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US Navy Plans to Recover Part of Sunken Civil War Ship

A U.S. Civil War battle took place at sea, between two of the world's first armored ships. One of those ships still lies on the ocean floor, 240-feet down, and the effort to resurrect it is in full swing.

This is a group of 10-year-olds from the Monitor School on Monitor Street in the Greenpoint section of New York. They are reciting the history of the USS Monitor, a Navy vessel constructed in 1861 just a few blocks away from their school.

The Monitor sank off the coast of the southeastern state of North Carolina in a storm at sea less than two years after it was launched, but not before making naval warfare history in a battle against a Confederate vessel called the CSS Virginia. John Hightower, president of the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia, explains.

"The battle that took place forever changed naval warfare. Bruce Catton said that, even though it was at a standstill, they fought to a draw. Nobody won. It made instantly all existing navies obsolete, after about a four hour battle on March 9, 1862," Mr. Hightower said.

The confrontation between the Monitor and the Virginia marked the first-ever clash between armored - in this case, ironclad - boats, said Mr. Hightower. It was the beginning of what he calls the "Iron Age" at sea, and modern battleships owe their designs to the Monitor.

Today, 140 years later, the Monitor sits on the ocean floor. Navy diver, Commander Barbara Scholley, said visiting the ship is a mystical experience.

"If you are diving during daylight hours, as you descend towards the wreck, and if the visibility is good, you can start to see the Monitor materialize as you get down towards the bottom. You can see the whole outline of the ship. Then, when you get on the Monitor and actually start walking amongst the turret and the engines, it gives you a real feeling of history," he said. "People who have visited the battlefields of Gettysburg say you can 'feel' what went on 140 years ago. You can feel what our ancestors went through, and you get the same feeling when you're on Monitor."

Several items have already been recovered from the Monitor: its steam engine, propellor, anchor and several mustard bottles. But the "crown jewel," according to Navy Captain Christopher Murray, one of the recovery effort's supervisors, is the ship's gun turret. Of the 250 patents on the Monitor, 45 were for the turret alone. Modern battleships, he said, feature gun turrets very much like the Monitor's.

Now, the U.S. Navy has announce that, in conjunction with the Mariner's Museum and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, it plans to bring the turret to the surface in June. The process is complicated. The overturned turret, which weighs 120-tons, is filled with 100-tons of silt, and covered by a 100 ton section of the Monitor's stern. Navy divers will have to take the hull apart piece by piece and vacuum out the silt. Then, says Captain Chris Murray, they will send in the Spider.

"It is an eight-legged piece of metal that weighs in excess of 50 tons. It will come down and sit on top of the turret. It has got eight legs that go out, and those legs, as she goes down, are at 15 degrees, and after she sets down, the divers will work one leg at a time. A leg will come in and catch under the lip of the turret. And we will do that with all eight legs," Captain Murray said.

Once the turret is raised and transported to the Maritime Museum, the restoration process will begin. Visitors to the museum will be able to observe the 10 year process in progress.

Amidst all of the excitement surrounding the recovery of the legendary vessel, it is easy to forget that 16 men died when the Monitor sank. Will divers uncover any human remains? Dr. John Broadwater, the manager of the National Marine Sanctuary, is prepared for just such an eventuality.

"We will be working with a military forensics group, and we will make every attempt to, first of all, recover the human remains in a proper manner, and then to use modern forensic technology to possibly identify them by comparing their DNA to descendants that are alive today," Dr. Broadwater said.

If the Monitor had not sunk, it would have eventually been taken apart and used for scrap. Instead, it has remained relatively intact.

Now, the Monitor will take on a new role as the centerpiece of the Maritime Museum. As museum director, John Hightower said, "there is nothing more powerful for a museum than the actual object. The real thing."