On March, 9, 1862, off the coast of Hampton Roads, Va., the USS Monitor, a strange-looking, low-riding ship with a round, iron turret steamed into the harbor. Its purpose was to do battle with a Confederate ironclad warship that on the previous day had done severe damage to several of the wooden Union ships.
The ensuing all-day fight between the two warships ended in a draw. However, the outcome was overshadowed by history that was made that day. It was the first time two ironclad ships had faced each other in battle. As one Civil War historian noted about the battle: it rendered every other country’s naval fleet obsolete.
Neither the Virginia nor the Monitor made it through 1862. The Virginia was scuttled by Confederate forces in May to keep it from falling into the Union’s hands.
As for the Monitor, it sank on New Year’s Eve that year during a storm off the coast of North Carolina.
The Monitor’s resting place was discovered in 1973, and was raised in 2003. Some pieces of the ironclad, and several items found inside, have been restored and are on display at the Mariner’s Museum, in Newport News, near the sight of the ship’s most famous moment in history.
However, the 120-ton turret, the ship’s two 13-foot Dahlgren gun, and the steam engine are stored in a now-closed laboratory, stored in a tank containing treated water and chemicals intended to draw out the saltwater.
Unfortunately, the public may never get to view these important pieces of history. Federal funding for the restoration efforts comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. This agency, like many other agencies, has had its funding slashed in recent years. The agency says it can no longer afford to help with the effort. And the Mariner’s Museum, which also funds some of the restoration efforts, cannot afford to go it alone.
While the artifacts – many more than just the turret and guns – will not be harmed by the work slow-down, it is the public that will suffer. This is an extremely important piece of American history. Had funding not been interrupted, the museum estimated restoration work could have been completed in approximately 10-15 years. If funding is not restored, it could be 50 or 60 years before completion.
NOAA’s contribution to the conservation effort is about $1 million per year, although it dropped to $500,000 last year. In 2012, NOAA was not able to contribute any money.
While $1 million is a lot of money – especially in an era of cuts – it seems a trifling amount compared to some things that still receive federal money.
We hope Congress will find funding that will allow this important project to continue so that eventually it can be put on public display. It deserves to be appreciated by all Americans.