this improbable ship underwent their baptism by fire on a fine Sunday morning in March 1862 as their iron ship clashed with its southern counterpoint, the Virginia.

Let me try to recreate what it might have been like.

First of all, it was a claustrophobic space, with almost no view of land or sea or sky. It was hot and crowded, with a score of men stripped to the waste, dripping with perspiration, bodies black with gunpowder and lungs full of smoke as they bent to the job of loading giant guns – ramming gunpowder and shot – running them out portholes and firing.

Each shot resulted in a tremendous, ear-ringing explosion and clouds of smoke in that confined space. Welcome to the new age of naval warfare in which sailors fired at each other from behind heavy armor and wondered if this, their first experience in this half-submerged contraption, could be their last, if this was to be their iron tomb.

When the turret received the first direct hit there was a sudden intake of breath as the shot struck eight inches of iron and, instead of penetrating, ricocheted off. So perhaps they would not be killed after all, at least not right away.

One sailor had the experience of a shot striking a few inches from his head. “The shock was so fearful that I dropped over like a dead man,” he would write. He had to be taken below until he recovered. Another man had been bracing his knee against the turret wall and found himself flying through the air “clean over both guns to the floor of the turret.”

Conditions on the Virginia gun deck were much the same. In one instance, when the Monitor fired at close range, gunners near the impact were stunned nearly senseless, eardrums bleeding from the concussion. The Monitor and Virginia battled for four hours before withdrawing. Miraculously, no one was killed and only a few were wounded.

A very different scene was enacted on the little ship off Cape Hatteras on the next-to-last day of that year. It was, as one officer remarked after climbing to the top of the turret and seeing men swept to their deaths, “a panorama of horror.”

In their haste, as they climbed around the guns and to the top of the turret, some of the crew shucked off boots and jackets so that, in case they landed in the water, they’d have a better chance of swimming. Some may have grabbed precious belongings, like engraved silverware, only to discard it at the last minute. A few who witnessed the scene below were frozen by fear and unwilling to venture down to the heaving deck.

And then there were two who had either gone below to retrieve personal effects or taken too long to seek safety; or who had stayed at the pumps too long and were staggering from lungs full of poisonous gas and smoke; or were passing up parts of a makeshift lifeboat – and were trapped as the ship suddenly rolled over and plunged to the bottom of the sea.

And indeed became their iron coffin.

The complete turret will be visible at the Mariners’ Museum for the next two weeks, after which the tank will again be filled with water. Those who can’t make it can watch through webcams at www.mariner.org.