Nautical History Remembered

October 1, 2003
Ironclads: Currier & Ives' Terrific Combat Between the Monitor 2 Guns & Merrimac 10 Guns, 1862

 Ironclads: Currier & Ives' Terrific Combat Between the Monitor 2 Guns & Merrimac 10 Guns, 1862

 

Thirty years to the day after a deck officer aboard Duke's RV Eastward noticed a curious, oblong tracing on a sonar recorder, members of the 1973 expedition that found the Union ironclad Monitor reunited in Beaufort, North Carolina. Their ranks have thinned over the decades, but, for those who gathered August 27 at the North Carolina Maritime Museum, recollections of their voyage into history were vivid and sharp.

The showing of rarely seen videotapes from that period jogged more than a few memory banks, especially in hairstyles (sideburns and shoulder-length locks) and faces then unlined by sea and sun. The videotapes, produced in the mid-1970s by High Point, North Carolina, television station WGHP, captured the spirit of adventure that dominated a series of post-discovery research visits to the Monitor site, sixteen miles off Cape Hatteras.

Robert E. Sheridan, professor of geology and geophysics at Rutgers University and author of a forthcoming book on the Monitor discovery, spoke fondly of his association with the Duke Marine Laboratory and the Eastward crew. Sheridan noted that John G. Newton, then marine superintendent at the Marine Lab, had invited him to join the venture. Also along for the 1973 voyage was Harold E. "Doc" Edgerton of MIT, the inventor of high-speed stroboscopic photography, and a young underwater archaeologist who would take his place among the best in his specialty, Gordon P. Watts.

Edgerton brought along his latest interest, side-scan sonar. It would be the crucial instrument for finding the Monitor, 220 feet down on the margin of the Gulf Stream. But precise navigation was even more vital. The Monitor was a small target, only 172 feet long, in a search area covering ninety-six square miles. Moreover, the ship had undergone an unknown amount of deterioration since its loss on December 31, 1862, while being towed to Beaufort, then occupied by federal troops. Once the vessel was found, no one wanted to risk losing it again.

A sixteen-year-old Duke sophomore, Cathryn Newton, John Newton's daughter, helped her father set up Del Norte navigation beacons. She remembers how the duo installed one of the devices near the top of Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. In the days before global positioning satellites, such radio beacons were among the most accurate means of fixing coordinates at sea.

Cathryn Newton, who went on to become a distinguished geologist, is today dean of arts and sciences at Syracuse University. Her father later left the Marine Lab to head the Monitor Research and Recovery Foundation in Norfolk, Virginia, site of the principal repository for the turret, engine, and other large artifacts later brought up from the ironclad.

Although John Newton died in 1984, his presence at the thirtieth anniversary of the Monitor discovery was almost palpable for those who had worked with him. His research and organizational skills led not only to the discovery of a ship whose startling design and war-fighting capability changed naval thinking forever, but also to a gusher of worldwide publicity unlike any the university had seen.

On March 9, 2002, the 140th anniversary of the historic battle between the Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia, a black granite memorial to John Newton's accomplishment was dedicated on the Beaufort waterfront. Joining with friends of Newton and his family, the university contributed to erecting the memorial to a man and his dream of discovery.