The last two summers, diving took place 24 hours a day from the Wotan, owned by Manson Gulf of Houma, Louisiana, which normally spends most of its time servicing offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. Navy's Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two, based at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base in Virginia Beach, coordinated on-site activities, aided by a $6.5 million grant from the Department of Defense and $600,000 from NOAA. Last year's expedition cost $4.3 million. (See accompanying story.)
The manager of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary and chief scientist for the expeditions is Dr. John Broadwater, an internationally known diving archaeologist, who provides another Longwood connection to the Monitor story. His daughter, April Broadwater Clark of Knoxville, Tennessee, is a 1996 Longwood graduate, and his mother, Dorothy Goodloe Broadwater of Williamsburg, is a 1931 Longwood alumna.
The Monitor was discovered by a team of marine scientists from Duke University in tests launched in August 1973, with the results announced in March 1974. It's lying at nearly twice the recommended depth for safe diving in a treacherous area known as the "Graveyard of the Atlantic," about 16 miles southeast of Cape Hatteras, where the warm, cobalt-blue waters of the Gulf Stream collide with the cold, green waters of the Labrador Current and bottom visibility and weather conditions can change in an instant.
The starboard side is partially buried under sand in what has been described as an "otherwise barren stretch of sandy bottom," which is home to sponges, barnacles, and soft and hard corral. Much of the hull, particularly near the stern, has collapsed. In 1975 it was designated the first National Marine Sanctuary (now there are 13), protecting a one-square-mile area around the site.
Designed by John Ericsson, a vain but brilliant Swedish-born inventor, the Monitor was built to challenge the CSS Virginia the former USS Merrimack, often misspelled "Merrimac" a scuttled frigate that was raised and converted to iron to challenge the Union blockade. The Monitor was put together in only 110 days at the Continental Iron Works in Brooklyn, with Ericsson supervising every detail, and was launched Jan. 30, 1862. Odd looking, poorly ventilated and small (172 feet long and 41 feet, six inches wide), with the deck only 18 inches above the waterline and a draft of just 10 feet, six inches, she was ridiculed as a "cheesebox on a raft," a "tin can on a shingle" and "Ericsson's folly." Some experts doubted she would float. Unlike her wooden predecessors, she had no sails or smokestack; her only visible features were the turret, almost exactly in the center of the deck, and the smaller pilothouse, near the bow and about four feet high, which was the ship's nerve center. "It was in every way a peculiar vessel," according to First Duel Between the Ironclads.
Her sleek design resembled that of a modern submarine, and among Ericsson's patentable inventions on board, said to number at least 40, was a waste-disposal system used by subs until World War II. "(Ericsson's) ship was the first ever built in which the entire crew was expected to spend long periods of time, up to a week or more, under water," says Monitor: The Story of the Legendary Civil War Ironclad and the Man Whose Invention Changed the Course of History by James Tertius deKay. With 58 men on board, she left the Brooklyn Navy Yard on March 6, 1862 at 11 o'clock in the morning and arrived in Hampton Roads two days later at 7 p.m. For the U.S. Navy, which had just suffered the most disastrous day in its history until Pearl Harbor, she was arriving in the nick of time.
The CSS Virginia had thrown Washington into a panic that day by sinking two wooden warships killing 240 Union men, including the captain of one and forcing a third ship to run aground. "President Lincoln called March 8 the greatest calamity to befall the Union since Bull Run," says John Quarstein, director of the Virginia War Museum, also in Newport News. "Secretary of War Stanton paced the White House expecting the Virginia to steam up and bombard Washington, and also do the same in New York and Boston. The Confederate attack caused shock waves in the North, where people had 'Ram Fever' and 'Merrimack on the Brain.'"
The Monitor and the Virginia fought the next morning in Hampton Roads, a wide, shallow channel where the James, Elizabeth and Nansemond rivers meet and flow into the Chesapeake Bay. While Lincoln's cabinet met in emergency session, at least 20,000 people, including soldiers from both armies stationed nearby, watched the four-hour battle that Sunday. "The ironclads exchanged blows at ranges varying from a few yards to half a mile," says The Blockade: Runners and Raiders from the Time-Life Books series on the Civil War. "Like boxers, they circled and probed for weak spots, moving in and out. But at whatever cost, neither could hurt the other ... Because of her shallow draft, better engines and smaller size, the Monitor was a faster, more maneuverable and more elusive target. But the Merrimac had greater firepower. Her 10 guns could be fired and reloaded every five minutes. It took up to eight minutes to fire, reload and run out the Monitor's two guns."
In the only damage to either vessel, a Confederate artillery shell, fired at no more than 10 yards, struck the Monitor's pilothouse, ripping off the top. The ship's captain, Lieutenant John L. Worden who seven years later would become the superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy was in the pilothouse at the time, his face pressed against the viewing slit. He was temporarily blinded and had to relinquish command; he would never regain sight in his left eye and would have "powder burns over half his face for the rest of his life," Quarstein says. The shot was fired by Lieutenant John Taylor Wood, grandson of former President Zachary Taylor and a nephew by marriage of Jefferson Davis.
"It was one of the 10 greatest naval battles in history," Quarstein says. "Before the battle, warships were made of wood and powered by sail. Afterward, they were made of iron and powered by steam. The battle would prove the superiority of iron over wood."
Tactically, the battle was a draw, even though both sides claimed victory. The Monitor's impact on history, however, extended far beyond what took place in the waters of Hampton Roads. The funny looking ironclad "saved the blockade, doomed the Confederacy's hopes of securing British and French recognition, and revolutionized naval warfare," deKay wrote in his book. "Her influence in this last instance was both profound and instantaneous. Within two days of learning the news from Hampton Roads, the Royal Navy, the world's pre-eminent naval force, cancelled the construction of all further wooden warships."
All of the Monitor's artifacts eventually will be housed in the Mariners' Museum's $30 million USS Monitor Center, which officials hope to open in 2007. Some 20 percent of the funding had been raised by August. "We'll break ground for phase I of the Center either late this year or early next year," says Willoz-Egnor.
Willoz-Egnor's job is ideally suited to her interests. "My interest in archeology has always been more with the objects once they're out of the ground, and talking about them with schoolchildren ... I entered Longwood as a business major but didn't like it. My second semester, I took an anthropology course and just loved it and found I was good at it, but I kept business as a minor."
Appropriately for someone who works in a maritime museum, Willoz-Egnor is the daughter of a U.S. Navy captain. Her family moved up and down the East Coast before settling in Virginia Beach in 1972. After graduating from Longwood, she worked as an historical interpreter at Jamestown Settlement for eight years "to get my foot in the door of a museum. I worked on ships, the Indian village, and at the fort. I even appeared on the cover of the Williamsburg phonebook a few times. On one cover, I was in two pictures as a colonist and as a Native American. I tanned hides and flintknapped, which is how Indians and others created stone tools. I did all sorts of things. I also volunteered with the curatorial department on my days off to gain experience with the collections."
Her husband, Todd, still works at Jamestown Settlement as the ships' maintenance supervisor. "He's in museums, too," she says. They have a six-year-old son and live in Williamsburg.
No two days are the same for Willoz-Egnor, which she enjoys. Last December, for example, she was given only 10 days to remove everything 120 small boats and thousands of accessories from the small craft building so a new building could be erected on the site. She is responsible for the documentation, care and preservation of the Museum's varied collections, which includes monitoring the buildings' environmental conditions. Other headaches are due to inquisitive visitors, rather than issues with temperature or humidity. While being photographed next to the 9-pound Dahlgren cannon in front of the Monitor exhibit, she tapped the cannon's barrel and allowed herself a chuckle.
"A few weeks ago, we had a little problem with this. Someone had stuck a bowling ball in the barrel and walked away an interpretive display that went awry. It's at a slight tilt, so the ball rolled to the back and stayed there. We had to bring in a two-ton jack and jack up the back of the cannon, and it still wouldn't come out. So, we created a long pole with a hook and hooked one of the finger-holes. We were lucky; if we hadn't been able to see that finger-hole, I don't know what we would have done. My job is like that. From one day to the next, I never know what I will be doing. One day I could be handling a priceless work of art and the next day I could be handling a World War II radar antenna or greasy outboard engine."
Whatever her assignment, history is in good hands with Longwood's Jeanne Willoz-Egnor, Class of 1986.