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Mariners' Museum honors fallen Monitor sailors

HAMPTON -- On a plot of grass in Hampton National Cemetery, a stone marker with a metal plaque memorializes 16 men lost at sea a century and a half ago.

Saturday, a color guard presented its flags. A wreath was placed. A bugler played taps. And the new USS Monitor Memorial was unveiled to recognize the crew that died on the final voyage of the Union ship, which fought the Virginia in the Civil War's Battle of Hampton Roads and ushered in the era of ironclad warships.

Throughout that night, 150 years ago today, 20-foot waves rolled over the Monitor and finally sent the ship to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Hatteras, taking with it 16 officers and sailors.

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"Their story is truly one for the ages," Anna Holloway, curator of the USS Monitor Center at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, told a crowd of 80 gathered for the unveiling.

Under the tow of the Rhode Island, the Monitor left Hampton Roads on Dec. 29, 1862, bound for Beaufort, N.C. The next day, the wind blew heavy, clouds darkened and by evening, a heavy rain fell. Waves began to break over the ship, sometimes hitting hard enough to make its frame tremble.

In the moonlight, crew members could see the waves' white foam gushing toward them.

Then one of the ship's hawsers snapped, whipping the Monitor about. Caulking came undone and water rushed into the engine room. The coal was too wet to keep up steam.

At 10:30 p.m., Capt. John Bankhead ordered the red distress lantern be raised and a half hour later, he called for the Rhode Island to send rescue boats. Shortly after midnight, the Monitor's pumps stopped.

"It is madness to remain here longer.... Let each man save himself," the captain said, according to firsthand accounts.

William Keeler, the ship's assistant paymaster, took off layers of clothing to make it easier to swim. He found a rope and slid down to the deck.

"A huge wave passed over me, tearing me from my footing and bearing me along with it, rolling, tumbling and tossing like the merest speck," he recalled.

The ship's light faded from view at 1:30 a.m. Dec. 31.

For more than a century, the Monitor sat untouched 16 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras. When the Navy formally abandoned the vessel in the early 1950s, private divers could start looking for the ship, Holloway said.

A team discovered the ironclad in 1973, upside down under 240 feet of water.

The first artifact brought to the surface was the red distress lantern, found in the sand next to the ship's remains.

"It's kind of a neat thing that the last thing the crew reported seeing was the first thing to break the surface in 1977," Holloway told The Virginian-Pilot.

Storms that rolled over the Monitor's wreckage made it clear that more needed to be done to keep the ship from deteriorating, she said. The site became the first National Marine Sanctuary.

By the late '90's and early 2000s, crews had raised the propeller, engine and turret and brought them to the Mariners' Museum, home to the Monitor's artifacts since 1986. Conservators continue to treat pieces of the Monitor with solutions and, in some cases, electrical currents to strip away more than a century of sediments and salt.

The museum has 200 tons of the warship's artifacts and hopes to have all items preserved and on display by 2029, Holloway said.

"The whole idea is to make these things accessible so the story lives on," said David Krop, director of the museum's Monitor Center.

At Saturday's ceremony, it was the stories and lives of the men that were remembered. They were ages 18 to 32, black and white, some from as far away as England and others as close as Virginia, Holloway told the crowd.

"May we never forget the heroic efforts of these men," Capt. Donald Troast, a Navy chaplain, said in a closing prayer.

 

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