On Christmas Day of 1862, the US Navy ironclad warship USS Monitor received orders to sail to North Carolina from Hampton Roads to enforce the Union blockade against Confederate ports there. Because of the weight of her innovative rotating gun turret, the Monitor was unstable in rough ocean waters. During her maiden voyage from Brooklyn to Norfolk the previous spring the Monitor foundered twice, leaving the crew shaken and anxious about another sea-going voyage - especially one that took them through treacherous waters off the coast of the Outer Banks nicknamed the 'Graveyard of the Atlantic.' One of the men on board was Siah Carter, an enslaved African American who ran away from nearby Shirley Plantation and joined the US Navy when the Monitor was anchored at City Point. Carter worked at coal heaving, carpentry and cooking.

On New Year's Eve the Monitor set out under tow from USS Rhode Island. A violent storm off Cape Hatteras tossed the Monitor around and flooded her ports. Crashing waves damaged the hull and caused leaks to spring throughout the ship. When water began flooding the engine room, Monitor's crew hoisted a red lantern to signal Mayday to the Rhode Island, then cut the towline, dropped anchor, and abandoned ship. The red lantern was last seen around 1:30 am before the USS Monitor sank off of Cape Hatteras with 16 men aboard.

For more than 100 years the Monitor lay on the ocean floor and was finally discovered by sonar technology in 1973. The wreck and surrounding area was designated the United States' first national marine sanctuary, and recovery efforts began. In 1977 the first major artifact recovered from the Monitor was the last thing that was seen of her - the red lantern.

Today, the Mariners' Museum is home of the USS Monitor Center that preserves and interprets the artifacts that continue to be recovered from the Monitor. The center features fascinating exhibits on the design and building of the ironclad warship that ushered in a new era of naval technology as well as her recovery from the depths of the ocean floor.

But that's not all - this modern, high-tech museum boasts 90,000 square feet of gallery space and features permanent collections and rotating exhibits of deep sea discovery, stories of shipwreck and survival, and US naval history. An exhibit and video presents Siah Carter, who survived the sinking of the Monitor and continued to serve in the US Navy. There are lots of fun, hands-on, interactive exhibits and activities for kids and for those who are kids-at-heart as well as two multi-sensory movie theaters. The Museum is set on a 550-acre campus that includes a 167-acre lake with a scenic 5-mile shoreline trail. There is a cafe and a well-stocked museum shop that offers books, videos, gifts, clothing, jewelry, home goods and edibles.

Pictured at the top: Part of the fleet of Miniature Ships of August and Winnifred Crabtree on display at The Mariners' Museum.

Historical Photo

siah carter on uss monitor

Siah Carter (right, foreground) aboard the USS Monitor. [James River, Va. Sailors on deck of U.S.S. Monitor; cookstove at left] James F. Gibson, 1862 (Library of Congress)