Monday, October 27, 2014

'Stunning' coat worn by USS Monitor sailor is conserved, will help tell ironclad's story

Sections of conserved coat. (Image courtesy of Mariners' Museum)
USS Monitor on James River in Virginia (U.S. Navy)

By now, they knew they were in serious trouble. Their vessel was rolling wildly in a terrible storm off Cape Hatteras, N.C. Leaks had sprung everywhere and the water pumps couldn't keep up.

The USS Monitor -- the famed ironclad that helped revolutionize naval warfare -- was doomed.

The battle to save the USS Monitor over, dozens of seamen rushed to make their way out of the boat's only available exit: The familiar cylindrical turret.

"People wrote of stripping off heavy clothing as they got off the ship," said David Krop, director of the USS Monitor Center at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va. "They were saying, 'I dont want to get pulled under in this outer clothing' and 'let's get out of here.'"

The USS Monitor, which had been under tow from Virginia to North Carolina, early on Dec. 31, 1862, slipped beneath the sea, its turret resting upside down on the Atlantic Ocean floor.

Sixteen men were lost, 47 were rescued and a stream of artifacts, including the clothing and shoes in the turret, over time became covered with sediment.

(Image courtesy of NOAA)

A pile of wool, stained in places, was found (above) inside when the turret was raised in 2002 for a long-term conservation process that continues today at the USS Monitor Center's lab. The 180 wool fragments were placed in frozen storage for four years.

Thinking at first it might be a blanket, staff members painstakingly worked on the item, ensuring it was stabilized and removing iron staining without taking out the color.

"It took many years to even know it was a coat," Krop recently told The Civil War Picket.

After years of conservation, USS Monitor Center and museum officials are excited that what turned out to be a double-breasted sack coat will go on display, likely next summer. The merino wool coat will again sport its hard rubber buttons found in the muck.

(Image courtesy of Mariners' Museum)

About 85 percent of the coat remains and though it can't be reassembled, visitors will be able to compare it to a more modern version and learn more about it through interpretive panels. "It is mind-blowing," said Krop.

The center does not know whether the civilian coat, fashioned by its wearer for U.S. Navy service, belonged to one of two crew members whose remains were found in the turret. One of the deceased sailor's was wearing two different types of shoes, a possible indicator of the mad rush to leave the USS Monitor.

The artifact will help further the museum's goal of bringing the human component to a story of the innovative ironclad that tangled with the Confederacy's CSS Virginia in nearby Hampton Roads in March 1862. The USS Monitor, while smaller, was more nimble than the CSS Virginia, and the two vessels fought to what many consider a draw.

Many museum visitors are interested in the USS Monitor's technology and innovations, including the turret and its eight steam engines. The largest engine also is being conserved in a large tank.

Pieces of coat during conservation process (Mariners' Museum)

But they also are curious about the vessel's crew. "When they see personal items, facial reconstructions or items with names," Krop said of visitors, "they stop dead in their tracks."

The director said the story of the coat encapsulates everything his staff does -- conserving about 1,600 artifacts while trying to add context to each item.

"That coat speaks to the struggle of people on the vessel trying to get off it," said Krop.

Matthew T. Eng of the Naval Historical Foundation wrote last month about a visit to the USS Monitor Center and his observations on the coat and its quality craftsmanship.

"The coat is absolutely stunning in person. The colors seem vibrant and alive, as if you just picked the coat out of the closet to wear. It is remarkable how together it looks. I have some clothes that look worse for wear than the Monitor coat," Eng wrote. "They have done a truly remarkable job keeping such a delicate artifact intact and well-preserved over a decade after it came out of the water. You can see every nuance and detail from the buttons."

The lab's work is aided by federal government funding (through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and contributions, including $20,000 put toward the coat conservation by the museum's Bronze Door Society.

Buttons that belong to the coat (Image courtesy of Mariners' Museum)

Officials want to keep actual and virtual visitors up on the results of such conservation efforts. Three webcams show ongoing conservation of the largest recovered pieces of the USS Monitor.

Tina Gutshall, a conservation assistant who has worked on the USS Monitor since 2002, has been operating the lab's social media accounts, since September 2012. Its Twitter feed is very active.

"We wanted to have something where we could keep throwing things out there to the public to try to reach as many people as we can. We want to share it."

Artifact images and information on the treatment process are particularly popular, with recent posts showing shoes, a spoon, the main engine throttle wheel, a ceramic dish and a sight cover for the turret Dahlgren artillery.

A website talking about work on the USS Monitor likened the shape of the sight cover to a piece of tandoori chicken.

Gutshall got a chuckle from that observation.

"It shows that (social media) is engaging people," she said.

COMING SOON: Q&A with Krop about the lab's ongoing work