160 Years After Sinking, NOAA Scientists Plan to Survey USS Monitor

Image courtesy NOAA

Published May 13, 2022 6:23 PM by The Maritime Executive

U.S. researchers and scientists will soon embark on a 10-day expedition to explore and investigate the shipwreck of the Civil War vessel USS Monitor, which sank 160 years ago off the North Carolina coast.

On May 15, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists and partner researchers will set out on an expedition to survey the Monitor for the first time since her turret was recovered in 2002.

The remains of the iconic Civil War ship lie sixteen miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and area surrounding the vessel is designated a national marine sanctuary.

The survey of the ship will coincide with the 50th anniversary celebration of the marine sanctuary. 2022 also marks the 160th anniversary of the vessel’s launch, the Battle of Hampton Roads and the sinking.

Over the course of about two weeks, researchers will also visit several natural reefs and historical shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast.

“This is the first in-depth survey of both the historic and ecological habitat of the Monitor since NOAA and the U.S. Navy recovered the Civil War vessel’s iconic gun turret in 2002,” said Nicole LeBoeuf, NOAA’s director for National Ocean Service.

NOAA will undertake the mission in partnership with The Global Foundation for Ocean Exploration, which is providing much of the technology - including remotely operated vehicles, satellite technology, an IT network and a team of engineers and filmmakers. NOAA is contributing the ship Nancy Foster as the platform for the survey.

Other partners in the mission include North Carolina’s Office of State Archaeology and NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS), which will analyze the imagery from the expedition to gain a better understanding of how shipwrecks serve as marine habitats.

The Monitor was the U.S’s first ironclad warship. She made history at the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862 before meeting her demise in the fury of a winter storm.

The story of the Monitor can be traced back to 1861 when Virginia seceded from the U.S during the Civil War. As Union troops retreated from the Gosport navy yard, they burned the steam frigate USS Merrimack, to prevent the vessel from falling into Confederate hands. The Confederate forces, desperate to shore up their lacking naval presence, raised Merrimack and converted it into an ironclad—CSS Virginia.

This new ironclad threat prompted the U.S. Navy to quickly produce USS Monitor. In less than 100 days, the ship launched on January 30, 1862, and less than two months later, Monitor and CSS Virginia met on March 9, 1862, during the Battle of Hampton Roads.

Although the battle ended in a draw, it heralded the end of an era for wooden warships. In December 1862, the Union requested Monitor’s strength further south. It left Hampton Roads after Christmas celebrations, and sank just a few days later on New Year’s Eve during a storm off Cape Hatteras.

For over 100 years, Monitor laid at rest in over 240 feet of water, her location unknown. In 1973, an expedition team composed of researchers from Duke University, National Geographic, and the National Science Foundation discovered her final resting place. This discovery led to the creation of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, the first in a network of new marine protected areas.