Mariners' Museum bores gun of ironclad Monitor, big step toward displaying the weapons
By JOSH REYES | Daily Press | Published: February 26, 2020
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (Tribune News Service) — Erik Farrell stared down the barrel of the 8-ton Dahlgren gun, not fazed by the black water spewing onto his arms, face and curlicue mustache, focused instead on keeping the drill steady as he guided it into the cannon.
The gun has sat in a chemical bath at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News for several years. For the 140 years before that, it sat on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean about 17 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. And before that, it was in the rotating turret of the famed Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, battling its Confederate Counterpart, the CSS Virginia, just miles from its current home in the Mariners’ Museum.
Farrell and his fellow conservationists had been getting ready for Tuesday for a long time themselves — it was their first chance to put a one-of-a-kind drill to the innards of one of two guns, clearing out the silt, coal and other debris that accumulated over the years. Next week, they will take the drill to the second gun.
Once the work is finished, conservationists will be able to see how much salt remains in the metal inside each gun’s barrel and chemically extract it. Clearing the physical contents of the guns is the last major mechanical step in their conservation, museum staff said, enabling them to establish a timeline to put the guns on display.
Navy divers and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration archaeologists recovered the gun turret of the Monitor in 2002. Since then, Mariners’ Museum staff have worked to conserve the turret, its guns and other artifacts, cleaning the exterior and immersing the items in treatment tanks to extract the salt that makes the objects sensitive to oxygen and prone to rust.
Boring the two Dahlgrens is a massive undertaking — the guns are each 11 feet long and nearly 8 tons, with an opening 11 inches across. No one had ever bored a gun of that size until Tuesday.
The 140 years in a shipwreck has made their exteriors brittle. Will Hoffman, the museum’s director of conservation, said the guns have the consistency of chalk in some spots. Out of the solution in their conservation tanks, the salt in the metal leaves the guns susceptible to flash oxidation.
The job of boring required a custom-made hollow drill bit a shade smaller than the 11-inch diameter of the guns. Laurie King, an assistant conservator, said Farrell had experience boring, but not at that scale. Before he worked at the museum, he worked on conservation of the Queen Anne’s Revenge — Blackbeard’s ship — in North Carolina.
“We take years to prepare for (a few hours) of operation,” Hoffman said. “We only get one shot, so the alignment has to be just right."
The control panel for the Monitor Center’s crane sat slung in front of Hoffman like an electric guitar as he operated it to lift the first gun from its tank and into a cradle on the ground, directly across from the drill.
After some measurements, adjustments and leveling by the conservation staff, Farrell guided the drill forward on its track, inching it into the gun’s barrel. The drill produced a deluge of black water and some large chunks of marine concretions, giving material culture specialist Hannah Fleming plenty to hammer through — literally. She took a hammer and chisel to some chunks more than a foot long, looking for anything that wasn’t rock.
After about three hours of drilling and chiseling, she hadn’t found anything of note, but one small item caught some of the museum staff’s eye.
The Monitor sank in a storm off of Hatteras just nine months after fighting the Virginia. Two decades after the ironclad sank, former crew member Francis Butts wrote that as the Monitor was going down, he stuffed his coat and boots into one of the guns and a black cat into the other. There is no other evidence to support that account, and the museum has not found any signs of a coat or boots, let alone a cat.
When Fleming found something that was hard and not rock, there was a fleeting thought that it may be a remnant of cat. It ended up being a piece of crab.
Before drilling began, Hoffman joked that he had a plan for what to do in case they confirmed Butts’ cat story. He painted a scene of a procession for the last Civil War sailor to be laid to rest, starting at the museum and ending at Fort Monroe. “A mini horse towing the carriage ... bagpipers playing a funeral march ... women weeping,” he said.
Museum staff said it wasn’t likely they would find artifacts in the barrels of the guns, but they have plenty of artifacts from the Monitor. Tina Gutshall, the conservation administrator, said there were about 700 from the turret. Some are on display, some are in storage and some are still being treated to extract salt.
The turret, which sits in a neighboring tank in the museum, and guns are a draw on their own, Hoffman said, but finding artifacts and personal items of the crew is especially exciting. Conservationists can become a bit clinical after working so long with a major artifact, and those personal items remind them of the human stories behind the artifact, Hoffman said.
The turret and guns are owned by NOAA through its Office of National Marine Sanctuary. David Alberg, superintendent of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, said the boring was a major milestone in what he expected would end up a 35-year conservation effort. His hope is for the Dahlgren guns to be on display in two or three years.
King, one of the museum conservationists, grew up near the museum and spent many weekends there growing up. The area, she said, has such rich Civil War history, and many here would greatly appreciate having more of the Monitor conserved and on display.
To Alberg, the Monitor presents several great stories of adventure, technology, innovation, battle and also of cohesion of a crew of different races that worked together in service of the Union. “The Monitor just represents such a positive story,” he said.