Mariners' Museum Monitor Center

A replica of the USS Monitor at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va. (Mariners' Museum Photo, Baltimore Sun / March 1, 2012)

One hundred fifty years ago this month, two strange-looking ships met near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and changed the course of naval, if not American, history.

The duel in Hampton Roads between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia ended in a draw, as the two ironclads traded cannon fire at close range without doing significant damage to each other. Before the year was out, both would be gone — the Confederate vessel blown up to avoid its capture, the Union "cheese box on a raft" sunk in a storm off Cape Hatteras, drowning 16 of her crew.

But their brief, half-day clash in March 1862 heralded the end of wooden navies and helped ensure that the North would prevail over the rebellious Southern states in the Civil War.

Now, as the sesquicentennial observance of the war enters its second year, travelers can visit the scene of the epic naval battle, a relatively short drive from Baltimore. At the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va., where conservators are working to save the Monitor from the ravages of the sea, visitors can learn about the life, death and rebirth of the revolutionary vessel.

And beginning March 9, there'll be a weekend of activities to mark the anniversary, including a Civil War encampment, an interactive "quest" for young and old, a narrated bus tour of nearby Civil War sites, and even a "battle" of "ironclad chefs." For serious history buffs, there will also be a three-day conference on the Civil War at sea, with lectures, panel discussions and exhibits by authors and scholars.

Festivities aside, the USS Monitor Center at the museum is an experience by itself. Through artifacts and interactive exhibits, visitors explore a turning point in the Civil War and trace the conflict's origins, aftermath and latter-day coda.

"It's not a Civil War museum per se," says curator Anna Holloway. "We try to tell the story from the beginning to today."

The Union enjoyed naval superiority and sought to strangle the Confederacy by blockading its ports and preventing it from selling its one cash crop, cotton. Without a navy of their own or the resources to build one, Southern leaders tried to level the playing field by building an invincible warship, North America's first ironclad. They set about building one on the hull of a partly burned steam-powered frigate, the USS Merrimack, renaming it the CSS Virginia.

On March 8, 1862, the Virginia steamed out of Norfolk into Hampton Roads and promptly destroyed two Union warships, the Congress and Cumberland, killing 240 of their crew. Only darkness halted the Confederate behemoth's rampage. When it returned the next morning to finish off another ship that had run aground, the Virginia was confronted by the USS Monitor, which had been rushed south from New York. The two ironclads bounced shots off each other's armor for hours and tried without success to ram the other before breaking off.

Both sides celebrated the outcome. The Virginia had wreaked havoc, but the Monitor helped maintain the blockade by remaining at Hampton Roads to counter the Southern ironclad. Southern sailors were forced to blow up their prized vessel a couple of months later when Union troops were threatening to capture the Norfolk Navy Yard.

The Monitor sank off Cape Hatteras on Dec. 31, 1862, as it was being towed south to Beaufort, N.C., losing 16 of its 62 crew members. The wreck went undiscovered until 1973; two years later, the site was declared the nation's first marine sanctuary.

The museum gives a rich account of both vessels, displaying a cannon and the wheel of the Confederate ironclad, as well as a collection of canes said to be made from bits of wood left after it was demolished. The battle and the Monitor's sinking get theatrical depictions, and interactive exhibits encourage visitors to design their own ironclad, to vote on which vessel won the battle and the like.

The real star of the museum, though, is the Monitor, and the 200 tons of artifacts recovered from the wreck, including the turret and steam engine. While some pieces are on display, many are undergoing conservation work and will be for years to come. The modern-day battle to reclaim the Monitor from the ravages of time and salt water is shown and explained as well.

It's the largest marine metals conservation project in the world, explains Dave Krop, the conservation manager. Concerns about vandalism and the ravages of the sea prompted federal officials in the late 1990s to begin salvaging what they could. Since then, conservators at the museum have been painstakingly removing mud and encrustations, then bathing the metal in electrically charged tanks to remove corrosive salt.

Stabilizing and preserving wrought and cast iron takes years, though. The process is expected to go on for a decade or more before the turret and engine will be ready for full-time display. Visitors can watch the museum staff at work through a bank of windows on an elevated catwalk.

But for a short while around the battle's anniversary, the museum intends to allow visitors inside the laboratory to get a closer look at the artifacts and the conservation work.

On a recent behind-the-scenes tour, assistant conservator Will Hoffman explained how he meticulously documents every mark and notation on the engine throttle. From them, he attempts to glean insights into how the ship was built and what it went through in its brief operational life.

"As we're working, we get all these 'Aha!' moments," he says.

There are some "Aha!" moments for Marylanders at the museum as well. For starters, two local newspapers of the era, the Baltimore Patriot and Baltimore Clipper, were among a handful that carried the Navy Department's advertisement inviting people to submit designs for an ironclad warship. Evidently, national security wasn't such a big deal back then.