Monitor’s Coat: A Rare Find in Conservation


By Matthew T. Eng

I have never been more happy to arrive early to an event in my entire life. 

There have been several great talks and panels at the 10th Maritime Heritage Conference this week in Norfolk. Too many, in fact, to mention in a single blog post. Being a fan and enthusiast of the Civil War navies, however, I gravitated towards panel presentations focusing on ironclad ships and commerce raiders. Given the recent news this summer that the Monitor Center Wet Lab had reopened, I wanted to make sure to check out the Thursday panel on USS Monitor. The panel covered every conceivable aspect of the ship, from its influence in mainstream consumer culture (Wonderfully done by the intrepid Dr. Anna Holloway) to the way we can it provides for creative and meaningful relationships with the community at large (Dave Alberg). The most interesting presentation, however, came from Dave Krop, Director of the Monitor Center. Dave talked about a variety of ongoing projects and conservation techniques his team in the lab are currently conducting on Monitor artifacts both large and small. The most interesting artifact he mentioned was a double-breasted sack coat discovered inside the turret. According to Krop, the coat was recovered in pieces in 2002 by NOAA. At first, the piece looked like a wet mass on the floor of the turret. Their meticulous conservation has drastically changed that in recent years. Dave was happy to report to attendees that the coat is finally out of the treatment process. With help from funding, the center’s ultimate goal is to have the coat completely conserved and displayed in Newport News.

Friday’s talks on the “Civil War at Sea” were also excellent. I am happy to report on all fronts that Civil War naval history is alive and well. Feeling content with my fix for Civil War naval knowledge, I gathered my things yesterday afternoon for the 10th MHC evening reception across the water in Newport News. Looking to avoid the rush from Friday traffic on the busy interstates of Hampton Roads, I opted to leave Norfolk much earlier than anticipated. I haven’t been away from the area long enough to forget how bad it can get at rush hour.

DSC_4031Boy, am I glad I left when I did. As one of the first guests to arrive, I had my own private audience to chat with three Monitor Center staff members already there: Dave Krop, Will Hoffman, and Kate Sullivan. After spending a few minutes of chatting about the conference, Dave and his crew invited me to a private viewing of the Monitor sailor’s coat. Naturally, I jumped on the opportunity. One short elevator ride later, I was up in the conservation lab, staring down at a near-perfect specimen of material culture largely unseen for the last 150 years.

The coat is absolutely stunning in person. The colors seem vibrant and alive, as if you just picked the coat out of the closet to wear. It is remarkable how together it looks. I have some clothes that look worse for wear than the Monitor coat!

It is always to a treat to listen and learn history. Seeing it up close in front of your face, however, is a different animal altogether.They have done a truly remarkable job keeping such a delicate artifact intact and well-preserved over a decade after it came out of the water. You can see every nuance and detail from the buttons. The buttons were found next to the coat because the cotton fiber holding them to the coat degraded in the ocean water.

Button Detail on the Coat.

Button Detail on the Coat.

The coat was privately produced and modified for military service. The material is likely composed of a fine, merino-like wool. Looking at the artifact as a whole on their table, there is a lot to be said about quality craftsmanship – much of it stayed together underwater. The team at the lab said the jacket is approximately 85 percent complete. They also found footwear and other personal clothing items near where the jacket was found.


These dedicated men and women working on this ongoing project are a shining example of why the Monitor is still relevant today. From this one artifact, you can now ask a hundred new questions. Who was its owner. Why was it modified? What is the significance of the buttons? The list goes on. It amazes me to think how one ship can continually change and alter how we think about naval warfare and its preservation for years to come. With continued help and support, Dave and his team can continue making great advanced in their field for the betterment of all those who wish to see their proud naval heritage preserved for generations to come. That’s an ironclad promise we’d all like to keep.

Go to their blog HERE for more updates and information on their continuing projects and partnerships with NOAA.

A special thanks to Dave Krop, Will Hoffman, and Kate Sullivan for giving me a special treat to an already spectacular evening at the Mariners’ Museum.

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  2. Francis DuCoin


    Matthew, thank you for a very well written report on this remarkable artifact and the amazing people who worked to conserve it. The questions it raises, and the personal connection it makes, brings history to life. Unfortunately we must ask, it this the last artifact to be preserved from the USS Monitor?

    You say “With continued help and support, Dave and his team can continue making great advanced in their field for the betterment of all those who wish to see their proud naval heritage preserved for generations to come.” But there is no help and support. Running the Conservation Lab effectively and conserving the artifacts properly costs about $500,000 a year. NOAA stopped all funding last year and made a one-tine $200,000 commitment for 2014, with NO future funding promised. The law that created the Monitor Marine Sanctuary, which spawned all of the other sanctuaries (combined have about a $40 MILLION budget), specifically states that the function of the Sanctuary is to protect the Monitor wreck site and CONSERVE ARTIFACTS recovered from the site. However, the NOAA Sanctuary officers are ignoring this provision, concentrating instead on expanding the Monitor Marine Sanctuary! Why they would expand, when they are not fulfilling their mandate now, is impossible to understand.

    The Mariners’ Museum undertook this work with the understanding NOAA would fulfill their legally mandated obligation. Since NOAA is backing down, the Mariners’ Museum is also questioning what it can do, which we all saw with the closing of the conservation lab for a few months this year. But this is not just about artifacts, but it is about people. “Dave and his team” have to support their families. Without promised support, and recognition for what they do, from NOAA and the Mariners’ Museum, they will not be able to stay for very long. When Dave and his talented, experienced team leave, because there is no money to pay them – this project will stop, the artifacts will deteriorate and the famous iron turret that the CSS Virginia could not destroy, will end up rusting away in a tank in Newport News, Virginia.

    Even this wonderful piece, which is owned by NOAA, cannot be displayed without private funding. The Bronze Door Society is funding its display. Without this private funding, this incredible artifact would end up in a drawer in the lab.

    What can be done? Write your congressmen and ask them to hold NOAA accountable. Write to the Secretary of Commerce and ask why those who report to her are not fulfilling their legally obligated responsibilities. Spread the word. One thing, don’t bother to write to the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. I’ve written to the the Council Chairperson, Susan Langley, three times and have never had a reply.

    Maybe together we can save this project, but right now it is not very promising.

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