Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, the standoff between the Civil War ironclads the USS Monitor and the Confederate ship Virginia. This summer, we're learning more about that battle and the men who fought it, because of groundbreaking work at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News.
"This is USS Monitor's revolving gun turret," said Conservation Project Manager Dave Krop as we stepped through the door of the treatment tank and waded into a time capsule of civil war history.
Krop is the Conservation Project Manager. "So if you look over here at the armor plate on the turret," Krop said, "there's a pretty significant dent here from an enemy cannonball. So what we actually found when we were cleaning the exterior over the past two months is a total of eight significant dents in the outside."
The Monitor survived its confrontation with the CSS Virginia in March 1862, only to sink later that year during a New Year's Eve storm off the coast of North Carolina.
In 2002, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a group of Navy divers lifted the turret and other key artifacts from the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and brought them to The Mariner's Museum in Newport News.
Members of the conservation team drained the 90-thousand gallon tank in early July. They've been working ever since to clean the surface and reveal the original details of the turret.
The team has recovered tools and other items, including an engraved spoon.
Will Hoffman is the Assistant Conservator. "There's also that personal connection," Hoffman said, "especially seeing it's a crew member that didn't make it."
Small items recovered from the wreck site are included in the museum's exhibit, but the turret isn't ready for its close-up just yet. It will soak in a chemical bath for another fifteen years or so.
When we visited, Eric Nordgren and Dave Krop were adjusting the wires that will send a low level current through the tank, to help break down corrosion and remove the salts that have accumulated over 150 years under water.
Nordgren is the project's Senior Conservator. "If we were to skip this step and basically just rinse the turret off and put it on display it's very likely that it would start to fall apart within a couple of years," Nordgren said. "We absolutely don't want that to happen. We've got a really important piece of history in our trust here and we want to make sure it's preserved as well as possible."
The museum was planning to refill the tank this week, but a power outage after Hurricane Irene caused a delay, and it now appears it will be sometime next week before the turret is submerged again.
Visitors to the Mariners' Museum can watch what's happening in the lab. The museum also has a webcam and frequent updates on its website.