Clash of the ironclads

Published 9:44 pm Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Clay recreations of sailors' faces whose bodies were recovered from the USS Monitor's turret are shown above. Digital recreations will be unveiled Saturday at The Mariners' Museum.

The course of the Civil War hung in the balance off the coast of Suffolk 150 years ago.

On March 9, 1862, the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia (often called the Merrimac) clashed in the waters of the James River near its confluence with the Nansemond River. The battle could have been observed from what was then called Pig Point, now the former Tidewater Community College campus in North Suffolk.

“This is Hampton Roads’ great claim to fame for the Civil War,” said John Warren, public relations manager for The Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, which is the official repository for artifacts and archives from the USS Monitor.

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“There’s an argument to be made this is one of the unsung episodes from the Civil War. A primary reason that the Union won the war was because of its naval blockade. The impact was huge.”

Had the Union not met the challenge presented by the Confederacy’s ironclad ship, trade could have resumed for the South, and it could have gotten the supplies it so desperately needed, Warren said.

“What hung in the balance here was the Union’s ability to maintain that blockade,” he said.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of the Ironclads, the museum will hold a series of events Friday through Sunday. In addition to showcasing its extensive collection of items related to the battle, events will include a Civil War Navy Conference; Ironclad BattleQuest, a family adventure game; Battle of the Ironclad Chefs; and a visit by the Civil War HistoryMobile.

In addition, a newly conserved section of the USS Monitor’s propeller shaft will be unveiled.

But the headlining event will be the first look at digitally reconstructed faces of two sailors lost with the sinking of the USS Monitor off the coast of North Carolina later that year.

The sailors’ remains were recovered in 2002 from the gun turret of the Monitor, which now also rests at The Mariner’s Museum.

The computer recreations are the work of forensic technicians at Louisiana State University, working from exact models of the skulls. Clay recreations were presented at the Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

The Monitor’s turret, which was a cutting-edge innovation for the time, was a big reason for the ship’s success. It was 20 feet in diameter and rotated by steam power to allow all-around fire from a pair of guns.

The unveiling of the digital recreations, which is set for 10:45 a.m., and other events are included with regular admission to the museum.

For more information about the events, call 596-2222 or visit