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Timewatch: The iron coffin

Updated Tuesday 11th April 2006

It was supposed to change the face - and the outcome - of the American Civil War. But for its soldiers, it was The Iron Coffin.

Crew of the ship 'the monitor' Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

On 9 March 1862, an epic battle was fought that not only crucially affected the course of the American Civil War, but forever changed the face of naval warfare.

The Battle of Hampton Roads pivoted around the first contest between ironclad ships, and the revolutionary new design of The Monitor – the ship which fought for the North to preserve the Union of the United States – saved the North from a potentially fatal defeat. The Monitor’s crew, however, found life aboard her claustrophobic and alienating, dubbing her “the iron coffin”.

An artist's drawing of The Monitor Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images

Less than ten months later, The Monitor sank in a storm, taking with her twelve crewmen and four officers. In 2002, the innovation that was the ship’s glory– her revolving gun-turret – was dredged up from the seabed.

Inside, the remains of two great American heroes were found. Those who drowned on New Year’s Eve 1862 made up a small melting pot of Civil War America and the two skeletons found in 2002 could have been the remains of any one of these 16 men.

Following the labyrinthine investigations of roving genealogist Megan Smolenyak, and the efforts of the forensic team of the Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, Timewatch goes on a journey to find out their identities and meet the descendants of the lost sailors.

We will also meet historian David Mindell, who will retrace the journey of The Monitor, in order to find out what life was really like for those inside this great metal monster – a machine that foreshadowed today’s era of “smart bombs” and pushbutton wars.

 

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