Watch CBSN Live

Turret Of USS Monitor Sees Daylight

The silt-packed turret of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor was raised Monday from the Atlantic floor, nearly 140 years after the historic warship sank during a New Year's storm.

The turret, the largest and last retrievable artifact, was raised at the end of a heavy cable attached to a crane on a 300-foot work barge.

A Civil War-era American flag fluttered from the lifting frame and water poured out of the turret as it hung over the ocean before it was lowered onto the barge deck. Workers and divers aboard the barge cheered as the turret was swung to a cradle, and a Navy helicopter carrying military photographers hovered overhead.

The turret-raising was the climax of a multi-year salvage operation run by the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which controls the underwater sanctuary where the wreckage is located.

This year's expedition cost $6.5 million. Last year, the Navy and NOAA spent $4.3 million to raise the ship's steam engine.

"It's fantastic," said John Broadwater, NOAA's director of the Monitor sanctuary. "It's sitting on the barge and we're looking at dents that the Virginia put on it March 9, 1862."

On that date, the Monitor, a Union ship, and the Confederate vessel CSS Virginia revolutionized naval warfare when they fought to a draw near Newport News, Va.

Launched on Jan. 30, 1862, the Monitor was rushed into service following brief sea trials. It fought one significant battle, with the Confederate ironclad Virginia, which was constructed over the modified hull of the USS Merrimack after that ship was burned by Union forces.

The March 9, 1862, battle ended in a draw but is considered by historians to have marked the end of the era of wooden battleships.

The Monitor sank in a gale off Cape Hatteras on Dec. 31, 1862, as it was being towed to Beaufort, North Carolina, less than a year after her launch. The U.S. Navy built more than 60 other ships based on the revolutionary design of the Monitor during the Civil War.

The Monitor's revolving cylindrical turret allowed the crew to maneuver the ship out of harm's way while maintaining accurate fire by adjusting the turret. The Virginia had to be steered into position to allow its guns to fire accurately.

Broadwater said the barge probably would leave on Tuesday morning for the 1 and 1/2-day trip to Newport News.

Crews on the barge first expected to see the turret Saturday. But weather topside and current below the waves kept divers from entering the water to attach 100-pound shackles to the claw-like lifting device that had been bolted to the turret.

As the turret was slowly winched to the surface Monday, the wind blew under a partly cloudy sky and whitecaps dotted the seas. The Navy had said it needed to raise the turret by Tuesday to escape an approaching storm.

Currents on the bottom were about one knot, said Navy dive chief Cmdr. Bobbie Scholley, down from over two knots on Sunday when officials said conditions were unsafe.

A crane capable of lifting a 500-ton load was used to pull the turret from 240 feet of water. Eight anchors held the barge steady over the site and the anchors had to be repositioned Sunday afternoon, a process that took several hours in 2- to 4-foot waves.

Besides battling the weather, the government expedition also faced a deadline for funding at the end of the week. Scholley said if the Navy money ran out, NOAA would find money to complete the turret recovery.

Before the turret was lifted, a heavy cable lifting harness was lowered to the wreckage and connected to eight point on the custom-made steel claw attached to the 120-ton turret. The turret was lifted slightly and positioned on a platform designed to support the aging, 20-foot diameter turret as it was lifted.

On Saturday, divers were able to remove much of a human skeleton found inside the turret. It is believed to be that of one of the 16 Monitor sailors who died when the ship sank in a storm on Dec. 31, 1862, and landed upside down in 240 feet of water. The lower part of the skeleton is pinned beneath one of the turret's twin cannons.

The remains were taken from the barge in two plastic containers and were to be analyzed, then buried with military honors.

The remains were of one of the 16 people who died when the ship went down. Experts will try to determine the man's identity.

NOAA, the Navy and the Mariners' Museum in Newport News have been working together this summer on the project to raise the turret.

That is the last big job in a five-year effort to save the ship's unique features. The entire vessel is too fragile to be raised.

The turret will be taken to the museum to be preserved and displayed along with hundreds of other Monitor artifacts.

The wreckage was discovered in 1973.

View CBS News In